Sunday, March 27, 2016

Game 217: Xanadu: Dragon Slayer II (1985)

Xanadu: Dragon Slayer II
Nihon Falcom (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for PC-88, PC-98, and Sharp X1; 1986 for FM-7; 1987 for MSX
Date Started: 27 March 2016
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.

Buying wisdom.
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.
The experience screen shows my accumulated experience with the dagger and short sword (first two weapon slots), "Needle" spell (first scroll slot), cloth and leather armor (first two "armor" slots), and first and third shields (I skipped small shields).
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?
Moving on.
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.


  1. According to the Wikipedia page, the karma meter will go up if you kill good-aligned enemies. After a certain point, temples will refuse to give you services or level you up if you have poor karma. Karma can be adjusted the other way if you drink a black potion that seems to act as "penance": you lose a lot of HP, but your karma goes back up.

    1. It's really random. I recall some butterfly looking creatures on level 3 lowering karma whenever you kill them, but they attack just like any other enemy. I remember there being a place to buy stat upgrades, I can't recall if you can get back to the town of if there's an underground town later. And yes, gameplay is not always linear. The final battle does not take place on the final level, but there is a crucial item down there they you need to finish the game. Also, I remember eventually getting strong enough to kill fire and having to come back.

    2. I meant the butterflies raise your karma, sorry, and now that i think about it, I'm pretty sure there's a portal that takes you back to the starting area. I remember it being hidden. There's a lot of sections where you'll have to really think about your plan of action or go through grueling trial and error since you only have so many pick axes, black onyxs, etc to get around. There are some areas in the game that you will probably never see in one play through because of these inventory item limits.

    3. I appreciate the help. Karma sounds pretty arbitrary, then, but I'll watch out for those butterflies, at least when I don't have a potion handy.

    4. Yeah, one website says : "Leveling up your character is a very important aspect of the game. Melee and magic experience is distributed separately, so you need to attack with both methods if you want a well rounded character, or just stick to one if you want a concentration. To level up, it's necessary to go to a temple after reaching the required amount of XP. There's a catch here though - they won't let you in if your Karma stat is too high. Every enemy in the game is classified as either "good" or "bad", even though they all will attack you. If you kill too many "good" enemies, your Karma will raise, and you'll be turned away at the Temples. In order to lower your Karma, you need to drink posionous black potions, which deplete a good chunk of your HP. These potions cannot be purchased and must be found during exploration. None of this really makes any logical sense."

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    1. Eh? Trix's playing only good games now, eh?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. If Chet will permit ME one small note of advertising:

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    4. Haha, good one.

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    5. "First name Bob, last name is...Weottababyitsaboy."

  3. Replies
    1. Haha, yeah, all the crazy mechanics and hidden elements reminded me of Dark Souls as well.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Anyone notice the ripped art? It's from the Ultima 3 manual, as a matter of fact! They slightly anime-fied it, but if you look at the manual it's basically the same. Falcom actually tried to get Origin to publish the game in the U.S., which must have been awkward.

    1. Hmm... the box art of Ultima 3 in Japan looks even more "anime-fied" than Xanadu's.

    2. The weapon seller is definitely ripped off. The priest is less clearly a rip-off.

      A lot of people ripped off Ultima III

    3. Good catch. The Xanadu artist was clearly inspired by U3, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it "ripped." I mean, he clearly re-drew it, at least.

    4. This is mentioned in the Book of Ultima (I think). Apparently the developers of this game were excited to show it to Richard Garriott in the hope of either licensing games for sale in Japan, or having their games licensed for sale in the US (maybe both). Garriott took one looked at the stolen artwork and canceled any deals they were working on, and sued the company (eventually settled out of court apparently).

    5. That's almost heartbreaking. It sounds like the Japanese developers really admired Garriott and thought they were paying him an homage. What a rude awakening.

  5. If you just read that stat screen the straightforward way, you have over 107 quindecillion experience points, which I'm pretty sure makes you capable of destroying the galaxy with a rusty dagger.

  6. Machine-translating some Japanese pages, I see Xanadu referred to as a "puzzle-RPG" where progress can easily become impossible if the player hasn't planned-out his approach before starting. They also say that rods improve the skill of whatever magic you currently have equipped.

    1. That is correct. This is due to the finite number of encounters possible in the whole game. If you invested in your skills erratically, you will end up with a lousy character who is extremely inept with end-game magical equipment.

      But I believe that if you don't grind until you obtain the best gear in the game, it should be fine.

    2. I guess. That's kind of hard, though. You have to grind a little to GET to the best gear. Case in point: Level 1 has a short sword deep in one of the castles. To get to it, I have to defeat a bunch of enemies with my dagger, which means spending at least some time grinding with the dagger before I can switch to the short sword. I hate to think of all that "experience" wasted. I like the mechanic of being able to develop experience with a specific weapon, but not in a fixed-experience game, and not where more advanced weapons are clearly better.

    3. Maybe time has messed with my head, but I remember almost solely grinding with physical attacks and I held onto a pretty crummy low level sword for almost the entire game. This was the MSX cartridge version I was playing. I overleveled it enough that it was pretty powerful, but when I did finally get the game's final sword, I had to go back up eight levels and scrounge for experience because I sucked so bad.

  7. For a 1985 game, this sounds surprisingly deep. Having to explore, plan and execute a winning run via information collected over several failed playthroughs involves an effort:reward payoff that we haven't seen much of outside of roguelikes, and to package it into something that definitely would have been graphically appealing in '85 is no mean feat.

    People must have loved this when it came out - it's almost like an RPG version of Spelunky but without thousands of other games competing for your time.


    Just checked Wiki and apparently it was a major deal, set sales records etc. Cool game!

  8. Be careful with leveling up- as your levels go up, so do the price of ALL items. It's best not to visit Temples to level until you actually need more power to survive. (Also, fighter and mage levels have titles.)

    There are very few enemies that will actually raise your Karma to kill... but in most versions (my experiences is on MSX and Sega Saturn) having any nonzero Karma will bar you from temples.

    For the fire elementals, you need a water-based spell like deluge.

    The dungeon is mostly linear, but there's definitely parts where you can go out-of-order a bit.

    MGR stands for Magic Resistance.

    Also, you may want to rethink dexterity- the only thing it affects is how quickly you can open chests. Agility represents movement speed (which is abstracted by slowing down monsters instead.)

    Direct download links for a translated manual (for the MSX, but any differences are very minor)

    Main manual:

    Monster listing (which came with the original game):

    A "primer" I found some time ago and completely forgot what was in it, but purports to explain stats and such:

    And for those who do want spoilers, here's Xanadu Labo, a Japanese guide that is completely intelligible through Google Translate:

    A note on the dungeon layouts, in ROT13:

    Vagreanyyl, gur qhatrbaf sbe rnpu sybbe ner nyy fgberq nf n fvatyr sbhe ol gra tevq cre sybbe- sbhe fperraf jvqr naq gra gnyy. Zbfg (nyy?) sybbef unir n gbgny bs sbhe qhatrba ragenaprf gb gur qhatrba, ohg gurl ner rssrpgviryl frcnengr nf V qba'g erzrzore n fvatyr pnfr jurer lbh pbhyq zbir orgjrra qhatrbaf jvgubhg hfvat n Znagyr gb jnyx guebhtu jnyyf. Nf sbe anivtngvba, vs fbzr ebbzf ner neenatrq nf fhpu:


    zbivat evtug sebz Q jvyy yrnq gb gur yrsg ragenapr bs R; zbivat evtug sebz U jvyy yrnq gb gur yrsg ragenapr bs V (naq ivpr irefn, oneevat bar-jnl cnffntrf- pna'g erzrzore vs gurer ner nal be abg.)

    1. I knew if I was patient, some savior would come along. I really appreciate the tips and documents, Hakase! We'll see how it goes.

    2. @Chet - Because his name literally means "A foreign professor".

  9. So Xanadu Labo's link was old, here's a current link:

    One caution on leveling up: your food consumption goes up when you level up as well- so if you're not carrying enough food to match your new level, you could be starving within minutes.

    (The best way to describe the effects of leveling up is that *everything* related to your character goes up- HP and stats, but also shop prices and rate of food consumption.)

    Come to think of it, the best way to approach Xanadu as a whole is less like a traditional RPG, and more like a big puzzle and resource management game that happens to be an RPG- there are so many resources in the dungeon, and your job is to make the most of them to get to the end of the game. It's also not a game to be ashamed of restarting- once you know what to do and have a plan of action it doesn't take THAT long to get back to where you were before; in that sense it's almost like an old-style adventure game.

  10. It's funny how many of the comments on this game remind me of Faxanadu. I mean, obviously from the name, Faxanadu is an adaptation of Xanadu (for the Famicom, thus the Fa in front of Xanadu).

    However, I was under the impression that, since Faxanadu did not come from the original team, it was quite a bit different from the original. While I'm still sure that's true, it's neat to see what similarities exist.

    Most notably, the leveling system (going to the Church at seemingly random times), some of the spells (Deluge!), and how the game started (at the King, get money) all remind me of Faxanadu.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. As for differences, based on what I've read so far, Xanadu seems less linear, more complicated, and more challenging than Faxanadu. The weapons leveling system is gone entirely, and I'm fairly sure you never clear areas of monsters in Faxanadu, though maybe I'm just forgetting.

      The things in Xanadu that remind me of Dark Souls are the very things that distance it from Faxanadu. The latter was probably trying to be a more consumer-friendly console experience at the time.

    3. I borrowed the Faxanadu NES cartridge from a friend in the 90s. Pretty sure I remember farming the same screen repeatedly for coins to get the best gear whenever I found a new town. It got good a good review in Nintendo Power.

    4. You can farm money and EXP indefinitely in Faxanadu- if memory serves, ALL monsters regenerate when you leave a screen, indefinitely. Where the structure of Xanadu is almost akin to a Wizardry-style dungeon crawler, the structure of Faxanadu is more like the action-adventure/Almost-RPGs that were so common on the Famicom and hardly unheard of on the NES.

      Legacy of the Wizard/Dragon Slayer IV, which is basically a spiritual successor to Xanadu, is essentially Xanadu reimagined as a Metroidvania instead of an RPG (which seems very logical as Xanadu is very close to a Metroidvania as it is.)

  11. One trope-breaker in this game: rather than the royalty begging for help while giving you no support whatsoever, in this one the king grants you life itself. That's kind of refreshing, isn't it?

    1. Usually, the king tells you what he wants you to do and gives no help. In this one, he gives you a bunch of stuff but doesn't actually explain the quest. I guess they both have their strengths and weaknesses.

    2. I'm waiting for the RPG where the king gives you everything you need to win immediately AND tells you how to do it.

    3. Kings. When will they ever learn how to understand the needs of the common man. Er, common hero?

  12. Actually, that could work for a rather amusing game. King outfits you with special equipment thatn can kill the big bad, tells you where the big-bad is, and sends you on your way. You are immediately waylaid and all your gear stolen, and possibly pressed into service on some ship. After a long and arduous journey to get your gear back, bit by bit, by tracking down rumors of muggers with boots that allow them to run twice as fast, gang leaders with gauntlets of amazing strength, a warlord with plate mail that protects against all elements, a shield that can turn any weapon aside, and a sword of irresistible force.

    Gathering them in the wrong order is not recommended.

    You can either have the big bad have the sword himself, making it the final battle, and harder than it would have been, or you can have a twist after retrieving the sword from whoever it ended up with to keep the final battle interesting.

    1. That sounds like a decent premise. One question: if you're outfitted with the ultimate gear, how do you get waylaid and have it stolen? The best I can come up with here (with a nod to Greatest American Hero) is that they jump you before you have time to read the equipment manual.

    2. All the physical protection in the world won't help you if you're just outsmarted. Ideally, it would be some branching decisions into 3-4 options, but every one ends up with your equipment stolen, albeit in a different way.

      Maybe the helmet is stuffy, so you take it off when you feel safe, and that little old lady isn't as kind as she seems.

      Maybe you're dead tired, and accosted in the your sleep that night (having this happen a second time half or more the way through getting the equipment back but letting them catch up with the thieves quickly afterwards before they know what they have yet though would be a fun way to tease the player).

      Having the player do something extremely stupid, like trip on a rock and hit their head when they didn't bother with the helmet for a simple Goblin. Make it something they like to waffle about when asked how they lost their equipment...

      Maybe they need to remove everything to wade across a river, and are robbed in the water while their equipment is bundled above their head, and left for dead.

      There's lots of reasons why you wouldn't be decked out in full plate armor with your helmet on, shield at the ready, and sword in hand every second of every day. A single person is always vulnerable.

    3. Or you get drugged in a bar, Gateway to the Savage Frontier style

    4. Actually Ultima 7: Serpent Isle is a bit like this. You start with equipment that could kill the bad boy, but then the drat teleport stoms hit and the magebane sits under some Penguins ass ...

  13. The two different fighting styles (top-down vs. side-view) are interesting. The only other time I've seen that is the Sega Mega Drive game Sword of Vermilion (1989). As in Xanadu, normal combat is top-down, but bosses are side-view (though with no ability to jump, and thus no ability to dodge attacks). That game revelled in perspective change: town exploration was top-down, but all other exploration was first-person, like a dungeon-crawler. The mix did not work well for that game; it was touted as the greatest-looking and largest RPG ever, and critics liked it then, but pretty much everyone pans it now. (It was also part of a combative campaign by Sega: "Genesis does what Nintendon't.") I'm just surprised another game tried that strange mixture of fighting styles.

    1. I really enjoy Sword of Vermillion. Sure it's linear and grindy, but it's got heart.


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