“If we must have a tyrant, let him at least be a gentleman who has been bred to the business, and let us fall by the axe and not by the butcher’s cleaver.”
“The following is a guest post by the Hopeful Handheld Mage.”
As I sneak away from my handheld post, hoping that the Well-Red Mage doesn’t notice my absence, I’m debating what game to play. The game I’m craving is Golden Axe. Maybe it’s my recent trip to Cornwall, full of beaches, castles, fields, rocks and sea. Maybe it’s because I recently played its (disappointing) sequel. Maybe it’s because I’m a Sega kid who misses the arcades. Maybe because Golden Axe is such a much loved game, to us Europeans anyway.
Those of us who grew up with Sega in the 90’s adored Golden Axe – any conversation I have about the Mega Drive usually features the question “Do you remember Golden Axe?” I’d argue that Golden Axe is one of the most fondly remembered Mega Drive games, after Sonic 2 and Streets of Rage 2.
The question I find myself asking now is “Does Golden Axe deserve that love?” Is it just nostalgia playing tricks with us or does Golden Axe still have something to offer?
“I had a feeling that arcade games should be competitive against the great hit console title Dragon Quest (created by Enix) and therefore studied the world of magic and swords, combined this with the gameplay of Double Dragon, and finally came up with the concept of Golden Axe.”
-Makota Uchida, interview with Retro Gamer, 2014
You can’t tell the story of Golden Axe without first mentioning Double Dragon. Technos Japan’s 1987 arcade brawler was a revelation at the time. Double Dragon took the concept of Technos’ earlier game Renegade further, adding a simultaneous two player mode plus different weapons and moves to the action. So when Makota Uchida’s AM1 team were asked to begin work on a new game towards the end of Altered Beast’s development, the new game in question was to be Sega’s answer to Double Dragon. Uchida knew he had to develop a different game than Double Dragon, feeling he couldn’t compete with the more experienced Technos team (Altered Beast was Uchida’s first project). Wisely, Uchida looked at Double Dragon and kept the assets that made Billy and Jimmy Lee’s game a hit – the 2.5D perspective, two player mode and the variety of attacks – and decided to add a unique feel to his new game.
“During the development of Golden Axe, I rented a video of Conan and watched until the tape was worn… Of course I was also inspired by Lord Of The Rings. I bought many illustration works based on Middle-Earth and used them as reference materials.”
-Makota Uchida, interview with Retro Gamer, 2014
Golden Axe swaps the gritty streets of Double Dragon for the mythical fantasy world of Yuria. Instead of streets, parks and gang hideouts, we get medieval villages, castles and even the back of a flying giant eagle. The gang members and ninjas of other games are replaced by knights, soldiers, skeletons and thiefs. Uchida really let his influences run wild on Golden Axe and the result is a game that reflects well on it’s source material. You’re drawn into the world of Yuria because of hacking and slashing action, but also because the game world feels authentic; you can tell that someone with a passion for medieval fantasy created this world. The characters involved in Golden Axe’s story are enduring, even the enemies – they stand out whereas in another designer’s hands, they’d be forgettable.
The story of Golden Axe is a simple, but effective one. The tyrant Death Adder, has stolen the mythical Golden Axe and taken over the kingdom by force. Our heroes, Ax Battler (the barbarian), Tyris Flare (the amazon) and Gilius Thunderhead (the dwarf) seek to end Death Adder’s reign of terror and avenge the death of their loved ones. The Mega Drive port actually goes further, adding an extra story element – Death Adder is just working for the real bad guy, Death Bringer! This adds another two levels to the original arcade’s stages, which was a good gesture by Sega and a bonus for those who purchased the home version of Golden Axe.
So, why does a generation have such fond memories of Golden Axe? I think the setting helped – we’d not seen a Dungeons & Dragons style fighter before, not of this quality anyway. There were also the little gameplay factors that Uchida added to Golden Axe to build upon the basic Double Dragon mold.
Firstly, the ability to control beasts was a new and exciting touch. If you can knock the rider off, you can control a Chickenleg (last seen serving as an enemy in Altered Beast) or a dragon and use them to fight their masters! The Chickenleg swipes foes with it’s leg-like tail, while dragons can breath fire at hapless enemies. Secondly, Golden Axe featured magical attacks. By collecting potions from thiefs, you could build up to a special magical attack, from Gilius’s weak Lighting magic to Tyris’ awesome full power magic special (a huge fire breathing dragon!). Having magic attacks added to the strategy of Golden Axe – do you store all the magic for a boss, or do you use it if in dire straits?
I’ve enjoyed describing the development, mechanics and story of Golden Axe – I’ve always felt it’s an interesting game for Sega, a big step in their growing to be an arcade and home powerhouse. However, does Golden Axe hold up after nearly thirty years?
The 8-Bit Review
Whist a step down from the arcade, Golden Axe’s graphics are a good representation of the original. Truthfully, it would take a purist to remember the differences between the arcade and Mega Drive (apart from the inevitable cuts in animation frames, there is no dripping blood and enemies disappear once defeated). Golden Axe’s selling point upon it’s release in 1989 was being able to play a reasonable port of the arcade game at home and it certainly succeeds on that front, graphically. Today, the graphics still hold up, although the sprites do feel a little washed out. There is no slowdown or flicker either, which is impressive for an arcade port from the late eighties!
Golden Axe’s driving, melodic music serves the game perfectly. The music makes you feel like you are in a medieval adventure. There is good variety too, from the ominous title screen tune, to the whimsical campfire interlude, then to stomping main tunes like “Path of Friend” and “Wilderness”.
I have to also praise the sound FX. The digitized screams are perfect and genuinely feel like you are causing anguish. That’s probably because they are real screams sampled from action films – the ‘OH GAWD’ scream is apparently from David Caruso in First Blood. The impact from strikes and kicks are great too – dull thuds, metal clanging. It might sound trivial to mention the sound effects, but they really add to the atmosphere… and if you’ve ever played Golden Axe 2, you’ll know how easy it is to be taken out of the game by bad sound FX…
Though Golden Axe is fairly basic, it can’t be denied that it’s lots of fun. Hacking enemies, throwing them off cliffs, destroying them with magic… none of these things get old and I’d suggest this is why Golden Axe retains its appeal today. As a game, Golden Axe is well executed – the controls are great (though I do find charging a problem sometimes) and you are thrown into the action straight away. As a ‘pick up and play’ title, Golden Axe is superb, especially if you can get another player involved.
While the plot isn’t anything groundbreaking, it’s very well executed. It would have been easy just to have a plot of “Barbarian rescues King, fighting through a castle stage, a forest, demon underworld, etc.” However Golden Axe fleshes out these rudimentary elements fully. The three main characters have defined motivation to rescue the King, other than simply doing the right thing. I like how Ax Battler, Tyris and Gilus’ motivation isn’t to rescue a girlfriend/boyfriend as I feel this would have trivialized the story. Instead, by avenging parents (Ax and Tyris) and siblings (Gilus), the need for revenge feels serious – as a kid watching the attract scene of the arcade machine, this fact stuck with me and I’m glad the Mega Drive port keeps those screens. The enemies have names, personality and are memorable. The journey to save the kingdom is brilliantly explained by story cut scenes after each level. Though simple, these cut scenes give the levels a feeling of adventure and highlight the struggle of battling towards the end goal of defeating Death Adder.
There is certainly no issue with getting to grips with Golden Axe, it’s a pretty immediate experience. I reckon one of the reasons Golden Axe is so fondly remembered is because anyone can pick up the controls and bash Death Adder’s minions. I always think the best games are simple to play, but tough to master and Golden Axe does have a bit of that. As you play the game more, you can figure out the enemy attack patterns, when to use magic and which character suits you best.
The Mega Drive port of Golden Axe is widely available – you can purchase it on Steam or as part of various Sega compilations on PS3, Xbox360, PS2 and PSP. It’s fairly cheap too and I would argue that outside of the Sonic games, it’s one of the most commonly ported Sega games.
Golden Axe’s main weakness is its lack of depth – it’s a simple, short game that isn’t particularly challenging. There are seven short levels and the enemy AI isn’t the best. It’s possible to make some grunts simply walk off cliffs if you know how. To their credit, Sega did try adding more features to the Mega Drive port of Golden Axe, in order to prolong its lifespan. Firstly, Sega added the ‘Duel’ mode, which allows you to fight the enemies from the game in a series of challenges. It’s a nice touch, but at best, it’s a distraction. The extra levels Sega added are a cool touch too, but they are fairly short and probably only add an extra five minutes or so to the game.
The scoring system Sega implemented is a nice footnote to your adventure and I can see that, as well as the chance to play with three different characters might provide some replay value. However, Golden Axe isn’t a long term investment – I’ve always found it to be a good game to pull out every year or so for a blast of arcade gaming.
There is nothing unique about arcade brawlers from the late 80’s/90’s – after Double Dragon, this was a very crowded genre. Golden Axe does stand out due to it’s setting and presentation, but all the tropes are there – plot based on revenge, selectable characters, two player mode…there are certainly games that are worse examples than Golden Axe of being generic brawlers, but Golden Axe isn’t that original itself. After all, it was inspired by Double Dragon and certainly takes a lot of inspiration from it.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
Golden Axe isn’t just fond memories from my youth, it’s a good arcade game – its atmosphere and gameplay have stood the test of time and are certainly worth re-visiting. While it’s never a long visit, due to the lack of challenge, it’s a visit that I enjoy every year or so. Sadly, Golden Axe is the peak of the Golden Axe series – its sequels and spin offs never lived up to the original. For medieval brawling, Golden Axe is probably still my go to game and a fine beat em up if you want a change from the games that surpassed it, like Streets of Rage…
Aggregated Score: 6.3
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