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Golden Axe was a popular beat ‘em up, hack and slash arcade game released in 1989 and was an inspiration for others of its kind. I was born that year and never had a Genesis growing up so I never had the opportunity to play it or the console version when it was in its heyday. I played through the game recently and thought it was good but certainly a product of its time. Nevertheless, it is a classic that’s beloved by many and for the time it released, it was pretty damn great. Developed and published by Sega, Golden Axe II was released for the Genesis in January, 1992. Jeremy and I teamed up and played through the version from the Sega Mega Drive and Genesis Classics collection on Steam.
The story takes place after the events of the first game. Death Adder has been slain but a new evil emerges. Dark Guld also known as the Lord of Darkness who was sealed away a long time ago escapes his imprisonment, obtains the powerful Golden Axe, and wants to bring the world to chaos. Gilius Thunderhead, Ax Battler, and Tyris Flare – the three heroes from the first game – return and set out to stop Dark Guld and reclaim the Golden Axe.
I thought because Golden Axe II was designed as a console game from the start and not to eat your money, that it might be a bit more forgiving than the first game. But it isn’t. And while the formula is basically identical to that of its predecessor, the gameplay has been refined and it also feels bit faster-paced. These are good things. This is a side-scrolling beat ‘em up that can be played solo or with a friend. Unfortunately, in the two player mode, both players can attack each other which is frustrating. The three playable characters have their own strengths and weaknesses but can perform the same basic functions. They can each walk, dash, jump, perform attacks, grab and throw enemies, and cast their own unique magic spells. When a spell is cast, the gameplay is paused until the spell finishes which can be annoying. Pressing the attack and jump buttons simultaneously results in your character performing a special attack that can be quite helpful when you’re surrounded by enemies. Playing this today, the characters do feel a bit stiff but the controls are responsive. You have a life meter with multiple health bars and you lose a bar after taking enough damage. Lose all your bars and you die and lose a life. Lose all of your lives and you can use a credit to continue. If you used up all your credits and lose all of your lives again, it’s game over. You can increase the amount of health bars from the options menu and I would suggest newcomers give themselves the max amount. There’s three difficulty modes – Easy, Normal, and Hard – and on Easy, you can only get to the end of a specific stage before the game tells you to play on a higher difficulty. Playing with a friend does alleviate the challenge but the game will kick your ass regardless until you’ve practiced and memorized the stages.
The Arcade mode is like the campaign where you progress through the stages in an effort to stop Dark Guld. The goal of each stage is to walk from one end to the other, defeat all the enemies in between, and hopefully not die. Casting magic spells requires spell books. You can hold down the button to charge your magic and cast a more powerful spell which does use up multiple spell books. I like this system better than the magic system in the first game. Spells inflict damage to all of the enemies on-screen and can help you get through some of the tougher battles. Every now and then, Wizards will appear and they drop spell books when they die. In between the stages, the characters will rest and Wizards will appear allowing you to stock up on spell books and some of them drop food which will replenish your health. You cannot acquire health throughout the stages so you want to master the mechanics and memorize the stages to be successful. Some enemies arrive on creatures that you can mount yourself, just like in the first game. Each creature has its own set of attacks, I like the one that breathes fire, and all it takes is one hit to knock you off.
Enemies will come from multiple directions and you’re always going to be outnumbered. I kind of wish there was a block button because two enemies will always try to get on either side of you and then you get caught in their combos and are basically helpless to defend yourself. And considering you’re usually always up against groups of enemies, this will happen frequently until you find the best ways to avoid it. I do prefer the roster of enemies here to that of the first game. I find them more interesting although the variety is still lacking and there’s a lot of re-colors. You’ll engage Wizards, Skeletons, and Lizardmen, among some other foes. They come at you with melee weapons, some have their own dash attacks, and they are all relentless. Stages usually end with tough baddies and bosses which are usually the big foes that all seem to have a further reach than you do. It’s all about timing because bosses can easily knock you down or throw you around. Saving some spell books for bosses is highly recommended and just like in the first game, I often found myself exploiting the dash move to get passed some of them without dying or losing too much health.
Golden Axe II isn’t a long game but the high difficulty should keep you coming back. It does feel longer than its predecessor but that could be because some of the battles can take a little while if you’re struggling or just taking your time. The stages are pretty diverse. You’ll traverse through a village, ruins, tower, cave, and castle, and they all look and feel different. I would say Golden Axe II is more atmospheric than its predecessor and the environments are a big reason why. You will have to be careful to not fall off ledges to your death but you can always knock enemies off them which can make some battles go by very quickly.
The Duel mode returns and it’s basically the same as it was in the previous game. In single player, you battle numerous enemies in succession until you win the last battle or die. You’re outnumbered in most of the battles and you can’t use magic so you really have to master the combat. In the two player duel, both players must fight each other. It’s not that exciting. It ends up boiling down to each player trying to land hits first because you can catch your opponent in a combo which is basically inescapable.
Golden Axe II looks very similar to its predecessor on Genesis, complete with stiff animations, but it does contain a bit more detail. The sprites for the playable characters have seen some tweaks, the environments are more interesting, and the spell effects look cool. The enemy designs are well done but we do wish there was a larger roster because you’ll frequently engage the same looking types. The sound effects are pretty basic, although the iconic scream of enemies dying heard in the first game is sadly absent here. The music is lackluster which is a shame since the music in the previous entry was pretty good. It had a memorable theme song, anyway. I can’t say the same for this nor can I remember a single song from the game and I’ve been playing it on both PC and Switch for days. On the technical side, we encountered no issues.
We had fun with Golden Axe II, although it does feel a bit too similar to the first game. However, the improvements make it a much more enjoyable experience. The game’s age does shine through and considering this was not originally an arcade release, we do think more content would have been welcome. It’s very short, the enemy variety is lacking, there’s not much depth to the gameplay, and at times it feels like the first game except with a fresh coat of paint. The difficulty modes, challenge, and required memorization should keep you coming back but you need to be able to tolerate dying repeatedly. The single player Duel mode can actually be a good way to practice against enemies but the mode itself didn’t hold our interest for long in terms of fun factor. The real meat of the game is the Arcade mode.
Ultimately, we would recommend Golden Axe II to fans of beat ’em ups, although if you’ve played the original, you’ve basically played this one. It does kind of feel like a rehash. The changes to magic and refinements to the combat make it more enjoyable but it still feels like a product of its time. It’s a classic albeit stiff beat ’em up that will kick your ass and make you earn success.