Genre: Rougelike/Dungeon Hack
Release Date: 03/15/2012
Dragon Crystal is an odd game to me for two reasons. The first is that it was a nearly straight port to the Sega Game Gear from the Sega Master System. How often did that happen? The second is that it was chosen along with Sonic The Hedgehog: Triple Trouble and Shinobi to be one of the first three Game Gear titles for Nintendo’s e-Shop. I was happy to see it on there, as I’m a big fan of roguelikes, but I was surprised Sega didn’t go with a bigger name title as they had with the others, say, one of the Shining Force titles? Wouldn’t this get lost amongst two of Sega’s biggest franchises ever? Well, Sega probably felt the same, which is why this is priced at only $2.99. That makes Dragon Crystal the cheapest of the games and one of the cheaper titles in the e-Shop. The question then remains if you’re getting what you paid for, or if this is a diamond in the rough. Let’s find out.
In-game there really isn’t any story. You’re not given a cut scene or any plot whatsoever. The game starts and you’re left to figure everything out. If you’re a roguelike veteran, you’ll know what to do, but gamers who have never touched this RPG subgenre will be lost until they fiddle around for a bit. If you owned the original, either on the SMS or the Game Gear, then you know that there was a paragraph or three of story in the manual. Basically, you’re a little kid that goes into an antique shop, sees a glowing crystal, touches it, and finds yourself sucked into an alternate reality. You then have to fight your way out of what will end up being thirty levels and find a way home. Said exit is a golden chalice that you’ll find on the 30th level of the dungeon. That’s it. There’s no other story. It’s just find your way out or die horribly.
There aren’t any modes to the game either. You have one setting, which is “try to survive as long as possible.” Because the vast majority of RPG fans want a story as an impetus to play through the game, they’ll probably be sorely disappointed here. However, roguelikes are all about the challenge first and foremost, which is why they are considered not only the hardest subgenre of RPGs but one of the hardest forms of gaming there is. Fans of roguelikes won’t care about the lack of story or any explanation as to what is going on, but everyone else WILL. This is probably why modern roguelikes are actually pretty story laden.
Story/Modes Rating: Worthless
As a game from 1990, it’s safe to say that the graphics of Dragon Crystal haven’t held up well. Younger gamers may flat out dislike the game due to its blocky, pixilated appearance while retro gamers will probably have some fond nostalgic memories from looking at this because to be quite honest, Dragon Crystal looked good back then.
You can clearly make out that your character is human, and he’s not super deformed either. As you grow in levels, the blob following you transforms into a dragon and the stages really stand out from each other. You can tell what most monsters are, like giant eyeballs, frogs, and so on. Occasionally, you’ll get something you can’t quite make out, like what appears to be a living giant red diamond or a weird ball that turns out to be an insect depending on the angle you are at. Sure, the game doesn’t look as good as the other Game Gear games released for the e-Shop, but it still looks okay enough that you can tell the game was impressive in its day. Perhaps the best visuals are the backgrounds, which are made of flowers, Moai heads, trees, and more.
All in all, Dragon Crystal looks better than a lot of the original Game Boy titles for the e-Shop and while it’s not the prettiest game out there, it was ahead of its time compared to other roguelikes that were out. Look at Fatal Labyrinth (of which Dragon Crystal is an unofficial sequel) compared to this and you can really see the improvements here. At least until Fatal Labyrinth got a Sega Genesis version.
Graphics Rating: Mediocre
There isn’t a lot to Dragon Crystal aurally. You have some noises as you plod along, noises as you attack (or are attacked), and a plink sound when you pick something up or equip/unequip an item in your inventory. There isn’t a lot more music either. What’s here is okay, but it’s basically elevator music playing in the background as you try to make your way through each level. This was bare bones back in 1990 and it’s just as blah now. I generally played with the sound off as there just wasn’t anything here to write home about.
Sound Rating: Bad
4. Control and Gameplay
This is where Dragon Crystal really shines and proves to be a lot of fun. Each level is completely obscured by background objects and only by approaching the objects do they dissipate like mist, revealing a path, or prove to be solid. You need to find your way out of each of the thirty levels, collecting weapons, armour, magic items, and money along the way. You’ll also encounter enemies and combat is done in a pure turn based fashion. You get to go, then the enemy gets a turn. Said turn might be moving, attacking, casting a spell, or the like for each. Enemies move one square of the grid for everyone you move, so positioning is as important as attacking – sometimes more so.
Your goal for each level is to find the portal that takes you to the next one. Once you do you CAN go to the next level or you can try and finish things off. Completely exploring lets you get more XP and items, but it also whittles away at your food. Spend too much time on a level and you might run out of food and slowly starve to death. Spend too little time and you’ll be woefully unprepared for the upcoming monsters. As such, it’s all about strategy.
The most interesting aspect of the gameplay comes from the fact you can’t tell what most items are until you equip them. For pots (potions), rods, and rings, you’ll just be given a colour to describe the item. You have to actually equip the item to discover what it is. Once you have, the true nature is revealed and then, for the rest of the game, all similarly colored items of that type will have the same power. So in one game, all grey rings might be food rings that constantly feed you, while in the next it might be a cursed hunger ring, which dramatically drains your food. So you basically have to ask yourself if you feel lucky…punk.
When you die, it’s kind of game over. Characters face permadeath unless you have enough gold to bring him back for one more try. The amount of gold is based on how far in you died and how many times the character has been revived. Have fun with that.
All in all, Dragon Crystal is a very solid roguelike. It plays well, it’s not insanely long, and while it’s brutal, it IS beatable. It’s a well done game and if you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll be able to ignore the visuals and lack of story and have a lot of fun with this exceptional engine.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Great
Well, the game is very hard and unless you have racked up a ton of gold, you can’t really “replay” the game with the same character. 99% of the time you’re going to die horribly, so the replay value comes in how much you want to beat your previous attempt or how determined you are to beat the bloody thing. If you’re looking for a lot of reward with no real challenge, this is not the game for you. If you’re looking for something that tests your wits as well as your skill, you can put a lot of time into Dragon Crystal. We’ll call it a thumbs in the middle here as the replay is solely based on what type of gamer you are and how you respond to roguelikes.
Replayability Rating: Mediocre
Like most roguelikes, all thirty levels of the game are randomly generated. This means you could play the first level a dozen times and never encounter the same layout. As well, items, monsters, and the like are randomly generated too. This means you could get a kick ass sword on the first level, or be stuck with a dagger until say, level six. You could have a ton of food, or next to none. Because of this, surviving Dragon Crystal is more luck than skill and it becomes about seeing how much you can get done with what little you are given. If you’re a good player and you get hosed on the drops and layout, you can still get pretty far. On my first try I was given some sweet loot and I made it into the double digits even while I was trying to investigate every nook and cranny of the board (stupid starving to death…).
This is another thumbs in the middle because even the most skilled player can be royally trounced by having ended up in a room with a ton of monsters and no quality items, while at the same time a total newcomer can get the best loot and exceptionally easy dungeons. It’s all random. This may annoy a lot of gamers, but it will also thrill quite a few too. Beating a roguelike was a badge of honour back in the day. Perhaps it will be again if enough people pick this up and experiment with it.
Balance Rating: Mediocre
Roguelikes are uncommon in the first place, but doubly so stateside. Sure, something like Azure Dreams might occasionally make it stateside, but you just don’t see a lot of these games. Hell, only the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games did really well in North America, but even then Nintendo didn’t bother to bring over any of the three Wiiware games – only the GBA/DS ones. As such, even an older game like this one feels fresh compared to all the turn based JRPGS, hack and slash action RPGs, and the like that are released instead. In fact, there’s a very good chance that you, the reader, have never experienced a roguelike. There’s nothing wrong with that, but now here’s your chance – and for only three bucks to boot.
Dragon Crystal doesn’t break the roguelike mold. In fact, it sticks pretty much to the standard conventions of the subgenre. It’s a little shorter and prettier than the roguelikes of the 80s, but it is pretty bare bones compared to what we got in the mid to late 1990s. All in all, the game still feels fresh and to those that have never played an rougelike, this will be a pretty dramatic experience. It’s nothing new, but it’s a solid game in an underdeveloped RPG subgenre, so again I’ll have to call it a thumbs in the middle.
Originality Rating: Mediocre
Although roguelikes are very difficult for some gamers, they’re also equally hard to put down especially for gamers that like to give themselves the “hardcore” label. They’ll die somewhere in the first five levels and be incredulous that such a fate could happen to “them.” GASP! So they’ll keep trying and get a little better. Then a little bit better. So on and so forth. Before they know it, they’re hooked. Of course this isn’t true about all gamers. Some will put this down in disgust due to the rigid rules and sometimes insanely unfair cards one is dealt. It all depends on how you view an uphill struggle and nigh-insurmountable odds.
Basically, if you like games like Dark Souls, Devil Survivor, or other extremely challenging RPGs simply because OF the challenge, than you’ll like this as well. I love roguelikes as they feel like a nice action and turn based hybrid, but with a whole other skillset that is needed to excel at them. I find these hard to put down, especially when there is a story to go with them. We might not have the story here, but we do have a well made roguelike that is sure to delight…or frustrate the hell out of you, depending on your mindset. At least it’ll be a memorable experience.
Addictiveness Rating: Good
9. Appeal Factor
Rougelikes tend to be unpopular in North America for some reason. Maybe it’s the difficulty or how alien they feel compared to the usual RPGs that are released in the West, but it generally takes a really big license to move copies of these things. Unfortunately, Dragon Crystal doesn’t have that. It’s also overshadowed by two larger franchise Game Gear titles released on the same day as it. I mean, obscure RPG, 2D Sonic, or fun sidescrolling hack and slash. Most people aren’t going to go with the former, even if the $2.99 price tag is extremely tempting.
As well, even people that are fans of roguelikes tend to be…iffy about Dragon Crystal and its sibling Fatal Labyrinth. Me? I tend to like them all. So does our own Mark B. However, bring up Fatal Labyrinth and you generally will get at least one word of profanity from him – and this is from a guy that liked to play terrible games! So obviously, rougelikes aren’t for everyone and even fans of the genre take issue with Sega’s rogues. I’m not sure why as they just feel like more barebones versions of other rogues, but it’s not enough to make me hate them – just remember that there are better ones.
If you don’t regularly play roguelikes, this probably isn’t the best to start with. That’s probably Pokémon Mystery Dungeon (any of them) as they’re more forgiving, have a strong story, and are inviting to people new to the subgenre. The bottom line is that Dragon Crystal is probably best with those that not only know the genre, but also love it. It’s very bare bones but to fans of the genre, the engine makes up for it. For everyone else, this might be too weird, too unforgiving, and too random a game to enjoy.
Appeal Factor: Bad
Sega’s Game Gear really didn’t have a lot of RPGs. I’m still surprised they went with this over Camelot’s titles, but then there weren’t a lot of other RPGs released for the system in North America than Sega has complete control over. God knows they’ve been trying to bury the Shining series for a decade too… That left Sega with this, Defenders of Oasis, and Crystal Warriors to choose from. Of the three, Dragon Crystal does make the most sense.
With a $2.99 price point, you’re getting an average roguelike, but one that serves as a cheap but hard introduction to the genre if you’re new, or a portable rougelike that doesn’t feature cock-fighting seizure monster for long time fans of the subgenre. I’m pretty happy with Dragon Crystal and I know I’ll continue to play it regularly. It’s a great price point for a subgenre that deserves more respect than it gets. It probably won’t make any new converts and it’s definitely not for everyone but a portable roguelike that also reminds me why I loved my Game Gear? You won’t hear me complaining.
Miscellaneous Rating: Good
Control and Gameplay: Great
Appeal Factor: Bad
FINAL SCORE: Mediocre Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
Dragon Crystal is a definitely an odd choice to have as one of the first three Game Gear titles for Nintendo’s e-Shop. It’s not that there are better RPGs out there (which there are), but more because it’s a barebones roguelike and those are only popular with a small niche group of gamers in the West. I’m a fan of this RPG subgenre, and I think the engine still holds up, but the lack of any story whatsoever will be a turn off to a lot of people and neither the graphics or aural aspects have aged particularly well. At only $2.99, you’re getting a decent deal on an old school roguelike. It’s not a bad game, but it’s not a particular good one either. Fans of the genre will have fun with this, while those that dislike roguelikes won’t be converted by purchasing this.