My family used to have a tradition, back when my mother’s side of the family all lived in the same place: On Christmas Eve, the whole family would crowd in together at someone’s house, have a casual dinner together, and exchange a few gifts. We’d also have lunch together on Christmas and exchange gifts then; the thing the night before was more of an appetizer for the materialistic children in the family, I suppose.
One year, I received only a single gift in the pre-game exchange. But it was the exact size and dimensions of an NES game, so I didn’t exactly feel too put out; at that point in life, NES games were the equivalent for me of, say, the way my wife feels when she unwraps a tiny box and sees Tiffany’s blue peeking out. Which is to say, a precious and necessarily rare event, because I come from a long line of games journalists and god knows we’re not made of money.
When I peeled back the wrapping paper, my enthusiasm over my good fortune was somewhat dampened by what it revealed: The most boring NES box ever made.
OK, I get that they were going for the minimalist classiness of The Legend of Zelda, but dull sandstone and simple calligraphy lacked the visual impact of Zelda’s shiny gold box with thoughtfully sophisticated typography and a cutaway emblem to reveal the special cartridge inside. I felt like my aforementioned wife almost certainly would if she opened up that blue box to find a pendant that spelled out “JUICY” in rhinestones.
In fact, “wingboots” are basically the fantasy game equivalent of “JUICY.” Have some class.
I’d also had a small amount of prior experience with Faxanadu, and I had found it to be as dull and brown as the box it came in. It might be the first game to fully capture the spirit of HD-era aesthetics, in fact. Everything in Faxanadu is brown and drab. The world, the hero, the bad guys, the NPCs. And it kind of felt like it wanted to be Zelda II, but at the same time it moved a lot more slowly and the hero couldn’t crouch to deal with low-crawling monsters. It had made a bad impression all around.
But it was a gift, and you don’t sneer in disappointment when someone gives you a gift — especially one that tops out at the upper end of the gift-spending scale. I said my obligatory “thank yous” and went back to munching on Christmas cookies and feeling that unique sense of awkwardness that the oldest child in the youngest generation of an extended family feels at family gatherings for those few years where he or she has hit adolescence and therefore isn’t quite grown-up enough to hang with the adults but doesn’t quite fit with the pre-teens anymore, either.
I opened a much more exciting game as a gift the following morning, and Faxaandu sat unloved for a few weeks while I plumbed the depths of that one. Eventually, though, I cast about to find a new NES experience and realized, oh well, I might as well play Faxanadu.
Turns out it was actually really good! Clumsy and flawed, as an NES game originally designed in 1987 was wont to be, but smarter and more ambitious than it first let on. It was an action RPG of sorts, and my sad excuse for a warrior grew steadily more powerful over the course of his journey. Not only that, but his appearance actually changed to reflect his new acquisitions, which games just didn’t do back then: Over time, he went from a guy in an unimpressive tunic wielding a sad little dagger to a guy with a crazy multi-pronged sword and silvery armor head-to-toe. (He also learned a magic spell to take care of the low-crawling enemies, which was handy.)
Even the dull visuals of the game served a point: The narrative behind Faxanadu‘s journey involved the death of the World Tree, so of course everything looked like it was made of shriveling wood: It kind of was. Plus, the muted color palette allowed Hudson’s designers to play around with some graphic techniques that lent surprising depth and texture to the world; rather than dealing in simple, bold primaries, they experimented with tones, resulting in interesting effects like the swirling fog of the World Tree’s innermost parts (still one of my favorite 8-bit visual touches). And it also meant that once you saved the World Tree, it exploded into bright green foliage to lend the simple ending much more impact. You, the hero, made a difference!
And it wasn’t your typical NES ending where the bad guy’s fortress collapsed or exploded; instead, you did something constructive in the course of your journey. All in all, a game I unfairly judged by its cover. But, seriously, can you blame me?
Anyway, 25 years later, I’m looking forward to the upcoming sequel, Tokyo Xanadu. Don’t let us down, Xseed.