Faxanadu is a 1987 side-scrolling action game by Hudson and Falcom. It has equipment, magic, and level-grinding elements to differentiate it from the rest of the pack, not to mention a powerful aesthetic.
Faxanadu offers a great labyrinth to explore, similar to other NES titles such as Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest and The Battle of Olympus, except much more intuitive and less frustrating. The graphics of Faxanadu use a heady brown and green palette. In most games this would be irritating to look at, but Faxanadu pulls it off by incorporating it into the storyline of the dying World Tree and the quest for rejuvenation. The world is relatively open-ended for a console game of its time; it’s possible to get lost in the dungeons or even the overworld areas between towns, though not nearly to the extent of something like The Legend of Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link‘s final palace.
The setting of Faxanadu is a good riff on the usual fantasy Tolkien ripoff of the elf/dwarf dichotomy. It helps that dwarves are twenty-foot-tall gargoyles, which makes me wonder if it wasn’t a mistranslation of the most hilarious sort. There is a world tree, similar to Yggdrasil from Norse mythology, but with a kicker: The tree is dying. You play a nameless wandering adventurer who has “been on a long journey” and returns to his hometown to find that the walls are crumbling and people are missing. What’s more is that the town, normally a safe haven in video games, is full of monsters that you are incapable of fighting at first; you must simply avoid them until you can get equipped. This “controlled helplessness” (As pretentious nerds like to call it) instills a sense of dread in the player that is much more effective than any cheap jump scare and screeching violin could ever be.
Controls are a bit stiff. Like Ghosts ‘n Goblins or the first couple Castlevanias, it’s impossible to change trajectory in the middle of a jump, resulting in some annoying falls. It’s also very common for enemies to bump you off of ledges, forcing you to retrace your most recent steps, sometimes requiring backtracking through multiple screens. Also of annoyance is the presence of several bugs. For example, the wing boots mentioned on the box cover drain half your health, the Battle Helmet doesn’t actually defend against anything, and the Pendant item is supposed to increase your power but actually lowers it. Still, there are no game-breaking bugs or glitches I know of.
The enemies in this game are a bizarre bunch of jittery maniacs. You’ll fight eyes on legs, ambling spiky lumps, slow-moving mushroom men, jumpy demon ostriches, a cackling beast-man working a machine that drops rocks on you, giant hornet hives attached to ceilings, mace-wielding Jason Voorhees clones, and more. My only complaint about the bestiary is the bosses; they all have the same basic pattern of “tall monster who walks towards the player and gets cut” and could have used more variety other than the fact that some of them will shoot fireballs at you. The visual assortment makes up for the overly similar nature of many of the enemies, though. The Cutting Room Floor shows a few enemies that are on the cartridge that didn’t make it into the final game.
The music is some of the absolute best on the NES. It is dark, foreboding, and yet catchy and strangely hopeful all at the same time. This ghostly and inhuman music makes running through monster-infested mazes even more entertaining. It’s no surprise that Faxanadu has such quality song composition; it’s by Falcom, mostly famous for the staggeringly powerful music of the Ys series. The only weak spot in the music is the sorta-generic-but-still-decent “regal” themes for the King’s Castle and Priest’s Temple. Everything else is incredible given the limited hardware of the NES.
The multitude of shops in Faxanadu is a mixed bunch (But man, the shop theme is bloody fantastic). The armories and key shops have practicality and flavor befitting a game of this sort. But the magic and health trainers, the hospitals, and the food shops can be circumvented by just dying and continuing with full life and magic bars and some pocket money based on your rank to boot. An inn like the kind found in most JRPGs would have been a suitable replacement. There are also houses and taverns to listen to gossip, but they’re mostly useless except for a few points in the game where it’s necessary to continue the quest. (There’s also one really obscure guy who gives you some strong armor for free, but you’ll probably have equal or better equipment by that point anyway.)
If you want, you can grind near the beginning of the game to get enough gold for the Death spell, which normally would only be available later in your quest. You’re also given a decent amount of money on continuing your game, a rather useful feature I have not seen elsewhere.
Play Faxanadu to explore cool levels, for the atmosphere, for the brilliant music. Think of it as a superior version of The Legend of Zelda 2 or Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest with a good but not maddening level of difficulty. It is an unjustly overlooked game that will bring you joy. It was popular enough in its time to have a bastardized version of it featured in the awful Captain N: The Game Master cartoon commercial by an American branch of Nintendo, but we try to give that the same treatment as Dolphin, Athasian.