The year was 1988, the year that Nintendo decided to unleash the sequel to the multi-million selling Legend of Zelda game. Therefore the focus of adventure fans around the world was on The Adventure of Link, and basically nothing else. But more fool them, for in that very same year Japanese developers Falcom had sneakily managed to produce what was arguably a finer title for the Nintendo Entertainment System. And the name of this game? Why, Faxanadu of course...
I'll hand you over to the game's manual: "The Elf town, Eolis, was once a town boasting peace and prosperity. Yet, now it is on the verge of destruction. Meteorites are raining down upon the World Tree and crazed monsters have taken the opportunity to run amuck. Wells are drying up and people are in the grips of fear. To restore peace again, someone has to penetrate the giant World Tree and overthrow the Evil One that lives in the Evil Place. Now it is your mission to set out on a journey bearing the hopes of the people of Eolis." Whilst being somewhat shaky in terms of today's elaborate storylines, back then it was all that was needed to set things up perfectly for your long and exciting journey...
After doing quite a few SNES reviews, going back to my trusty NES is quite a shock to the system. But a quick look at Super Mario Bros 3 and Metroid reminded me of just what could be achieved on the old 8-bit system. So how do Faxanadu's graphics compare to the Nintendo masterpieces? Well...not too badly I suppose. Whilst not as glamorous as the mentioned Nintendo titles, what is offered is very sturdy to say the least. Maybe the artists had some strange affinity to various shades of brown and tan, as the majority of the characters and surroundings are coloured so, but they do manage to use the tones to the best possible degree.
As for the character models themselves…hmm, they are not exactly going to win any awards for detail – most are definitely deep in the realms of ‘rudimentary’, with examples being a one-legged Cyclops beast that hops around and a small enemy that has spikes protruding from its body. The landscapes and main enemy creatures atone for this lack of attention to detail, though, with quite a lot of variety to be found throughout the whole experience. You start in your Medieval hometown, complete with old-fashioned buildings and a castle, and then, as you progress further, the townscape fades from view with tree roots replacing them as the main sections of the World Tree are approached. Other locations include fortresses that are built into the tree roots, country-esque villages and dank, foggy areas. Dotted around these settings are the many basic enemies, as well as the wonderful creations that are the main bosses. Overall Faxanadu throws up a mixed bag. Thankfully, though, the ‘wheat’ far outweighs the 'chaff'.
Fourteen years is a long time by anyone’s standards, and it is amazing how songs you loved ‘back in the day’ sound extremely, extremely poor is comparison to what is produced today. The same is true with videogames – tunes that you held in high regard generally tend to have withered and are barely a shadow of what you recall them to be. But the pleasing thing about Faxanadu is that it does not fall into this, rather extensive, category. Tunes fit into the different scenarios perfectly: lively and uplifting during your first baby-steps in the game, almost encouraging you to keep on levelling-up to force your way deeper into the adventure; soft, silent and eerie as you reach some of the darker sections later on in the game, adding to the atmosphere on so many levels.
What does let the side down are the sound effects. Perhaps an excuse would be that the sound chip found in the NES was not exactly revolutionary, but then again I don't recall all 8-Bit games having such excruciating noises funnelling their way into my ears...Annoying screeches and painful shuffling sounds accompany the use of magic and the attacking of enemies. It is a shame that the pleasure that is the soundtrack is offset by a weak effort by the sound effects department...
From afar, most people would assume that Faxanadu is a simple action adventure title due to its side-scrolling perspective and the linearity of the game. However, certain Role-Playing traits will eventually shine through once you start playing – like, for instance, the common need for magic usage and various different items, or the retracing of your steps that is called for in places. These elements fused together with the adventure-style gameplay to create puzzles that make it a necessity to find specific items in order to progress further into the game.
There is a slight issue with some of the game's controls, specifically the jump feature. Jumping can be extremely awkward and slightly robotic in nature – meaning that trying to avoid the lethal enemies in a chore, and will often result in the sort of deaths that make you curse out loud. This would not be as bad if the magic abilities you have were permanent, but alas they are not. Instead it is more of a 'bonus' that you acquire at stages through play time. This is not one of the superior aspects of the game at the very beginning, as you only have a very short-range weapon in your possession to start with so progress can be wearisome in patches until you have enough money to purchase one of the markedly better, and longer-reaching, weapons. Slow-down, the root of all evil in many a game, is unfortunately another problem that is present in Faxanadu. Come across more than a handful of characters on screen at the same time and watch in amazement as the action begins to jerk and judder, with parts of the screen actually rapidly flicking in and out of view in an attempt to keep the console from exploding! This, as I’m sure you can imagine, is a minor distraction, to say the least…But overall the title is intensely engaging, which is nothing to be shirked at.
This one tough game! And that’s all I have to say on the matter. Oh, you want me to elaborate, do you? Well okay, since you asked so nicely…The World Tree that must be scaled is enormous in size, with many twisting and turning branches that house a multitude of villages, dungeons and taxing puzzles. There are several occasions where you will lose your concentration for a few minutes and then wonder where on Earth you are – as some of the locales are purposely similar in appearance to confuse those that are not paying full attention to what they are doing. Add unpredictable enemies and the fact that some of the weapons you procure almost act as a hindrance into the mix, and what you end up with is a title that will most certainly leave you with a headache at times. But the challenge never reaches the extent where you feel like throwing your console out of the window – instead it just helps to further your delight when you finally do overcome the latest hurdle thrown at you.
Are you a fan of retro adventures? Were you slightly disappointed by Nintendo’s Zelda sequel on the NES? Then maybe you should seriously consider parting with some of your cold, hard cash to pick this quirky, yet gripping, game – because you’ll find that developers Falcom actually managed to produce a worthy, if not improved, imitation.