I would say that Crystal Mines II – an original puzzle game released exclusively for the Atari Lynx in 1992 – is arguably one of the best games on the system.
Crystal Mines II was designed and programmed by Ken Beckett for Color Dreams and published by Atari themselves. In it you play a robot who must collect coloured crystals inside a mine and who must plough through 150 levels (and 31 bonus levels) in order to complete the game.
The game is definitely influenced by the classic puzzle game Boulder Dash, and is a sequel to Crystal Mines on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but it’s much more than just a Boulder Dash clone.
The levels are a mixture of diggable earth, pushable blocks, meanies, crystals, and boulders, and are always bigger than a single screen so they scroll around as you move. The robot can shoot bullets to dig away earth and kill some meanies, although the gun’s only got a limited range (note that this can be extended by picking-up certain power-ups).
The aim of the game is to collect a set quota of crystals per level, within a time limit, then find the exit, which is usually hidden underneath a patch of earth somewhere. Once you reach the exit the game then awards you bonus points based on time remaining, crystals collected, bonus items collected, and various other things.
I was planning to explain all the details of the game, but new elements are introduced on almost every new stage, so that isn’t practical to do. Needless to say: there are so many different features in Crystal Mines II that you’ll have to constantly think, experiment, and adapt the way you play, to complete levels. For example: from level three onward you can pick up TNT and drop it to create explosions (in an 6×6 grid), which is useful in a number of different ways. Not least of which for clearing boulders that you can’t shoot, or for killing meanies. From level five onward there are speckled patches of earth that explode when you shoot them, so getting too close when you do so is not advisable, but you soon learn that shooting exploding earth is good for getting rid of meanies that your gun can’t kill, or for creating chain reactions that change the landscape. From level 10 onward there are different types of ‘growth’ tiles that expand into empty spaces (much like the amoeba in Boulder Dash), and their colour dictates how they behave. Black growth tiles seem to grow more quickly but can be shot easily, without repercussion. Red and green growth tiles expand out when shot and can trap you if they expand onto you, but break apart with TNT. Some growth tiles also create crystals when exploded. But the fact is: you have to be very careful what you shoot from that point onward.
In later levels you’ll even see green boulders that fall upwards! And, when shot, they’ll change colour and fall downwards again… Which is weird. In fact: Crystal Mines II is full of this kind of weirdness, and it makes for a fun and varied game – if not a very challenging one.
A couple of constants seen throughout the game are: if you lose your robot (in one of many different ways), you’ll have to start a level from scratch, and: each level has a four letter text password, so you can start the game from a particular stage and not have to go back to the beginning again. In some scenarios you’ll find yourself unable to complete a level because of something you did, and in those cases you’ll have to press the Option 1 button to self-destruct and try again. So many levels require you to be careful and not paint yourself into a corner…
Crystal Mines II starts off easy, as you’d expect, but by level ten the game becomes really testing. Some of the later levels might even seem impossible, which of course they’re not. You just have to think logically, be dexterous, and try your best to survive them.
Overall: Crystal Mines II is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It might seem like an innocuously simple puzzle game with cute graphics, but underneath lies a devilishly difficult game, packed with features. And it’s a rare, original must-play game on the Atari Lynx.