Review by Overdrive

"You fight gigantic floating torsos in this game! What more do you need?"

From the minute I first saw a Nintendo Power article detailing Faxanadu, I knew I had to have it. Part of those feelings undoubtedly came from how The Adventure of Link had proven to me that action-oriented adventure/RPG games were pretty sweet. But there was another reason....

Up until this game saw its American release in 1989, it seemed like most games I'd played had a certain cartoon-like atmosphere to them. Bright colors and cheerful music were the orders of the day, giving the impression Link and others were light-hearted chaps out for a bit of adventuring — rather than weary warriors struggling to rescue a princess or save a kingdom from destruction.

Faxanadu (a spinoff of the PC88/MSX Xanadu game that was part of the Dragon Slayer series, once of which was ported to the NES as Legacy of the Wizard, a game nothing like Faxanadu — yes, it's confusing....sometimes I feel you need a Ph.D. to understand the history of video games) wasn't like that. Many locations in this game are painted a drab brown, giving the impression of a world being sucked of its essence by evil forces. Maybe that makes the game a bit less-than-appealing visually, but it fits the mood of the game's story.

Developers Falcom made the world of Faxanadu a giant tree that serves as the home for both elves and dwarves. The two groups used to live in harmony until a meteorite struck near the home base of the dwarves. Possessing mysterious powers, the not-so-heavenly body corrupted those humanoids, turning them into insane, nightmarish monsters — not the sort of folks the elves envisioned as their next-door neighbors.

And that's where the hero comes in. After deciding (barring the extermination of his people) the situation couldn't get much worse, the elven king summons the brave chap, hands him a bag of gold and tells him to set things right. Faxanadu's tree is divided into four main regions — the base where the hero begins his mission from the elven stronghold; the climb through the mist-drenched trunk; the journey to the fortress of the dwarves, hidden within maze-like catacombs formed by branches and the immense lair of the evil force behind all the chaos.

These regions contain towns, so the hero always has access to the best weaponry and magic and never has any shortage of healing potions or keys. Also of interest are the churches, where a guru either will give the hero a mantra (Faxanadu-speak for “password”) or promote him to a new level. Interestingly enough, the only thing leveling up affects is the amount of gold the hero starts with upon booting up the game — something that is easy to exploit after gaining a few levels. If a player spends all their gold on one or two items, but still has more goods to purchase, all they have to do is get a password, let a monster achieve its moment of glory, start the game again and get ready to spend, spend, SPEND!

However, one cannot simply loiter near town enriching themselves through the lucrative practice of repeated suicide. The regions of Faxanadu are loaded with dungeons, as well as hostile, mutated dwarves that mean business! Considering the limitations of the NES, many of this game's assortment of baddies are simply incredible. Just look at the boss shaped like a monstrous torso as it bounces towards the hero, teeth gnashing in anticipation of their inevitable plunge through his armor into soft flesh. That foe isn't just a nice use of eight-bit technology — it's one of the most wonderfully grotesque creations I've ever seen in a video game. While it might be Faxanadu's greatest moment, it is by no means the only sight worth seeing in this game.

Like I said earlier, Faxanadu is a darker game than most on the NES. Many of the foes are twisted, grotesque creations — monsters perfect for this bleak, drab land. In one chamber, an enormous winged gargoyle swoops down to ruthlessly send fireball after fireball towards the hero; in another, a pair of skeletal, black-armored swordsmen speed towards him to make passage perilous. Elsewhere in the World Tree, the hero will be assaulted by diabolical mages whose mere presence on the screen causes him to take damage and by golden soldiers that bound toward him, brandishing painful-looking maces.

And that is the beauty of Faxanadu. Shortly before buying this game, I'd just started reading the works J.R.R. Tolkien. While he did an admirable job of describing the dark and grotesque appearance of Middle-Earth's evil denizens, I wanted to actually see them. Faxanadu came closer to making that possible than I ever would have imagined a NES game could do. And here's an interesting point to consider: While this game was released in America after The Adventure of Link, it came out in Japan a year or so earlier, meaning one could easily say this game played a HUGE role in inspiring the game that made action-RPGs popular in the United States.

None of that makes Faxanadu a perfect game, as there are a few annoying things that pop up from time to time. With a handful of exceptions (mainly at the end of the game), most of the game's dungeons are very short and simplistic — in some cases easier to navigate than the surrounding countryside. The hero also doesn't control as well as I'd like, which can create all sorts of frustration at times — especially in any region populated with the combination of flying enemies and small ledges. Watching a brave swordsman barely clear what, in theory, should be a painfully easy jump, only to get knocked from his perch from an overgrown bumblebee (well, one can't expect ALL the monsters to be awesome, I guess) is the sort of thing that can detract from a player's enjoyment. Also, like many old-school adventure games that relied on passwords, resuming an adventure can be a bit of a hassle. No, the passwords aren't as agonizingly long as those in Battle of Olympus or The Guardian Legend, but I've had more than one instance where I erred in writing the stupid thing down, costing me an entire session of progress through the World Tree.

Regardless of those flaws, I've repeatedly played through Faxanadu dozens of times. This game still is a personal favorite of mine, nearly two decades after it was released, as it delivers a land where monsters that actually look vile and evil dwell in dilapidated dungeons that may never have been visited by the sun's rays. I can't completely ignore the flaws present in this game, but I can say that its positives have left far more of an imprint upon my mind. Faxanadu, to me, is one of the unsung heroes of the eight-bit generation — a game that was nearly perfect in creating a dying world overrun by the demonic creations of an unknown power....with one lone hero left to prevent the seemingly-inevitable collapse of civilization. Now, that's what I call adventuring!

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 05/21/06

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