Crystal Runner, the new topdown action game release from Lionwood Studios, has quite the classic arcade sensibility. In it, you run around "Crystal World" collecting coins, rescuing people, rotating rooms, and exploding bombs in order to avoid being fried by malevolent black holes... I think Kevin Flynn was playing something like that back in 1982. However, while its inspirations are clearly old-school, its visuals and gameplay make for a modern remix.
Using the [arrow] keys to navigate from room to room in each angularly-pathed level, the goal is to collect all the coins and make your way to the escape ship. Each level consists of numerous square rooms, the blue ones of which can be rotated with the [spacebar], and yellow ones that rotate on their own. Keep in mind that the walk-ways between each room disappear when you move away from them. Other than falling off the levels, the main threat is black holes. They will chase you if they spot you down a corridor, and spit chunks of flame at you. They can be stopped with the bombs planted with the [crtl] or [X] key, but watch out, because said bombs can hurt you too. Collecting keys will open new rooms, some of which contain captives that can be returned to your ship for bonus points. The [Z] key zooms the camera out, allowing you to view the whole level. Oh, and be quick... you're racing the clock!
Despite how repetitive they can get, I have always enjoyed maze games. By their very structure they combine the thrill of discovery and exploration with the high-stakes drama of being chased by something sinister through unfamiliar territory. Crystal Runner takes clear inspiration from the two most successful maze games, Pac-Man and Bomberman, and even if a few of the mechanics aren't particularly original, at least the developers knew to steal from the best.
One original thing about Crystal Runner that I did enjoy was how it caters to multiple playing styles. The fact that the black hole baddies can be neutralized in different ways make for interesting variety. Some levels I found I spent most my time evading them, in others I used my bombs to dispatch them, and other I spent my time using the rotating rooms to trap or deflect them. This may not seem like much, but considering the varying level designs, it added a nice dose of strategy to the action.
The flaws of Crystal Runner are minor but frustrating. Each of its levels resets your progress upon death. This makes it simultaneously frustratingly difficult and frustratingly easy: difficult, as you would think that the time you spent completing the level to near-perfection should count for something; easy since the extra lives are reset as well, and often times there are more than one per level. This mean it often feels like there's no real danger of a game over, and repeating levels from the start just gets annoying. After all, when Pac-Man ate a dot, it stayed eaten. When Crystal Runner grabs a coin, why not let him keep it? Likewise, the time-limits on some levels feel quite unforgiving, and the rate at which black holes respawn makes bombs feel a little useless. Maybe I just don't have Billy Mitchell levels of arcade skills, but Crystal Runner's challenge often feels artificial in nature.
If you don't mind a little cheap difficulty though, there's a lot to like in Crystal Runner. The graphics and music are quite cool, the tutorials are snarky (if not always helpful), and the victory noise at the end of each level is catchy. Really, The only thing missing from this coin-filled crystal maze is Richard O'Brien.