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
4 thoughts on “GameSpite Journal 12: Dragon Crystal”
Dragon Crystal was a game that I couldn’t really sink my teeth into, for whatever reason… Although Fatal Labyrinth is one of my all-time favorites on the Genesis, just as a bit of nostalgia. How does this make any sense?
It probably doesn’t, but there’s no accounting for taste!
I’ve got a cousin who played through Fatal Labyrinth. All of it. Yes, it has an ending for those who may be wondering. No, it’s not worth endless hours of dungeon crawling to reach.
As a hardcore Rogue-like player, my perceptions are likely skewed, but I found Fatal Labyrinth to be quick and breezy. IIRC, I beat it (on virtual console, I think, but it may have been the 360 Sonic Genesis Collection) on my very first try/life, in a single sitting. So, it might have been intimidating to a kid back in the day, but I think it’s a fun way to kill a couple of hours now if you’ve never played it before (which I hadn’t).
I played this game an obscene amount as a kid, over and over and over. It was brutal, since in the end enemies could lower your level, turn your powerful armor/weapons into the initial equipment. It seemed impossible to me, but I still loved the solitary experience. I only found out about roguelikes a decade later, so Dragon Crystal seemed like this bizarre and unique experience.
I finally beat the game, for the first time, a few months ago on an emulator. Distasteful as it was, I had to use save states. The only way I can see someone beating it without them is if they got really, really, really lucky (or, as I saw one kid on a bus do back in the day, use a Game Genie).
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