First off, “Kudos!” (or condolences; depending on how you look at it) if you get that subtitle reference in the article title. Secondly, Faxanadu is a potentially great game but alas is ultimately a missed opportunity. It is the action/RPG the NES needed, but it never really hits any of the marks particularly well. It is a banner of mediocrity that should have been a classic but a few mistakes ultimately make it forgettable and occasionally frustrating.
Developed and released by Hudson Soft (team behind the Adventure Island series) in 1987, Faxanadu is a platformer with RPG elements and a connected world to explore. It has the flavor of an early metroidvania-type and features very simplified RPG-style character progression and equipment systems. The goal is to travel to across the land surrounding the World Tree as directed by the king and complete a series of tasks that allows you access to keys to reach the next area of the game. You will obtain weapon upgrades and tools that help you defeat increasingly-stronger enemies and overcome various obstacles along the way.
The primary issue I have with Faxanadu is the gameplay, which I find to be incredibly deficient in a lot of areas. FIrst off, movement is slow and cumbersome and the jumping is short and fixed, forcing an arc on the jump not too dissimilar from the Castlevania series where you jump in a direction and must commit to that jump to the end with no mid-air adjustment. Attacking is limited to frontal swings of various weapon types and while some weapons behave differently than others, you always do the same thing: hit the enemy when it moves at you then make sure you are lined up for the next attack as the target recovers. It’s very similar to The Adventures of Link in that respect only without the agility which makes the game feel slow and repetitive. The stiff movement and attacking requires a well-planned-out approach to each fight. This isn’t inherently-bad, but it is just not executed well in this instance primarily due to the pace of combat.
Each area boss has a near-identical strategy that comes down more to you properly landing your attacks than any sort of real appropriate challenge. The boss battles go as follows: Wait for the boss to fire at you (those that do use projectiles), dodge or block them, then stab at the boss when it moves towards you, knocking it and you back on contact with your weapon, rinse, repeat. Once you are used to the simple movement and attack patterns almost every fight really just comes down to dodging and blocking the sparse attacks and hitting the boss with they are within striking distance. It is utterly flavorless.
Graphically the game is muddy-looking in an attempt to have an old-world feel but to me it just looks kind of dull. A lot of these games with more “serious” visual styles did this and I’ve always hated it. Ugly is not a compliment to a darker tone for a game; ugly is just ugly. Earthtones and occasional reds and blues give it an ancient palette that just reeks of laziness, especially when compared to its much more attractive peers like Rygar and even Simon’s Quest. Still, the enemy sprites look fine and some of the boss designs aren’t bad at all for the NES. The hero, however, is as generic and uninspired as they come lacking any discernible visual traits to make him stand out among the hundreds of bland, blank-slate, armored avatars of the 80’s adventure genre.
In keeping with the game’s graphics, the sound is also pretty uninspired. Bumps and ding sounds accompany every action and a repetitive soundtrack loops through the game. It is as if the music really wants to be Castlevania but lacks the personality and identity of that series, so instead it just sort of coasts along, phrase by phrase, as a cheap imitation. The music does nothing to enhance the experience either, as there was apparently no attempt to match the soundtrack with the mood of the world and events occurring. As if a composer was told to make a song that “sounds like this” and did it without ever seeing so much as a frame of the game.
In case you can’t tell, I really do not like Faxanadu at all. I think it’s bad that I really struggle to find anything particularly interesting to say about it outside of describing just how flavorless it is. It is as bare-bones of an adventure platformer you can get and while it does do some things right, there are just too many other games like it that are so much better to ever justify wasting time on it. Now that said, it has grown a sort of cult following over the years. It was heavily overlooked in its time and has since been rediscovered by fans of the genre. This is largely due to its reputation as a sort of NES version of Dark Souls. I can certainly see the similarities but I do not find it to be a particularly-honest description as Faxanadu simply does not share the intensity and ingenuity of From Software’s flagship franchise.
If you are compelled to give this one a whirl it won’t cost you much. As of writing this article it rests just under the $10 mark. This may rise a bit in the future given its new-found demand but I do not anticipate it becoming a rare gem by any measure. It did see a Virtual Console re-release on the Wii but has not seen an updated version made available for newer Nintendo platforms. If this trend stays its course, Faxanadu may become a hard-to-find must-have for some but I do not anticipate it skyrocketing in price. It may hover just around the $15-$20 range at its peak, charitably. I think those who want to own it really want it and any other buyer is likely just an NES library completionist, which generally doesn’t lend itself to a dramatic spike in value in the eyes of most seasoned video game collectors.