When anyone mentions the Golden Axe series, it conjures up instant nostalgia. It’s one of the most well-known beat-em-up series in history and possibly one of the most played throughout the decades. Golden Axe exploded onto the Arcade scene in May 1989, it was quickly ported to the Sega Genesis / Megadrive in December of that year and subsequently to the Master System in March of 1990. It was developed during a time where high fantasy was popular in the cinema with Conan, Willow and Krull being released to hungry audiences.
The narrative is set in the fictional land of Yuria where the evil overlord Death Adder has captured the king and his daughter. This dastardly tyrant has discovered the powerful and magical Golden Axe and threatens to destroy it along with the King and princess unless he is accepted as the new ruler of the land. Three warriors have very personal reasons to stand against Death Adder and save the land. The battle axe-wielding Dwarf, Gilius Thunderhead, the barbarian, Ax Battler, and the longsword wielding amazon Tyris Flare. The story evolves and is told through attractive text in-between stages and specific events.
Golden Axe is a side-scrolling beat ’em up that supports up to two players. One of the more unfortunate elements of the co-op gameplay is that both players can hit each other during gameplay. This can be incredibly annoying and offputting. There are several game modes but the real meat of the game is Arcade Mode. There’s a fairly pointless Beginner Mode which only allows you to get so far before the game tells you to play in Arcade Mode.
Each of the three characters has their own strengths and weaknesses and cast different spells. Every character can walk, jump and attack but the inclusion of the individual traits helps the game with replayability and brings a sense of uniqueness to the character choice. Similar to most beat em ups the goal of each stage is to walk from left to right from the start of the stage to the end, killing enemies in between. You have a fairly small life bar, once you lose all of your bars you will lose a life.
Dastardly thieves will appear throughout the stages, attacking them feels not only satisfying but causes them to drop magic potions. These potions will level up your character’s magic ability, the higher the ability, the more powerful the spell. In some stages, you will encounter enemies riding a selection of beasts. Knock them off their mounts and you can use them yourself. Each creature has an ability for the player to utilize, some use their tails as whips, others can breathe fire. These creatures do make completing the stages a little easier but one hit and you are knocked off them giving the enemy a chance to jump on.
There’s a great sense of theme with the backgrounds and locations in the game. Yuria is a land entrenched in a high fantasy medieval world. It’s packed with Skeletons and evil Knights. The backdrops are inventive, moving from forests to the back of a Turtle to storming a dark and gloomy castle. Each stage is fairly short and if you are good at the game, you will be able to beat it in roughly 30 mins. You are ranked at the end of the game on how well you did and this adds a little more reply value, trying to increase your score for bragging rights.
Success comes from memorization and it took me a few goes to actually beat the game. Some of the difficulty does come from cheap enemies and throwing bosses at the player in later levels. You can fall off ledges to your death but it’s an environmental hazard that can be used to your advantage. With a little practice and timing, you can knock enemies off the ledges.
In addition to the Arcade and Beginner modes is The Duel. Two players can fight each other, it’s certainly not Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat and gets old quickly. The single-player component of The Duel is a little more interesting, it pits the player against increasingly difficult foes. You battle enemies until you beat the final battle or die. In this mode you can’t cast any spells and your health doesn’t recharge after battles making it quite challenging.
The visuals have aged considerably since the game’s debut. It does look good for a 1989 game. The sprites are fairly detailed and there’s a nice wind effect in one of the levels. The spell effects are really cool with Tyris’ being exceptional. She summons a dragon to burn all the enemies on the screen. As mentioned before, the backgrounds are evocative and detailed and help to reinforce the atmosphere.
The main theme is awesome, it reverberates and announces the epic nature of the quest which you are about to embark on. The tunes in each level also have a dramatic, adventurous sound to them which compliments to fantasy environment. The sound effects are simple and how the enemies scream when they die is frankly ludicrous.
Golden Axe is a product of its time, I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys the beat em up genre. It’s a little dated but it can still show you a good time. The Arcade mode is challenging and should keep you coming back. The Duel mode is an inventive way to mix things up, and the experience can be enjoyed with a friend. It’s easy to see how this title was an inspiration for other titles in the genre during a playthrough. Try it out if you have never played it before and if it’s an old favorite grab it and enjoy the nostalgia all over again.
Golden Axe is one of the most popular beat em ups on the Genesis / Megadrive. Revolving around three warriors in a fantasy universe as they battle an evil tyrant, this is an extremely fun and satisfying game.
Chris McAuley is a Northern Irish born author, comic book and gaming columnist who has now branched out from talking about comics to helping create them. An acclaimed colourist for 2000 AD and Marvel he has worked on flagship titles such as Judge Dredd, Roy of the Rovers and Hulkverines. Chris also has a commitment to the Indie scene being an inker and colourist for ‘The Lang Way Hame’ a Scottish comic which is tipped for an award later this year. With close ties to heroes of the industry such as the ‘Godfather of British comics’ Pat Mills and Spawn creator Todd McFarlene,