Game Pile: Crystal Caves

I will wring anticapitalist blood out of this fucking stone if I have to.

Crystal Caves follows the story of one Mylo Steamwitz, whose name I’m told is an extraordinarily tortured pun, as he, in an attempt to get rich, and quick, heads to the titular crystal caves, to gather up crystals, in the caves. Each game is built around him needing start-up money to invest in a new scheme; in the first game, it’s the Troubles with Twibbles, creatures that are clearly a reference to the Tribbles of Star Trek. The next, he wants to farm medically relevant slugs. In the third, he’s looking to invest in real estate with no money down, and for each of these ventures, he has just the money from selling the last one, and whatever it takes to get to the Crystal Caves and begin his exploration anew.

For what it is, Crystal Caves is kind of an impressively mid title; no disrespect meant to anyone for whom it’s a favourite, but when you look at what 1991 had to offer in terms of videogames, or even just Commander Keen, the game presented here’s main draw is that it’s big. You can see the whole world as being made out of a grid, more or less, and Mylo is one unit by one unit big, and therefore, almost everything else in the world is built on that scale. This also means that Mylo has a head half the size of his body and his hands reach his ankles, which is charming in animation but also kind of underscores that you are piloting around a Unit Of Player.

Animation in the game is kind of lifeless and the levels are usually linear and built around trial and error. The game is full of dead-end situations, too; you can run out of bullets in a level where there’s no alternative way to solve a puzzle, and just like that, you need to restart the level. You need to collect all of the gems in a level, but since many of them are linear and rely on drops, if you miss one, you might be unable to ever return to get it back, meaning that you have to reset the whole level to check it out. There’s a lot of dirty level designer tricks too, with hazards hidden behind things or in the dark so your only option is to get hit by them the first time, then just remember where they are next time.

Your reward for finishing each round of the game was a single splash screen of Mylo, with the result of his get-rich-quick scheme, finding it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, oh no! But don’t worry, he can try again, in the next chapter, if you care to.

I’m not trying to be mean here as much as I am trying to represent the honest feeling I have around this game: Crystal Caves is one of the particular cadre of games that unlocks a sense memory for poor kids who had a 3.5 inch floppy disk drive sometime between 1991 and 2001, when CD burners started to be more widely available.

The game, originally made by Apogee Software was made for the shareware market using the early technology for side-scrolling software developed for the EGA graphics card by the man who knows when Santa is sleeping and knows when he’s awake, sentient graphing calculator and paradox shaping the lens through which we unfold mathematics John Carmack. This technology was a year old, and the EGA card was still widespread, and that made it for a time the lowest common denominator you could put a game out on. Game was small, game was easy to make, the animation was cheap and you fought a surprising number of enemies that could be described as ‘an orb’ or ‘two frames.’

If you’re ever wondering why characters in this period looked often weird colours, with either a stark orange, white, or grey, it’s usually because they were made to appear on EGA Graphics and also the people making games were pretty racist and didn’t consider the two browns EGA had going on would be pretty good for black characters.

Anyway.

Why then dredge up this game from 1991 that was so bland even the protagonist was grey? It was on sale on gog during new years and I realised I’d never bothered to play the last part of it. Hell, I don’t think I’d ever seen the last part of it. I knew the shareware version, sure, the shareware version was widely distributed. Probably because it was free, and most people I know who played it finished it, because it was modestly interesting and that was it. In a period of my life where one of the most commonly exchanged things to establish long term friendship was stolen software, nobody I knew bothered to steal Crystal Caves. Maybe it was because each of the new levels would feature no new things, and therefore, would be the same mechanics, the same monsters, and the same systems, meaning that of the three unexciting episodes, the shareware version is the superior form in that it has less mediocre content to finish.

But there is still something here.

Something kinda baffling.

See, Mylo wants to Get Rich Quick. He’s buying into schemes. He’s buying farms and real estate. But he’s also going into a mine with a gun and fighting monsters and endangering his life, and his score is represented by a currency. This currency is used to measure everything: You get miner’s supplies and it gives you currency. You find undocumented crystal gems? More currency. Defeating monsters doesn’t get you currency, but finding rare mushrooms and destroying eggs does. Unlocking abandoned treasure chests? Currency (and well, good, really).

The buying power of this currency, though, has to be completely out of whack. It uses $ signs to measure them, which makes sense, but if I had made a million dollar’s worth of gems in an hour of work I would knock off for the year. That’s a pretty good gig. Mylo is buying farms and moons though so obviously the cost is very high but also if you can afford to buy a moon you are already rich. Why do you need to spend the money you have getting richer?

I do not think this game was made with capitalist brain rot in mind it’s just very funny how when you think about the gimmick of making the ‘points’ of the game into a currency you suddenly are representing capitalist brain rot very well. Mylo is doing a working class job of acquiring things to sell so he can buy something that will actually start making him real money, you see, because working in the minds is how you pull yourself up by a bootstrap, or whatever, it’s work for schmucks. Then because Mylo picks bad get-rich-quick schemes, he’s a schmuck and has to go back to the mine!

My favourite little ‘oh, huh, they didn’t think of that’ joke in all this though.

You get a bonus pile of currency for not taking any damage in a level.

You can save money

by not claiming on your health insurance.

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