Apogee Software was a pioneer in the PC gaming world in the nineties. When it came to side-scrollers specifically, you were spoiled for choice. The Commander Keen and Duke Nukem games were best-sellers for the publisher, though there were numerous titles that still got themselves a lot of praise and sales. One of them was Crystal Caves, the brainchild of Frank Maddin. After more than two decades, a HD remake by Emberheart Games was released, and, make no mistake, if you never tried the original, then now’s the time to try it out.
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Mylo Steamwitz is an intergalactic miner who explores caves to collect treasures in order to buy new pets, real estate, and other oddly-specific things. You’ll need to guide him through many mines across three episodes, each of which has a bit of backstory to his adventures, along with some short cutscenes.
On the surface, Crystal Caves seems to play like any other side scroller. To complete a level, you need to collect all the gems before exiting, though there’s plenty of treasures that you can loot for points as well. Mylo can jump pretty high and has some good air time before he drops, so platforming is simple enough in this one. Plus, he’s armed with a gun that can destroy blocks and certain enemies with a few shots.
It actually brings quite a few clever ideas to the table. While you won’t be notified of the kind of level you’ll be playing unless you pick one of the many doors in the hub zones, you’ll be notified via signs about some of the hazards and twists you’ll be up against. Low or inverted gravity will make you jump around higher, or forces you to traverse a mission while upside down (there’s even a power-up that temporarily reverses gravity – it’s so cool). The lights might not even be on at first, so you may need to search for a switch. Poison mushrooms, crushers and tubes that’ll suck you into space are but some of the things will instantly K.O. you, so you need to be careful.
Each level is pretty short and compact in size, but there’s so many of them to try out. A few of them will require a bit of backtracking, while others are a tad more linear. The more annoying ones may require precise jumping, lest you fall back to the bottom and must retrace your steps. In any case, these levels are still a lot of fun to play. Their layouts almost make it like a puzzle at times, since there’s still the possibility of accidentally trapping yourself. Good thing you can reset the level by simply pausing it. Just be warned though, as the second and third chapter are notably trickier than the first, and can cause some grief as a result.
There’s a few annoying tidbits about the core game that’ll no doubt frustrate at times. Some enemies can only be defeated with a damage-amplifying power-up, while things like the turrets can’t be destroyed at all. A few nasty critters seem to pop out of surfaces when you’re close, and they can be tricky to spot at times. Plus, finding the hidden gems on each stage is such a time-wasting task since you’d have to bonk any and every platform in hopes of uncovering them.
Nevertheless, this HD version brings a combination of quality-of-life inclusions, as well as some genuinely surprising additions that make it well worth a full-price purchase. The revamped visuals and its much more vibrant colours are easily the first thing you’ll notice at first glances, which look much brighter and more appealing than the primitive IBM PC colour palettes from three decades ago. Autosaves, achievements, controller support leaderboards and a new difficulty selection are all here, alongside a brand new soundtrack to replace the deafening sound of nothingness that the original game was cursed with. Those 8-bit clashes of cymbals and rhythmic beats makes it all the more jovial and pleasurable to play.
Even better, a map editor, akin to the likes of Super Mario Maker, has been bundled alongside. Creating your own missions is a doddle with its user-friendly interface. You can even upload your maps online for other players to try out, as well. Emberheart Games are clearly spoiling us rotten here.
Crystal Caves HD polishes up what was formerly a flawed gem. Now it truly shines brightest, thanks to its numerous brilliant inclusions – better visuals, a catchy OST, its level editor, and so many more handy ideas. It’s not an easy game, and may be a tad tricky for newcomers, but you can always scale the difficulty down until you come to grips with some of the hazards and slight irritants. While it’s easy to get swamped by the many side-scrollers on the PC these days, be they old or new, this right here is a diamond in the rough.
Review code supplied by Apogee Software.