“I’m always surprised when a sequel is not as good or better than the first one. I never understand that. You’ve already set your own bar. You’ve already done the hard work. It should be easier to make the second one, but a lot of the times, it’s not.”
-Steven Van Zandt
“The following is a guest post by the Hopeful Handheld Mage.”
When I look to write for The Well-Red Mage, I look to write about the history of the game I’m reviewing. I like to discuss the origins of the game, it’s developers, it’s place in history and what it was aiming to achieve.
Thing is, I’m struggling with Golden Axe II. Unlike most games, it seems to have no recorded history, no fanfare… it just appeared in 1991. The Wikipedia entry for the Golden Axe series states, without citation, that the game was rushed out by Sega to give the Mega Drive more ammunition to face off against the SNES. I find that hard to believe personally – even a die hard Sega fan like myself knows there is no way a Golden Axe game can compete with the SNES, a console some argue is the best ever. However, I do believe that Golden Axe II was created as a quick ‘name’ game in order to sell more games and consoles to consumers.
To begin to analyse Golden Axe II’s place in gaming history, we need to go back to Golden Axe. Makoto Uchida’s Double Dragon inspired medieval brawler had been a huge success, both in the arcades and at home and it seemed a safe bet that there would be a sequel. Yet, unlike Golden Axe which was available on most Sega and home formats, Golden Axe II was only released for the Mega Drive.
I’d argue that Sega were only interested in bolstering their Mega Drive line-up and it would be easier not to port the game to the formats that got a version of Golden Axe. To be fair though, most of these other formats were either dead (Spectrum, Amstrad, C64) or on their last legs (Atari ST, Master System) by the release of Golden Axe II. However, Golden Axe started life in the arcades, so it may have seemed odd that Golden Axe II didn’t come from the arcades. In my opinion, this is because Sega had another idea in mind for the arcades…
There’s a massive elephant in the room when you discuss Golden Axe II – namely, the impressive arcade only sequel Golden Axe: Revenge of Death Adder which was released in 1992. Revenge of Death Adder was never ported to any home console, which is a shame as buggy emulation is the only way to play it these days. Some of Revenge of Death Adder’s great ideas included branching paths, double team moves and my personal favourite: enemy facials during magic attacks!
“However, you can see the dilemma SEGA faced with Golden Axe II. The original game was such a smash that SEGA risked alienating an audience if it deviated too far from the features gamers loved in the original. But, Golden Axe II came out two years after the original and by this point, the maturing Genesis was capable of greater technical feats than what Golden Axe II provided.”
-Levi Buchanan ‘Golden Axe Retrospective’ IGN, 25 September 2008
So… why did these great ideas skip past Golden Axe II? Maybe Sega didn’t see the need to alter the Golden Axe formula. After all, the original had sold loads and the 2.5D brawler genre was still doing very well. I feel Sega thought the Golden Axe formula was strong enough to sell the game and did not want to alienate existing fans. I also think Sega didn’t want to take a risk with a game they saw as a big seller in the Christmas release schedule (Boxing Day 1991 was the release date in Japan – can you imagine going to the shop to buy a new game on Boxing Day nowdays?) Maybe if there had been more time to develop a sequel, then we would have seen more changes…
It’s also worth noting that original developer Makoto Uchida is only credited with a ‘Special Thanks’ on the credits (under an alias) which makes me wonder how much he was involved with this sequel. A creator not being involved with a follow up always makes me question how the sequel will match the quality of the original. A ‘Special Thanks’ is a vague term that could mean any level of involvement from consulting to simply allowing assets to be reused. Uchida was primarily an arcade developer, so it could be possible that he didn’t deal with Mega Drive games. Still, as Golden Axe was his brain child, I would have thought that he’d have had some involvement beyond a thank you.
So with all the above taken into account, how does Golden Axe II stand up under scrutiny?
The 8-Bit Review
It might seem strange that I’m giving a sequel a lower score for graphics than its predecessor. However, the more I played Golden Axe II, the more I believe the graphics aren’t up to the same standard. That’s strange, because for the most part, they are the same graphics – many of the assets from the original were re-used.
There have been some improvements – the animation seems smoother and there is more detailed sprites. However, there are too many changes made for the worse. The colour palette used by Golden Axe II seems very muddy when compared to Golden Axe – lots of greys, browns and murky greens were used and these make Golden Axe II look very dull. There are also some odd backgrounds that don’t look like the perspective was drawn correctly (see below.)
The main reason I prefer Golden Axe’s graphics was because I found them more charming. Golden Axe II has some good detail… but it doesn’t add to the game. Ax Battler now has a Bon Jovi mullet from the ‘Liu Kang School of Cool Haircuts’, while Tyris Flare has been given a headband that makes her look like a fitness instructor. None of the re-designed enemies are really interesting, it’s all slight alterations that have been made so the sprites are different from Golden Axe, not better. If your changes aren’t going to improve the game, why make them?
Naofumi Hataya (who would later work on various Sonic games including Sonic CD) is the composer for Golden Axe II. I don’t want to be harsh on him… Golden Axe II is only his second game at this point and I’m certainly no musician… but the soundtrack for Golden Axe II is a big step down from the original.
Golden Axe II’s soundtrack is dependent on one trick (military rhythms) and some tracks do not suit the game at all. Take the title track (above) for example – it starts OK, then descends into horrible late 80’s chip tune funk that sounds like the song you would least associate with a Golden Axe game. There are some decent, if samey tunes – “Ravaged Village” (below) on Level 1 is quite haunting – but there is nothing else up to the standard of the first game’s soundtrack in terms of melody or urgency.
The sound effects… where to start? Remember the amazing screams and grunts from Golden Axe? They’re gone, replaced by the weediest sound effects of all time. A wimpy “urgh” is the main death noise of the enemies in Golden Axe II, with the bosses using a dull grunt. It really spoils the atmosphere of the game – in the original, enemies sounded like they were in agony before leaving this mortal coil. In Golden Axe II, the enemies sound like they have given up, because it’s cold and they’re hungry. A real shame and a needless one at that – I feel like the sound effects are one of the few things that should have been copied wholesale from the original!
In terms of gameplay, Golden Axe II is still fun – it basically plays the same as Golden Axe, which was enjoyable fare. Yet Golden Axe II lacks the flow of the first game. While the combat is as fun as it ever was, the game itself just feels like a set of random Golden Axe set pieces. I’ve said before that Golden Axe II’s level design feels like it was randomly generated by a computer and I stand by that. Nothing really stands out and before you know it, you’re fighting Dark Guld.
I’ve criticized Golden Axe II a lot, so let’s give it some credit – it introduces two gameplay mechanics that I quite like. Firstly, you can decide how much magic you wish to use for your special attack. So if you are struggling with a few grunts, you can simply use a weak special attack to clear some space and save the rest of your magic for an upcoming boss. This is a good feature, but I feel like there are too many spell books (in place of the original’s magic potions) lying around for the player to use.
I also like that the mages that carry the spell books are actually enemies in Golden Axe II. Rather than the imps who were just fodder for a good kick, the mages throw fireballs and even climb on dormant beasts to attack the player. The mages are still pretty weak, but I thought it was a cool touch.
The plot for Golden Axe II is basically a repeat of Golden Axe; the only difference is that, this time, Dark Guld is the evil force who has taken the Golden Axe and our three heroes must defeat him and take it back. It was a good plot the first time, but it smacks of laziness that Sega didn’t change it. I’m not asking for Shakespeare, but they could have thrown some variables in… say a sub boss, a hero accused of treachery against the other two heroes and having to fight them or some type of magic curse for example. Probably not great ideas, I know, but at least try something different!
The game does offer some narrative between rounds, but I don’t feel they are as impressive as the original. There’s no levels as interesting as Turtle Village and as you can see, they lack the medieval feel the original game had.
As you’re probably seeing by now, Golden Axe II exaggerates Golden Axe’s flaws. The lack of depth that was a problem previously is even worse in Golden Axe II. Firstly, the game is shorter, with less levels and less challenge. Secondly – and this might be the thing I dislike most about Golden Axe II – the A.I. is still hopeless. Enemies can still be tricked to walk off cliffs and lined up to take repeated shoulder tackles. Add in the plentiful spell books and there isn’t much to stop you ploughing your way through to Dark Guld.
There is a Duel mode again, but that’s not going to hold the attention for too long. The thing is, Golden Axe’s replay value comes from playing a fun, if easy game for nostalgia or with friends. Golden Axe II isn’t as fun to play and doesn’t have the same nostalgia value (in part, due to only being a Mega Drive release). Most people who are fans of the genre probably own Golden Axe or Streets of Rage and would likely play those games ahead of Golden Axe II.
Golden Axe II is an accessible game – it’s fairly easy to pick up and play, the controls are easy to grasp and it’s easy to figure out the game’s concept. Most of the people who have played it have played the original before, so it requires little explanation.
Golden Axe II is fairly easy to get hold of too – it’s been released several times over the years in various compilations and can be picked up on Steam for £1.99 (about two and a half dollars). The original cartridge isn’t as widely available as Golden Axe, but it’s still a fairly easy Mega Drive game to find, should you collect Sega games.
The one thing I can’t say about Golden Axe II is that it’s unique. By 1991, 2.5D beat em ups were everywhere. The excellent Streets of Rage had come out earlier in 1991 and the likes of Double Dragon and Final Fight had sequels and ports on the way. Golden Axe II isn’t even unique in it’s own series – it’s a copy of the original, with few changes. This may have been Sega’s intention, but I think some would struggle to distinguish Golden Axe from Golden Axe II.
My Personal Grade: 4/10
You may have gathered I’m not really a fan of Golden Axe II. I’m more disappointed by it than angry – after all, it’s not a broken game and it does have some good moments. I just can’t help feel it could have been so much better. Compare the difference between Golden Axe and Golden Axe II to the difference between Streets of Rage and Streets of Rage 2. The improvement between Streets of Rage games is incredible; Streets of Rage is a fine game but Streets of Rage 2 improves on it in every way, whereas Golden Axe II merely smartens up Golden Axe and hopes no one notices the bigger flaws. It’s a shame as the Golden Axe series could have been a much bigger franchise for Sega, Instead, Sega let it peter out, never to show the promise of the original game again.
Aggregated Score: 4.1
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