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The Golden Axe series seems to come up a lot in conversations about the beat’em up genre. Now that I’ve played the first two Genesis games, I have at least some knowledge on the franchise. They feel a bit stiff by today’s standards, they’re very challenging, and they have been surpassed in the gameplay category by many games in the genre. After Golden Axe II came Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder which is exclusive to arcades as of this review. Then Sega released Golden Axe III for the Mega Drive in Japan in 1993 and the North American version was only released on the Sega Channel. I didn’t know what to expect from this game but I’ve heard some say it’s one of the worst in the franchise. Well Jeremy and I once again teamed up and played the version from the SEGA Mega Drive and Genesis Classics collection on Steam.
The story goes that Damud Hellstrike, the Prince of Darkness, has taken away the Golden Axe and cursed all of the warriors. One or two of them has their curse lifted and set out to defeat the Prince of Darkness and return with the Golden Axe. You would think an item of great importance like the Golden Axe would have better security at this point but apparently not. The story is told through text and there are multiple endings.
Gilius Thunderhead is the only character to make a return in Golden Axe III and he’s not even a playable character. He just sends you on the quest. You can play as four new heroes – Kain who resembles Ax Battler, Sarah who resembles Tyris Flare, Proud Cragger, a giant, and Chronos, a humanoid black panther. In the VS mode, you can also play as Eve, a griffin or some kind of bird man. I don’t have the manual for this game and looking up these characters’ names and information online yields different results depending on the source. You have a set amount of lives and can no longer adjust how many life bars you have. But you can acquire extra lives by rescuing enough people throughout the stages. Each character can perform the same basic moves like dash, jump, cast magic spells, and block. Yes, you can block in Golden Axe III which I think is a great addition, however it can be easy to inadvertently block when trying to perform other moves. The game plays out in stages. You complete one stage to advance to the next and there are multiple routes. In certain stages, you’re given the opportunity to choose a direction and the routes do add some replay value to the game.
Unfortunately, character movement still feels a bit on the stiff side but there is more depth to the combat than that of the previous entries. You can perform all kinds of attacks like jump attacks, sweep attacks, spin attacks, and some characters can fire projectiles. You do have to enter specific button combinations to perform certain moves so it might be a good idea to look up a move list or guide. To cast a spell, you need magic pots which will be dropped by thieves. The characters rest in between stages and thieves will arrive to steal your shit. Just like in previous entries, you can attack them to acquire magic pots and some thieves drop food which grants health. They can also drop hearts which increase your maximum health. The more pots you have, the stronger your magic spell. The magic works similar to how it worked in the first game. And casting a spell still pauses the gameplay which is still a bit tedious. The game does support up to two players and once again, both players can attack each other. Why there is no option to turn this off is baffling. Both players can perform a co-op attack and a co-op magic spell. Both of you have to be near each other on the same plane and when the two characters nod, you can then perform the move. However, it can be difficult if there’s enemies all over the place. There should have been another way to do this because having to stand and wait for the nods just leaves you vulnerable to attack. You will get the opportunity to mount different types of creatures all with their own moves and all it takes is one hit to knock you off. And I find staying on them in this game to be extremely difficult. Enemies always seem to jump just as you attack and then they knock you off. Every now and then I got lucky so I guess it just requires practice.
Golden Axe III is tough game but I think the new attacks help to alleviate some of the challenge. Enemies will still kick your ass, you can still get caught in combos, but it feels like there’s more wiggle room for error just thanks to the larger move set. The enemy roster is small like the previous games but interesting and there is a lot of recolors. I find this disappointing here considering how many stages are in the game compared to previous entries. More enemy variety would have been appreciated. You’re always outnumbered, enemies will always try to gang up on you, they’ll come equipped with melee weapons, and some arrive on creatures. I think you’ll see all the variety there is before you reach the half-way point. You’ll even fight many of the same looking bosses repeatedly. Some are just the playable characters which are still cursed. The bosses are tough and usually accompanied by standard enemies.
There is a good variety of environments. The game takes place in the East Land and you’ll battle foes through a field, desert, mountain, on a bird, and through a cursed city among other locations. You’ll come across enemies guarding prisoners which can be rescued by simply killing their captors. You need to be careful so you don’t fall off ledges but falling off doesn’t immediately result in a loss of life. But you do lose some health. You can lure enemies or knock them off ledges which could save you from a lengthy or tough battle. Scattered throughout several stages are crates and barrels that can be broken and will either reveal health items, magic pots, or enemies.
In addition to the standard adventure mode is the VS mode. In single player, you choose a character, stage, and must fight all of the other playable characters. Beat them all and you win. Lose a fight and you fail and have to start over. When playing with another person, both players fight each other. The mode is neat but clearly not the selling point but I do think it can be enjoyable. In fact, I think it’s a great way to practice all of the character’s moves.
While the gameplay in Golden Axe III has seen improvements compared to its predecessors, the visuals have regressed in some respects. Some of the spell effects look cool and there’s a good amount of detail in the character sprites, but many of the environments and almost all of the backgrounds are just so bland. Most of the stages are uninteresting to look at. The gameplay is accompanied by a few good tunes and generic sound effects. There’s one or two songs here that stand out but there’s nothing amazing about the soundtrack. The frame rate would take a hit when there was a lot of action on screen and the game actually froze on us twice. The first time it happened, the game crashed. The second time it just froze for a few seconds and then we were back in action. After that, we started using the quick save function available in the collection.
We appreciate many of the changes made in Golden Axe III but it does have some problems. I enjoyed the game more than Jeremy did mainly because I like all of the new moves. It makes the combat look and feel more interesting. It’s still essentially trial and error but you’re not limited to only the same few attacks and there’s more room for error. I still tried to exploit certain moves every now and then to win because some enemy attacks and bosses just feel cheap. But I do like that you can block now. You can actually defend yourself. We preferred the magic the system in Golden Axe II but we did enjoy the inclusion of co-op magic and attacks. We just don’t like the execution. The enemies are relentless so stopping to wait for your character’s to nod is just not ideal. Do I think this is the worst game we’ve played so far? No. Honestly, I think I enjoy it the most. The expanded move set alone makes it more interesting. The action doesn’t feel as “simple” for lack of a better word. And the addition of routes raises the game’s replay value. Sure, you don’t get to play as the classic Golden Axe characters but you get to play as a humanoid panther because why not? The visuals could have certainly used more love but it didn’t deter me from the gameplay which I found to be an overall improvement.
I would recommend Golden Axe III to fans of the series and beat’em ups. But just like the first two, we do think this is a product of its time. It feels stiff, it’s short, and better beat’em ups are available. I think the series could have evolved a bit more by this point but Golden Axe III does feel like a bigger leap than going from the first game to the second. My favorite improvement in Golden Axe II is how you basically have more control over magic. It’s a shame that wasn’t carried over. But more characters, more stages, and more attacks is a good thing and overall, I enjoyed it.