Faxanadu: Daggers and wingboots, mantras and monsters await you

There are many retro video games that are fun to play for someone new to the experience. There are your basic platformers, platforming shooters, shoot’em-ups, and action-adventure titles. Few games though, can be considered gateways both to an interest in video games and to an entire genre of entertainment. Faxanadu is one of those games.

This game opens with a man walking down a road after a long journey. A castle lies ahead, nestled at the foot of a great tree. Everything is brown as if dying. The man walks into the distance and the game begins.

Right away the player is thrust into a fantasy world in need of a hero, but not just anyone can save this land. The king tells of all the other brave souls who have tried but have not returned. Your people are dying, and you are their last hope. You start out with nothing but the clothes on your back and concern for your home and people. You are given money to purchase weapons and gear for the journey to save the elves. All that is left available to purchase is a dagger and a basic spell. Outside the gates are mutated dwarves ready to maul and devour any who attempt to leave.

Faxanadu is a side-scrolling action-adventure platformer. The player controls a nameless elven wanderer from the town of Eolis. The majority of the game will be spent traveling from town to town, fighting monsters, collecting gold to buy better equipment, and delving into dungeons to retrieve items essential to accomplishing your mission.

The game has some role-playing game elements, but they do not affect any sort of character advancement in the same way a game like Dragon Warrior would. The player has a bar measuring the amount of damage they can receive and a bar measuring how many spells they can cast. The capacity of these does not increase during the course of the game. Improvement comes only from the equipment the player purchases or finds during the course of the game. Armor helps the player receive less damage when struck by an enemy, shields help the player take a smaller amount of damage from projectiles that strike the shield itself (with a violent shove backward), and weapons determine how many times the various enemies must be struck to be destroyed.

There are experience points awarded to the player for defeating enemies. Once enough points are accumulated a visit to a guru in a church will cause the character to be given a title. This title does not make the player character any more powerful or resistant to damage, however. It merely determines how much gold you will have after you die, or continue the game by entering the password.

This brings me to the first flaw of this game. Faxanadu has an unusual font for its text and password. Imagine the headaches you would normally encounter writing down and re-entering a password. These problems are compounded by the fact that in Faxanadu a capital “H” looks like a capital “N”and the lower-case c looks a bit like a lower-case e. In addition to this, the password can be of varying character lengths! Faxanadu truly has one of the worst password systems on the NES.

The platforming in Faxanadu is as large a part of the game as the slaying of monsters. While the platforming is challenging, it never results in instant death, though it can be frustrating at times. The controls of the game are responsive and smooth, but a little strange. When you first begin to move you move at a slower pace than you will be moving after a few steps. After you land a jump you will also be moving at full speed. This is what adds an extra bit of challenge to the already well-designed, but none-too-easy jumps.

The player character cannot crouch. This sounds like a terrible, game-ruining flaw, but it actually doesn’t often come into play. The dagger cannot hit enemies low to the ground, but every other weapon in the game can as though the character were actually crouching. Magic tends to strike what might be called high and low. This of course means that the shield only blocks where the shield is carried. Projectiles that would hit low or above the shield are not blocked.

There are many locked doors throughout the game. As one would expect, the player will need to find keys to unlock them. Unlike in other games on the NES, there is not one type of key that unlocks all doors, but there are several types. This adds a welcome degree of depth to the game, but is cheapened by the fact that most keys can simply be purchased. Also, the way the game implements the use of keys is just plain inconvenient and not at all challenging or entertaining. When you unlock a door, the key is used, but the door locks again. Any time you want to open that same door that requires a specific type of key, you need another of that type. In some cases a key must be found in a dungeon or given to the hero by a character in the game. This causes much backtracking and gold-farming because you can never know what kind of keys you will need until you explore and find the locked door.

Despite the above, Faxanadu has one of the better translations of the NES era. Most of the characters in the game have information useful for completing the game. 95% of everything that must be done to complete the game are things that the townsfolk will tell you or hint about. You will always know where you are because someone nearby will tell or has already told you. It is for this reason that Faxanadu is a game that can be completed without any sort of guide if you don’t mind a tiny bit of exploration and a sliver of trial and error.

Exploration is the main area where this game truly shines. The world exists around and within The World Tree, seemingly inspired by Norse mythology. The graphics superbly create the atmosphere of this world tree. Castles appear to be growing out of the tree, and what at first seem to be caverns at first glance, are in fact great hollow branches and, thanks to the graphics, without the need for a huge stretch of the imagination. The backgrounds look organic and well-defined. Background and foreground is used surprisingly well and lend a substantial degree of depth to the environments which only helps to the draw the player in that much more. Some dungeons have an earthy, dismal look to them, while others are ornate vibrant. Items such as the Wing Boots, which allow flight for a limited time, add something other than running and jumping to the mix. Exploration never gets stale because no two areas look the same.

The soundtrack taken as a whole is some of the best on the NES. You will find yourself humming the tunes from the game long after you have stopped playing. Each area has a theme that appropriately sets the mood. The dungeon theme is particularly eerie and is reminiscent of horror films of the decade in which the game was released.

Faxanadu may not be the best game of its kind on the NES, but it is still a great game. The flaws are few and minor, but the adventure is grand and the journey perilous. There is much to do, many places to see, and several secrets to uncover. The greatest flaw of the game comes when it ends as soon as it does. It is definitely worth the time spent for a play-through, for the fantasy enthusiast and the child that has yet to become any sort of enthusiast. I know it sold me on swords and the sorcery for life.

By Duston Justice

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