There wasn't much chance that I was going to really love a side-scrolling action RPG in which a weird-looking little guy defeats foes by bashing into them, but I have to admit that Xanadu is a little better than I expected. It significantly improves on Dragon Slayer (1984) and anticipates its own Part V, Sorcerian (1987; which I covered without realizing its Dragon Slayer lineage) as well as Zeliard (1987).
It doesn't feel much like its predecessor (which I covered last year), but I gather that the Dragon Slayer label denotes less a "series" than a "lineage." In the first game, the Goofy Cartoonish Little Man (GCLM) ran around a one-story dungeon, collecting treasures, fighting monsters, and building experience so he could defeat the dragon at the center of the map. I called it a "win!" after 5 hours and one dragon-slaying, although technically there were at least 8 "phases" that I should have played before getting to the true end of the game.
|Exploring the vertical dungeon of Xanadu.|
Xanadu (I'm playing the PC-88 version) keeps the action-oriented gameplay and the GCLM but puts you in a side-scrolling dungeon that wraps around on itself horizontally but not vertically. Various chutes and ladders take you to the monsters, shops, and dungeons to be found within. It's not quite a "platformer," as it lacks jumping puzzles; it's more of a vertical maze. I find it hard to find my way to desired locations and equally hard to map.
Several monster types haunt the hallways. On the first level, I encountered skeletons, beetles, goblins, giant bats, and fire elementals. You don't fight them in the side view (like you do in the later Sorcerian and Zeliard); instead, running into them takes you to a top-down combat screen with 6 or 8 of whatever monster icon you encountered. Exploring castles, caves, and towers within the side-scrolling map is also top-down.
|Entering a room full of skeletons--and a ring.|
Aside from the interface changes, what Xanadu mostly adds is a wider variety of equipment and statistics. Dragon Slayer had a few items--swords, crowns, crosses, and so forth--but you could only hold one item at a time. Xanadu expands with a bunch of different weapons, suits of armor, shields, and usable items like lamps and keys, and you don't have to go through the idiotic juggling-dropping routine that added a lot of extra time to Dragon Slayer. Some of these items are found in combat or dungeon rooms, but most are available from shops scattered throughout the caves.
You also have a full set of attributes--strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, agility, charisma, and something abbreviated "MGR." There's a regular experience counter, which causes you to level up when visiting temples, as well as individual experience for each item type in the game, something I don't fully understand yet. Finally, there's a "karma" statistic, but it hasn't budged since I started the game and I'm not sure what causes it to do so.
|The "statistics" screen shows my attributes and other numbers.|
Let me back up to the beginning. I haven't been able to find a manual for the game, so I'm not sure of its backstory. The opening screens give you no indication of who you are or why you're in the dungeon. You start in an outdoor "castle" level, with the entrance to a king's palace right next to you. Entering the palace starts the character creation process. Before the king, you specify a name, and suddenly the game gives you 1,500 hit points, 3,500 gold, 100 units of food, and a basic suit of equipment: a dagger, cloth armor, gloves (in the "shield" slot), a "Needle" spell, and spectacles in the miscellaneous equipment slot.
|"Character creation." Note that the various items are laid out in front of the king.|
Near the palace are a number of doors marked with the character's attributes. Visiting each gives you the ability to pay 100 gold pieces for boosts of 5 or 10 in that attribute. This is a slightly more complicated way of simply assigning your attributes from a pool of points. I went with a strength- and dexterity-heavy allocation for my first character.
Little NPCs or monsters--a princess, a knight, a dog, a gull, some kind of whirlybird--roam around the outdoor area, but there doesn't seem to be any way to interact with them.
|Walking around the castle level.|
At the far right of the castle level is the entrance to a small dungeon with no monsters, introducing you to the game's approach to chutes, ladders, and tunnels. There's some kind of copy protection thing going on here, because you have to know exactly what to do--walk to a precise point and then turn around and go the other direction--to progress in the game. Otherwise, you end up in a never-ending repeating loop. Fortunately, my version came with a text file explaining what to do. Find the right path, and you are amidst the monsters and shops of the first level.
Enemies float about fixed areas, and running into them takes you to the top-down combat screen. Combat seems as dull and unsophisticated as Dragon Slayer or Hydlide at first, but there are hints of greater complexity to come. You fight creatures here by bashing into them. Unlike some of the previous games, you can't avoid getting attacked yourself by bashing them from the side or rear, or by attacking them with your position a little off-set. But what does seem to make a huge difference is who attacks first. If you can be the one who initiates the attack, you seem to take less damage than if you let the creature attack you first.
|Fighting "Ares." The bubble around my character indicates he's hitting me.|
There are probably more tactics later on with spells. You start with the "Needle" spell; it shoots a little rod at enemies that does less damage than a regular attack. I didn't really start experimenting with it until late in this session.
Slain creatures drop treasure chests with gold, food, or special items. As I played, I learned how I could delay opening these chests and picking up the items to create a kind of "terrain" by which enemies couldn't reach me, or could only reach me from one angle.
|Opening chests after killing a few snakes. Snakes drop food.|
At first, I thought the enemies respawned endlessly, as a new icon would appear immediately at the end of each combat. It turns out, however, that they only respawn 2 or 3 times before you've effectively "cleared" that monster. Unless I'm missing something, this means that there is a fixed amount of experience and money in each level.
The first level had two towers and two castles to enter, each with a selection of top-down rooms full of monsters and treasures. With my first character, I couldn't fully explore these edifices because I ran out of keys before I was able to explore all the rooms. Maddeningly, locked doors have to be unlocked from both sides, and it's possible to spend your last key unlocking a door only to find yourself in a dead-end room on the other side, with suicide as the only way out.
I like the variety of special items that you can find in the game even though I don't understand them all. Spectacles give you the specific strength and defense statistics of the nearest enemy. Lamps are necessary to light up interior areas. Red potions heal you. Mantles allow you to "pass wall" for a limited amount of time. Candles transform you to a skeleton for a limited time, which makes you immune to monsters (but you can't attack them either). There are a few others I haven't experimented with yet.
A key dynamic in the game seems to be managing the way your experience develops, particularly since each weapon, suit of armor, and shield has its own associated experience level. I spent most of the first level killing enemies with a dagger before realizing that I was probably wasting a lot of potential skill development time with more advanced weapons. (I presume a skill of 100 with a long sword is better than a skill of 100 with a dagger.) I found daggers and short swords on Level 1, but more advanced weapons and armor have to be purchased, adding an economic consideration to the whole thing. Should I buy a suit of leather armor now and start developing experience with it, or should I save money for a suit of chain instead?
|I'm not sure I ever would have been able to afford a long sword on the first level.|
Shops in the dungeon include weapons, armor, shields, guilds (sell keys), magic scrolls, inns (restore hit points 10 at a time), healers (restore all hit points for a fixed fee), and temples where you level up. I'm not really sure how the leveling system works. After I accumulated about 2,000 experience points, I visited the temple and got elevated from a "novice fighter" to an "aspirant." But despite earning around 6,000 more experience points, I never got elevated again after that. Does it simply take more, or is there something else I need to do? The game also tracks fighter and wizard experience and levels separately, and I'm not sure if I should focus on one or create a more balanced character.
|Leveling up in the temple.|
Eventually, I found a cave to Level 2. At first, it wouldn't let me through the door, but later it did, and I'm not sure what caused it to open--an experience threshold? Some item?
In any event, something interesting happened before I found the transition: In one of the towers or castles, I encountered what seemed to be a "boss-level" creature: a "kraken" that I had to fight in side-view. I came here way too early and was killed almost immediately. I reloaded and explored more of the dungeon, but I was never able to find the kraken again. I don't remember how I got to him in the first place.
|What seems like a "boss-level" combat proves impossible for me.|
While I'm asking questions, here are a few other mysteries I wouldn't mind getting a solution to from someone who understands the game better:
- What is with the "karma" statistic? It never seems to budge, and I can't think of any gameplay elements that would cause it to budge.
- There's a "strength" statistic that seems to be independent of my strength attribute. What goes into this score?
- There are some fire elementals that have attack and defense scores way above the norm, and I'm unable to beat them. One of them is blocking the entrance to a castle and won't move. What the hell?
- I keep finding "rods" within dungeons, but after I pick them up, they don't show in my inventory list. What are they for?
- Does the character ever return to the "outside" where he can buy attributes for gold, or does all that have to be accomplished at the beginning of the game?
- There were several other portals that I was never able to enter, including one behind a series of locked doors. This, plus the fact I was able to get to Level 2 without defeating Level 1's "boss" suggests to me that the levels aren't necessarily linear but more interconnected. Is this the case?
|What is down this tantalizing tunnel?|
A more complex and interesting game, with more RPG elements than Dragon Slayer. With a lack of NPCs, meaningful role-playing encounters, a sensible backstory, and deep combat tactics, it's not destined for a high rating, but I'm happy to give it another couple of levels at least. I'll probably start over with a new character now that I understand the experience system better, make better maps, and see if I can find that kraken again.