Crystal Caves is one of those kinds of forgotten gems from the early 90s. And even though you may not have heard of Crystal Caves, you may have heard of Apogee.
Apogee was arguably one of the biggest names in shareware distribution in the early 90s. By 1993, they had distributed titles that would help shape the gaming landscape. Commander Keen helped prove that sidescrolling platformers were viable on PC, and Wolfenstein 3D is still today considered the great grandfather of the FPS genre.
It might be hard to believe today but back in the early 90s, the PC wasn’t considered a gaming platform by most people. Sure you had computers like the Amiga 500 and the Commodore 64 that had great support for games. But the IBM compatible market was still an untapped resource.
The IBM PC was specialized towards businesses and gaming was more of an afterthought. Most PCs of the era had simple PC speakers and simply weren’t fast enough to match the speed of consoles. Yes, there was a time when consoles were better at gaming than PCs. This was the dark ages of PC gaming.
A Shareware Revolution
Apogee already at this point was making some very cool PC games that they distributed as shareware. The idea behind shareware was to release a part of the game for free. Usually, they did this by breaking their games up into episodes, and the first episode would be free to download from the internet. This was back when the internet was still a really new thing for most people.
To say Apogee were on the cutting edge of PC technology would be an understatement. When Apogee and id Software released Commander Keen, they had cracked the formula for not only getting their games out to the public but also making sure these games would be the best on the market. They didn’t yet have much of a retail presence, but they had the advantage of people being able to play their games for free.
It was during this era that Apogee released games such as Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Bio Menace, Duke Nukem, Duke Nukem 2, Blake Stone, Rise of the Triad, and several other games that shaped a generation. And among these titles was Crystal Caves. And in many ways, you can trace most of the typical Apogee traits to this game. The difficulty, the episodic structure, and the fact the game was extremely memorable, and not always for the right reasons.
In this review of Crystal Caves HD, we’ll take a look at the new updated version of the game, and see how it compares to the original. We’ll also take a look at the new features brought into this updated version. So let’s dive into Crystal Caves HD and see what Mylo Steamwitz has in store for us.
Getting Rich Quick
Crystal Caves has a pretty silly story. You play as Mylo Steamwitz, a miner with one goal in mind. Getting rich. And he hopes to do so by cashing in on whatever the current trend is. To fund his investments, he heads to the crystal caves on a planet called Altair.
What I really like about this story however is that pretty much every investment turns sour for him. There’s a bit of a nice moral lesson here that when you make investments, they need to be actually thought through. And spending a lot of money on a fad might not always turn out in your favor.
There isn’t a lot more story to the game beyond that. Each episode sends him back to the crystal caves to get more funds for his schemes. And this is where the gameplay kicks in.
Caves Of Crystals
As you may have guessed, the goal of the game is to gather crystals. All of them of each level in fact. As you explore each mine, the goal is to get every single crystal of each level. Which of course is definitely not as easy as it sounds.
Not only do you have the levels themselves to deal with, which are increasingly puzzle-like, you also have enemies that will make your life as painful as possible. Thankfully you are armed with a gun that can carry up to 99 bullets. And you can take up to 5 hits before you need to redo the level. But with all the hazards going on, those health points are going to go away before you know it.
Hazards that can get in your way include spikes that spring from the ground and pipes that have fire coming out of them. You also have traps like the tube that sucks in air, poison mushrooms, and the tornado that kills you instantly. Thankfully the latter is rather rare, but you get the picture. These caves are pretty dangerous.
Levels can also have some interesting modifiers. You can start a level without any light, and will have to find a light switch. Some levels have reversed gravity which makes gameplay a bit more tricky. And some levels have low gravity, where shooting knocks you back a bit, which can be tricky as well.
Luckily there are some things to help you. Red mushrooms make you impervious to damage for a short while also killing any enemy on touch. P symbols add extra power to your gun, making you capable of killing every enemy. And the G symbol reverses gravity, making you able to walk on the ceiling. Stop signs stop time for a while, during which hazards and enemies no longer hurt you.
The HD version of the game adds 3 difficulty modes. Easy makes the game a bit easier, which is good as the original game was known for its difficulty. Normal is pretty much unchanged from the original. And Hard is there if you want a real challenge, though I strongly recommend newcomers play on Easy as it makes the game a lot more doable.
Most of the enemies in this game have a slight disadvantage of being killed. Snakes and worms leave a corpse that is poisonous to the touch. This means you have to be careful about their placement when killing them. Some enemies are entirely immune to bullets, which means you have to just avoid them.
This is what kinda makes Crystal Caves more of a puzzle platformer. Enemies and hazards add to the puzzle of it all, and finishing a level often requires you to be careful about how you kill enemies and how you approach traps. Don’t be discouraged if you die a lot on the first try, it’s normal.
In the original game, there was a lot of potentials for the level to be softlocked. Thankfully this is remedied in the remaster since you can now reset the level from the pause menu. It’s a much needed quality-of-life improvement that adds to how approachable the remaster is compared to the original.
Another improvement is the powerups. In the original, the powerups would never respawn so if you used one and didn’t use it as intended, you could softlock yourself. This has been fixed in the remaster as powerups now respawn after a while. And it has to be mentioned that bugs like the episode 3 level hub softlock have also been fixed in this version.
The original Crystal Caves experience is definitely here and fully intact. The HD remaster remains really close to the original in terms of controls and feel. Though some new features have also been added to modernize the game a bit. We’ve already mentioned the additional difficulties, but let’s go over some of the other updates.
The main new feature of Crystal Caves HD is definitely the level editor. This easy-to-use tool allows you to not only make your own levels for the game but also share them on the Steam Workshop. This definitely adds a lot of longevity to the game, since even after finishing the main game you still have a lot of user-made levels to explore.
Speaking of additional content, there’s an entirely new episode added to the game. Episode 4 was never a thing in the original game and has been added for this remaster. I haven’t gotten around to playing it yet as I wanted to complete the main 3 episodes first, but it’s definitely exciting for those who have already completed the game and want some new content.
If there’s one way I would describe Crystal Caves, then it’s that it’s addictive. That feeling of accomplishment when you clear a level is pretty good. And there’s definitely the feeling of wanting to play one more level or keep playing just to see if you can actually beat the level. It’s a hard game for sure, but one that feels satisfying.
There are some nitpicks I have with the game though and as an extension the remaster. One feature I would love is the ability to replay levels from the level hub. Once you clear a level, there seems to be no way to access that level again to beat your score. You have to restart the entire episode if you wanna replay levels.
I also feel the gravity in the game is a bit high. Like, when you jump, it’s fine. But when you fall from a ledge, it’s suddenly extremely high. You fall like a bag of lead bricks, and it’s really jarring when your jump gravity is so radically different.
I also wanna comment a bit on the music. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. The music is decent, if not a bit bland and forgettable. But there is one major thing that really bugs me about it.
You see, Crystal Caves is a DOS game. And the music they chose for the HD remaster is NES style chiptunes. For me, that creates a weird disconnect in my brain cause Crystal Caves was never an NES game. And the HD remaster doesn’t even have an NES style to it, so this choice confuses me.
In all honesty, I don’t hate the music in the remaster. And it is nice that they added music cause the original never had it. But in my opinion, it would’ve been way more fitting to add some FM synth stuff. AdLib was getting big when this game came out originally, so that would’ve been way more fitting.
The sound effects are all from the original game, however. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. As primitive and crunchy as PC speaker sound effects are, there is something undeniably nostalgic about them. And with a lot of DOS games, the PC speaker is integral to the experience.
I’m really happy the sound effects weren’t touched or updated in some way. In my opinion, they are part of this game’s identity as much as the visuals. So let’s discuss the visuals.
Remastered EGA Graphics
Crystal Caves was originally an EGA game, and it ran in 320×200 using 16 color graphics. The remaster gives the old visuals a serious overhaul and the game now has an aesthetic closer to that of VGA. It honestly feels like a lot of those DOS VGA updates that came out in the early 90s.
The style isn’t really that HD but retains the aesthetic from the original while also updating it. Each episode now feels more distinct as the crystals look different for each episode. And the increased amount of colors makes room for more unique styles for each tileset. Even the fourth episode has some new graphics to it and a new enemy type.
One aspect that was even retained with the graphics is one most people most likely aren’t even aware of. And that is the way the game tells you that you’ve collected all the crystals in a level. In the original game, this was done by updating the border outside the scan area on the monitor itself. This means that when emulating the original game, which is how most people are playing it nowadays, you won’t see this border and have no way to know when you have collected all the crystals.
The remaster has this border added properly to the game now. This means that you no longer need to rely on a proper EGA monitor to tell when you have all the crystals. And I see no negative aspects about that.
Of course, one of the biggest perks of playing the remaster is the improved framerate. The original game moved at a very slow and choppy framerate, due to the limitations of PCs at the time. The remaster has a smooth framerate due to being remade in Unity.
A Surprising But Welcome Remaster
Crystal Caves HD is one of those remasters I never expected, but nonetheless am really happy to see. It’s honestly a kind of forgotten gem that’s survived among those with a niche interest in DOS games. As it turns out, with some improvements to the original game, it seems ready to take on a whole new fanbase.
I never considered myself a Crystal Caves fan to begin with but damn if the remaster hasn’t won me over. This is absolutely the definitive way of playing the game. And while I have some minor nitpicks with the game, I admire that it stays true to the original and doesn’t stray too far away from it.
If you love puzzle platformers then you should check out Crystal Caves HD and the original. Now for the question of whether you should play this or the original if you’ve never played Crystal Caves before, I would definitely recommend checking out the original first. This should help you get a feel for what has actually been improved in the HD remaster.
Now go get those crystals! Those Twibbles won’t buy themselves! Crystal Caves will release on PC via Steam on October 15th, so go wishlist it now!
A huge thanks to Apogee for providing me with a beta key for this review.