When I was very young, maybe five or six, I played Crystal’s Pony Tale on the Sega Genesis. It was at a friend’s house and, if I remember right, they had rented the game from Blockbuster. It was 1998 and Lisa Frank had a firm hold on the elementary girl market, and someone at Sega picked up on that. The game shouldn’t have stood out. I don’t even remember if I played it or someone else did, but it was only in my life for an hour or so. It wasn’t anything too special, just a side scrolling platformer where you played as a bright pink pony.
Tonight, I replayed Crystal Pony’s Tale on an in-browser rom and I realized why I still remembered it. It was because it was a masterpiece. Not a masterpiece of game play, story lines, dialogue or character (all of which are fairly non existent), but as an absurdist statement on naivete and the frivolity of youth. I think.
This is not to say the game isn’t terrible. The game, if I’m reviewing it like a standard game, is 100% utterly terrible. The game was written for pre-literate children, so any instructions or stories are relayed through pictures.
As far as I could tell, based on what was shown on the start screen, the story is about my avatar pony’s (Crystal?) friends who were kidnapped by a witch. Why did the witch kidnap them? Because he’s an evil wizard. That’s what evil witches do in games. Any search for motivation or purpose is lost in the void. Wikipedia informs me that it’s because the evil witch is trying to take over Ponyland or some garbage like that. This was not clear.
That brings me to game play. I still have no idea what was going on. Most of what I understood, I only knew because I’d played a sidescroller before. My pony could rear up and jump and move forward or backwards. Even though I played for most of an hour, I still couldn’t figure out the point of rearing up, even though it seemed to take up two of my buttons.
I also wasn’t sure if I ever made progress. In my romp through Pony land, I got attacked by bees, gathered horseshoes and walked past mysterious machines that I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to interact with.
After going through a few similar looking levels (a task that could be achieved with only the forward and jump buttons), I came to a farm with three doors. There were pictures above the door that (as far as I could tell) didn’t really differentiate the level’s contents. I tried all three doors. I’m not sure if I made progress. I passed a few of my pony’s imprisoned friends but could not find the artifacts I needed to free them, which would suggest I was losing. However, I made it through the level with more than enough horseshoes and gold keys to advance.
The barn levels also looked similar enough to the earlier levels that I legitimately couldn’t tell if they were supposed to be new levels or repeats. Apparently the game has seven areas, but in my hour of play, those areas all seemed to be “pasture near stables.”
In the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, the author repeatedly opines that there is nothing new under the sun and that everything is meaningless. If the book hadn’t been written a couple thousand years before this game was released, I’d swear he had been playing Crystal’s Pony Tale. Nothing is new in the side scrolling mechanics but everything in it is meaningless. A cursory glance would suggest that the story was written by people who didn’t care, sold to children who didn’t know better. By giving us a story so bare bones, so vague, so based in stereotype, they almost give us an anti-story. They punish us for even looking for depth.
It spits in the face of story, level design and intelligible game play. Any time spent playing it is wasted. Any time spent trying to understand it is even more fruitless. Waiting to see if the game has any redeeming features except the public domain classical music in the background? You might as well be waiting for Godot. Which I think is the point.
Crystal’s Pony Tale only makes sense as an absurdist statement. Maybe it’s a musing on the time and effort that is wasted pandering to children and the freedoms wasted by youth. The Sega developers’ statement might not have been understood in its time (the sequel was cancelled due to its poor reception), but in the age of think-pieces about Millennials’ state of arrested development, it is a call to action–a call to live.
Or it was a cheap game made to be played and forgotten by the Lisa Frank demographic. But that seems much less likely.