Faxanadu is both profoundly imaginitive on a level rarely seen in games, and tragically ahead of its time. Balancing platforming action and fantasy swordplay, it had only one contemporary--Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. But unlike Link, the elf you play in Faxanadu is willing to upgrade his armor, weapons, and magic at local shops with seedy-looking shopkeepers. When you first equip a sword with a blade that splits into three, and use magic that travels across your screen like a giant checkmark, you'll know you're playing something truly unique.
Faxanadu is set in the World Tree, inspired by Yggdrasil in Norse myth. Pathfinding in Faxanadu is sort of a proto-Metroidvania style. You do backtrack within certain regions, but then you move on to new regions, never to return (but you can if you want to!). The regions progress from the trunk of the World Tree all the way up into the branches. Realizing the staggeringly imaginitive world design was a feat not attempted anywhere else on the NES. Your trip up the World Tree will feature a dragon-filled dungeon in the trunk, a misty path up the inside of the Tree itself, winged boots to fly across vast expanses of sky, and a ruined city nestled in the highest branches.
The enemies are inspired by H.R. Giger, but unlike Contra and Alien, Faxanadu's setting is solidly fantasy--no science fiction to be found. The combination of veiny, skeletal monstrosities in a fantasy setting feels original even today.
Of course, 8-bit graphics struggle to really portray this story as a true sweeping epic, but thankfully, the music is more than up to the task. The early music surges with urgent optimism, while later music drags itself into the fearful parts of your mind and makes you doubt that you can succeed. The music of the final battle will make your blood run cold; the ending melody calmly tells you it's okay to breathe again. You've made it; you've saved the World Tree and things will never be the same.