It’s hard to overstate The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past‘s impact on the video game industry. What can you possibly say that hasn’t already been said over the last twenty-four years? With its impeccable design, inventive dungeons, and a mid-game twist that doubled the already plentiful playable space (a notable achievement both creatively a technically), the third Zelda game is often lauded as a classic that revolutionized the action-adventure genre and gave the Super Nintendo a sizable edge against the Sega Genesis.
Of course, the kind of creative magic that Miyamoto and Tezuka managed to tap into to make A Link to the Past was imitated. Ingenuity is always followed by shovelware. Someone creates a game that commands the attention of the entire gaming world, and then before you know it you’re swimming through an ocean of uninspired knockoffs. Sometimes they’re cash grabs, sometimes they’re honest efforts by people who didn’t (or couldn’t) innovate enough. Whatever the case may be, they’re often unimpressive.
But not always! There’s always a handful of games that take the formula and make something great out of it. Look at the acclaimed Secret of Mana, which although takes many cues from A Link to the Past (an almost unnecessary note, as almost all games do in one way or another), provides an imaginative experience that more than holds up today. But there’s a lesser known action-adventure game that, despite lacking polish, you should still consider playing: Crusader of Centy.
When Atlus published Centy for the Genesis in 1994, it mostly flew under the radar. Copies now go for almost two-hundred dollars to prove it. Its poor sales aren’t surprising, as it was an action-adventure game released into a market that had flooded with games just like it over the course of three years. And like those other games, Centy bears a shameless amount of resemblance to A Link to the Past. You play as Corona, a young boy hacking and slashing his way through the once peaceful world of Soleil which has now been infested with monsters. Along the way, you travel through various biomes and collect medals to obtain ‘the Holy Sword’, the only weapon powerful enough to vanquish the ultimate evil at the end of the game. And, naturally, when all hope is seemingly lost, you gain the ability to travel to a different but identical version of the regular world, and what occurs in this new world directly affects the old one. I could go on, but I’ve made my point: The inspiration is obvious. But in its differences, Centy manages to be a charming, occasionally thought-provoking adventure worth your afternoon.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two games is the focus on story. A Link to the Past undoubtedly creates an amazing, consistent universe, but it’s difficult to argue that its conventional narrative is one of its finer points; it simply acts as a vehicle for the gameplay. Clear the dungeons and save the princess and the world at large. Centy, on the other hand, tells a less traditional story. After the introductory bits that teach you how to swing your sword and maneuver around Soleil, you encounter a fortune teller who disables your ability to speak with humans, leaving you only able to communicate with animals.
This sets the stage for game’s central question: Are monsters inherently evil? In 1994, most video games answered with a resounding “yes”. Centy challenges this mentality, sometimes giving monsters voices and slightly more than one-dimensional personalities. One of the more poignant scenes occurs when a magician transforms you into a monster. To undo it, you must infiltrate a village exclusively inhabited by other monsters and find someone versed in such magic. Just before you do, you’re confronted by monsters who speak sorrowfully about the idea that the world ain’t big enough for them and humans to coexist. It’s tough to not feel bad for them, and the guilt is made far worse when you’re almost immediately turned back into a human and have to slaughter all of them to get out of the building. It’s simple, if a bit hamfisted in its approach, but the moment of moral pause followed by a return to the familiar manages to be unsettling. I won’t say that Centy looks carefully after its own narrative and brings it into focus at every turn, but it does so just enough to keep you engaged in what’s happening in the world around Corona.
Soleil’s non-humans also dictate the game’s power-ups. Rather than picking up or buying items like you do in Zelda, you gain abilities through animals that join you along the way. It usually takes some convincing in the form of an item or an action. Their effects are recognizable to anyone that’s touched a game like this. Flash the Cheetah lets you run faster. Chilly the Penguin gives your sword ice damage. Wong the Raccoon acts as a decoy. You can equip two at once to create new, synergic abilities (think Kirby 64). Useless on her own, Moa the Ostrich is devoted to this mechanic, strengthening the ability of the other equipped animal.
The power-ups are hit or miss. A few of them are almost completely useless, and unfortunately many of the animals are met in the the ending hours of the game, making you wonder what could have been had the journey been just a little longer. But Centy gives you the sense that these animals, who have distinct personalities, have been around for Soleil for a long time and would be going about their business even if you weren’t around to see them. Befriending them acts as a nice departure from the standard acquisition of Link’s toolset, and it ties in nicely with the game’s general themes too.
Telltale signs of a crappy knockoff are uninspired art and grating, repetitive melodies that vaguely resemble music. I’m thrilled to report that Centy doesn’t suffer from these. Although it lacks the visual and musical consistency that helped make A Link to the Past a behemoth of an experience, it doesn’t feature anything grievous. Everything is pleasantly vibrant and some of the spritework is actually kind of impressive. The bouncy music fits in nicely with the bounciness of the world. My main complaint is that it’s all a little too cheery when compared to the story whose most interesting elements are pretty serious, but it didn’t make me put the controller down.
Unfortunately, the biggest issue in Crusader of Centy is its gameplay. The game was designed for children, and it’s not hard to tell. There isn’t a satisfyingly challenging bone in Centy‘s eight hour body. Beating a couple of the bosses requires a little mental footwork, but none of them require more than a few minutes to defeat. The puzzles are no different, more often than not requiring the same box pushing, sword throwing, and gap jumping the game quickly gets you used to. There are more challenging platforming sections that reward you with extra hearts and money, but there’s no motivation to get them in a game so easy with few opportunities to actually buy things.
Even with all of this in mind, I can’t say that playing through Crusader of Centy wasn’t an enjoyable experience. It unabashedly borrows from the Super Nintendo’s Zelda masterpiece and lacks polish, difficulty, and a good translation, but it’s never boring. Running around Soleil is fun and the game sufficiently encourages you to keep pushing the story forward. Sure, A Link to the Past is a much, much better and more fulfilling game, but that’s not always what I’m looking for. Sometimes I’m itching to just sit on the couch and relax with something easy that I can just pick up and play. It’s the same feeling that makes me pop in Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest instead of Final Fantasy VI. If you ever feel like that and like action-adventure games, Crusader of Centy might be just what you need. It’s a game that deserves your attention.