“After all, even the wool of a black sheep is just as warm”
“The following is a guest post by the Hopeful Handheld Mage.”
The tale of Golden Axe III was told as a tragedy for many years; this game was seen as the final nail in the coffin of a once great franchise. Golden Axe III was the black sheep of the Golden Axe family – you had the much loved original, the lazy sequel, the mysterious arcade sibling… then the oddity. The game that no one knew a great deal about, apart from it’s inaccessibility. How did the Golden Axe series get from widespread acclaim to quiet banishment in the space of five years?
By 1993, the side-scrolling beat ’em up genre had seen better days. Despite the excellent Streets Of Rage 2 coming out at the start of 1993, the genre was struggling. Final Fight had a SNES-only sequel in 1993 that was decent (by all accounts, I’m hoping to play it one day) but didn’t set the world on fire. Super Double Dragon, another SNES exclusive, had been rushed out by Technos in 1992 to average reviews. Gamers had started to drift towards the one-on-one fighting genre popularised by Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat and soon to be advanced by Tekken and Virtua Fighter. Golden Axe’s second sequel would in no way halt that transition, in contrast, it’s own publisher Sega was trying to halt Golden Axe III.
“Legend has it that SEGA thought the quality of the product was so low, that it would be worthless or, worse, damaging to even publish the game in the States”
-Lucas M. Thomas, ‘Golden Axe III Review‘ IGN, 19 November 2007
During the development of Golden Axe III, Sega of America developed cold feet about releasing Golden Axe III in the States. This became an infamous indictment about the quality of Golden Axe III, which along with its unappealing visuals, was responsible for its negative reputation. Sega of America’s snub wasn’t due to localisation or cultural reasons – they simply doubted the quality of Golden Axe III.
When Golden Axe III had begun development, it had been penciled in for a worldwide release. The evidence is quite clear – Golden Axe III was written in English and a European ROM does exist in the wilderness of the internet. Furthermore, fantasy artist Boris Vallejo (who also drew Ecco The Dolphin’s cover art) had been commissioned to draft artwork for an American release (see above). So, it looks like Sega of America (and subsequently, Sega of Europe) hadn’t been impressed with the second Golden Axe sequel and changed their mind during its development.
I can understand why Sega might not release a game they didn’t think was good enough but why only release it in Japan? Did Sega think it would slip under the radar there? The US was an important market for Sega and the PAL territories were Sega strongholds – maybe Sega were worried about damaging their image, an important part of their success in these areas? A Golden Axe game would have sold loads in these territories, regardless of quality… was it seen as too bad a game to even be thrown out as a cash grab?
Furthermore, why didn’t Sega not just take more time developing Golden Axe III, even go back to the drawing board? They did this with Shinobi III in 1992, pulling the game back into development for another year despite releasing screenshots, betas and promotional material to games magazines. The finished version released in 1993 was very different to the Shinobi III originally presented to journalists in 1992. Bear in mind that it was Sega who recalled Shinobi III as they had concerns about the quality; there was no backlash. Did Golden Axe III, as a part of an important Sega IP, not deserve the same care?
Apparently not. Golden Axe III was released to a lukewarm reception in Japan and, bar a brief appearance on the Sega Channel in the US in 1995, wouldn’t be unreleased in the West until 2007 when it would form part of a Sega compilation. Golden Axe III would be the last of the side-scrolling beat em up’s in the Golden Axe series, with the next game in the franchise being Golden Axe: The Duel, a one-on-one fighting game on the ill-fated Sega Saturn. With a final game in the series (the mostly-panned 2008 PS3/Xbox 360 game Golden Axe: Beast Rider) making little headway, the Golden Axe series petered out and bar the occasional re-release, seems to no longer be an ongoing concern.
The question remains though… is Golden Axe III really that bad a game? Does it deserve its negative reputation?
The 8-Bit Review
There is no ignoring it, Golden Axe III is an ugly game. The graphical design has gone backwards from the 1989 original, which is unforgivable. Golden Axe III looks like an early Mega Drive release (Last Battle comes to mind – if you’re a Sega diehard you might know it) with basic backgrounds and weak presentation. Dare I say it, some of Golden Axe III’s backgrounds look like they could be taken from an impressive Master System game.
The sprites (especially the heroes) aren’t too bad, but I don’t understand why there would be such a backwards step from Golden Axe II. Everything has been drawn very simply and the bright, limited art style is unappealing, especially for 1993 when 2D graphics were at a high standard. The change in art direction doesn’t help either – Golden Axe III doesn’t even look like a Golden Axe game. Throw in some hit and miss animation and you can see why everyone instantly had negative perceptions of Golden Axe III – to see such a drop in graphical quality is a turn off for fans of the series.
Naofumi Hataya (Sonic CD) is back for Golden Axe III after working on Golden Axe II and I enjoyed his contributions more this time. Like Golden Axe II, there is a tribal theme to the songs with the emphasis on the drum rhythm, but now there is more variety across the board. I really liked the use of melody and the heavy metal tempo changes in Golden Axe III’s soundtrack. I don’t think it is quite on par with the songs from the original, but there aren’t any weak tracks and they all fit the on-screen action perfectly.
The sound effects are better than Golden Axe II too. Gone are the pitiful whimpers when an enemy dies, replaced with some serviceable death grunts and clanging. They’re nothing special and sound like generic video game effects, but they are a massive improvement on the previous game!
Golden Axe III doesn’t follow the classic Golden Axe gameplay. It felt like the developers had played some other side-scrolling fighting games and implemented some features from them, but weren’t fully committed to them. What you’re left with is a game that doesn’t really feel like Golden Axe, but neither does it resemble any other fighting game – it’s a bit of a mish-mash of styles. Streets of Rage is an obvious influence (the health bar, the grapple attacks and the special moves) and Capcom’s Knights Of The Round (the enemies’ use of shields) and The Simpsons Arcade Game (double team special moves) come to mind, but there’s not one single strong influence. I wish there had been more advances in the gameplay – there are lots of nods to other games, but little change in the core gameplay since Golden Axe. Along with the weak graphics, the lack of evolution in the gameplay dates Golden Axe III badly.
Still, Golden Axe III can be a fun game to play. The special moves add to the game, combat is satisfying and there are some nice touches. For instance, you can now select which path you wish to take, à la Golden Axe: Revenge of Death Adder, which adds some variety to repeat playthroughs. Also, if you rescue five villagers, then you can gain an extra life, which adds some strategy to the game. You will need to pick the paths that offer the most villagers to rescue in order to survive the game.
It’s a shame though that the two features I liked from Golden Axe II – the ability to charge magic and the enemy mages who hold potions – are gone. It does feel like a backward step, but it’s not a gamebreaker.
Some thought has gone into Golden Axe III’s story, but it’s certainly nothing groundbreaking. Basically, many years after Golden Axe II, Gilus Thunderhead loses the Golden Axe during a storm to the evil Damud Hellstrike. Hellstrike places a curse on four heroes and Gilus, now retired from fighting, is able to release a hero from the curse to go retrieve the axe.
It’s a decent story, with the touches of depth I wanted added to Golden Axe II‘s story, but I wish the game would explain the story in more detail. Golden Axe III lacks the great attraction and cutscenes of the original, meaning some details are easy to miss – for example, the barbarian Kain Grinder and amazon Sahra Burn are sometimes confused for series regulars Ax Battler and Tyris Flare. A story is an important part of a game as it provides your motivation to play – by neglecting to give you a fleshed out story, Golden Axe III is neglecting to give the player the motivation to keep going.
There isn’t really anything unique about Golden Axe III. In 1993, the side-scrolling beat ’em up had been done to death and Golden Axe III adds little, bar the features covered in the gameplay section. Unlike Golden Axe II, at least Golden Axe III feels like a different game, not a re-coded version of the original.
There is a fair bit of game in Golden Axe III – it’s certainly the most challenging of the trilogy. The game likes to throw batches of enemies at you and these enemies have stepped up since Golden Axe II. They no longer walk off cliffs and are capable of countering your attacks (i.e jumping over charging attacks). Plus, to get the good ending, you will need to beat Damud Hellstrike with a continue left so you can face his ultimate form. This could take some time and I’ll admit I’ve not been able to do it myself.
However, Golden Axe III is a slog of a game. The best comparison I can think of is if someone slightly heavier than you leans on you and you have to push them off. You know you will eventually push them away, but it’s an effort and you will need to strain to do it. When I play Golden Axe III, I know it can be beaten, but I will need to overcome wave after wave of enemies who will grind away at my health. I find myself losing interest some times as the procession of enemies feels endless. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed too – especially later on when you think you are nearing the end of a level, only to face three more fiends…
I don’t think Golden Axe III is the most inviting game – its plain looks will put off most curious gamers and Golden Axe fans might be turned off by the unfamiliar gameplay. I’ve heard the term ‘a grower’ from music reviews in the past and I would apply it to Golden Axe III – it’s not a game you can instantly fall in love with. You need to give it a chance, look past the visuals and learn as much as you can about the gameplay. Truthfully, that’s how I started to appreciate Golden Axe III… I realised that the combat had a lot of unexplained depth and began to investigate.
There’s also the issue of availability – unless you have Steam or an old Sega compilation, Golden Axe takes effort to get hold of. Golden Axe III isn’t common as a physical cartridge either, being a Japanese only release.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
Overall, I’ve got a begrudging respect for Golden Axe III. I certainly wouldn’t consider it one of my favourite Mega Drive games and I’m well aware of its faults. Underneath those faults though is a surprisingly deep brawler that offers a decent challenge. It may be the black sheep of the family, but it certainly isn’t the worst game in the family. I’d take it over the unimaginative Golden Axe II any day. I also doubt Golden Axe: Beast Rider and Golden Axe: The Duel are any better either. Hopefully I might get a chance to make that comparison one day…
I wish Sega had taken more time with Golden Axe III personally, as opposed to just confining it to Japan. With better graphics and a bit more sizzle added to the package, Golden Axe III could have been a good game for Sega. Sadly, it will always be best known as ‘The Golden Axe game we didn’t get in the West’.
Oddly, I doubt Golden Axe III cares much what you or I think about it. Let me explain… it’s an odd, unloved game whose beauty is buried deep. If you take the time to discover its assets, then you’ve made a discovery. If you pass over Golden Axe III, then it’s your loss. A black sheep is used to rejection… the question isn’t how good Golden Axe III is, the question is do you give Golden Axe III a chance to prove it’s a good game? I think you should. Do what I did… get the FAQ up, look over the moves, get a friend if you can. If you ever tire of Streets of Rage 2 as your Mega Drive brawler of choice and have exhausted Golden Axe, you could do a lot worse…Aggregated Score: 5.4
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to games writing. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a community of authors with paid contributors, an alternative to mainstream games writing! See our Patreon page for more info!