Released: August 1989
US Cartridge ID: NES-FX-USA
Genre: Action RPG
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 2 megabit
Mapper: MMC1 (256k PRG)
Published in America by Nintendo in 1989, Faxanadu is a spin-off title splintering from 1985’s Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu, the second game in the Japanese Dragon Slayer PC RPG series. Produced by Hudson Soft under license from Nihon Falcom (the original series’ developer and publisher that, while extremely popular in Japan, has languished in obscurity in the USA), Faxanadu is not a canonical entry in the Dragon Slayer series, despite the significant similarities between it and the fifth game in the official series, Sorcerian (translated into English for Sierra On-Line’s MS-DOS port in 1990). It was originally intended to be a direct port of Dragon Slayer II, as is evidenced by the original Japanese pre-release ad that referred to it as ザナドゥ(Xanadu), though nearly every aspect of the game was radically altered to cater to the limitations of the Famicom hardware, as well as to the widely divergent expectations of the younger console gaming crowd.
Faxanadu begins with a young warrior, having fought long and hard in distant lands, returning to his hometown, the elven capital city of Eolis. He is shocked to see the once glorious city ravaged by the throes of war; at the hands of the dwarves, the people have fled, leaving little more than a vestige of the once august symbol of elven prosperity. Seeking an audience with the king, the warrior learns that the fountains through which the elves’ life source flows have dried up. With nobody else to turn to, the king asks the battle-wearied elf to lend his sword in aide of his kingdom – he must destroy the evil that has wrought this curse on the people, and restore the realm to its former splendor.
The adventure presents itself as an action role-playing game, bearing striking similarities to genre stable-mates Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, The Battle of Olympus, and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. The side-scrolling, platform action-based world of Faxanadu is entirely interconnected, granting it a sense of unity in both structure and architecture. Beginning in the town of Eolis, the hero must explore the World Tree and the Dwarves’ citadel in his quest to save his people. Each of these areas are traversed via a series of locked doors that ultimately lead to a tower; the towers serve as traditional “levels” or “dungeons,” most containing a major boss character and/or items necessary to move the plot forward. Oases are provided between these towers in the form of small towns, the visiting of which grants opportunities to upgrade equipment and buy health items at local shops, catch up on the latest rumors and gossip at bars and private residences, receive treatment at hospitals, and seek passwords in the form of religious council at cathedrals.
Like similar games on the NES, Faxanadu awards the player experience points and gold for defeating enemies. Countering expectation, however, leveling up in no way improves the abilities of the hero. Upon earning enough experience for promotion, the hero may visit a “guru” (or priest in the Japanese version), who will give him a title and a “mantra.” Titles affect the game in two different ways: the amount of money given to the player upon continuing from a game over (by using the mantra as a password) increases with the player’s level, and the amount of time the winged boots (an item that allows free flight) can be used is decreased. Offensive and defensive capabilities can be improved through learning spells and equipping stronger armor and weapons, all of which (besides the final “Dragon Slayer” set) can be bought from tool shops.
Faxanadu was widely panned in Japan upon release, and the negative reaction to it is largely attributable to the similarities its name (a portmanteau of the words Famicom and Xanadu) implied that it shared with the PC version. The passage of time has slightly bettered Japanese perceptions of the game, though it still is regarded as a middling and mediocre effort from a company (Hudson) that should have done much better. As Nintendo was highly regarded as a reliable publisher of high-quality games in the United States, and as there was no precedent on which to base expectations for the game, Faxanadu was met with praise and modest commercial success in America. Released eleven months after the hugely successful (and extremely similar) Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Nintendo capitalized on this connection, going so far as to style the box in an almost identical manner (though in all fairness [!], Faxanadu‘s box is pale yellow instead of Link‘s gold, and the elven shield on Faxanadu replaces the Hylian [read: elven] sword on Zelda II‘s box).
The graphics are good for a game originally released in 1987, though it looked dated by the time the American localization was released at the end of 1989, having been easily surpassed by the likes of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest the year prior. The muted color palette effectively conveys the organic feel of the surroundings, though the huge smears of brown and green pervasive in most areas look muddled and lack detail. The enemy monsters have a ton of flair, with several being almost disturbing in how well they take a page from Ridley Scott’s Alien design sense. Some interesting effects are attempted, such as the “mist” that obscures the way to the town of Mascon, though in the attempt to fake transparencies on the NES hardware (much like was done in the bar scene of Streets of Rage II for the Sega Genesis), it does little but smear a distracting mess of purple and grey dots across the entire playfield. The music, done by Bomberman and Adventure Island veteran composer Chikuma Jun, is well done, with the wide variety of tracks present effectively surpassing the graphics in their ability to evoke the desired sense of atmosphere.
Faxanadu plays well, despite some qualms with level design elements. The stiff controls take some getting used to, but are generally reliable in battle situations. Being a platform based game, sections requiring precise jumps are prevalent – infuriatingly enough, most jumps require the utmost caution in judgment to avoid falling. For most of these leaps, the hero has to be standing as close to the edge of the platform as possible to be able to make it; due to the game’s issues with sprite and platform alignment, the hero will fall if both of his feet are planted firmly on the ground when making the jump. He must be standing as far forward as he can, meaning that only a couple of pixels of his rear heel can be touching the platform if he is to get enough distance to clear the gap. The fighting is fun, though perfunctory, as all enemies adhere to simple and predictable patterns that can easily be countered once learned, though the hero will take several unavoidable hits over the course of the game due to enemies spawning in front of doors and atop ladders that must be used to progress.
While these issues don’t ruin the game, they do tarnish what is an otherwise fun action-based RPG. The catchy music, novel plot, logical puzzles, and comically stilted dialogue make Faxanadu a memorable, yet slightly underwhelming experience best reserved for those that have completed Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and still want more.