I played it.
I’m not sure I understand it.
The Skirmish Frogs calendar tells me today is “International Review Crystal’s Pony Tale Day”, and who am I to disagree? The fact this particular title has its own day reserved on the calendar must mean something. But where to start?
In the 1980s there were many toy crazes / fads that crossed the Atlantic. Cabbage Patch Dolls (from the same company that brought us Colecovision). Care Bears. Strawberry Shortcake. Being a young boy I ignored the shelves filled with My Little Pony toys in favour of Action Force (a spin-off from G.I Joe).
Nowadays we have Bronys, male fans of My Little Pony. I have a friend who is a Brony.
But Crystal’s Pony Tale, based on the aforementioned toy, was never released in Europe. So my first experience of it was playing in emulation this week.
What a trip.
There is a game in there. It starts with a very trippy intro sequence, filled with wibbly-wobbly magic effects and a bad witch staring into a crystal ball. From this we gather that Crystal’s friends have been kidnapped by magical means and it will be our quest to free them.
Next up is the options screen. There are three difficulty levels, which seem to have some minor effects on how the game unfolds; on Easy mode characters in the game will offer hints on what to do next. The buttons can be reconfigured, but then there are only two settings to change – which button jumps and which performs an action. The music can be changed as a sound test, featuring some very plinky-plonky adaptations of well-known classical pieces.
And the most important option of all is here, the chance to alter your horse colours. This gives a larger view of our equine star, with three areas to customise – the mane, the body and the tail. The default combination is rather odd, so I tend to change it to grey/white/grey to make it easier on the eyes. I know this means it’s not Crystal I am playing as, but controlling a pink pony is not much fun for me.
Starting the game gives us a large status panel. On the left is the number of keys being carried. Keys can be found through the levels, or revealed by performing certain actions. In the middle is a row of seven empty boxes. These will be filled with seven magic crystals when we find them. And on the right is the horseshoe counter. Horseshoes are lost when you collide with an enemy, and a set number are needed to pass the gate at the end of each level.
This is the first surprise – the open-ended nature of the quest. There are ways to choose the order you tackle the levels, and you can return to an area more than once. And some times it is essential to re-visit a location when you have secured a crystal.
The second surprise is this – you cannot die. Getting hit simply reduces the number of horseshoes. If you try to pass the gate with too few, you get to try again. Crystal will also jump obstacles automatically to help younger players, or you can press the jump button to display your elite gaming skills.
You might have to pull a trailer to clear the door of a barn. You might have to ring the wind chimes so a squirrel will knock objects from a tree. You might have to water the garden so sunflowers grow. These are some of the game’s puzzles, all solved by pressing the action button in the right place. Get past these puzzles or open chests with keys to find the seven magic crystals.
Now the challenge is to use them in the right place – and each place you can use them has an empty “socket” the same shape as the gem. This will see the evil witch launch an attack on Crystal, and can be defeated by jumping at the right time. When the witch disappears, the crystal transforms into a pony, and their icon appears in the status panel. Rescue all seven and defeat the witch one last time to win.
Is this game a forgotten masterpiece then?
The graphics are reasonable, with appropriate backgrounds and some cute characters. But animation is stilted and platforms hang in mid-air with typical 1990s gaming logic.
The sound is decidedly average. As mentioned, the classical tunes are served badly by the arrangements. But what really grates is the sampled sound of a horse whinnying. You will hear it so often it hurts.
While I was struck by the open-ended approach to level selection, the lack of challenge and simplicity of the puzzles means it does not rise above hundreds of similar games.
The license, the cute touches like the cows in the barn, the squirrel and the hints in Easy mode work well in the context of introducing a younger gamer to how to play. There is a simple joy in exploring and seeing what is next.
From the historical point of view this will never be a “must play”.
But in what it sets out to be, it achieves. And in some ways that is more fulfilling.
Would I have ever played this game if it did not feature on the calendar?
It’s highly unlikely.
Am I glad I did?