Posted on June 3rd, 2010 9 comments
Xanadu, put out in late 1985 and therefore predating Dragon Quest, is a historical landmark in Japan’s video-game history. The English Wikipedia article on it is remarkably well-written and concise, more so than even the Japanese one right now, but neglects to mention why the game was such a hit in the first place — basically, it’s the first truly great (and truly original) made-in-Japan RPG, one that didn’t simply rip off Wizardry or Ultima wholesale.
You’ll see a bit of that old-school Ultima atmosphere in the battle scenes and the “Karma” parameter that goes up as you defeat monsters defined as “good” by the programming. (The virtue system from Ultima IV, which came out just before Xanadu, was undoubtedly an influence.) Western gamers will also notice parallels with Legacy of the Wizard, the NES game, which shares Xanadu’s side-view exploration, abstract architecture, and basic premise of collecting crowns and tracking down the legendary Dragon Slayer sword. This graphic style was also inherited by Faxanadu, although Falcom didn’t develop that one.
I’m linking to a speedy walkthrough video of the 1986 Xanadu Scenario II add-on pack, identical in gameplay to the original, mainly because it has better music. Soundtrack duties in Scenario II were handled by Takahito Abe (who I last mentioned in my Susa-no-Oh Densetsu article) and an 18-year-old Yuzo Koshiro, his first professional credit. To be precise, Koshiro didn’t compose music for this game — Falcom simply bought the rights to the PC-8801 music he had on his demo tape and threw it in. The Scenario II opening, dungeon levels 7, 9 and 11, and most of the boss music is his work. (Abe’s stuff shouldn’t be sniffed at, though, especially the two ending tracks.)
The opening few minutes will be a bit confusing if you aren’t familiar with Xanadu previously. In order to play Scenario II, one first had to boot up the original Xanadu disk and start up a new game. You begin in an ersatz castle town, where you visit the king to name your hero and then enter a series of training houses to define your starting parameters. Maxing out your charisma at the very beginning (as seen here) unlocks access to a secret underground shop where you can more fully prepare yourself for the coming expedition, buying potions and level-skipping talismans and such.
Once you enter the dungeon at the bottom of the tunnel network under the town, you’re prompted to switch disks. At this point you can perform a couple of tricks (again, demonstrated here) that let your character weasel out of the disk-switch prompt and access an Easter-egg battle that nets you the Vorpal Weapon, the most powerful sword outside of the Dragon Slayer. After that, you switch disks and Scenario II begins proper.
The aim of Scenario II is to defeat bosses, gather crowns, and defeat the King Dragon. The 11 levels of the dungeon can largely be explored in any order; you’re only limited by your current strength and stats. To beat the game the most quickly, a blitzkrieg approach is best — storming up the dungeon levels, nabbing all the top armor and equipment first, then going back down and taking out all the bosses. Your dexterity is so low at the start of the game that you can’t hit the broad side of a barn with your Vorpal Weapon, but with your trusty Large Shield +7 covering your hide, you can afford to be patient.
By the way, the NEC PC-8801mk2 that Xanadu was developed for uses the Yamaha YM2203 sound chip, with three FM channels and three SSG channels — basically, a standard AY-3-8910 with a bit of FM functionality tacked on. Most of the music uses only the three FM channels, which lend it a barren but oddly charming feel that would influence Falcom’s “house sound” for the next decade.