Falcom produced quite a few action RPG's during the 8-bit era, notably Faxanadu on the Famicom/NES, and the Ys series for the Sega Master System and PC Engine/TurboGrafx-CD, renowned for its music and fully-voiced, animated cutscenes. The Legend of Xanadu, published in 1993 on NEC's PC Engine Super CD-ROM format, features similar production values. But it never came to North American shores, so this week we're taking a look at the Japanese edition.
The game arrives in a double-wide CD-ROM case, although there's only one disc included. The extra space is consumed by a snazzy poster with dungeon maps on the back, and a full-color 48-page manual that introduces the characters and basic mechanics, along with basic weapon/armor info and several Q&A pages of hints. The hero's name is rendered in English as Areios, or Alektor, according to the manual, along with his friends Daimos, Noys, Sophia, Media (yes, Media), Lykos, Pyrra, and Argos. And the title screen features the whole gang, marching across the countryside with a sense of strength and purpose despite their oversized heads:
As usual, playing these role-playing titles "blind" is pretty tricky for a non-Japanese-speaking gamer like yours truly. But I'll see what I can figure out as I stumble through the menus and try to capture a sense of the game's atmosphere and style, before I give up on making any serious headway into its storyline. The stirring animated prologue, for example, features mounted riders fighting fierce beasts:
And the story seems to be rooted in Greek mythology with this reference to King Aeneas in the intro:
Like the Ys games, this is more of a wilderness adventure than a traditional fantasy tale -- Areios lands onshore near a small community, talks to the villagers and learns of (what I presume is) a dire tragedy in the making, should he prove unable to bring his heroic skills to bear. Some of the conversations are fairly long-winded, or at least that's what I thought as I clicked dumbly through the Japanese dialogue before realizing that sometimes we have to pick between two conversational options to make progress.
The Super CD-ROM format, with its additional onboard memory, allows for some extra features. There's a running clock that causes the world to cycle from day to night, with shops open for business and citizens sleeping, depending on the time of day. The additional disc and memory space also allows for perspective changes on occasion... at least, in shops, we get to see more detailed versions of the characters (all are rendered in this super-deformed style, even adult shopkeepers):
Finally, with the storyline set into motion, we can get out of town and kill us some monsters.
The battle system is the same collision-based love-it-or-deal-with-it mechanic familiar from the Ys games -- we have to physically run into our foes using the control pad, hitting them with our sword-wielding side, while not hitting them so directly that they are able to damage us in return. But the enemies tend to travel in packs more in this game than in the world of Ys, making it difficult to single one out from the bunch and run into it enough times to kill it without getting surrounded and killed ourselves. When we're not in conversation, a large heads-up display occupies one side of the screen r the other, switching positions depending on where Areios is headed... or not; it's a little distracting but one gets used to it.
The enemies give up gems and occasional hit points as they are defeated, represented by icons that our hero must pick up, Legend of Zelda-style. And the tougher enemies dole out quite a bit of damage, and are harder to hit, making the battles challenging early on as we try to level up. There's another challenge in store based on annoying and seldom-used RPG convention -- Areios' weapons and armor also take damage and lose effectiveness during combat, forcing us to rebuy or upgrade from time to time at the shops in town. We can monitor our hero's basic stats, select options and save/load the game at any time using the handy SELECT-button menu:
Interestingly, after Areios runs out of hit points and passes away, he still exists as a ghost, and can fly through walls and over obstacles to explore the world. But I wasn't able to find a way to restore him to flesh-and-blood humanity -- there probably is one, but without the necessary language skills I completely missed any clues of that sort -- so after playing Casper long enough to tire of it, I had to start over.
I usually run into a wall at some point when I try to play JRPGs in the original Japanese. While it's possible to muddle through the game, fighting monsters and discovering new villages and lands, without some basic grasp of the story it's hard to care very much about what's going on. The Legend of Xanadu is quite nicely done, clearly an evolution of the Ys games with new features and more varied design. But it's also very much the same sort of story one expects -- there will be a series of increasingly difficult battles, we will face down an evil overlord of some kind, and the credits will roll. Maybe I'm just getting curmudgeonly and impatient in my old age, but once I can see the road ahead with some degree of clarity, and realize that I'm not going to get much of the story with equal clarity, I'm ready to experience something else. The Legend of Xanadu has been sampled. Next!
If you understand Japanese, you might get a lot more than I did out of this rich, polished JRPG. You may be able to find a copy for purchase here.