Golden Axe
  • Genre:
    • Beat 'Em Up
  • Developers:
    • Sega (ARC/GEN/SMS/SCD)
    • Probe Software (AMI/C64/CPC/IBM/ST/ZX)
    • Renovation (PCE)
    • Bandai (WSC)
  • Publishers:
    • Sega (ARC/GEN/SMS/SCD)
    • Virgin Games (AMI/C64/CPC/IBM/ST/ZX)
    • Telenet (PCE)
    • Bandai (WSC)
  • Released:
    ARC
    • May 1989
    GEN
    • US 12/22/1989
    • JP 12/23/1989
    • UK 11/30/1990
    SMS
    • US UK 1989
    AMI/C64/CPC/IBM/ST/ZX
    • 1990
    PCE
    • JP 03/16/1990
    SCD
    • US 10/15/1992
    • UK 04/19/1993
    • JP 04/23/1993
    WSC
    • JP 02/28/2002
Score: 75%

This review was published on 12/30/2017.

Golden Axe is a side-scrolling beat 'em up video game originally developed and published by Sega for the System 16-B arcade hardware in May 1989. Almost immediately after its success in the arcades, the game was ported to a plethora of other platforms. The Sega Genesis port is definitely the most popular version of the game, and it arrived in North America on December 22, 1989, Japan on December 23, 1989, and Europe on November 30, 1990. Another version of the game was released for the Sega Master System in 1989, as well. A single player port of the Genesis version with remixed music was included in the Sega Classics Arcade Collection, a compilation of games released for the Sega CD in the early 1990s. Most of the other ports came out in 1990 on platforms such as the IBM PC, Commodore Amiga, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Atari ST, and PC Engine CD. There was also a portable version of the game published and developed by Bandai for the WonderSwan Color in Japan on February 28, 2002. With so many ports, it's easy to see that Golden Axe left its mark on gaming history. There's a good reason for that.

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The beat 'em up genre effectively began with the release of the Renegade arcade game in 1986, which was developed by Technos. However, it wasn't until Technos released Double Dragon in 1987 that the world saw a successful example of the genre. Many developers were quick to challenge Double Dragon's success, and Sega was one of them. Enter Makoto Uchida, the lead designer of Golden Axe and the same individual who created the Altered Beast arcade game, another beat 'em up originally released by Sega in 1988. Uchida's idea was to come up with a game similar to Double Dragon without being too similar. Around this time, Uchida noticed that Dragon Quest was a big hit on consoles in Japan, and he felt that arcade games should be able to compete with this new phenomenon. To that end, he studied the world of swords and sorcery, and combined this with the game play of Double Dragon to form Golden Axe.

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Heavily inspired by Conan the Barbarian, the story of Golden Axe is set in the fictional land of Yuria, a high fantasy medieval world. It all starts when an evil entity known as Death Adder starts doing as his name implies by adding some death to the land of Yuria. In addition to that, Death Adder kidnaps the king and his daughter, and holds them captive in their castle. Further, Death Adder obtains the titular Golden Axe, which acts as the magical emblem of Yuria. Death Adder threatens to destroy both the axe and the royal family if the people of Yuria don't submit to his rule. In response to this, three warriors set out on a heroic quest to rescue Yuria and stop Death Adder from adding any more death to the world. Obviously, they must also recover the Golden Axe. Their victory entirely depends on your skill as a gamer.

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Normally, beat 'em ups make you do most of the fighting completely unarmed, with weapons often being an occasional and temporary luxury. However, you're always armed with a melee weapon in Golden Axe. Regardless, the controls are simple. Movement on the ground is controlled by the joystick, and there's one button for attacking, one for jumping, and one for using magic. Repeatedly pressing the attack button does a devastating combo, of which there are a couple variations. Pressing the jump and attack buttons simultaneously allows you to attack backwards, and aerial attacks are possible if you attack whilst jumping. Most enemies can be grabbed if you walk into them after they've been hit a few times, and you then throw them by pressing the attack button once more. Additionally, you can dash by double tapping the joystick forward, and if you press the attack button during a dash, you'll perform a dash attack. Lastly, if you do a running jump and press the attack button at the peak of your leap, you'll do a powerful downwards stab. This move is quite moving, if you catch my drift.

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There are three playable characters in Golden Axe: an axe wielding dwarf called Gilius Thunderhead, a male barbarian known as Ax Battler, and an Amazon named Tyris Flare. Gilius is the strongest of the three in terms of physical strength, but has the weakest magic ability. Out of all the characters in the game, Ax Battler is the one who most resembles Conan. Despite his name, Ax Battler doesn't do battle with an axe, and instead uses a mighty broadsword to slay his enemies. Ax Battler is the most balanced of the bunch, having no particular advantages, but also no particular weaknesses. Tyris also uses a sword as her main weapon, but her true specialty is magic. Aside from differences in attack strength and magic capability, the characters all control exactly the same. Their moves are basically the same, as well, though the combos are slightly different for each character. Also, a second player can join the action at any time for some cooperative play, but it should be noted that friendly fire is possible.

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As mentioned, every character is capable of performing magical attacks by pressing the designated magic button, and these spells do big damage to everything on the screen. Each character has a different set of spells based on a specific element. With the exception of Ax Battler, who specializes in earth magic, the element of each character's magic is in their surname, so Gilius Thunderhead and Tyris Flare use lightning and fire magic, respectively. Every character has a magic meter of a different length that's visible at the top of the screen, and these meters are divided into multiple segments. You fill up segments on the magic meter by collecting magic potions, which are primarily obtained by beating up little gnomes. Different spells are cast depending on how many segments of the meter are filled in, with a longer meter resulting in stronger magic. However, no matter how many segments are filled in, you lose them all upon casting only a single spell. It's a pretty interesting system.

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Every so often, you'll stumble onto a mount, and I don't mean a mountain. I'm talking about creatures that you can ride to gain access to special attacks that you don't normally have access to. These mighty steeds are known as Bizarrians, and they include a cockatrice, which originally appeared in Altered Beast, and two types of dragons. The cockatrice has access to a tail whip that knocks foes down in a single blow, and the dragons breathe enough fire to raze the roof. One dragon breathes fire in a manner similar to a flamethrower, and the other one shoots out fireballs from a long distance. The only issue with these mountable creatures is that enemies can knock you off them, but it's possible to get right back on their backs if they're still around. Likewise, enemies can ride these steeds, too, and you're fully capable of knocking them off their beastly mounts. Sadly, the one thing you can't do in this game is mount your friends.

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As per usual for the beat 'em up genre, stages are simple left-to-right affairs where you spend the majority of your time beating up whomever or whatever gets in your way. While the stages mostly act as interesting backdrops to the brutal action, some of their designs are quite creative. One stage is set in a village that sits atop the back of a titanic turtle, and another takes place on a big bird. Rarely, there'll even be a little bit of platforming in certain stages. You'll also occasionally see a villager being terrorized by an enemy. Rescuing them doesn't do much, but it's a nice detail. Speaking of nice details, you're shown a map screen prior to starting every stage, complete with a journal entry from one of the playable characters. Between each stage is a bonus round where nasty gnomes will attempt to steal your magic while you're camping for the night, but you can attain more magic than you lose if you beat them up efficiently enough. Like most of the game, it's good fun.

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Being that it was released on so many platforms, it stands to reason that there are some differences between those releases. The Genesis port is a close replication of the arcade original, plus it has an additional stage, a new final boss named Doom Bringer, and an extra mode where you can fight another player one-on-one. That doesn't necessarily mean it's superior to the arcade release, however, as some stuff was censored, and a few visual effects and voice samples are missing. Conversely, the Master System version suffers from horribly downgraded graphics and sound, and it only lets you play as Ax Battler, who's been renamed Tarik. The PC Engine CD port is also pretty wonky and lacks multiplayer, but it does have some animated cut scenes and CD quality music. The home computer versions are a mixed bag; the Amiga, Atari ST, and IBM PC versions are somewhat comparable to the Genesis port, but the Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, and ZX Spectrum versions are borderline unplayable. The WonderSwan Color version is okay for a portable release, but still pales in comparison to the better ports. If you don't have access to the original arcade version of Golden Axe, then the Genesis port is the ideal choice.

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While groundbreaking for its time due to combining a medieval fantasy theme with the mechanics of a beat 'em up, Golden Axe quickly got surpassed by future brawlers made by Sega, such as the Streets of Rage series. It's still a fun game to play every now and then, though. That's doubly true if you bring a friend along for the ride.

Word Count: 1,698

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