You run at me from out of the darkness, wild-eyed and crazy, shouting "another videogame with zombies in it, VGJunk? Really? Can we not let the dead rest in peace and the overused tropes of popular culture slide back into obscurity?!" To that I would say calm down, hypothetical crazy person. Today's game may be about giving life to the dead but there are hardly any zombies in it at all. It's mostly about a kid who stabs dozens of people to death. Would you prefer that, huh, you weirdo? Good, because here's Hector's 1992 Famicom stabfest Moon Crystal!
"Moon Crystal" - a rejected My Little Pony, a rock that a cynical person might sell to a gullible new-age type, or a mysterious and powerful Plot Device with the ability to reanimate the dead? Well, in this case it's the latter, but I'm sure the other two are also accurate. Moon Crystal was a Japanese-only release - although it was seemingly planned for a US release at one point - but thanks to this fan-translated version by A. W. Jackson we can experience the full impact of Moon Crystal's deep and fascinating storyline, a sentence which is actually meant way less sarcastically than you might think.
Okay, that's simple enough advice to remember. Don't go into the woods during a full moon because the dead will "drag you into their graves." Waning moons, waxing moon, new moons, you'll be fine, but when the moon is full the dead become so overwhelmingly lonely that they'll drag anyone into their graves just for a bit of company, like when your nan keeps the Jehovah's Witness' talking at the door for ages.
Here come the living dead now. The lumpy, purple living dead. I guess now we know where the California Raisins were buried.
The undead have attacked a nearby village, mysteriously abducting the inhabitants as only mysterious abductors can. So much for not going into the woods, they were all sitting around watching Celebrity Masterchef in the comfort of their own homes and still they were mysteriously abducted, which makes you wonder why they chose to live so close to the forest where it's know that sometimes the dead rise from their graves. Is it really worth the risk for the (presumably) very low rents in the area? Anyway, the upshot is that one young man survived the abductions, and here he is now.
This is Ricky Slater: name like an EastEnders character, hair that's capable of photosynthesis. Ricky's dad is an expert on the Moon Crystal, and he'd be real useful to have around during this Moon Crystal-related crisis but unfortunately he was one of those abducted. So, Ricky sets off on a grand adventure to rescue the villagers, find his father and get some answers.
Sound the klaxon and watch the Videogames That Start With A Forest Level counter tick 'round, because Moon Crystal begins with Ricky leaping from tree to tree, someone having thoughtfully defoliated the trees' lower branches to aid him in his platforming. Probably the first thing you'll notice when you start playing Moon Crystal is that the animation is far smoother than in most NES games - no two-frame walk cycles for young Ricky, he's got beautifully fluid motions whether he's running, jumping or driving the blade of his penknife right into the guts of a passing villain.
Yeah, like that. Ricky's route is littered with enemies - surprisingly un-undead enemies, given the earlier focus on the Moon Crystal's power - and Ricky can stab them to death as he sees fit. His dagger's range is very short, but it can be increased slightly by finding the right power-up in one of the treasure-chests that litter each stage. Almost all the regular enemies die in one hit, so getting in there quickly and dealing the killing blow before they can react is usually the best way to deal with them.
Unusually detailed animation aside, Moon Crystal is the familiar 8-bit cocktail of running from left to right, jumping over holes and defeating enemies. The enemies in this case are mostly a private army of henchmen who look like a cross between Dr. Claw's goons from Inspector Gadget and various Studio Ghibli characters, particularly the pirates from Porco Rosso. As well as the previously-mentioned knife upgrade, Ricky can also collect extra hearts to increase his maximum health, temporary invincibility items and winged boots, which allow him to double-jump. Many of these items aren't exactly hidden but are located slightly off the beaten path - for example, here you can drop down to the bottom of the waterfall where more items and more enemies await.
You know, if I was living near the Evil Forest I'd be less concerned with the undead than I would with the child-sized man-eating spiders, because the spiders don't have to wait for a full moon before emerging to devour your loved ones.
Also pictured here is Ricky's extremely useful ability to hang from the edge of platforms. It's handled really well, with a generous margin of error that means you don't have to position yourself just so in order for Ricky to grab hold, and there are quite a few fun jumping sections that see you making huge leaps to distant ledges that you'll only survive by your fingertips. You'll also spend a fair amount of time hanging from platforms until the enemies patrolling them have walked past you and turned around, allowing you to haul yourself up behind them and quickly knife them into oblivion, That's what's going to happen to this spider, I can tell you that much.
There's a boss at the end of the stage, because, y'know, videogames. I'm going to go out on a limb and say this large, shirtless man has an evil quotient roughly equal to the demonic lovechild of Freddy Krueger and Hitler, because either the villain of Moon Crystal hired him with the instructions to axe-murder a child and he was totally fine with his job description, or he has nothing to do with the larger plot of Moon Crystal and he's just really into murdering children with axes. He certainly didn't waste any time attacking Ricky - apparently he gets paid per dismemberment and not by the hour - and here the short range of Ricky's knife becomes a problem because you have to be standing on the boss' toes before you can hurt him. There is really only one strategy that will see you through this battle, and that's making sure you collect all the health-increasing hearts during the preceding stage. If you did, you'll have enough health to stand in front of the boss and slash away like a cokehead whittling a large, fleshy branch, and the boss' health will run out before Ricky's does.
Between stages, Moon Crystal is packed with Ninja Gaiden-esque cut scene that move the plot along and feature some mostly-impressive art, even if the eyes are sometimes especially bulbous and glistening, even accounting for the anime artstyle. Now that he's escaped the Evil Forest, Ricky meets a young woman named Rosina who has eyes like hubcaps and helpful information about the abducted villagers. They were taken by the nefarious Count Crimson, who has plans for the Moon Crystal.
Off we go to Count Crimson's lair, then - a cliff top castle in a sylvan setting. Some kind of Castle Vania, if you will. Thanks for the info, mysterious boggle-eyed woman who I'm sure will not be the centre of a shocking revelation later in the story!
Before Ricky can reach the castle, he has to make his way through a nearby village. I have no idea whether this is supposed to be the same village as the one that everyone was abducted from. It must be, right? Building one village right next to the Evil Forest is an oversight, but two smacks of perverse stupidity.
The village's main feature is ledges, which is handy for someone of Ricky's ledge-hanging capabilities, and there's quite a lot of verticality to the stage as you make your way past the guards - many of whom have upgraded from knives to uzis, a sure sign that they are now taking the threat posed by this child seriously - and along the village's rooftops.
The rooftops are patrolled by these... things? Dagger-wielding apes? Angry, naked clones of Danny DeVito? I have absolutely no idea, but they were very insistent that Ricky not make it past this clock. Unluckily for them, I'd found the double-jump boots, and by this point I'd had time to get used to the fact that the second jump only works if you press the button while you're still travelling upwards from the first jump. That made getting past the weird lumpy monsters much faster, because I just jumped over them and ran away.
I couldn't run away from this boss fight, but that's not a problem. This guy's knife is even smaller than Ricky's, but it's not the size that matters but how you use it. In this case, I waited for the boss to jump right in front of me and then used it carve him up like a human doner kebab but with less food safety violations. Yes, it was another button-mashing race to the bottom of our respective health bars, which Ricky won handily. For the boss, knifing things was a job, but for Ricky it's a way of life, so there's little wonder that he won.
Here's our first look at Count Crimson. He's got the monocle that's surgically grafted onto all people the moment they are made a count, and he's trying to persuade Ricky's dad to help him make a machine that will activate the Moon Crystal's powers at all times and not just during the full moon. Ricky's dad refuses, on the reasonable grounds that this will create a legion of unholy monsters. I'm sure Mr. Slater will be very comfortable in the crystal mines.
The next stage starts with Ricky attempting to breach Count Crimson's castle, but obviously he can't just walk up to the front door and knock. Instead, he has to climb up a nearby tree and sneak in through an open window, which I thought was a nice touch. The Belmonts should try that next time they pitch up at Dracula's castle, it might save them some time if they don't have to fight their way through the entrance hall like usual.
The castle's gimmick is that there are a couple of sets of doors opened by switches a few screens away, but they don't stay open for long so it's a matter of hitting the button and then dashing for the door. They operate on a very strict timer, too - Ricky's knife skills are excellent and he only needs the briefest moment to shiv someone, but even stopping for that long will mean he doesn't make it through the doors. This section had the potential to be very frustrating, but happily (and unexpectedly, for a Famicom game) it doesn't work out that way and the whole thing never becomes a chore, mostly because the path back to the button is relatively painless and getting set for another attempt is nice and easy.
Finally, an actual undead creature! The supernatural power of the Moon Crystal has thus far managed to rustle up one (1) lumbering ghoul, revived from the afterlife just to walk back and forth on this tiny platform. Maybe Ricky's dad should help the Count with his crystal amplifying machine, because this is just embarrassing.
The castle's boss is this Jack the Ripper wannabe who leaps around the room throwing knives at Ricky. Wait for him to land and keep hammering stab until he dies, just like the previous boss fights. I think it's fair to say that the boss battles are the weakest part of Moon Crystal. Maybe after this debacle and the previous boss the evil forces of Count Crimson will realise that attempting to out-knife Ricky is a fool's errand, because this kid is the Leonardo da Vinci of cutting people.
Oh, I think we were supposed to assume that the boss was Count Crimson himself. I'll be honest, that never occurred to me. This is only stage three, I had assumed I wouldn't get to stab the count for another three or four stages yet at least. Instead he's left a lackey in his place, who freely tells Ricky where the Count has taken his father, possibly as payback for Count Crimson saying "hey, would you like to be the Count for a while? Great, put on this cape and top hat and wait here. If a kid called Ricky shows up, just stab him. The kid's useless when it comes to knives."
In order to get to the island, Ricky decides to steal a pirate ship. It might seem like a risky plan, but it has two advantages: pirates are unlikely to report the hijacking of their ship to the police, and this galleon is just about large enough to carry Ricky's giant steel balls.
Ricky spends a lot of time in this stage climbing masts, a task made more difficult by the large men who punch said masts at regular intervals, causing them to wobble so violently that Ricky falls off them... unless he's hanging from the edge of them by his fingertips. Sure, you could try to time a jump so that you're not on the beam when it's shaking, but that seems like a lot of effort when you can just climb up there and take care of the big guys while their back is turned. It's a sneaky tactic, and the mast-punchers are justifiably shocked when you put it into practise.
"How could you do this to me, you brute? Have you no sense of Pirate Honour, sir?"
Ricky has no such honour. His strength means he has risen about such petty concerns. When a man (or teen) has the power to deflect artillery shells by swatting them aside with his pocketknife, he has no need for human foibles.
Yo ho ho, it's a pirate boss, and a boss who has the good sense to bring a gun to a knife fight. His rapid-fire pistol can pose a problem the first time you fight him, but once you know the fight's coming up you can rush him down and start stabbing before he can even get his gun out of its holster. If you do that the pirate - this poor, foolish pirate - will attempt to fight Ricky blade-to-blade, and we all know how well that works out for the bosses in this game. Thus, the pirate dies in a most ironic fashion - while trying to prevent his possessions from being stolen.
Rosina is waiting on the island, where she has a shocking revelation: she's Count Crimson's daughter! Rosina Crimson, huh? It must be coincidence, it's very unlikely that one of the girls I used to see at my local club's Goth nights took her name from an obscure Japan-only Famicom platformer.
Here we are in the mines, a twisting yet still linear network of conveyor belts, steam vents and falling boulders. Some of the Danny DeVito monsters from earlier have played some Ghouls 'n' Ghosts in the interim and were so taken by the Red Arremers that they fashioned some home-made wings in an attempt to copy their idol, swooping back and forth. They don't quite have Red Arremer's patented "cheeky bastard" technology down, however, and so rather than staying just out of range before striking when you're off-balance, they generally fly face-first into your outstretched knife instead.
The difficulty in the cave stage comes not from the gargoyles but the controls. On the whole, Moon Crystal controls very well, but all these super-smooth animations come at a cost, and that's that Ricky can sometimes feel a bit sluggish when he's jumping and especially when he's turning around - the extra frames of animation mean there's a delay when you're adjusting positions and weirdly it's a lot more pronounced if you hold the d-pad to turn than if you just tap it. For the previous stages, where the action was more linear and all about lining up your jumps to grab ledges, this stiffness wasn't so noticeable, but in the caves there's a lot of nimble footwork required to dodge the falling rocks and Ricky's occasionally reluctance to face the right bloody direction can become a trifle aggravating. Combine this with the dull, repetitive backgrounds of the cave and this is probably the lowest point of the game. The good news is it's still not bad at all, because Moon Crystal is a high-quality product all around.
All right, yes, so the boss fights are rubbish, almost all of them consisting of Ricky and the boss standing next to each other and attacking until Ricky wins by virtue of swinging his knife faster than the boss can, for example, drop huge rocks on his head. In this case, however, there's a twist! You have to avoid at least one attack to give Ricky the head-start in the health bar race, otherwise he'll run out of health first. It's like trying to get a truculent child to eat some broccoli, "just dodge one attack, please, and then you can do all the wild stabbing you like, there's a good boy." Well, I dodged that first boulder, by god, and then there was nothing separating Ricky's knife from the boss' groin but an extremely flimsy loincloth. Whatever's under that loincloth is going to look like beef mince in a chunky tomato sauce by the time Ricky's finished.
Now we're getting close to Moon Crystal's conclusion, with Ricky tentatively making his way through Count Crimson's laboratory. I say tentatively, because otherwise you're going to get chopped up by the large gnashing rows of metal teeth the Count has installed in many of the corridors, presumably just to give his lair that extra dash of supervillain flourish. Why else would the corridors be trying to bite me? If the Count really wanted to keep people out, he could have just put some doors in. He had them in his castle, so I know he knows how doors work.
After the slightly disappointing mine stage, the laboratory swings right back around to being one of Moon Crystal's high points, with lots of exciting platforming challenges that are tough but fair and almost require a bit of thought in how you tackle them. I'm not saying they get into puzzle-platformer territory, but you can't just dash from left to right, either. It's a direction I'd have liked to have seen Moon Crystal pursue more vigorously, because while the platforming in the rest of the game has been fun if a little perfunctory, in this stage it tightens up somewhat and becomes more enjoyable as a result. I suppose what I'm saying is that Moon Crystal would have been a better game if it had better level design, but also more focus on thoughtful action - which would also work better with Ricky's slightly cumbersome movements - would have helped push it into the realms of a "great" game rather than a "good" one.
Count Crimson is cornered, but he's holding Ricky's sister hostage! Who could have imagined that a Count in a top hat and monocle would stoop to such clichéd acts of villainy?
Ah yes, another boss fight. This suit of armour may have a sword, but a sword is nothing but a large knife and no-one can best Ricky in a battle of knives. I'm sure my usual boss battle tactics will suffice.
Ah. I've hit something of a snag - the boss has two forms, and Ricky doesn't get his health back in between. Oh man, this means I'm going to have to, like, avoid attacks and stuff. That's not good, because Ricky's knife has such a tiny range and Count Crimson's second form - sort of like Dr. Robotnik with giant robot legs - has an extendable arm that he not shy about punching you with. So, Ricky was killed almost immediately and I went back to the blue knight fight, where I made an effort to preserve my health bar. It was not a fun experience, because everything is faster than Ricky and his occasional refusal to turn around generate the kind of fist-clenching frustration that might end in a smashed control pad for people with less inner peace than myself.
After eventually managing to slap the Count right out of his robot walking frame, it's back to the cutscenes. Crimson threatens Ricky's sister once more, but suddenly the Moon Crystal machine is destroyed by Rosina! The Count is not pleased about this, but not for the reasons you might expect - with the machine destroyed, Rosina will die! There's no dramatic chord that plays in-game during this revelation, so you might want to have a portable keyboard handy so you can supply your own "duhn-duhn-duuhhn!" at the appropriate juncture.
Yes, that's right - Rosina is actually a grotesque flesh-puppet, given life by the Moon Crystal as a replacement for Count Crimson's deceased daughter. That's a heck of a twist, and it gives Crimson a sympathetic motivation for his crimes, something I definitely did not see coming from a character who looks like a post-mask-removal Scooby-Doo villain. Good plot work, Hector. M. Night Shyamalan will be calling any day now to buy the movie rights.
After another half-stage of platforming action revolving around moving platforms and spiked walls, Ricky once more catches up with the Count. Again. How did he get away from you last time, Ricky? You stabbed him enough times during that last boss fight that you could peel his skin off and use it as a colander, but he still got away from you? Anyway, with one last roll of the dice Crimson uses the magical life-giving power of the Moon Crystal on himself, because it conveniently happens to be the night of a full moon. Personally I would have thrown in one last plot-twist: Ricky is actually a werewolf, and by exposing him to the full moon Count Crimson has signed his own death warrant. Sadly that doesn't happen.
Instead, the Moon Crystal turns Crimson into a hideous monster. Erm, congrats, I guess? I don't know if this is how you wanted things to pan out, Count, but if you were hoping your evil schemes would grant you the powers of "being stuck to a wall" and "vomiting up beach-ball sized chunks of flesh" then well done, your Evil Nobel Prize is in the post.
As for the final battle itself, the trick is to double-jump and stab Crimson in the face while trying your best to avoid the waves of fire that travel along the floor. Good luck with that. I don't know if it was just me being bad at videogames, (always a possibility,) but there never seemed to be a real rhythm or predictability to the boss' attacks and as such Ricky's success or failure seemed to come down mostly to blind luck.
Rosina then sacrifices herself so that Ricky can escape. Don't be upset, it's not like she's real or anything. I should have known, those eyes are a dead giveaway. Maybe that's how the original Rosina died, her enormous eyeballs kept falling out of their sockets, leading to a fatal brain infection.
I hope you remembered the path you took through the laboratory, because now you've got to go through it backwards while it self-destructs, Metroid-style. I sort of remembered the path, but not well enough that there weren't multiple occasions where I thought "you can drop down this hole, right?" only to be proven wrong.
Should you manage to escape, Moon Crystal draws to a close as everyone makes it to safety. Well, except Rosina. And Count Crimson. Everyone important makes it to safety, then, and the Moon Crystal sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Hopefully it sinks deep enough that light can't reach it, otherwise the local fishermen are in for a hell of a time during the next full moon.
I wouldn't say that Moon Crystal is an absolutely wonderful hidden gem, a true lost Famicom materpiece, but it's certainly a good game. Ricky's movements are sometimes unpleasantly leaden and the boss battles are utterly pointless - aside from the last couple, which are merely frustrating - but the rest of the game is saved by its great graphics, good soundtrack and well-above-average jump-and-stab platforming action. Every the story is a cut above most NES games, which I know is a low hurdle to clear but still, it's a welcome addition to a game with a lot of charm. Moon Crystal gets my recommendation, then, and it's definitely one to try out if you're hankering for some classic 8-bit action or you like Ninja Gaiden but it's just difficult for you. Hey, I can understand that, you'll get not judgement from me.