Faxanadu – NES
Release Date (NA): November 16th, 1989
Developer: Hudson Soft
Rating: 9 out of 10
I’ve put off reviewing this for a while now, but man, Faxanadu goes up there with my top 3 favorite NES games, not to mention the short list of titles I ramble on about when being asked about my favorite video game ever. There is something so surreal and immersive about playing this game, it’s the kind of thing I hate to see end, it’s the kind of game that I want to crawl into, live in its world, complete with MIDI’s blaring in the background. I’ve never sat around and doodled pictures of myself roaming around Eolis or shit like that, but so much of Faxanadu speaks to what I feel a video game should be: a rich world, with mysteries beyond those connected with our short glimpse, not a fairy tale, but a strained, tenuous experience, haunted by those who fought and fell, full of sadness and oppression instead of the blissfully optimistic NPC dolts populating similar alternate realities…am I going too far? Yeah, I am, but I’m in love with the entire setting that’s been created here and most of the time I only sit down to play when I’m relatively sure I’ll have a long enough stretch of time uninterrupted to begin and end in an almost drug-induced type of day-dream.
Few others are going to have any kind of similar experience but I’m sure most of us were hit with a game at the right age or right time or right something or other to have this sort of profound attachment. Beyond all this, it’s a masterfully crafted game that adds some linearity to Zelda-like titles while retaining other RPG elements. Leveling up (in 1989, or even 87 in Japan you hipster shit), gradually amassing bigger and better weapons, and having the option (indeed necessity) to backtrack are all accounted for, but perhaps presented in a more confined package than the sprawling, true early RPGs such as The Legend of Zelda. Some people don’t want this level of linearity in games, but for me it’s perfect, especially for those times I want to only pretend like I’m the one figuring stuff out. (Granted there are a couple of puzzles that had me writhing in frustration the first few times I played.)
Essentially the tale is one we’ve all heard before, but with more depth than many older games could be bothered to develop. The adventure begins as an unnamed warrior starts talking to a king, and after clearing out dusty towers, visiting isolated villages, and slaying ancient monsters, the story unfolds to reveal a long (but interesting) story regarding an age old war between Elves and Dwarves which itself was apparently all contrived after the arrival of a creepy meteorite generations ago. As mentioned earlier, play progresses in a rather straightforward fashion with our hero gathering more information and better equipment along the way. The player is forced to backtrack at times, mostly to buy needed items in earlier towns that aren’t available in later ones. Early in the game one is forced to undertake a series of chain-linked missions; mostly in the form of “player needs a, but b has a and wants c, so player must procure c from d, who wants e, therefore the player must get e from f” and so on. There are 3 major chunks to this game, each of which leads to some drastic revelation and a markedly different area of gameplay, although the fundamentals remain.
Our wanderer faces his fair share of peril over the course of Faxanadu, mostly monsters and other assorted enemies. Indeed the main method of progress lies in combat which is fairly standard for the time. Our player can defend with a shield or whatever else he may have, attack short-range with some manner of bladed weapon, or use precious magic to deliver a projectile attack. There are all sorts of weapons to buy and choose from, but there’s never really any reason to use a weaker weapon than a stronger one and only in the case of more advanced magic is there ever a situation where one magic is stronger in one area but weaker in another than another type of magic. Basically the importance of all these weapons is a little inflated, but it’s still cool for a game this old and its impact on creating this wonderful world is duly noted. Jumping skills are needed as well, and while Faxanadu is no Mario when it comes to precision leaping, there are really only one or two spots where jumping mechanics (or level design, take your pick) needs to be improved. Just be sure to ALWAYS have a nice reserve of the flying boots once they become available.
The graphics of Faxanadu are 90% of what I love about this game. Enemies and other sprites won’t seem impressive, but the color schemes used make the magic happen. For 1989 (earlier really, as the game was first released in Japan in 1987) the colors are very subdued. This gives the game an almost gothic slant, especially compared to other (even modern) depictions of high fantasy. The “misty area” at around the halfway point during the game is an exceptional example of Faxanadu’s beauty. I hope, from the images on this page, one can appreciate how artfully limited technology was applied to give this world a rich texture with character and depth. The backgrounds and color schemes also perfectly convey the emotional tone for sections of the game, such as the brighter but earthy tones used in the more light-hearted areas at the beginning, to the crimson and black denoting uncharted and forgotten regions dotted with ancient fortresses. And let us not forget the calming, serene effect that the soft, cool blue-greens of the churches have; a place of rest and respite from the horrors of this tough medieval world. I probably shouldn’t have dismissed the sprites so quickly. Unlike most of it’s contemporaries where characters are outlined and thus highlighted against rather static backgrounds, many of the foes (and friendlies alike) are not laden with a thick, black outline and instead are birthed from their respective backgrounds. Indeed this bridges the gap between more realistic and cartoonish animation where the static and dynamic objects appear as disparate entities.
The music of Faxanadu also has considerable impact on this landscape of fantasy. More ear-catching than a lot of video game music at the time, I can’t help but truly marvel at how inventive early game designers were. Of course anyone can make a masterpiece with an orchestra or rock band or 1,000,000 sound synthesizer and a 14 terabyte computer on hand, but these MIDI masterpieces like those found in Faxanadu are so beautiful in the other-worldly sense that video games should be it’s sometimes difficult to imagine why anyone ever wanted anything more. Much like the colors, we have music for every situation, from the jaunty, travel-suggesting themes early in the game, to the ominous, bleak, and sometimes-sparse-sometimes-frantic pieces near the end; from the haunting melodies of the “misty areas” to the reverent and hopeful, yet somber, almost hymnal tones in the churches.
For all its wondrous accomplishments, Faxanadu can’t escape the critical eye. I tend not to think of these so much when musing on what I love about the game, but rest assured they are a pain in my ass whenever I delve into this luxurious piece of recreation. Money is needed, A LOT of it. While small stashes can be found lying around, the most reliable source of income is the pocket change which the adversaries have on hand. Generally the more powerful creatures contain the most treasure, so I usually wait until I’ve made some decent progress before I commence the obligatory task of fighting respawned enemies. For anyone playing, I like to go about this endeavor just after I’ve gotten all three parts of the fountain working but before I walk through the unlocked door. Most of the bosses in this area are the gray dragon-ish creature, and a lot of money can be gained by killing the dragon, collecting the gold, walking off screen, walking back to the dragon area, and repeating. It’s a bit more tedious than running back and forth over long sections and taking out smaller foes, but it’s also quicker. I can’t say how much gold is necessary off the top of my head, but surely anything between 30 or 40 slayings plus what one has gathered already should be sufficient. Experience points are needed as well, but what is gained during regular play is typically enough and of course much will be earned while gathering gold, especially if taking the route of continued dragon slaying.
My other main complaint, touched on earlier, concerns the issue of jumping, at least loosely. Jumping isn’t horrible in Faxanadu, but it could be better. I’d place it on a level with an average platformer. Since the jumping mechanics work for 95%+ of situations one will encounter throughout the game, I tend to lean towards level design as the culprit. Whatever the case may be, there are some situations where one can and will be unable to jump out of, be it just because our hero can’t jump that high/far, or because of some ill-placed enemy, or strange spots where I can only assume an outright mistake in level design was overlooked or it’s just supposed to be some uneventful screen that one must do some serious backtracking to ever pass. These areas are few and far between but nonetheless are as nasty as it gets. Most of them happen in the second 2/3’s of the game, after which the flying boots are also available. As soon as this item is available, buy it, and buy it in quantity. It’s never a bad idea to have at least 4 of these things in one’s inventory, and as soon as one is used, replace it immediately at any cost except if it requires one to use more flying boots. If using more flying boots is unavoidable in the course of getting flying boots, then do it and buy that many extra. Not enough money? Find it. This is paramount and should supersede any and all other concerns, immediate or otherwise.
Faxanadu may not be as lengthy as other games more faithful to RPG conventions of the time, but it is long enough where one may not be able to finish it in one sitting, especially the first handful of playthroughs. There is no internal battery, but there is the now-forgotten password system. These passwords are available in churches and presented in that strange sort of old font that can make it difficult to distinguish between “i’s,” “l’s,” “1’s,” “j’s,” etc. Be careful when writing these down, taking care to note exactly what the characters look like on the screen.
Wow, it has been almost cathartic to pour out my affections towards Faxanadu. There will never be anything like this, for Faxanadu is/was the perfect storm of all that I love in video games, especially older ones. Such a sense of realism is found in an utterly fantastical realm. Even the NPC comments reinforce the oppression and sadness that has befallen an entire kingdom (or tree, I think in this case) looking for a messiah, waiting patiently for deliverance. Some things I am unable to put into words, and why Faxanadu is one of the finest examples of a video game is one of them.
Could it be true? A complex, dated title for the NES, rich in gameplay but rendered obscure by more publicized offerings, difficult but winnable, imbued with concepts that would go on to make Final Fantasy 7814 and Skyrim: Legend of Rims in the Sky the masturbatory fantasies of everyone between the ages of 8 and 20, could it really be true, that Faxanadu hasn’t yet been clubbed to death by the hipsters??!! What the fuck do I know. But I do go to the mall often enough to know that it isn’t splattered all over plastic bongs at Spencer’s or glued onto shirts at Hot Topic (yeah, I go out to the mall in Cary, so what?). While it is a shame that a game like this has faded away, it does give it some room to be appreciated on its own merits, and to remain a special gem that isn’t necessarily slapped all over a ton of “best of” lists. As another title that elicits little more than a shrug when mentioned to so-called retro-video game enthusiasts (who are what, 17), this cart is probably available for $5.00 or less.
If all I’ve said isn’t enough to convince you, nothing ever will be. Maybe you won’t like it as much as I do, but hopefully you can see the wealth of understated beauty, or even connect with a different game on a similar level.
Reviewed by The Cubist
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