Xanadu: Dragon Slayer II
Game Overview by Mike Finkelstein
When we think of the Metroidvania genre we tend to focus on the titles that perfectly fit that style, the games that blend Metroid and Castlevania into a fun, melee-combat, exploration-based hybrid. But, as has been noted on this site, it took some time to get to that point in the genre. Many games had to come along that refined certain elements of the game play before all the specific ideas could be put together in one perfect game. Nintendo created Metroid, but the games before Metroid were essential to understanding how the genre developed.
Nihon Falcom has their own style of games. Across various titles and various series (not just the Dragon Slayer games but also the Ys series and many other titles), the company refined a type of game play that felt very specific to them. It was a blend of RPG elements, simple mechanics, and exploration game play akin to a dungeon crawler. At the time no one could have foreseen where their games were going, but once other companies started picking up on the ideas Nihon Falcom was putting forth, the genre started taking big strides forward.
The first title in the Dragon Slayer series, the appropriately named Dragon Slayer, really is nothing more than a basic dungeon crawler, but the game had interesting ideas, like collecting key items to manipulate the world around the hero. It was with the sequel, Xanadu, though, that those elements really started to feel like (what we would now call) a Metroidvania. It had exploration, light RPG mechanics, and plenty of items to collect to manipulate the world around you. All of that, slapped onto a lengthy adventure with a clear end-goal, really refined the game into something truly interesting.
In the game you take on the role of a hero tasked with defeating the Dragon King. To get there the hero has to venture out into the world, collecting weapons and gear, upgrading their stats, and preparing the battle. Enemies roam the various areas of the interconnected world, and there are dungeons to delve into that are packed with more monsters and treasures. Explore the dungeons to find the bosses, dragons and other evil giants creatures. Collect their crowns to unlock the way deeper into the game, all so you can then take on the Dragon King and save the land! Be a dragon slayer (trademark)!
There are a number of differences between Dragon Slayer and Xanadu (Zanadu in its phonetic Japanese translation, also known as Xanadu: Dragon Slayer II). The first, and most obvious, is that the perspective of much of the game has shifted from a top-down perspective to a side-scrolling world. Top-down action does still occur, in battles and dungeons (the dungeons basically being handled as very long battle sequences), but much of the exploration is done in the side-scrolling perspective. Your hero runs, jumps, and encounters enemies all from this view, making it feel very different from the previous game.
The leveling system is also much more robust. To start, the player doesn't have to just rely on level-ups to upgrade their stats. There are stores in the world that will sell you not just gear and spells but also stat upgrades. You can buy points in strength or agility or whatever you want, giving you fine control over you character. Level ups do provide additional stat points to spend at these stores as well, meaning that both experience and gold can be used to upgrade your character in a number of ways.
Players of Faxanadu, the spin-off title, will also be familiar with how the game processes your level-ups. These don't happen in battle but, instead, occur when you have enough experience and visit the king. He'll promote you (once you've earned it, giving you level(s) as befitting your experience. This does mean you have to travel back and forth through the world, navigating its many dangers and looping hallways, to get your upgrades, but those points can be well worth it in the long run.
Xanadu is a complex game by any measure. It's main world is a series of overlaying maps, many worlds deep, with dungeons hidden throughout. Just navigating the overworld maps alone can feel like a lot, requiring mapping as you go so you can tell where things are and what is required. This goes double for the dungeons, as they are complex in their layout as well. The fact that all of the graphics in the game are the same, making everything feel very "same-y" doesn't help matters at all. This is a game where notes and maps aren't just suggested but required.
Once you get into it, though, you will find a very satisfying exploration experience. The game rewards you regularly, not just with experience for levels but also with key items to collect. There are a ton of different consumable key items to use, from red potions that heal you (even when you're dead), magical boots that let you float, staffs and swords that upgrade your attacks, rings that make you invisible to enemies, and much more. Navigation is aided by crystals you can expend that will transfer you forward and backward through the overworld. Everything is designed to aid you if you spend the time learning the worlds and gathering your needed items.
Plus, the game purposefully limits how strong you can get in any area. Enemies are finite, and while it will feel like there are a lot of them in the game, they will eventually vanish, leaving the zones free and safe if you put in the effort. Yes, that will require you to master the combat (face tanking into enemies in a way where they take damage more often than you do) but then you can have an easy time exploring, if that's what you want. Or you can speed through the game, avoiding combat as much as you can until levels are required. It's a very free form experience that lets you decide how you want to handle things.
Xanadu is a hard game to get into, with an obtuse quest that expects you to learn its secrets without holding your hand. Once you have the feel for the game, though, it opens up to you in very satisfying ways. Often when you go back to a game from the 1980s you have to make concessions for the era. While it is true that this game doesn't look or sound as good as modern titles, it has game play that holds up to the test of time. This is a game that, even with its age, is still very playable without having to say, "well, I can see what they were going for back then." This is a classic that remains a classic even now.
Similarities to Castlevania Games
Moving the action into a side-scrolling perspective illustrates the way forward for the Metroidvania genre. This game isn't really a platformer but it tries to blend platform elements into mechanics carried over from Dragon Slayer. If any game could be pointed at as the first true proto-Metroidvania, the one where the elements all seem to be coming together to make something that will then, down the line, become a proper exploration adventure, this is the one people should point to.
There no way any other game company could ignore this title. It became a massive success upon its release on the PC-8801 in Japan, eventually getting ported to every PC system of the time, including the MSX and MSX2, and eventually even Windows. It spawned a whole sub-series of sequels and spin-offs (the aforementioned Faxanadu being one) and went on to fuel Nihon Falcom's ventures for some time to come. Every other game company would have seen Xanadu with its blend of side-scrolling, exploration, and RPG elements and said, "hey, I wonder if we can expand on that." And thus a genre began to take shape.