Xanadu is one of the most important Japanese RPGs developed. According to Falcom's
website, it sold more than 400,000 copies and is one of the most successful PC games
in the country. It's the second title in Falcom's Dragon Slayer line, which aren't
technically related, but the early titles shared much the same staff, and you can
find small similarities in graphics and music between them.
Xanadu was the summer capital of Kublai Khan, ruler of the Mongol Empire. Its name
has become synonymous with "wealth paradise". Many unfortunate people have surmised
that these games had something to do with the much maligned '80s Olivia Newton John
movie by the same name - as one might guess, this is not the case. It's a pretty
standard RPG, with the basic goal being to crawl through dungeons, defeat enemies,
find hidden crowns, uncover the lost Dragon Slayer sword, and kill the dragon
The game is a side-scrolling, dungeon crawling RPG. You begin in a town with no
money and no strength. It's filled with people, though they're only there for
flavor, and you can't interact with any of them. A quick visit to the king will
allow you to name your character and net you some cash, which you can use to train
the hero in several different fields. Then you delve into the caverns below the
Just getting into the dungeon is an abstract, nonsensical puzzle - unless you figure
out, you'll wander around in a circle forever. (Fall straight down, head left until
the hole you fell from scrolls off the screen, then head right. A shop will appear
out of nowhere, in where case you can head back left and down the ladder to the
The look of the game should be familiar to fans of the NES game Legacy of the
Wizard, which is actually the fourth game in the Dragon Slayer series. Each dungeon
is several screens tall and several screens wide, though it loops horizontally. The
goal is to not only find the exit, but gain enough strength and find enough
equipment that will allow you to defeat the boss, before moving onto the next
dungeon. There are ten dungeons in total. The game auto saves at certain points, but
you can also save your game at any time at the cost of some gold.
Navigation is incredibly confusing, considering there's almost no real logic to the
placement of platforms. You can climb up and down ladders, but can only "jump" a
single square. This being an old computer game, the characters move a single tile at
a time, so the movement feels very choppy.
The landscape is naturally littered with enemies. Colliding with one will bring up a
separate overhead battle sequence screen where you engage in combat against multiple
bad guys. Similar to its predecessor Dragon Slayer you can attack them simply by
nudging up against them. If you're facing them and you're powerful, you'll inflict a
bit of damage, but if you're attacked from any other side or are too weak, then
you'll take damage instead. You also have magic spells which allow you to attack
from a distance. It is possible to run away from enemies by walking off the side of
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.
Beyond experience points, killing enemies will also grant gold, which you can use to
buy equipment from any of the shops strewn throughout the caves. You also need to
replenish your constantly dwindling food supply, lest you want to starve to death.
Some areas are locked off and require keys to proceed.
Your weapons also level up independently, so you need to continue to reuse them
before they gain in power. As a result, you might feel a little weaker when you get
new equipment before you fully break them in. The number of enemies is limited in
each dungeon, so it's important to carefully manage your resources and experience
There are also numerous castles and towers underground, and upon entering the
perspective changes to an overhead perspective like the battle scenes. They are dark
at first, but can be lighted with lamps from chests dropped by defeated enemies.
Further items that help during the quest include spectacles to read an enemy's
status, invincibility rings, healing potions and a mantle that allows to pass
through walls for a short time. At the end of some mazes, a giant boss creature guards the
main treasure. Only these bosses are fought in the side-view perspective, which
makes it very difficult to reach them because of their long moving tentacles.
However, the size of these sprites was considered extremely impressive at the time.
Xanadu is one of those games that's clearly very advanced for the mid-1980s, as it's
a huge game with lots to see and kill. But the mechanics are so ancient and the
graphics so repetitive that it just amounts to seemingly endless stumbling and
grinding, so much that it's really difficult to actually play.
The original releases of Xanadu were for the Sharp X1, Fujitsu FM-7 and NEC PC-88
home computers. The X1 version was released on tape as well as disk, though the load
times for the tape version are insane. The game was ported to both the MSX (on
cartridge) and MSX2 (on disk). The graphics are lower resolution, but a little more
colorful. Curiously, the MSX version actually looks a bit better than the MSX2
version. The MSX versions also have an entirely different soundtrack that was
written by Mieko Ishikawa which utilizes PSG synth, rather than the FM music of the
The Japanese home computers also received a second release titled Xanadu Scenario
II: Resurrection of the Dragon. It's technically an expansion set, since it requires
that you have the original Xanadu disks in order to create your character, and it
uses many of the same basic graphics. But it adds a significant amount of new
features that it almost feels like a sequel. Beyond including new and different
enemies, the game is now non-linear, and you can explore any of the eleven dungeons
in any order. However, some are more difficult than most, so it's generally to your
advantage to stick to the lower level dungeons at first. The dungeons are 8 screens
wide by 8 screens tall, compared to the 16 wide by 4 tall layouts of the original
game. You can also sell back items, and each shop buys and sells different items at
The soundtrack is also greatly expanded, with each dungeon having its own song. Most
of the music in the original game consisted of a single song, "La Valse Pour
Xanadu", with a basic melody that was played at different tempos depending on the
scene. The soundtrack in Scenario II is completely new, with many more tracks. The
music was composed by Takahito Abe and Yuzo Koshiro. This was actually the first
work by Koshiro. He did not write tracks specifically for Xanadu, but rather he
submitted a demo of his music to Falcom, who ended up purchasing the rights and
using it in the game.
In 1995, Falcom released Revival Xanadu for the PC-98. The graphics are
improved, but only slightly, with the visuals improving from 8 colors of the PC-88
version to up 16 colors. The shopkeeper portraits and character sprites are more
detailed, but the backgrounds are still the spartan blues and greys as before, and
the scrolling is still pretty choppy. Compared to the other version, melee combat is
pretty much impossible, basically requiring you to play a wizard. However, a
rebalanced "Easy Mode" version was later released that tempers the difficuly. It was
also followed up by a Revival Xanadu 2Remix, which is analagous to Xanadu Scenario
II. The Revival Xanadu games are not exact ports of the original games though, as
they both have new soundtracks (supplied by Abe and Koshiro again) as well as
different dungeon layouts and enemies.
The first Revival Xanadu was ported to Windows 95 by Unbalance, who also developed
versions of Romancia and Asteka II for the platform. Visually it's similar to the
PC-98 version, but is stuck using WAV recordings of the music rather than native FM
synthesis, and it's extremely glitchy, with a number of small inaccuracies from the
original versions. It doesn't play nice with modern operating systems either. As a
result, the digital distibution platform EGG just features emulations of the PC-98
versions. A mobile port was based on this version.
Xanadu is also one of the three games on the Falcom Classics disc for the Saturn,
released in 1996. The graphics are much better, but still pretty subpar, and the
music arrangements are terrible, considering the capabilities of the system.
Although the scrolling is smoother than the PC versions, the ridiculously awkward
jumping is still present. There is a "Saturn" mode that streamlines some of the
processes a bit and makes it a little less irritating (it eliminates the puzzle to
get into the dungeons, for example, and makes it easier to create the character),
but it's not nearly enough to make it playable for modern audiences, even back in
Ultima III Manual
Ultima III Manual
Amusingly, a lot of the shopkeeper graphics in the original releases were traced
from the manual for Ultima III, which caused an especially awkward moment when
Falcom demoed the game to Origin in search of American publishers. (The complete comparisons can be seen in our Tracing the Influence feature. Subsequent ports changed them
completely. Ultimately the game never found a publisher outside of Japan, though for
non-Japanese speakers it doesn't really matter, since most of the text in the game
is in English anyway. )