Golden Axe is a game I’ve played on and off since childhood but never managed to complete. I’ve come oh-so-close on many occasions, but never quite finished the job. This is possibly the main reason I continue to play the game, as some of the gameplay elements leave a lot to be desired…
The game is based in a classic fantasy world of barbarians, fire breathing beasts and magic-wielding elves. The three main characters are a dwarf, a barbarian and a totally stunning Amazonian chick. I’m not kidding guys; check out the box art if you’re not convinced. It’s a shame the Megadrive’s graphics couldn’t back up the hefty promises made on the cover. Anyway… the first thing I love about the game is the care taken with the story and characters. Who couldn’t love a dwarf named Gilius Thunderhead? And the barbarian is named Ax Battler! That was a bit unfair of his parents if you ask me – I mean he was never going to become an accountant with that name. Talk about being typecast from birth. The Amazon is called Tyris Flare, which is still good, but a bit plain compared to the guys.
The story of the game involves the evil Death Adder, who has kidnapped the King and his daughter, as well as the Golden Axe of the title. Each player has their own incredibly unique and personal reasons for going after Death Adder. As the demo interlude screens explain: “Ax Battler – His mother was killed by Death Adder” “Tyris Flare – Her mother and father were killed by Death Adder” “Gilius Thunderhead – His brother was killed by Death Adder”. So basically everyone’s lost someone and its revenge time. As the first level begins a text box also explains that “My good friend Alex was also killed in the battle”. I have no idea who is narrating the story, but it’s the same no matter which character you play with. I also have no idea who Alex was (I don’t think he’s mentioned again in the game…), but he was obviously important enough to all three warriors to merit a namecheck in the story.
Although the characters have near-identical back stories, they do have differing abilities in combat. All of the warriors can use magic to attack all opponents on screen at once, but Tyris has the most powerful magic attack. Gilius has the longest range with his weapon, and Ax Battler is a good all-rounder. Ax and Tyris both use swords (although Ax’s is longer), and Gilius uses a silver axe. It is my theory that the Golden Axe in question is extra motivation for Gilius, as he would get a decent blade upgrade if successful in his quest.
Kick the annoying elves and steal their magic
The game’s graphics and sounds are nothing to get excited about. The characters are fairly well drawn, with limited animations, and the backgrounds serve their purpose in showing a fairly typical fantasy world. There are some amusing death screams for both the male and female enemies, and the music is quite unique, if a little irritating after a while.
As the game begins, you will quickly get used to the controls. One button to attack, one to jump and one for magic. It’s simple, and it utilises all of the Megadrive controller’s buttons. Characters can also perform dashing attacks by double tapping the D-pad, and throws during close combat. One of the things that made Golden Axe stand out from the other side-scrolling beat ‘em ups of the time was the ability to ride various beasts and use their attacks against opponents. The first one you’ll encounter is a strange-looking lizard-type thing with a beak that uses its tail to swipe nearby baddies. However, the Mercedes of the fantasy-beast-transportation methods is easily the fire-breathing dragon, of which there are two types. The first just breaths a blast of fire and has a short range. The best one breathes fireballs which will go all the way across the screen if no one gets in its way. So you want to keep this guy. The only problem is everyone will be attempting to kick you off the beast because they want it for themselves, so chances are you won’t be riding for too long…
In order to use magic, you must first fill up your magic bar. This is done by collecting bottles of magic, which are carried by annoying little elves which pop up from time to time. Sega did the right thing by making these guys annoying, as it motivates the player to attack them to get the magic. It certainly makes me smile every time I see one of these guys get booted in the ass.
The game itself is pretty challenging. The enemies range from barbarians with clubs to skeletons with swords, with knights and big bald guys with hammers thrown in as bosses. Individually they are simple to defeat, but when you’re surrounded by three or so, it can become incredibly frustrating as you are attacked from behind while half way through a move on another opponent. And if a skeleton has you cornered and starts battering you every time you get up, you can basically kiss goodbye to that life, which will probably have you screaming at the TV in rage (or is that just me?) The main bosses aren’t too tough though, they can usually be defeated by just repeatedly performing a running or jumping attack on them. Even Death Adder can be taken down this way.
Another annoying aspect of the gameplay involves jumping over gaps in the ground. This would be a lot easier with more responsive controls, and often you’ll find yourself shouting at the game as your character loses another life because he or she should have been a pixel closer to the edge when he or she leapt. Luckily there are only a couple of jumps like this in the game, and the more cunning warriors out there will manoeuvre their enemies near to the gaps and make them fall in. The AI in this game isn’t too smart and some enemies will voluntarily walk into bottomless pits (which should hopefully relieve some of your frustration with the more irritating glitches of the game).
Where this game really wins points however, is in two-player mode. The game is so much more enjoyable when played with a friend in co-op mode. You can help the other out when he gets double teamed by skeletons, just be careful not to batter your buddy by accident. It will happen though, and you will turn on each other many times as a result… which is a shame, because as I’ve always said, teamwork makes dreams work.
When you finally defeat Death Adder, the King and his daughter will be lowered to the ground by ropes, in a rather amusing fashion. Job done, you’d be reasonable in thinking. WRONG. After saying thanks, the King says he thinks Death Adder was taking orders from someone else and asks if you’ll go through the big door and continue fighting. Without even giving the player a “no thanks” option, your character accepts the challenge and continues. Personally I like to turn the console off after the King and Princess are rescued, as you’ve pretty much achieved your goal by then. Death Adder’s dead and the royal family are fine. You don’t need a Golden Axe; you’ve got a silver one (or even a nice sword if you’re one of the other characters). Let’s just leave the big door closed and go home.
Okay, so you have to go through the door if you want the Golden Axe. And the shallow, materialistic part of me wants it. However, this is where I get tantalisingly close to the end of the game and fail. Skeleton attacks and clumsy jumps have worn me down by this point and I don’t last too long after I walk through the door. But don’t worry, I’ll continue returning to this game until I get that axe, if only so Alex can rest in peace.
I really like this game. I find it very challenging, and kind of unique with its fantasy, magic and beast-riding themes. The game is still available in shops, as part of the Sega Megadrive Collection on the PSP and PS2, and can also be downloaded on Virtual Console. I think its well worth a go, and if you like it you can’t go wrong with the two sequels either. They are pretty much the same but with better graphics, new characters etc… but why mess with a winning formula??