Not many people outside Japan are familiar with the Dragon Slayer series. Created by Nihon Falcom, the great minds behind Ys, the first game enjoyed a good deal of popularity and got many sequels, though unfortunately, almost all of them remained exclusive to Japan.
The second Dragon Slayer game, Xanadu, actually branched off into a seperate series of its own and also got a bunch of sequels, but again, almost all of them were exclusive to Japan. One of the very few that wasn't was a spin-off for the NES, produced by Hudson Soft rather than Nihon Falcom, omitting the series' overhead aspect to feature exclusively side-scrolling gameplay.
In Faxanadu, you play a nameless hero who has just returned to his hometown after an epic adventure. Located at the base of the enormous World Tree, the townsfolk immediately tell you that the land has been in a pretty dire state since you left. Although the Elves and Dwarves that inhabited the World Tree lived in harmony before, an evil being from another planet known only as the Evil One arrived one day and corrupted the Dwarves, transforming them into monsters and setting them up against the Elves. Since then, all of the tree's water springs have dried up and all of the towns on the tree's branches have been on the verge of being overrun.
Of course, you are tasked not just with defeating the Evil One, but also reactivating all springs and restoring life to the tree. Setting off from your hometown Eolis, you've got to climb all the way up the tree, going through many dungeons and enemy-inhabited places to eventually reach the Evil One's stronghold and give him what-for. The game plays pretty much exactly like the sidescrolling action sections in Zelda II: you don't just have to worry about defeating enemies with your weapons and magic, you also have to carefully cross gaps, find keys and recover important items.
The game adds a little bit of extra depth in that you can buy better equipment as you reach new towns, and it's highly suggested you do so, as each new weapon, spell, set of armour and shield is twice as effective as the last one. An interesting point is that there is no real leveling up to speak of, instead the only thing that influences the damage you take and deal is your equipment. There are experience points, and you will gain "titles" as you reach certain amounts, but the only thing they actually do is increase the amount of money you start with after a death.
Unlike Zelda II, that at times could be frustratingly hard to figure out what you were supposed to do, Faxanadu's townfolk are surprisingly helpful: they will tell you pretty much exactly where to go and what to do, and, for the most part, don't speak in broken English. The game is mostly a fairly straightforward romp to the top of the tree, but you will have to enter several dungeons to reactivate springs or collect special items to open the path forward.
Faxanadu is also a bit more forgiving than Nintendo's effort in that you can buy potions and elixirs which you can use at any time to recover health or automatically save your life should you happen to run out of health. You can also purchase wing boots that let you fly for a generous amount of time, and keys that open the entrances to most dungeons. The game never really reaches insurmountable levels of difficulty, but any troublesome part can easily be overcome by using some of these items.
It's a surprisingly long game, and it can easily take first-timers upward of 5-6 hours to finally lay waste to the Evil One's plans. None of those 5-6 hours ever feel like a slog, though; it's a surprisingly fun game that perfectly manages to strike the balance between being too easy and being too hard. If you're not too good at it, you can always spend a small amount of time fighting monsters for money to purchase items to help you, whereas if you are good you can cleverly outfight any opponent in your way.
One major complaint when the game was new was its password system. Although the original Japanese release allowed the use of saves, in the Western version you had to visit a church to receive a lengthy password that then had to be entered the next time you booted up the game to continue where you left off. If you messed up writing down one letter, you could wave goodbye to your progress. Thankfully, the Virtual Console's suspend feature completely eliminates this issue.
Faxanadu is a bit of an oddball in the graphics department. If you just glance over some screenshots, it seems very dull and gritty, but if you take a careful look in the backgrounds of many of the game's locations, you'll find that they are actually intricately detailed and perfectly portray the fact that you spend most of the game walking on a giant tree that's slowly dying. The music is similarly atmospheric, with initially upbeat tunes that grow increasingly more creepy the higher you climb up the tree.
Faxanadu has long been on people's wishlists for Virtual Console releases, and for many very good reasons. It's basically Zelda II without any of the flaws, and should be an absolutely essential purchase for anyone who likes either platformers, action games or RPGs.