The 1997 VHS release of Legend of the Crystals stands out amongst the releases of effectively-defunct Japanimation publisher Urban Vision. The majority of their catalog is firmly rooted in the “Not Kids’ Stuff” marketing of the 1990s: violent and grotesque gothic horror, darker-and-edgier superhero remakes, and Golgo 13. A light-hearted tie-in to a video game that wouldn’t be released (officially) in English for several years doesn’t really jibe with the rest of their catalog, even taking into account the gold rush of videogame adaptation releases following the breakout success of Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie. But there it is: MADHOUSE’s 1994 Final Fantasy OAV series, easily the best non-game production to wear the franchise’s name, chilling on Blockbuster Video’s Japanimation shelf.
And it was actually a pretty good choice! While it’s technically a sequel to Final Fantasy V for the Super Nintendo, Legend of the Crystals takes place centuries after the events of the game, largely ignoring the details and designs the series is known for in favor of a cheeky and condensed version of the typical Japanese role-playing game plots of the era. Anyone who’s ever slogged through the meandering, molasses-like experience of a Japanese RPG will appreciate how rapidly the swordsman, the conjurer, the lady pirate dominatrix and the huge military guy blast through the obligatory mystical forests, desert storms, ancient temples, jailbreaks, palace visits, underground caverns, and trips to the Moon.
I don’t mean the show is a parody; it’s certainly not one of those “zany” comedy cartoons where most of the jokes revolve exclusively around the female lead’s flat chest or someone doing something so wacky that one of the other characters has to point it out for us. It’s about attitude: this is the sort of show where the protagonist, when confronted with a series of silly magical rituals in order to enter a floating temple, will instead elect to hijack the butch sky pirates’ airship and crash it into the temple’s doorstep. It knows it’s going through the motions, but it’s going to have fun along the way. This carries over into the English dubbing, brought to you by most of the cast of the new hit Tenchi Muyo!, which channels some of Streamline Pictures’ best moments. (“Poor guy— he had a splitting headache.”)
Legend of the Crystals isn’t going to blow anyone away with rapidly-outdated computer graphics or five layers of shading, but the show has a charming, if somewhat barebones, style, especially the backgrounds. The pronounced lines and minimal colouring for detail actually remind me a lot of Akira Toriyama, illustrator for that other major JRPG franchise, what with the limited use of screentone and tendency toward arbitrary mesas and wide-open skies in his comics. The animation’s not particularly impressive, and some shots are openly repeated from episode to episode, but I rather like the ugly early-90s character designs (the protagonist actually wears his goggles as eye protection), and the restyled Chocobos are pretty cool now that they’re not just a bright yellow version of the Horseclaws from Nausicaä. The score, on the other hand, left absolutely no impression on me. While I’m fairly sure it was competent and borrowed cues from the game as appropriate (the Chocobo theme, etc.), I can’t recall a single thing about the sound or style of it, meaning it was probably serviceable and little else.
The show’s not some “lost classic” or anything, but it’s a pretty alright two hours, and compared to some of the utterly unwatchable garbage we’ve reviewed this week that’s high praise. Besides, the tapes are like $3 on Amazon, and that VCR in the back of your parents’ garage will probably still work if you dust it off.