Gauntlet remains a dear memory among many retro gamers. After all, Atari's revolutionary dungeon crawler was one of the best co-op arcade games ever produced and it certainly was no stranger to Nintendo owners with several conversions making their way to NES, Game Boy, Nintendo 64 and GameCube. You will notice a strange absence on that system list: Nintendo's 16-bit home console was left out, leaving SNES owners defenseless against our Mega Drive-owning chums with their excellent remake Gauntlet IV from Tegen.
That's not to say that Nintendo fans didn't receive similar titles, of course. Turning the wayback machine to 1995, Hudson Soft ported its rather good PC Engine CD Dungeon Explorer II - a very impressive sequel to the original PC Engine Hucard game which used the extra storage of the CD - to the Super Famicom (or SNES, if you'd prefer) under the rather strange title of Crystal Beans From Dungeon Explorer, and the resultant game is yet another import-only gem in the console's vast library.
While the end product does have some concessions - this is almost inevitable when you consider it's moving from CD to cartridge - it in no way dilutes the overall experience. If you happen to be familiar with the original PC Engine CD game, you will notice that the character sprites have been updated in a cuter, "Super Deformed" style. The bosses have either been redesigned or are brand new, free-roaming on the world map is gone and the number of maximum players has been downgraded from five to three (we can but speculate that Hudson was trying to cash in on the popularity of another certain action RPG that graced the system a few years earlier.) The dungeons are about the same as in the original and so is the plot (ancient evil returns, heroes gather… just another day in the realm, basically).
When starting the game you will have the choice of eight characters, each representing a different class: Fighter, Warrior, Bowman (or "Bow-Woman" to be more precise), Wizard, Priest, Monk, Kage (a fancy word for Ninja) and Witch. Each carries their own stats and as you might imagine, it's best to pick one which suits your own individual play style. There's some strategy if you are not playing solo since having more physically adept characters shielding more frail ones is always a good plan.
The controls are intuitive and very efficient: "B" fires your ranged attack, "Y" performs a spin move which will attack on all directions and destroy missile attacks while "L" and "R" trigger the usage of two of the most important pickups in the game: Healing Potions and Magic Potions. Quick reflexes will save your skin if you press "L" just as you're about to die, restoring a portion of your HP. You can carry up to nine of these, but make sure you don't try to hog them all for yourself if you're playing with friends. Continues are limited, meaning that truly reckless play won't get you to the end of the game. Magic potions are also important for your continued progress since these are used to trigger full screen effect magic attacks that will do a lot of damage to bosses and clear whole screens of enemies. Their usage depends in your character's INT stat; higher intelligence means you need less Magic potions to perform these attacks, so a Warrior will need three potions while a Wizard will only need one.
This isn't an RPG in the strictest sense, but you do get the opportunity to evolve your character. When you level up your maximum HP points increase, but if you wait for the crystal that drops after defeating a boss to change color before picking it up, you will raise the stat that matches that particular colour. This allows for some interesting character builds which you can either save on the cartridge's battery backup or scribble down as a unique password and carry your character build with you when you drop in at your friend's house. In yet another nod to Gauntlet, both Healing and Magic potions can be shot and destroyed, but they need three shoots instead of just one like in Atari's game, so feel free to shame your friends and their happy trigger finger if they destroy such valuable commodities.
Gameplay follows the tried and tested dungeon crawler formula: get a quest, head to dungeon, explore said dungeon, fight a boss, return, open new area and repeat the whole process. Unlike action RPGs, this is a very focused affair, so even with Japanese text it is hard to get stuck for long. Variation in dungeons and the really great music converted from the PC Engine original's Redbook audio mean that you will not get tired halfway through, despite the slightly repetitive nature. It's great as a solo player journey but it truly shines if you have a likeminded friend or two to tag along.
Having said that, please don't think that the game will become easier with the extra firepower, since you will have to share the limited number of potions wisely among all players. The bosses do become increasingly challenging, truly testing your reflexes and pattern memorization in the later part of the game to a point of near frustration.
Despite the downgrade from CD to cartridge, Crystal Beans From Dungeon Explorer is a very complete and neat package; it's just a shame that by 1995 the western SNES market was already flagging, with players migrating from 16-bit consoles to new CD-based home systems like the PlayStation and Saturn. For this reason, Hudson's effort - like a great many other late generation Super Famicom games - remained exclusive to Japan.
Crystal Beans From Dungeon Explorer is arguably the Super Nintendo's best alternative to the beloved Gauntlet and due to this, dungeon crawler fans shouldn't think twice about adding it to their collection. The game picked up renewed interest when a complete English translation patch was released back in 2012, clearing the language barrier for Western gamers. You can use it with your RetroN 5 or Retro Freak for the full experience, but even in its native state this remains a very import friendly game.