Faxanadu (NES) Review

Click here if you wish to visit the Faxanadu (NES) description page for screenshots and more information.

Review by tankMage (February 2016)

Score: C

People often like to point out that nostalgia has a tendency to distort our perceptions. Having played Faxanadu years ago, I remember putting my controller down after the last boss and thinking “Eh, it was ok.”. Nearly twenty years later I put my controller down and thought the very same thing after completing the game. The reason for this isn’t so much the game’s style or setting (both of which have some flavor), but instead it is due mostly to the game’s short length and poor combat system as well as a few other minor issues.

    For the record, I will make it known that the version I played for this review was a graphical ROM hack called Faxanadu Face Lift by Chill Penguin. I played the original version years ago and felt comfortable using the ROM hack since it did not change the game in a major way. The hack tweaks some of the original version’s drab colors, uses a more clear font, and puts some deleted graphics back into the game (crosses, rosaries, and crucifix were removed in the North American localization). Below are some side by side comparisons for reference.

Faxanadu(original)
Regular Faxanadu
Faxanadu4
Faxanadu Facelift
Faxanadu2(original)
Regular Faxanadu
Faxanadu6
Faxanadu Facelift

Story

There’s no evil empire to defeat, princess to be saved or ancient evil awakening from slumber to be found in Faxanadu’s story. Much of the plot is unexplained, which gives the game a nice air of mystery. In fact people who are familiar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft may make some connections between this title’s plot and one of his short stories. Having said that, it would have been nice to get some more details or character development out of the game’s story. The world tree also makes for a cool setting (can’t think of many games that take place in a giant tree) and it felt as though I was moving into increasingly bizarre and dangerous territory as the game progressed.

Graphics

On one hand Faxanadu has some nice graphical  touches. Every spell had its own unique animations, as well as each sword. The character’s sprite also changes depending upon what he is wearing. Strange monsters and the game’s unusual environment also do much to make this title stand out visually. On the other hand the colors used in the game were very drab. While this was in line with Faxanadu’s plot (the world tree was dying after all), the devs maybe went a bit too far in making the game appear dark and ominous.

User Interface

The controls for this game respond well, but there were some design issues with the jumping mechanics. Most people who have experience with games like Super Mario Bros. expect jumping to function a certain way. The model Faxanadu uses is different and in this case it makes life a bit more difficult until you get used to it.

The protagonist has three types of jumps: a short jump (tap A), a high jump (hold A), and a long jump ( this requires a running start). This may not seem odd, but in most games a higher/longer jump is achieved by holding “B” and getting a running start and/or just holding the “A” button to jump longer distances. Many jumps in Faxanadu require the player to have been moving in the desired direction for several tiles before jumping and there’s no sense of momentum to indicate that he will jump further. I spent some time trying to figure out the game’s jumping mechanics and never really got used to them, because of Hudson’s strange choices. Just to make matters worse, the spring in the hero’s jump was loose and made hopping around feel even more clumsy.

The shop interface forced you to talk to the shop keeper again after buying an item, which made buying potions and keys a slow process. Using items like potions also prompted a message every time you did so, which really broke the pace of action and was reminiscent of Castlevania 2’s constant day/night cycle spam messages. Having to push down and “B” also to use items also felt awkward; speaking of the down button, you can’t crouch in Faxanadu.

Music and Sound Effects

Some of Faxanadu’s songs are fairly inspired, while others not so much. Overall this game performed well in the sound department: it’s sound effects were ok, the BGM was done competently and (best of all) there was nothing about the sound track or effects that made me want to turn the sound off or stick bananas in my ears (anyone who played Star Tropics will get that reference).

Gameplay and Design

There’s a synergy between user interface and gameplay that is stronger than that of any of the other categories in my opinion. Tight, precise controls can make just about any game a good deal more enjoyable, while loose sloppy controls or (in Faxanadu’s case) unusual mechanics can damage the overall feel of the game. The platforming in this game really suffers from the strange jump mechanics to the point that the gameplay becomes a bit more tedious than it should be. The floaty, eccentric jumping makes monsters harder to fight as well as caused me to miss many leaps, fortunately there are no death pits in this game.

Challenge was also an area in which this game failed to deliver. Granted, I did die a few times, but generally that was not a setback and sometimes I did so purposely to death warp back to towns. The mistake Hudson made with this title can be found in it’s experience system. Unlike just about every other RPG ever made, the hero does not get stronger with each level he gains, instead you are granted a set amount of gold that correlates to your experience level when you die or use a password to continue. This means more often than not, dying becomes a strategic move rather than something undesirable. Don’t feel like walking back to town? Die, you’ll start at the last guru you spoke to in town and you will have some cash on you. Need red potions or a weapon, but you don’t have money? Just get killed or restart and you will have some cash to throw around. Of course you do have to grind to get enough exp to really benefit from the system, but roughly thirty minutes of grinding coupled with normal gameplay got me to the point where I started with 12,000 gold every time I kicked the bucket.

Another issue with the game’s difficulty was that you can buy a very powerful shield and spell early on. Sure it’s pricey, but if you spend that half hour grinding gold and experience, not only will you have the money to buy them, but you can spend the rest of the game exploiting the broken level system. In fact the game seems to push you in the direction of these weapons, because there is one difficult enemy (the only one in the game) that is easily defeated with the spell and shield.

Faxanadu’s combat also felt flat, but was passable. This is mainly, because the protagonist only uses the sword to jab and most spells just fly in a straight line. To add to the issues, enemy AI was bad even for a NES game. The majority of monsters just bum rush you and are easy to fight as a result. The devs did get cheap at times and place monsters in front of ladders or by screen transitions where they would often get a few sucker punches in on me. Sometimes these cheaply positioned enemies would knock me back a screen or off a ledge before I could react.

Keys were also a problem in this game. In order to enter many of the dungeons you need to buy a key (which is ok) but as the player you have no idea of how many you need and often have to return to town to get the required key.

Of course this game did have its merits: exploration was fun and often rewarding, especially taking into account the game’s rather unique setting. Even though I played the game before and vaguely remembered some of it, I often wondered what was around the next corner. There was also a wonderful sense of atmosphere to the gameplay that is hard to define, all I can say is you really do feel like an adventurer desperately trying to save his people at times. Enemies are also fairly diverse (even though you will see a few of them throughout the game) and the different weapons and spells imparted a feeling of true progress. It is also worth mentioning that Faxanadu is somewhat short, which is either good or bad depending on how you see it. I did count this against the game a bit, but I don’t think it hurt it too much as it would have really dragged out if there were another three or four dungeons. Now, if you paid 60 USD for this sucker back in the eighties or early nineties, the lack of content may have soured you towards the title.

Final Thoughts

I generally avoid checking out other reviews before I finish writing my own, but I had a good idea of what this game would get from the start. The scores this game got surprised me though, as most reviewers either rated it very highly or very poorly. Perhaps Faxanadu is one of those cult classics that just click with some people while others hear good things about it and find that it’s rather average and then give it a low score out of disappointment. I’ll probably never know the answer, but as far as I’m concerned, the game was a good idea that just didn’t come to fruition fully. It’s fun to play despite its flaws, but certainly isn’t a classic or a gem. Calling it terrible is a bit of an exaggeration as well.

Recommendations

If you really like ARPGs and want to play one for the NES, then maybe Faxanadu is a good choice after you played the better stuff *cough* Crystalis *cough*. Otherwise, you may want to give this one a pass unless you are really curious.

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