The Sega Genesis and Turbo Grafx-16 launches were pretty significant events in the gaming industry. For the first time we were experiencing a hardware transition and all that entails. While excitement was high we would eventually learn that most launch titles are terrible. The Genesis was no exception to this rule as Altered Beast, Last Battle, and Super Thunder Blade were just plain bad. One bright spot in that early period was Golden Axe. The Genesis version is an excellent port of the arcade game and has held up surprisingly well after all these years.
Golden Axe was pretty unique as one of the first fantasy beat em ups ever. It wears its Conan influence proudly and even though its story is generic it doesn’t matter. The evil Death Adder has taken over the land of Yuria, kidnapping its king and queen as well as holding the legendary Golden axe. Three warriors, Gilius Thunderhead, Tyris Flare, and Ax Battler rise up to oppose him, each affected by his tyranny in some way.
Combat in Golden Axe is pretty simple although it does have a few more moves than its contemporaries. The controls are simple with an attack, jump, and magic button. You have a multiple hit combo that can either end in a throw or head bash with the blunt end of your weapon. By double tapping you can dash and perform a dash attack or a leaping downward stab. The most important is the back attack. Pressing both jump and attack will perform a back attack that differs based on the character. The timing of it can be tricky but this is your most powerful attack, able to take out some of the strongest enemies in two or three hits.
While all three characters are near identical in terms of their basic moves they differ when it comes to magic. Each hero wields a different element and can hold varying numbers of magic pots needed to cast spells. Magic is broken down into levels, with higher levels requiring more potions and inflicting more damage. Gilius Thunderhead comes up short in this area as he can only cast level three spells. Tyris can go as high as level six at which point her most powerful spell can almost defeat bosses in one shot. Naturally there are different effects at higher levels which were a visual treat back then. The game is not stingy with potions, providing plenty of opportunity to stock up between levels and during each stage.
Aside from potions and meat the only “weapons” in the game are the Bizarrian creatures ridden by enemies. Knock them off and you can control them along with their various abilities. These creatures come in a few varieties; some breath fire, spit fireballs, or smack enemies with their tail. This was the game’s sole unique feature and while quaint is pretty cool. They help make the game go by faster and avoid the monotonous combat.
The journal style map between levels might give the impression that Golden Axe is a long game but in actuality it is pretty short. Each level is comprised of a few groups of enemies before capping off with a boss battle. Some stages don’t even have that! Though brief the journey goes through a number of exotic locations. The main village takes place on the back of a giant turtle while another stage is on the back a massive eagle flying across the sea. There are plenty of generic medieval castles and forests along the way; the game doesn’t forget its inspiration of course. The home port adds an extra level and a battle against a cheap final boss named Doom Bringer.
Most arcade games are incredibly unfair by design yet I found Golden Axe to be average in its difficulty. Although you are attacked by four or five enemies at once their AI isn’t the brightest and you can easily lead them off a cliff. Once you have mastered the back attack you can plow through the game pretty quickly. Life restoring meat doesn’t appear often but you can take a decent amount of punishment before death. Add in magic and the Bizarrians and most will cruise through the game easily, especially in coop. The new final boss is rage inducing and makes up for the rest of the game in his cheapness, be warned.
Back in 1989 seeing Golden Axe at home was one of the biggest shocks of my life. The home port compares favorably to the arcade game considering it was one of the first games for the system. The sprites are smaller and background detail has been reduced but nothing has been cut except for blood. The various spell effects are pretty amazing and the soundtrack is still fantastic. Even today it is still one of the better ports of the game.
I have fond memories of Golden Axe from around the Genesis’ launch and I’m glad to say it is still enjoyable. By beat em up standards it is a bit bare bones but that is just a sign of the time. This is still a retro classic and a much better game than its sequels.