Faxanadu is an elegant and carefully designed journey that perfectly balances openness and focus; therefore, when it comes to grand quests, a player could hardly do better as far as the NES is concerned
Given it was a very big commercial success during its run, it almost goes without saying that the NES ended up being the home of a mountain of games that covered nearly every genre. There was no shortage of platformers, be those that were more colorful and that tried to emulate the beloved Super Mario Bros. gameplay or the ones that settled for a more action-oriented progress, akin to the type of experience seen in the Mega Man franchise. There were a lot of RPGs, including the first installments of the Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Mother sagas. There were plenty of side-scrolling action titles that put players in the shoes of many kinds of heroes, such as vampire hunters, armed muscular dudes, as well as ninjas. And there were uncountable projects that brought the simple arcade spirit to the home environment; a varied group of titles that included classics like Donkey Kong, charming oddities like Punch-Out, not to mention numerous beat ‘em up romps and ship-shooting thrillers.
The adventure niche, however, was not equally well-represented. In a way, this reality may come as a shock. After all, the NES was where The Legend of Zelda saga debuted and found a lot of appreciation; as such, just like many developers tried to replicate the goodness of Mario’s early quests, it could be somewhat expected that they would do the same for Link’s journey. It is hard to say why that was not the case; and, truth be told, this phenomenon was not exclusive to the NES days: a look a bit further into gaming history should reveal not many franchises have tried to walk into The Legend of Zelda’s turf. But one of the possible explanations for the lack of many real adventures in Nintendo’s 8-bit system could be due to how games of this kind were inherently big, while the console’s limitations made it more ideal for projects that were more straightforward.
It is a reasonable justification; especially because the two The Legend of Zelda games that hit the NES are themselves proof of those tough barriers: the ambition of those titles is part of their main allure, but it is also responsible for their stumbles, particularly in the case of the second entry. This challenge, though, did not stop a few companies other than Nintendo itself from giving the adventure genre a try during the 8-bit generation. In the case of Hudson Soft, Faxanadu was their main bid on that front, and it is one of the most successful examples of an NES effort that feels epic.
It all starts rather mysteriously: an unknown man with a completely clouded past returns home to the village of Eolis. What he finds is an almost abandoned town, with the remaining inhabitants behaving nervously. Soon, he is told that the Elf King has been waiting for his arrival and requests his presence. Upon walking to the throne room, the hero begins to understand what is amiss: the fountain that serves as the life source of Eolis and nearby villages has been blocked by a rock; moreover, the dwarves, who were once in friendly terms with the elves, have become violent. At that point, the protagonist is sent on his way with some gold in his pocket to buy equipment and save the day.
Faxanadu spends some energy developing that plot a bit further. Its world is sprinkled with towns, and because of that the hero will constantly encounter regular folks who are more than happy to share a bit of lore or give him directions. And it is possible to say that, within the system’s obvious limitations, it does manage to string together a good tale. As it is the case for pretty much every NES title, though, Faxanadu lives and dies via its gameplay, and in that regard it excels without many serious reservations.
Unraveling in sidescrolling fashion, the game could be seen as a linear journey in the sense that the protagonist starts in the furthest reaches of the world’s left side and he must make his way to the distant right. But understanding there is no good adventuring without some degree of wandering, Faxanadu makes sure players have to do a little exploring before they can progress. Consequently, the quest portrayed here manages to bring a sprinkle of the nonlinearity seen in The Legend of Zelda into a sidescrolling setting, creating a mixture that simply clicks.
At all times, the game unfolds by sticking to the following recipe: the protagonist will reach a village that will serve as a base of operation, he will notice his path forward is blocked by some kind of obstacle, and he will learn from the townsfolk what he needs to do in order to proceed. Invariably, that goal will lead to either backtracking or exploration. Early on, for example, players will reach an important tower and discover it is locked, which means they will have to return to the previous town to purchase the appropriate key. Later, there is a blocked fountain that can only freely flow again if three nearby sources are restored; as such, the hero will have to look around the vicinity and talk to people so he can figure out where exactly these major points are. Finally, towards the end of the game, there is a moment when advancing entails a trip to a previous town to pick up a valuable item.
There are a few more occasions of that kind. And nicely, differently from many of its generational peers, like The Legend of Zelda itself, Faxanadu is never excessively obtuse: there is always an organic way to figure out what to do. Thanks to that, the game manages to have a nice balance between making players feel lost and giving them direction, and this quality has perfect synergy with the title’s level design, which is never narrow to the point it qualifies as brainless while equally avoiding being open to the degree it comes off as overwhelming; a rather important and difficult achievement considering the game lacks maps.
As such, when they are out in the overworld, players will be greeted by design that is ideal for exploration, as the areas that separate the towns from one another are filled with crossroads and moments where gamers will scratch their heads wondering how to get to a certain spot. Meanwhile, inside the numerous dungeons, they will be treated to a slightly more focused challenge since despite their natural reliance on combat and the absence of puzzles, these buildings feel like daunting mazes that get harder to figure out as the quest progresses.
Faxanadu, in fact, seems to be so confident in the quality of its adventuring that the core of its gameplay is rather simple. Outside the safe confines of villages, players will jump with the A button and swing their sword with the B button. Aside from these essentials, the protagonist can also equip both a spell and an item; the former, which spends magic power, is triggered by pressing up and B while the latter can be used by pressing down and B. Underlined by an RPG layer, as the quest goes along it is possible – and very much necessary if one wants to survive to the end of the game – to buy new swords, spells, and armor. But truthfully, none of them are mechanic distinct from one another in a significant way, coming off instead as more powerful upgrades.
Because of that, it could be said that despite presenting more intricate levels and tougher enemies, the gameplay of Faxanadu never evolves during the twelve-to-twenty hours it ought to last. However, the bottom line is that its combat is fun, and even if its few bosses are not brilliant, its enemies do provide interesting challenges. Simultaneously, one could argue that the game does not squeeze much out of its RPG facet given it does not have any stats other than attack and defense, but the reality is that particular vein plays a far bigger role in Faxanadu than simply letting players upgrade their armor and weapons.
For starters, as he kills enemies, the hero gains experience points, and upon reaching certain thresholds he can go to a town’s cathedral to get a new rank from the priest, who is also responsible for dishing out passwords to record players’ progress. Although this rank has no effect on stats, it directly influences Faxanadu’s most important asset: gold, because if he faints in battle the protagonist will be returned to the last town he visited carrying an amount of cash determined by his rank. Needless to say, the higher one’s level is, the more gold they will have in their possession following an unfortunate death; a mechanic that, ironically, allows players who are very low on cash and very high on level to die and wake up with more money than they originally had.
As it happens in any game that has purchasable items, in Faxanadu, gold (which is dropped by most foes) is valuable because it buys potions that can restore the hero’s health as well as elixirs that can revive him upon defeat; and these goodies are particularly vital in a title that carries the traditional NES difficulty. Moreover, given a lot of gold is necessary to acquire better swords, armors, and spells, which are the only way for the character to become stronger, Faxanadu can almost feel like Dark Souls due to how it turns currency into the equivalent of experience points and to how it makes the prospect of death even more dreadful because if one is carrying a lot of money, dying means losing that which could have been used to make players more powerful.
But gold is also essential in Faxanadu for a slightly unusual reason: the fact that, in many moments, items that are necessary for the hero to advance can only be purchased. The most obvious and frequent examples of that are keys, which are sold in a specialized shop encountered in nearly every village. Almost invariably, the protagonist will progress to find a locked door whose marking will indicate the kind of key that needs to be bought: many of the dungeons are blocked in such way and the path between a few towns too. At that point, if they do not have the correct item, they will have to return to the nearest store.
The backtracking itself is not an issue, the problem is that this excessive reliance on keys, allied with the fact they can only be purchased, makes Faxanadu be overly dependent on money. New swords, armors, and spells are already so expensive they cannot be acquired with some grinding. When keys are added to that pile of must-buys, the game runs the serious risk of requiring too much repetition for its own good. To make matters worse, in what is a dumbfounding design decision, nearly all doors do not remain permanently open once they have been unlocked, meaning players will have to buy extra keys in case they need to go through a door again; and actually, towards the end of the game, there is a situation when doing so is mandatory.
This potentially annoying fascination with keys is not the sole problem that Faxanadu presents, but – thanks to how it will lead to grinding when allied with the high price of equipment – it is certainly the biggest one. The rest of the game’s issues feel more like standard design rough spots of the NES era. The world’s secret locations and optional paths sometimes do not lead to rewards that are meaningful enough; truthfully, a few of them are downright useless. Some enemy and poison vial placements make it nearly impossible for the character to avoid being hit, which is obviously unfair. The punishment of being returned to town upon death will come off as exaggerated to the eyes of modern gamers. Finally, bosses are neither varied nor memorable; in fact, there are major moments in the game that feel like they are missing a big climatic battle.
Still, Faxanadu is overall a very polished game, and this is exposed in many ways. It appears in its tight and engaging combat. It is highlighted by its fantastic non-linear level design. It is seen in the presentation of its plot and in the way players are given directions, as the inhabitants of the world work within the system’s tight textual limitations to nicely fill out both spaces. And it is prevalent in its production values, since its graphics are painted with a pleasantly unique sepia tone that is ideal for the game’s world of medieval fantasy and its soundtrack also manages to capture that spirit via a good amount of notable tunes.
The fact the NES’ library was not rich with adventure games means there is not much weight in saying Faxanadu is one of the system’s best examples of the genre. However, that somewhat lonesome position in that niche makes the title much more special, because not only was it among the few courageous enough to navigate the console’s limitations to aim for a gameplay style that thrives on a large scope, but it also succeeded in its goal with flying colors. Even if it exhibits a few rough edges of the era, Faxanadu is an elegant and carefully designed journey that perfectly balances openness and focus. Therefore, when it comes to grand quests, a player could hardly do better as far as the NES is concerned.