Back in the day with new console launches the pack-in title was usually the flagship game. It was usually a game designed to show off a new system’s technical prowess first and foremost. The NES had Super Mario Bros., the Genesis had Altered Beast, and the SNES had Super Mario World. They don’t always hit the mark though. Probably the biggest mistake made with the Turbo Grafx-16 in the US was using Keith Courage in the Alpha Zones as its launch title. That game was trash, meanwhile NEC had a better option in Legendary Axe, a title that would have created a more favorable impression if it were the first game new owners encountered.
Despite the name Legendary Axe is nothing like Golden Axe. In fact it is near identical in gameplay to the Nintendo version of Astyanax. That similarity is for a reason: both games were designed by Tokuhiro Takemori. It should be noted that Legendary Axe came first. Those familiar with that game have an idea of what to expect; slow paced action, lots of platforming, and deliberately placed enemies for maximum frustration.
The axe in the title is your only weapon. Your reach is limited and you’ll have to adapt quick as the game has very fast ramp up. Your attack power depends on how long you let the meter charge up with further extensions found throughout the game. Other power-ups aren’t plentiful unfortunately. Aside from points, extra lives and varying amounts of health the only “weapons” you’ll find boost your attack speed and store power. That wings are completely useless as mindlessly attacking faster defeats the purpose of the charge bar.
The charging mechanic is a double edged sword. Initially it feels satisfying to nail an enemy with a well-timed hit that kills in one shot. It doesn’t last long however. By the end of Zone 2 your charge meter is halfway full and enemies take multiple hits. When they attack in groups of two or three it becomes incredibly frustrating. Don’t even get me started on the end game. With a fully maxed out power bar there are still enemies that require three hits or more to kill. The trouble is you rarely have time to let it build that long, especially in the beyond ridiculous maze. Its manageable by inching forward all the time but definitely brings the game down a notch.
The majority of the game is linear and to an extent is inspired by Castlevania. There is a heavy focus on platforming as each level (or zone) is huge. Secrets lie everywhere as well as alternate paths through some levels. There is just as much combat as the enemy roster is huge, with new ones introduces up until the end. You’ll need to learn their attack patterns as the game is stingy with replenishing health. Despite the jungle theme the game is very diverse with a range of settings. The longest level is a frustrating maze that gives no hints as to how to properly find the exit and ratchets up the difficulty so high I wouldn’t blame anyone for quitting.
The maze is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to challenge. Like Castlevania Legendary Axe marches to the beat of its own drum. It has pacing that you either adapt to or fail. As such the difficulty is very high. Instant death pits are everywhere and the game has my least favorite mechanic, a knock back when hit. You are going to die a lot, especially as conveniently placed enemies reside near every pit. The weapon charging becomes a burden in the late game where far too enemies attack at once. It reaches its ridiculous apex in the final level, a large maze that runs far too long and features everything you hate about video games. You only get three credits too, good luck.
For its time Legendary Axe was a great looking title. At its heart it doesn’t look much better than some of the later NES games like Kick Master or Shatterhand. What it does have over those games is a wider color palette that allows for more detail. The environments are lush and vibrant in a way that NES titles simply couldn’t. The jungle is vast and varied and surprisingly still looks unique today. Like most early Turbo Grafx titles it has its fair share of large sprites but doesn’t go overboard with it. The music is not exceptional but does fit the game’s tone pretty well. It’s simply not something you’ll listen to outside of the game.
In spite of its few faults Legendary Axe is still a pretty great action game. Play it at its own pace and most of its issues become minor. This is one of the few early titles for the system that still holds up today.