Roguelikes struggle to find individual identities more than almost any other genre in video games. The formula that Rogue introduced and NetHack perfected gets used ad nauseum even in modern genre pieces without much to set one game apart from another. It’s not that the genre itself is particularly limiting, as games like Shiren the Wanderer introduced new, thoughtful twists as early as the Super Famicom era. But a distressing number of roguelikes aspire to take the label as literally as possible and settle for being mere clones. Dragon Crystal is a perfect example of this tendency.
Dragon Crystal is actually an important game, but only by default. As the first prime example of a roguelike on consoles, it introduced a very PC-centric genre to an entirely new audience. It even went out of its way to welcome these new players by revamping the traditionally primitive presentation of the genre. The stark tilesets were replaced by characters and environments that looked right at home on an 8-bit console, calling to mind games like Dragon Warrior. Dragon Crystal managed to be the most graphically impressive roguelike of its time thanks to its colorful flower fields, menacing caves, and lovingly animated creatures. Add in the simple, enjoyable chiptunes and you have a game that felt like it belonged on the platform.
The Game Gear version also manages to be notable in that it brought us the first roguelike you could truly play on the go, and fairly successfully at that. The turn-based nature of the genre is a natural fit for handheld devices, and Dragon Crystal fit the bill nicely. Roguelikes wouldn’t truly blossom on the portable scene until they started appearing on platforms that didn’t drink up battery life like it was nothing, but that was more the fault of the Game Gear itself than any of its games.
No, the true fault of Dragon Crystal is that it never aspired to achieve anything except by default. Sega was smart to fill an empty niche, but that feels like the game’s only purpose. The vast majority of item functions and enemy behaviors were lifted straight from Rogue and its ilk. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem for other genres, as you can get away with lifting the entirety of a game’s mechanics if you have superior level design. But the very nature of a roguelike means randomly-generated dungeons, taking level design out of the equation for the most part. What you’re left with is a functionally identical game.
That doesn’t mean that Dragon Crystal didn’t have a purpose. Many console players would have balked if they had bought a game that sported ASCII graphics or extremely primitive tilesets. It opened up a genre to an audience who valued presentation almost as much as gameplay. There’s not much reason to play it today with all the advanced choices of roguelikes on the market, but without it, many might not have ever gotten into them in the first place.
Article by Jeremy Signor
GameSpite Journal 12: Dragon Crystal