You know this sprite. Youíve seen him brandish a whip in the legendary Castlevania, and bear upon his shoulder a hawk in the not-so-legendary 8 Eyes. Heís the ubiquitous NES adventurer sprite. And he reappears, ready for action, in Faxanadu.
Even the blocks our hero walks upon are pretty much the same here as in other, similar-looking quests for the classic system, although the protagonist climbs ladders this time, and not stairs. But look closely and see that thereís another difference: those other games dealt with the colour limitations of the NES in their own special ways. Faxanaduís way, is the way of mud.
If you took the most depressing levels from Castlevania, drew them out, adding experience points, gold, and towns to spend the gold in, youíd only be halfway there. Then youíd only need to somehow submerge the whole thing in a mud wrestling ring, so that the good guy and bad guys could splash about and hang burnt umber, rich sienna, and crap stain brown about the environs. Yes, Faxanadu looks positively drab. But does it play that way? Not altogether.
Faxanadu is an action-RPG, or an adventure game, depending on what set of genre definitions you subscribe to. It’s a side-scrolling one at that, which is pretty rare. There are better games, available on different systems, like Cadash, and Y’s III: Wanderers from Y’s, that should be sampled well before this one. That being said, if you managed to enjoy the substandard quest that is Simon’s Quest (many people do!), you’ll be happy to know that Faxanadu is markedly better.
The story features The Evil One, relaxing contentedly in The Evil Fortress, somehow managing to rain hellish meteorites down on the World Tree. He laughs and throws back tequila shots at the chaos reigning in the World Tree, and Eolis, the Elfin town beneath it. Gleefully he pours another drink as monsters creep out of the woodwork, cunningly deciding to wreak havoc amidst the madness. From studying his demonic ruler handbook history, he knows that a hero will stand against him. You are that hero – well, vicariously anyway. (All the while, elves sing Chad Kroeger lyrics in unison.)
Your controller calisthenics are limited to having the hero leap about, using a sword to slaughter hosts of oddly formed hopping or charging enemies, most of them about the same size as the hero. Along with his steel, our man is equipped smartly with armour and a shield, for protection. All three items, along with magic spells, can be upgraded at shops in towns. Most towns also have a tavern, for gleaning information from drunks; a meat shop, for buying life-sustaining dried meat; a hospital, for the soothing, healing treatments only a sexually satisfied fat man can provide (more on that in a bit); and most importantly, a church, where a “Guru” levels you up and provides you with passwords.
Once you take down a password from a Guru, dying will seem acceptable. You’ll be able to restart from the Guru’s place of business with your inventory of items intact. Further, once a Guru bestows upon you a ‘title’ based on your experience – such as Paladin – upon dying, you’ll be able to restart at the Guru’s pad with a set amount of gold and experience befitting your position. Faxanadu is very forgiving in this way.
The main challenge at hand is actually staying interested in the game long enough to get through it. It can get downright dreary, even outside of the visual presentation. There is one area called the World of Mist, perhaps halfway through. If you make it through that epitome of banality and darkness in good spirits, you probably have no other games. Even the names of the places concur; do you really want to enter the Tower of Suffer? Perhaps the Town of Victim is more your speed? Indeed, staying true to the cause for the elves will be your greatest obstacle.
That, and perhaps the bosses. If youíre really in the giggling mood, Faxanadu’s bosses will likely look funny to you, as a few are comprised of massive heads attached to smaller upper bodies, truncated at the torso. They hop around angrily, without legs (I suspect that’s why they’re angry). But when you’re in the right mood, the legitimately scary music will team with the extremely odd boss designs to evoke a very real sense of dread. And certainly the fight they put up is no laughing matter. Expect to lose more than a third of your power from each hit during most boss encounters.
Unfortunately, this doesnít boost the challenge of this pedestrian undertaking as much as it exhibits another flaw. For a few of these encounters, youíll be best served by figuring out, and executing, a pattern in combat. More often, however, youíll be jumping and slashing madly, dealing damage and taking more in return. Only an inventory well stocked with red, vitality-giving potion will see you through.
On the plus side, Faxanadu is fairly fast paced, has some good music in the ‘dungeon’ areas where enemies are most numerous, and while its story doesn’t flow very well, at least it doesn’t present poorly designed puzzles to trip you up. You’ll even find some classic kitsch moments ripe for quotation. Late in the game, a woman in a building with a man who is ostensibly her husband actually pays you a compliment: You are as good looking as I’ve heard. That has to get your juices going! It certainly worked for me.
And what about the storekeeper who serves you with a bland look on his face, offering this priceless advice: Don’t try too hard. Stoic! An old wizard in an out-of-the-way homestead sells you the capacity to perform Fire magic. Literally chomping at the bit, he tells you: Don’t rely on magic too much. Ironic! But the award for kitsch greatness goes to the ‘doctor’ in the hospital who heals you. He sits upon a throne! Seeing this was almost too much to take. He never moves from his regal chair, and his female nurse never stops moving. Draw your own conclusions.
These unintentionally humourous moments, the decent length of the adventure, the ease with which you can get into it, the simplicity of the battles, the facility of building experience, and the clean, inviting layout of game – all add up to an experience which teeters on the enjoyment fulcrum. Thus, as is often the case with middle-of-the-road scores for games, the deciding factor will be the playerís preference of genre.
If youíre in love with this style of game, you could do worse than to give Faxanadu a try (cough, Simon’s Quest. Obviously if youíre an RPG fan who doesnít care for the side-scrolling format, or an adventure fan who needs a quicker pace in proceedings to get his blood flowing – this isnít the title for you. Let your sensibilities decide, because Faxanadu isnít a horrible game by any account. Just keep in mind, those adventurers who choose to accept Faxanadu’s mission, the gameís most important tenet: muddy is the root of all evil. Snicker.