I had never heard of Crystalis before; it was a game created by SNK for the NES back in 1990. Though it never received much mainstream coverage, Crystalis gained a cult following over the years. A fan of the Music for the Mind column, Media Breakdown, suggested I take a look at the game; specifically regarding the musical compositions found in Crystalis. But, before jumping into the music, however, I must give a brief summary of the storyline within Crystalis, as it does affect my musical perspective of the software.
Ever heard of Crystalis? Well, I hadn’t!
After a cataclysmic thermal-nuclear war ravaged the landscape which humanity called home, those who remained decided to create a tower to govern the new world, attempting to prevent another worldwide disaster from happening again. This floating tower, high above the ground, houses massive weapons that could take out anyone who might seek to further destroy the world; effectively keeping the post-apocalyptic world in some state of “peace.” The Tower is a symbol of both the Old World (as far as technology is concerned) and the New World (a symbol of hope, in a way).
The after-effects of the war come in the form of mutants roaming the Earth, hunting what little is left of humankind. Now, these mutants would normally be less of a threat with the advanced weaponry the Old World created, but therein lies the problem: most weaponry and technological advances were obliterated or lost, save for the floating tower defense system. So what does this mean? Fending off the mutants requires a good old-fashioned sword and shield combo.
Just a sword and shield? Give me my guns!
Enter your nameless protagonist who wakes up from a cryogenic sleep. Does he know his name, or who he is? Of course not! The player proceeds to enter a nearby town and talk to a sage, who shares with the player a prophecy the protagonist plays a part of. Finally, after the initial set-up, the protagonist ventures off into the wilderness on his journey.
Now, after watching hours of gameplay and following the storyline to its end, I have to be honest: at first I was completely perplexed by some of the musical choices in the game, namely the Wild Fields composition. The music didn’t seem to fit for a reoccurring composition in the game. To understand what I mean, watch this gameplay video, I started it at the 3 minute mark; when the player gets to the open world outside of the village:
Why does the Wild Fields track sound so different and out of place, especially in a game that is very depressing and serious? The answer lies within the entirety of the game itself. If you continue to watch the above video, you’ll notice that most of the other locales the player explores have brooding compositions, or a menacing feel to them. The overall theme and feel of Crystalis is one of despair and dwindling hope. Wild Fields is incredibly robust and “cheery” in nature. However, in contradiction to what initially makes sense, the Wild Fields track does something very important in a story driven game like Crystalis: it brings levity to a bad situation.
The music is uptempo and sounds as if it is in a major key (major keys typically sound “happier” than minor keys). This music, mixed with the colorful look of the landscape the player crosses (in comparison to other locales in the wilderness), helps bring a sense of exploration in a depressing, post-apocalyptic world. I mean, who would want to go and explore a devastated world when they have safety, companionship, and a life in a town? The music is used as a device to trigger an emotion, specifically urging the player to explore the Wild Fields without getting bored or feeling overwhelmed by the sudden openness of the world within the game.
Instead of having a drab landscape with monotonous music overlaying it, the sound engineer chose to use the music as a juxtaposition of the general feel of the game. This is a very effective way to utilize music; one can find this method used quite often in film as well, usually coupled with a brief moment of cheeky dialogue. The music helps the player want to explore and defeat the mutants out in the wilderness, rather than feeling obligated to do so simply to continue the story. This type of music usage for a game made in 1990 is quite advanced.
Moreover, the composition can easily get stuck in the mind; I had it stuck in my head long after I stopped watching any gameplay videos. This is vital in many older games, as the music was there to fill up space while the player explored the game itself. Yes, there are games which still simply use music as a tool for filling up the aural space, but take note of games like The Last of Us, Tomb Raider, Bioshock (both the original and Infinite), the Gears of War series, and Uncharted series. In many modern games, the music is usually incorporated and intertwined with the gameplay and story, whereas older games didn’t necessarily use it this way. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but simply stating that any composition that could leave a lasting impression on the player after putting the game down was a must, and Wild Fields is that composition for Crystalis.
Though Wild Fields effectively stood out to me, and in a puzzling way at first, there is one other composition that, I believe, is so far advanced for its time that it could be redone and put into a new game without anyone noticing it is from an older game. It technically is three separate compositions, but they are all used for the opening sequence/title menu for Crystalis. Have a listen:
First, the musical cues in this segment are fantastic. The opening begins ominously with the text, “1997, October 1, the END DAY,” and the music creates that feeling perfectly. The player is about to jump into this post-apocalyptic world, and needs a little history lesson. The composition accentuates the narrative by using only two “instruments.” This helps the player to focus on the text, and gives life to the brief story-telling given. As soon as a new element is added to the narrative – the Tower – a new “instrument” is added, and the music a little more complex. In addition, as soon as the Tower is displayed, the composition sounds like something royal or noble, giving the player the impression that the Tower is something to be honored. Finally, the “Tower section” smoothly transitions into the title menu almost flawlessly, keeping the player involved in the narrative being told. (Note: There were other moments throughout the game that reflected these types of seamless transitions and musical cues between compositions, but this was the best example to use.)
The opening music of Crystalis fits its epic story.
Second, just have a listen to the second half of the opening theme. Where Wild Fields brings levity, this piece truly captures the seriousness of the story. The staccato notes played underneath the sweeping chords help to create a rhythm section. The bass creates a thicker, full sound to the overall tonal quality of the piece by using whole notes, but changes to mimic the “instrument” playing staccato notes after 8 measures. This helps to create a sense of separation between the bass line and the “instrument” most easily heard: the synth playing the melody of the piece. The framed sections used in the cutscenes are the final touch to a brilliant storytelling segment that only lasts roughly 1 ½ minutes.
Crystalis is a game that was musically ahead of its time in a few ways, and I’m very glad it was suggested to me. For the most part, the music, though some of which was standard for the time, truly stood out, and I am thoroughly surprised that I had never heard of this game until recently. Great usage of the “8-bit sound,” juxtaposition of content and composition, and seamless transitions between compositions make this a game well worth mentioning for its music.