Genre: Dark Fantasy Hack n’ Slash
Many games borrow heavily from iconic imagery found outside of the world of videogaming. The arcade crime beat’em’up Dead Connection has pretty liberally used images from multiple mobster movies. Snatcher, a cyberpunk mystery point and click, has scenes lifted straight out of the timeless classic Bladerunner. Even much beloved games franchises have done it – look at the Silent Hill debacle, where they based their entire creepy elementary school off of the film Kindergarten Cop. Thankfully, most games do avoid lifting straight from their source material, and try to stick more to homage. The Golden Axe franchise has its roots in the works of Robert E. Howard (famously known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian stories), and the artwork of Frank Frazetta (Some NSFW art), but does an excellent job of standing up on its own.
Like many other games of the time, Golden Axe was first released on Arcades before being put onto home consoles, including Mega Drive, Master System, and a myriad of computer based systems. The original Arcade port only fought up to the original storyline against Death Adder, with the home ports adding in two more bosses – Death Adder Jr., and an extra boss of irritating difficulty named Death Bringer to fight after a new stage. They also changed the ending itself on the home port, which is a bit odd, to say the least.
The story takes place in the sword-and-sorcery land of Yuria. A tyrant known as Death Adder has captured the king and princess, and stolen an artifact known as The Golden Axe. The three protagonists of our game each have their own reason for going to fight against the evil conqueror. Gilius Thunderhead, the oddly out of place Dwarf, had his twin brother Alex killed by the soldiers of Death Adder. Ax Battler, the Conan-esque barbarian, is out to avenge the death of his mother. Tyris Flare, the I-swear-its-not-a-bikini Amazon, is looking for revenge on the murder of both of her parents. With the primary motivation for everyone being sweet delicious vengeance, you set off on your quest to take down the evil warlord.
Each character has their own advantages. Ax Battler is balanced between the other two characters – he has average speed, strength and earth magic, while wielding his long-reaching two handed sword. Gilius Thunderhead does more damage with his battle ax and is slightly slower while attacking, and has the lowest ability to use his lightning based magic. Tyris Flare, on the other hand, has a fast attack with her longsword, slightly lower damage, but extremely powerful fire magic, able to use many more mana potions than the other two characters. None of the characters feel imbalanced, and it allows one to pick their favorite aesthetic or fighting style.
This is a three button multidirectional game, with a jump, a strike and a magic button. You have a small health bar measured out over three smaller bars, along with mana potions you pick up from little elf thieves (different colored elves also drop food rather than mana, to replenish your health). Unlike a typical beat’em’up, since you already had weapons, the way they helped you to power up during game play was by providing mounts, known as Bizzarians. They came in three flavors – the chicken leg (which you may recognize from the developers other game, Altered Beast!), a blue dragon that breathes a gout of flame, and a red dragon that spits a fireball across the screen. Enemies of similar size to yourself would often ride them, and can knock you off of a mount and use it against you as well, making them much more dangerous.
Enemies in the game were typical deadly goons – many had axes, maces and clubs, and while the game did use color palette swaps to indicate strength, they still had a good variety. At the end of each stage was either a stronger enemy that was previously unseen, or a stronger version (and multiple numbers) of enemies you had previously fought. Almost all enemies could be thrown, kicked, and clobbered. The game itself was visceral with the noises, which helped to add to the feel of the games barbaric aspirations; it really sounded like you were slicing into people with your weapons and cracking skulls with the handles of your weapons.
The graphics of the game, at least on arcade and any megadrive ports out there, hold up nicely. The levels are grim, and yet whimsical – sometimes you’re in a burning village, sometimes you’re in a town built on the back of a flying eagle. The music is fitting, without standing out too much, and is pleasant without becoming an ear bug. The game is reasonably challenging in the main part of the game, though in the home ports, the “true” final boss (Death Adder’s teacher and mentor, Death Bringer), is just downright infuriating for anyone who hasn’t mastered the game, and is a sharp spike in difficulty.
With that said, this is still a classic of the genre. It spawned a few sequels in the main series of the game: Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder, which was a fantastic arcade game that never received a home port. Golden Axe II was an exclusive on the megadrive, which was decent, though too similar to the original to really feel much like a sequel. Golden Axe III was an ill fated Sega Channel exclusive (at least for those of us here in the west), which fell short compared to the previous entries in the series. An embarrassing and generic sequel came out in recent years for the XBox 360 and PS3 called Golden Axe: Beast Rider, which starred Tyris Flare, and just did not do the series justice. A few various spinoffs also came out, including a fighting game known as Golden Axe: The Duel that was released in arcades and on the Sega Saturn.
I’d recommend grabbing a copy of the game if you can find it. If you enjoy beat ’em ups or hack n’ slash games, or even just the Conan movies or stories, this game will shine. It’s mostly a good challenge, with a few minor flaws, and a great game to play with a friend. Like so many games of yesteryear, it’s been ported to modern channels through the latest game consoles, and is also readily available for free online.