Released: 2 August 1991
Also Available For: Arcade, GameCube, Game Gear, Master System, Mobile, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Wii, PC, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Sega CD, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X
A Brief Background:
Back in the mid-nineties, sidescrolling beat-‘em-ups and hack-and-slash adventures could often be found in arcades since they demanded little more from players than to hold right, mash buttons, and continually pump in their hard-earned pocket money. High fantasy was also a popular genre at the time; sword and sorcery settings were a recurring theme in movies, comic books, and action figures, so it made sense for there to be an influx of similarly themed videogames. Titles like Gauntlet (Atari Games, 1985), Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior (Palace Software, 1987), and Dungeon Master (FTL Games, 1987) may have led the way but it was the two Conan movies (Milius 1982; Fleisher 1984) that most directly influenced lead designer and producer Makoto Uchida, who sought to create a beat-‘em-up that could stand out from ultra popular genre hit Double Dragon (Technōs Japan, 1987). Golden Axe was a hit in arcades and became incredibly influential to the beat-‘em-up genre; when it released on the Mega Drive, Golden Axe was one of the system’s premier titles and, while the home version didn’t quite match up to the arcade release, it still did a commendable job of pushing SEGA’s machine as an arcade-quality product. Although Golden Axe led to a number of sequels and spin-offs, and was ported to many other consoles over the years, the series has largely laid dormant; Golden Axe: Beast Rider (Secret Level, 2008) all but killed the franchise with its poor reception, and a 2.5D reboot/remake was ultimately scrapped before it could be properly developed, meaning fans have had to make do with the hack-and-slash games being represented in SEGA’s racing games.
Golden Axe is set in the fictional land of Yuria, a high fantasy medieval world where the evil Death Adder has secured the mythical and titular Golden Axe and captured the King and his daughter, and threatens to destroy them all unless the people of Yuria accept him as their ruler. Players must pick between Ax Battler, Gilius Thunderhead, and Tyris Flare to set out on a 2D, sidescrolling beat-‘em-up quest to liberate Yuria and avenge their losses at the hands of Death Adder, with each of them having an added personal grudge against Death Adder and wielding a different weapon. No matter which character you pick, the default controls remain the same: A lets you perform a screen-clearing magic attack, B sees you attack with your weapon, and C lets you jump to avoid attacks and perform a jumping attack. Thankfully, these controls can be customised (I much prefer mapping attack to A and magic to C), and you can also rush ahead and perform a running attack and even limited combos that see you kicking, throwing, and beating down opponents, or press attack and jump together to perform a special twirling strike to quickly hit enemies that are behind you (or a rolling axe attack for Gilius). At first glance, it didn’t seem like there was much difference between which character you pick: Ax Battler was my pick and he seems slow and clunky compared to Gilius and Tyris, with Gilius being shorter and potentially having a smaller hit box as a result and Tyris seeming to have a faster dash attack. During and between stages, little Elves will wander about the screen; blue ones drop Magic Pots and green ones drop a chunk of meat to restore your life bar (though these only seem to appear in the interlude sections). Each character’s magic bar is a different length, and each one performs different elemental magic (Ax Battler’s are earth-based, Gilius’s are lightning, and Tyris’s are fire), with more powerful magic attacks performed when you have more Magic Pots. Unlike many beat-‘em-ups, Golden Axe lacks a time limit, which is a relief, and it also lacks a traditional difficulty system; you can pick between “Arcade” and “Beginner” mode, with the latter cutting the game short at Stage 3 for an easier challenge. In the “Options” menu, you can also increase your life bar, but you’ll be stuck with the default three lives and four credits to last you throughout the game.
While there aren’t any power-ups to pick up, you can knock or throw enemies off the edge of some stages (and the enemy A.I. is dumb enough to walk right off, in some cases) and ride three different beasts that can really help turn the tide: there’s a weird little bird/lizard hybrid known as a “Chicken Leg” that performs a tail swipe and two dragons, a blue one that breathes fire and a red one that spits fireballs. You can jump and perform dash attacks on these creatures, but enemies can also ride them and, if you’re knocked off or don’t get on one fast enough, the beasts will run away. Gameplay is as simple as you could want; dialogue boxes and map screens between stages give you a quick overview of the game’s story, and you’ll occasionally see screaming non-payable characters running past as enemies attack, but your goal is to go from the left side of the screen to the right, taking out enemies and liberating towns and areas from Death Adder’s lieutenants. While enemies are sometimes dumb, they’re smart enough to flank you and can charge at you, perform jump attacks, and you’re basically screwed once they land their first hit; when caught between two or more, it’s frustratingly easy to get constantly beaten and knocked down, which can feel very cheap. The game is pretty slow by default, but runs fairly consistently; there’s only ever about four enemies on screen at once, which helps, and the only time I saw any kind of slowdown was when the game loaded the day to dusk transition that indicates a boss battle or gauntlet. Golden Axe has you travelling to eight different stages, each one sporting some fun and visually interesting details, such as a village being on the back of a giant turtle or eagle, with feathers blowing in the wind, enemies emerging from the ground or behind doors. The game is bolstered by an extremely catchy soundtrack that’s fittingly reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian (Milius, 1982) and everyone gets a little death scream when they’re defeated. Unfortunately, while the sprites and environments are very big and reasonably detailed, they’re also a bit blurry and indistinct and the game can be a bit of a struggle to play; characters plod along, barely able to avoid attacks, and land their blows with a lackadaisical enthusiasm. However, I liked the variety in the stages; you need to jump over broken bridges, hop up steps, and can take the high ground at times, and there’s even some interesting screen transitions between and at the end of stages.
I’ve played Golden Axe before; I used to have it on the Amiga, I’ve played it on various compilations, and I believe I’ve finished it before but always with conveniences like cracked cheats or replays and save states. I was thus surprised at how well I was able to progress through the game without any of these aides (apparently, there is a code for extra lives but I couldn’t get it to work). Although you’d never guess it from playing the game, there is a scoring system in place, but you only see it and receive a letter rank upon getting a game over, meaning there’s no way to accumulate more lives to see you through to the end. At the end of each stage, you’ll either face one or more larger boss enemies accompanied by some minions, or a short wave of enemies, and the bigger villains you face will then crop up as regular enemies in subsequent stages. The first boss you face is actually two, the hulking, hammer-wielded Bad Brothers, who stomp around the place swinging their giant warhammers, kicking at you, or charging at you. While their attacks can deal massive damage, it’s not too hard to stay out of reach and spam your running charge or jump attack, though you need to be careful as your running attacks won’t connect if enemies are a little too far to the edge of the screen.
After clearing Death Adder’s minions from Turtle Village and crossing the bridge, you’ll face Lieutenant Bitter, a huge knight in silver armour who makes a nasty habit of slashing you out of the air or charging with his massive sword and bashing you with his shield. Tougher enemies will soon appear to cause you troubles, as indicated by their differing colour palettes, and this includes fighting variants of the Bad Brothers and Lt. Bitter prior to facing Death Adder Jr., who also doubles as the final boss of “Beginner” mode. When I faced him in “Arcade” mode, however, he was the death of me thanks to his massive axe swings and ability to fire a magical bolt across the ground. However, this isn’t necessarily where the game ends; you can play alongside a friend, for example, if player two presses start on the title screen (not the character select screen, as you might expect) but be careful as you can inflict damage on each other in this mode. You can also take on “The Duel”, which pits you against a number of the game’s enemies in a more traditional 2D fighter. Here, you get thirty seconds to defeat your opponent/s and they actually have a health bar (which would’ve been useful against bosses in the main game). Unfortunately, you can’t use your magic here and any damage you take carries over to the next round, though you are again given a class ranking for your efforts and you can also battle a friend in a one-on-one fight using this mode.
There’s no doubt that Golden Axe is a classic arcade and SEGA Mega Drive title; it’s a very visually appealing and enjoyable experience thanks to a pretty basic premise and control scheme, and it can be fun to charge at enemies, sword swinging, and toss them to their doom while humming one of the many catchy tunes. Unfortunately, it’s a very barebones and clunky experience; Tyris and Gilius were a bit faster and more responsive to play as, but the default speed is very slow, control can feel sluggish and lagging, and enemies are far too cheap at times. While the first few stages aren’t too difficult, it’s not long before the game’s arcade roots rear their head and see your health whittled down, your lives exhausted, and face you with that dreaded “Game Over” screen. Unlike many other beat-‘em-ups, especially ones on consoles, there’s hardly any opportunities to refill your health and no way to earn more lives or continues, meaning that the default difficult level is quite high compared to others in its genre. Had it included infinite continues to help balance these issues, this would’ve helped a lot; sure, you can probably finish “Beginner” mode without too much difficulty but that’s not the same as defeating the real Death Adder and his bigger, badder mentor, Death Bringer and getting the game’s true ending. Overall, it’s a fun arcade style beat-‘em-up, one that definitely set a standard for its genre and for the Mega Drive’s promise of offering arcade-style action, but there’s definitely better games of this type out there, even in the Golden Axe series, and some players might find the steep difficulty curve difficult to manage. Still, have you ever beaten Golden Axe? Do you think it’s worth me giving it another go to try and get to the end? Which of the characters or games in the franchise is your favourite? I’d love to hear your memories of Golden Axe, so leave them down below or drop a comment on my social media to share your thoughts on Golden Axe.