Sit, Ubu, sit! Good dog!
It’s time to get obscure again. Here’s Conquest of the Crystal Palace from 1990. Published by Asmik, this one was actually one of the first titles developed by Quest, who would later garner much more critical and commercial attention with their work on the Final Fantasy Tactics and Ogre Battle games. Don’t come expecting any sort of strategy RPG experience here, though, because Conquest is yet another NES side-scrolling action-platformer.
This one casts the player in the role of a teenage boy named Farron. One day, Farron’s trusty dog Zap starts talking to him! Sadly, this doesn’t kick off the chilling 8-bit adaptation of the Son of Sam murders that we’ve all been waiting for. Instead, Zap explains that Farron is really an exiled prince who’s been living in hiding since infancy from the demon Zaras, who took over his kingdom and killed his parents. Now that Farron has come of age, it’s time for him to liberate the Crystal Palace from Zaras and reclaim his birthright by walking from left to right through a total of five stages and slicing up every monster along the way with his trusty sword.
Before he sets off, Farron is offered the choice of one of three different magic crystals that will alter his standard abilities in various ways. One increases maximum health, another boosts jump height, and the third allows for a projectile fireball attack. The two powers you don’t choose are available for purchase later on in shops, however, so don’t agonize too much over this bit.
Farron also isn’t alone on his quest. Zap will accompany him throughout the game and, when activated, will dash back and forth across the screen attacking any enemies in sight. This can be useful, particularly during battles against the bosses laying in wait at the end of each stage, but the player must use Zap sparingly, since he has his own separate health gauge that tends to deplete fairly quickly due to the kamikaze nature of his attacks. Make sure to hit up the shops for some healing dog chow as needed. This “boy and his dog” angle is Conquest’s central gameplay gimmick and arguably its most noteworthy feature overall.
The other standout element is the game’s art style. Ignoring the feeble attempts at Westernized character portraits in the instruction manual, this is a distinctly Japanese take on a fantasy world. It’s really quite remarkable how little the original release, Matendōji (“Demon Heaven Boy”), was altered during the localization phase. The character designs, level decor, and even music are all unmistakably East Asian. They even left the kanji text on the weapon select menu and map screen intact! Many games on the Famicom went for this sort of style, but few among them saw release in North America for obvious reasons.
Apart from this, Conquest comes off as a fairly average entry in its field. Pass through a gauntlet of enemies, pits, and other hazards until you reach the big boss. If you still have enough lives and health remaining to kick his ass, it’s on to the next stage. If not, there are unlimited continues. Each stage also features a couple appearances by the shopkeeper Kim, who seemingly spends her time just standing around monster infested hellholes waiting for little samurai boys to happen by so she can try to sell them dog food. Hey, it’s a living! Silly as the old “suspiciously convenient magical merchant” setup is, I like Kim. She’s probably the closest thing this game has to a real character. She’ll get irate if you try to buy items you can’t afford, elated if you buy a ton of stuff at once, and even dons glasses and a suit and tie to dispense hints in the form of an anachronistic “QNN” tv news report. Her overall design and facial expressions are also super cute. Yay, Kim!
There are a few disappointing aspects of the game that I feel are worth mentioning, too. The control is a bit weird as it relates to jumping attacks, since attacking in mid-air will abruptly cancel your jump and cause you to drop prematurely. This can be a killer if you’re trying to leap across a gap and cut down an airborne enemy simultaneously. That sort of manuver might be your bread and butter in Ninja Gaiden, but Farron is clearly no Ryu Hayabusa.
Attacks in general also feel a bit weak. That’s not to say that they are weak. They definitely get the job done. There’s even an undocumented super sword move for Farron triggered by mashing left and right on the D-pad while attacking that can destroy bosses in seconds once mastered. At the same time, they lack a certain oomph that would make them really satisfying to land. Though this is likely a very subjective response to certain aspects of the animation and sound effects, I rarely felt like I was truly kicking monster ass no matter how well I was doing.
Finally, I didn’t much care for the pacing of Conquest’s final stage. The entire level is filled with dozens of identical falling lava hazards that force the player to halt and wait for an opening in their pattern before proceeding. They’re not hard to spot, the pattern is always the same, and the lava doesn’t even do very much damage. It really seems like the designers are forcing you to stop moving every few steps just to artificially lengthen a very short game. Not cool.
On balance, Conquest of the Crystal Palace’s charms do outweigh its annoyances. It’s absolutely worth a look for anyone that enjoys NES action titles enough to be digging deep into the library for these sorts of second and third string oddballs. It’s just too bad that breakout star Kim never got the spinoff adventure she deserved.