A PC Engine encore

20200712_150538.jpgFalcom’s Xanadu series is comprised of a long and tangled web of wildly differing action RPGs going so far back at least one of them’s available on tape, which naturally leads budding fans to wonder exactly where The Legend of Xanadu (AKA: Kaze no Densetsu Xanadu) fits in to this sprawling mess and what should be played before tackling this 1994 release. For all the series-splintering there’s some good news here: the biggest commitment anyone needs to make is to do nothing more than make sure they play The Legend of Xanadu before starting The Legend of Xanadu II, and that’s it. Oh and just be aware that chapter seven’s title, “Holy sword Dragonslayer” is a neat callback to one of Falcom’s earliest works as well as the name of a recurring weapon.

There was a time, long before Falcom games in English on Steam, PSPs, Vitas… even PlayStation 2s (remember Konami’s port of Ys VI?) were a thing, when to importers Falcom games were seen as PC Engine games and no PC Engine owner could possibly say they were serious about the console unless they had at least one Falcom title in their collection.

…Except the greater awareness that comes with this internet age tells us that’s not quite right, is it? Most of this legendary developer’s best-known and rightly cherished PC Engine adventures were actually the work of Hudson Soft – apart from The Legend of Xanadu. This miniseries is entirely Falcom’s own work and designed exclusively for the PC Engine. In fact to date the only way these games have appeared on other systems have been via emulation – they’ve never been ported or remade.

Even though this game’s in theory a fresh start on (for Falcom) an all-new format the end result is more the culmination of their greatest hits than a confident step towards a new direction: It’s not hard to see the fingerprints left behind by Ys, by The Legend of Heroes, by Popful Mail… in fact there’s very little in here that doesn’t have an obvious parallel with another mainstream Falcom game even the most casual fan’s guaranteed to have already played. It wouldn’t be difficult or dishonest to argue that the game is the physical manifestation of a sort of creative procrastination, a developer fiddling in the margins and wheeling out a parade of old crowd-pleasing favourites rather than taking even the slightest risk on some new ideas – on any new idea.

But it’s so darned charming to do so would be like complaining about the times your adorable doting grandma insisted on baking another fresh batch of your favourite biscuits before giving you a warm hug.

And for all its creative timidity it’s still perfectly clear The Legend of Xanadu is a reliably lavish production before the disc leaves the box: The included poster is bold and easily wall-able (it’s useful too: the reverse shows the layout of all thirty-two floors of the final dungeon in full – which does seem like an odd way for them to acknowledge that it was perhaps too lengthy and so, afraid people will give up right at the end, they pack a complete solution into every box… but refuse to do the obvious thing and cut the number of floors. Anyway.), and the manual’s fills every last tiny speck of free space with daft little comical sketches. In full colour and packed with so much bonus material there’s even a sealed secrets section that demands nothing less than a pair of scissors to access (mine remains uncut and taunting), it’s an enjoyable thing to flip through even when you’re long past the point of needing anything explained.

Once the game’s loaded it’s quick to catch the player’s eye, kicking events off with a fully-voiced introductory cutscene that even by the lofty standards of the PC Engine is sure to impress: It’s long, there’s enough pseudo-animation in there to breath life into the monster hordes and dramatic cloudscapes, and it’s oozing artistic flair and style out of every last pixel. Falcom must have had a good time making it because they snuck a second shorter intro cinematic in a few chapters later (and it’s all new too, not an edited-down version of the first), and every chapter finishes with yet more best-in-format artwork.

But for me it’s the small touches that really show how much care and attention was poured into the game: There’s a little alarm button nestled away in Aerios’ menu and if you press it, you’ll be given a polite message every hour you play letting you know it’s time for a fifteen minute break. Every shopkeeper and their background looks different from the last – built from a template for sure, but it’s still a joy to pop in and see what sort of hat or hairstyle they’re wearing this time. It’s finding the unexpected depth in a game that appears to be perfectly content in playing the well-worn hero-vs-dragon RPG story straight: The side-scrolling sections not only allow our brave sword-brandishing lead Aerios to use directional slashing and charge attacks but slide-kicks and blocking too. Oh, and the behaviour of certain items changes depending on whether they’re equipped or used – not so much they may as well have been another item entirely, but enough for players to tweak things to their own liking. Or how about this: Unlike almost every other RPG ever made you don’t barge straight into people’s homes uninvited and smash all their pots, you knock at their door and wait for them to let you in. These people even have their own short pieces of dialogue – “Oh yes, come in!”, “It’s Areios!”, etc. – as they peep through the hole in their door to see who it is. You’d think it was a pointless time-wasting detail – almost every other game in the genre has coped perfectly well without it – but in practise it gives every single NPC not just a bed and a name but also a precious hint of their own existence beyond your adventure. You are standing before their home and you will only enter when (or if, in some circumstances) they decide to invite you in. There are also goats. Sweet little sleeping goats just goat-ing around in a little goat pen. Oh and when you die the game neither boots you back to the title screen nor robs you of half your gold before waking up in the nearest church but instead turns Aerios into a sweet outline of a ghost, and your only punishment is to have to float your own way back to church for a completely no-strings-attached revival – no gold lost, no statistical penalty, just sent back on your heroic way. It’s a kindness not often found in older RPGs and best of all something that can actually be used to your advantage as ghost-Aerios can freely float through walls and is not on a timer or obliged to take the shortest route back to the church, giving you the opportunity to plan a route to your goal or check without coming to any harm if it’s worth fighting your way through a dangerous monster-riddled cavern.

The biggest small touch though has got to be the day/night – actually, morning/day/evening/night – system. I’ll admit I thought at first it was going to be a useless excuse to cycle through a few colour palettes and nothing more, but when I realised there was more to it I started to worry, imagining an RPG forcing me to plan my travels around a 9:45am appointment in a distant castle that must be kept precisely – but in reality it falls somewhere pleasantly in-between. Not being able to shop for armour at 11pm is a slight inconvenience (thankfully days are in infinite supply and pass so quickly you’re never waiting around for long even if you don’t have a spare magical hour glass in your inventory to speed things up) but games are often improved when not everything in them revolves around the player’s band of plucky adventurers. In The Legend of Xanadu day and night mean something without meaning so much they get in the way of your progress – almost all villagers put themselves to bed around nine or ten at night, and at the same time there’s a danger what were harmless gravestones under the shining sun will turn into swarms of hungry zombies for the next few (in-game) hours. The exact use of these time-sensitive extras varies depending on the area you’re in too, so when something like the above does happen it feels like an interesting local quirk than a forced gimmick.

As may be obvious from all the screenshots of small caped heroes walking through lush green meadows The Legend of Xanadu (mostly) inhabits the bright and bouncy end of the RPG spectrum: the bit with magical goddesses, spiky-haired men and everyone wearing enormous pauldrons. What’s less obvious is the way this epic quest has been divided into twelve largely self-contained micro RPGs, each with their own story arc, unique monsters, and exciting boss encounters. As with everything else in here Falcom have done it all before, and same as the rest they’ve brought the concept back because it just works so well. It feels fresh and zippy because the plot’s always trying to either introduce someone new or push you into getting a specific task done, and segmenting the physical space you have to explore alongside the story means all of your focus can only ever be on exactly where you are, which is probably about two small towns and a troublemaking dungeon’s worth of adventure. Thanks to this even when the story’s bouncing you from village elder to cave to random guy out in the middle of nowhere to village elder again the condensed setting means that not only are your options limited to NPCs directly relevant to your current situation but the amount of land you have to traverse between these points of interest is never quite as far as it could have been (and becomes even less so when you can start buying Wings to instantly warp you back to the church).

Along the way Aerios and friends will naturally whack many, many, enemies – from slimes and monkeys to giant insects and… bat-shrimp… things – all defeated using Falcom’s trusty “bump” system. There’s nothing to learn here that wasn’t already mastered by players of 1987’s Ys but then again, what needed changing? It’s fast paced and fun, and allows the designers to have a swarm of skeletons chase you through a winding dungeon or make weak enemies run away in fear in ways that just wouldn’t be possible in any variation of a traditional turn-based RPG system. Which is especially good news seeing as you’ll need to do a heck of a lot of monster-bopping to earn the money needed to upgrade Aerios’ (and only Aerios’) equipment. Of course there’s grinding – it’s a Falcom game. It’s been a staple part of their releases for so long that whether you view The Legend of Xanadu through a 2020 lens or a 1994 one to feign surprise at its inclusion feels as disingenuous as complaining that a new Sonic game has arrived and once again involves running and jumping. It’s just their style. Does it artificially inflate the game’s length? Absolutely. Is it something that’s been a motif in their titles since almost literally the dawn of commercial gaming? Definitely. And on this occasion it’s often avoidable – there’s plenty of free equipment (even on a par with the very best available in each chapter) and consumables to be found hidden away in dungeon treasure chests, and there are no levels to XP your way through.

Although the bulk of anyone’s time with The Legend of Xanadu will be spent bump-fighting the game is perhaps best recognised by its beautiful side-scrolling stages even though they only make up a tiny portion of the game. These play something like the most beautiful Ys III or Popful Mail stage you could imagine… but I really can’t stress enough how short these areas are: They’re always one single segment at the climax of each chapter, and they’re literally nothing more than a few screens worth of straightforward jumping and slashing. After all that boingy amusement comes the final hurdle between you and yet another gorgeous cutscene – an enormous boss bent on making short work of whatever’s left of your health bar (after you’ve received your obligatory CD serving of verbal taunting, that is). Much like the stage that preceded them the punishment for mistakes is quite severe but it still doesn’t take many attempts before their well-telegraphed attack patterns become obvious, and a large quantity of health restoring items can always plug the gaps where skills might fail.

With that screen-filling beastie out of the way Aerios and co. are swiftly whisked away to the next chapter and another lively location to hero around on your way to the ultimate hero-ing, which means more grinding, more dungeons, more adventurous friends, and more chatting to NPCs you’ll never see again after an hour or so’s time. If you like old-style Falcom, the one that made games on floppy discs and I thought had released four hundred million Popful Mail CDs, this is about the most Falcom-y thing Falcom ever Falcom’d and considering its position in the company timeline something of a victory lap for this old way of doing things before they truly stepped into the future and rarely looked back. The Legend of Xanadu may be a very “safe” sort of game, but it hits every last one of their action RPG back catalogue’s range of proven-popular high notes so definitively it can only feel like your favourite band playing their best song – you may know every note before they play them, but you’ll still love every single minute of it.

[This post would literally not exist without the kind generosity of my Ko-fi supporters! Thank you so much!]

2 thoughts on “A PC Engine encore

  1. I do indeed remember Konami releasing Ys VI on PS2. It was my very first Ys/Falcom game back in 2005 or somesuch after learning about the series on HG101, which I’m not gonna do the math now, but most assurely is like only five years ago.

    The chapter based structure is interesting. After all games like for example Dragon Quest are also very vignette-based in their structure, so why not separate these individual things completely instead of putting them into one big world you almost never go back in anyways.

    A bit surprised to hear that the sidescrolling parts are so short tho. With how much they get shown off I always assumed all the action outside of towns takes place like this.

    Like

    1. It’s easy to see why there are so many screenshots of the side-stages – they look incredible! But yes if that’s what anyone bought the game for then they’re going to be left sorely disappointed :S

      Like

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