Monday, August 11, 2014

Jack and the Crystal Beanstalk. (Review)

People have their tastes.  Some folks are content to only play modern online FPS shooters on the newest console of their choice.  Some people stick to mobile.  Some people only play 2D games, or MMORPGs, or racers, or only consoles.  It's true, I've met these people on forums throughout the years.  Well there's nothing wrong with that.

However, I like to mix things up.  I might play a PS1 platformer one day, and a Wii adventure game the next, followed by a Vita JRPG.  I like to play games from all eras... I don't consider a video game to be obsolete just because the hardware that runs it is.  And perhaps most fortuitous of all, I enjoy delving into the weird and wacky world of fan translations.  Thanks to the immense efforts of some truly upstanding individuals, there are now legions of Japanese games that never made it to English speaking shores yet all the same are available to play in English.  Of course this isn't a new phenomenon, the practice has been going on since at least the 90's.  So let's segue into the game I'm reviewing today as it's both a fan translated title and from the 90's...

 Crystal Beans - From Dungeon Explorer

I'm not going to give you a history lesson on this game, because history lessons are not what Ardent is about.  I'll give you some links for that instead: HG101 | RHDN .  Just know that this is an action-RPG from 1995 by Hudson Soft that got translated into English unofficially.  I started playing Crystal Beans because I was feeling the urge to play some SNES titles.  I picked out four games I had not yet played and this was number 2.  (Number 1 was Brandish, a game with some interesting concepts but terrible execution.  I didn't enjoy Brandish enough to keep playing.)

It's likely the first thing you would wonder is what does the name Cystal Beans even mean?  Well it refers to beans made of crystal, yeah seriously.  If you'll look in the picture above you'll see a crystal beanstalk going up to that castle in the clouds.  The guy with the sword is named Jack.  So now we get the joke.  Anyway during the course of your adventure you end up liberating one of these crystal beans so you can ascend to the castle in the sky where the big bad baddie resides.  There's more to the story, but honestly the plot is so rote it's not worth the effort of my fingers to explain it.  This game is about the action, not the RPG.

The action begins with you choosing a hero from amongst a pool of them.  You would probably choose one based on their stats, or at least I did.  I chose the main hero Jack, because his attack stat was the highest of the group.  (Turns out in the end this was a trap, but we'll get to that in a bit.)  From there you explore the world with Jack, going to pleasant places such as DEMON INTESTINES:

Thus you bandy about liberating towns and castles from evil baddies.

And this being a classic JRPG (of sorts) you of course start out fighting slimes:

Now don't let the picture fool you.  It looks like Jack is swinging a sword, but in reality he just shoots swords out of his sword.  Not entirely unlike Link did in the original The Legend Of Zelda actually.  The challenging part of this game's design is primarily the enemies that respawn at rapid pace.  There are spawn portals everywhere on the maps that continuously spew baddies until you destroy the spawn portals.  Do you get experience for this?  No.  The only way to level up is when you kill a boss.  That's it.  Enemies randomly drop health vials and magic vials, both only barely useful really.  Worse yet about halfway through the game those vials rarely if ever at all drop.  Oh, and if you're not careful, you will destroy the vials with your attack.  This is something that happens all the time of course, because the vials appear right where you're attacking the enemies... genius design.

Now I want to reiterate.  This is an action-RPG where your character has levels, but you get no experience or leveling from fighting hundreds if not thousands of enemies.  You only level up for killing bosses.  Guess what the best thing to do is?  Yes.  Run.  Run all the time.  Avoid the baddies and run like you've just eaten questionable Mexican food to the nearest exit.

Right about now you're probably wondering why one would even bother playing this game?  Two reasons.  Number one, the OST is actually pretty damn good.  At times it even reaches Falcom levels of good.  Here's two tracks for example: 1 | 2 .  The other reason?  Bosses.  For all its lame design, copy-cat towns, and constant CRYSTAL BEANS logo in yo face... this game actually has some wicked bosses.  Here's one:

"YOU SHALL ROT IN HELL LIKE SO MANY OTHERS!"  Admit it, that boss and that line is not something you'd expect from a game with a cover like the one above.  And there are something on the order of 15 bosses in this game.  Plenty of them were fun to fight and interesting to see.

Except one.  The final boss.

Before I go on a tirade about this, I want to say a few things.  I really love Japanese game design.  I actually prefer it in general to Western game design.  But there is one trope in so many Japanese games I truly loathe, and it occurs most often in Japanese RPGs.  Of course I'm talking about the final boss.  If you're a Japanese game designer, it must be a law that your game's final boss meets the following criteria:

Japanese RPG Final Boss Decree
1. The final boss is not the final boss.
2. The final boss upon apparent death turns into the final final boss.
3. The final final boss upon apparent death becomes the final final final boss.
4. The final final final boss shalt be no less than 10 times harder than anything else in the game.
5. When the player dies, the player must start this entire fight sequence all over again, with an unskippable cutscene first for good measure.

Sound familiar?  Crystal Bean's final boss fits most of this criteria.  It has multiple forms and is ridiculously harder than anything else before it.  Here's a picture of me shooting swords in vain at it's final final final form:

I can't even begin to explain how aggravating this fight is.  The boss shoots unavoidable lightning out of its hands constantly.  It summons golden balls that follow you around non-stop causing massive damage every time they touch you.  You're basically being hit constantly without pause, and you die very very quickly.  There's no spells to help you, there's no secret spot to stand in to not be hit.  It's just a big fat "UP YOURS" from the developers to you.

I theorize that this fight would not be so bad if my character's stats were different, have a look:

You'll notice that my agility is through the roof, but my attack is stunted.  Now realize I had no control of this.  I chose Jack because his attack was the highest to begin with.  As I played the game and leveled up, the distribution of that leveling was based on the character I chose and not my own choosing.  And thus the character who starts off with the highest attack in the end is the character with highest agility.  Agility it would seem does jack squat and it certainly doesn't kill final final final bosses:

 GAME OVER SUCKER!  Understand that I do not give up easy in games.  I fought this boss for three hours.  I saw that Game Over screen at least a hundred times.  Yes I have better things to do with my life but once I get pissed off at a game, it takes a LOT to burn through my patience enough to give up.  It also takes a lot for me to cheat.  (I hate cheating in video games but that's a post unto itself.)  Let's just say I can count on one hand how many times I've resorted to cheating just to beat a game.  But congratulations Crystal Beans you jerkface bastard of a game, you got me to that point.  So I finally just put a Pro Action Replay code into SNES9X and killed the final boss... which by the way technically had six forms to deal with.  Yes six.  UP YOURS.

What really made me angry was knowing that if I had chosen a different character than Jack, I might have ended up with one who's attack maxed out instead of his agility.  Then I likely would have been able to beat this game fair and square.  But I was not about to spend another 5 hours playing through the game with a different character to find out.  Up until the final boss I actually had moderately enjoyed Crystal Beans, but that ol' trope had to go and take a big stinker on that.  No I did not sit through the credits for this one.

So should you play Crystal Beans From Dungeon Explorer?  No.  Really, you shouldn't.  I mean if you hate yourself a little perhaps.  Really even if you're nostalgic for classic 16-bit action-RPGs, this is a piss poor way to waste your time.  Just download the OST and find a Youtube boss run or something, those are the only good parts.

Ardent Score: 4 krystly beanz out of 10.

With that behind me, I'm currently playing another fan translated SFC game.  I won't say what it is yet, but let's just say it's marvelous indeed.

EDIT, UPDATE 8/14/14
I have been informed that I was wrong about the leveling system in Crystal Beans.  When you kill a boss it drops a crystal.  I always grabbed the crystal as soon as it appeared.  What I did not know though is if you wait, the crystal starts cycling colors.  Depending on what color the crystal is when you grab it, it will in turn upgrade the corresponding stat.  So it is possible to only upgrade your attack, for example.  I did not know this fact, because that's just incredibly unintuitive bad game design.  However if I had known this, I likely could have beat the last boss fair and square.  All the same Crystal Beans is still not a good game and this is the last moment of my life I'm wasting on it.

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