Another medieval fantasy adventure game has arrived on the NES. Given the popularity of The Legend of Zelda, many companies have scrambled to cash in on the craze. Not one to rest on its laurels, Nintendo has decided to bring Faxanadu to the States. At first glance you’d be forgiven confusing it with Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. They both feature side-scrolling action with a warrior holding a sword and shield. The biggest difference is the more serious story and somber atmosphere, even though both games feature very similar gameplay mechanics. Given that so many people missed out on Zelda II thanks to the massive chip shortage, it’s difficult to predict how well Faxanadu will sell this holiday shopping season since it’s undoubtedly going to be competing with the more recognizable aforementioned series. If you’ve got room in your NES library for another one of these massive adventure games, there are enough differences to warrant owning both.
Faxanadu is a world on the brink of destruction. Meteorites have been streaking out of the sky and destroying the World Tree, the giver of all life. Cracks in the earth have formed and all sorts of monsters and beasts have broken free, endangering the lives of everyone. On top of that, water has become scarce and the wells are drying up. You are the hero needed in this time of crisis and your adventure begins in the Elf town of Eolis. You’ll begin your quest with nothing but the clothes on your back, but soon enough you can acquire a small dagger and shield to take on the challenges that lurk around every corner.
The game plays out in two scenarios: the combat sections and the towns. Often you’ll need to speak to each resident for clues as to where to go next and purchase new items, magic, weapons, and armor. After you’ve healed yourself and are ready to take on more monsters you’ll slowly make your way up the huge World Tree in search of the sacred treasures and keys needed to progress.
Controlling your main character isn’t too difficult, although it must be mentioned that there is a sort of acceleration feature that takes some getting used to. As you press a direction on the controller your character will begin to walk faster and faster. Stopping for any reason resets this and you once again move at a slower pace. This becomes tricky when you need to jump across holes in the floor. Simply standing on the edge and jumping will often result in a failure, meaning you’ll often have to take a few steps back and hope you’ve accumulated enough inertia to successfully make the jump. I’d have preferred a run button like in Super Mario Bros., but I understand the limitations of having only two action buttons on the NES controller.
Fighting is fairly straightforward with your sword and blocking with your shield is easy. Pressing Up and B will allow you to fire your spells and Down and B will activate the item you have equipped. Speaking of equipment, you’ll have to navigate the Sub-Screen menus to make sure you’ve properly equipped your new gear in order to use it. Much like Metroid, there will be some areas that are inaccessible to you at first until you’ve acquired the specific item to get past the obstacle. The first such item you’ll be looking for is the Mattock, an axe that will destroy a boulder blocking your path. Later on you’ll acquire the Wing Boots to fly high up in the sky and reach new areas.
Faxanadu does a great job of presenting a sense of dread throughout the world. The inhabitants are worried and they’re expressive not only through the text on the screen. Many of the characters feature portraits next to the text boxes that are very detailed for the NES. The game is very earthy in its color scheme, so expect to see plenty of shades of browns, yellows, and reds. Later areas of the game feature a strange misty fog that further obscures the environment. In some ways it adds to the creepiness factor, but in others it sort of look a bit garish. As you make it further up the World Tree you’ll see different environments and backgrounds and eventually even navigate inside tree branches, which is pretty cool to see. Overall the visuals reminded me a lot of Castlevania, but the enemy designs were a bit lackluster.
When it comes to the music Faxanadu has a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. It’s very unique and I haven’t played any other game that sounds anything like it. The tunes are memorable and many are strangely upbeat given the dire circumstances. Once you get to the land of mist you’ll be treated to appropriately eerie music that will chill you to the bone. There are a decent number of tracks in this game, which helps keep the game interesting.
Really the biggest problem with Faxanadu is that it has a ton of competition on the NES. Launching in the same month with Dragon Warrior, albeit a different style of game, doesn’t do it any favors. Both feature fantastical lands with monsters to slay and people to rescue. Both have weapons, armor, spells, experience, and gold to collect as well as new towns to discover and people to chat with. Then you have games like Zelda II, Wizards & Warriors, the upcoming IronSword and Willow, and the list goes on. I’m afraid this one may just get lost in the deluge of fantasy adventure games, but those that do discover it are in for a treat.
- Graphics - 7.5/107.5/10
- Sound - 8.5/108.5/10
- Gameplay - 7/107/10
- Lasting Appeal - 8.5/108.5/10
Final Thoughts: GREAT
With its strange name and lack of brand recognition, will anyone remember Faxanadu in the years to come? Those that do pick it up are in for a grand adventure with lots of places to explore. It can be a tad difficult to master, and saving up gold and earning experience can become tiresome (especially if you die a lot), but the quest is worth the effort.
Craig has been covering the video game industry since 1995. His work has been published across a wide spectrum of media sites. He’s currently the Editor-In-Chief of Nintendo Times and contributes to Gaming Age.