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Whenever I research I the beat ‘em up genre, Golden Axe always seems to get mentioned. It’s one of the most well known beat ‘em up series in history and I while I thought I played at least one of these games in the past, I discovered I actually played Altered Beast and somehow got them confused. Developed and published by Sega, Golden Axe was released as an Arcade game in May, 1989. It was ported to the Genesis in December of that same year and the Master System in March, 1990. For this review, Jeremy and I teamed up to play the Genesis version from the Sega Mega Drive and Genesis Classics collection on Steam. I was originally going to play Golden Axe: Beast Rider since I hear it’s terrible even though it looks cool but I decided to play the previous games first and see and what all the fuss is about.
The story is set in the fictional land of Yuria where the evil Death Adder has captured the King and his daughter. He also discovers the magical Golden Axe and threatens to destroy it along with the King and Princess unless he’s accepted as the new ruler of the land. Three warriors with their own vendetta’s against Death Adder set out to defeat him and save the land – the battle axe wielding Dwarf, Gilius Thunderhead, the barbarian, Ax Battler, and the longsword wielding amazon, Tyris Flare. Golden Axe is a very short but challenging game and the story is told through text in between stages and during specific events.
Golden Axe is a side-scrolling beat ‘em up that supports up to two players. Unfortunately, both players can hit each other during gameplay which can be very, very annoying and there’s no way to turn it off. Communication will be required. The Arcade mode is the real meat of the game but there is a Beginner mode that is much easier but you can only get to the end of a certain stage before the game tells you to play the Arcade mode. The three playable characters have their own strengths and weaknesses and can perform the same basic functions. You can walk, dash, jump, attack, and cast magic spells. Casting a spell pauses the gameplay which can be a nuisance. You can dash into enemies, throw them, perform a back attack by simultaneously pressing the attack and jump buttons, and perform a down thrust. If you’ve played more modern beat ‘em ups or even later ones released during the 16-bit era, you’ll notice fairly quickly that Golden Axe feels a bit on the stiff side and there’s not much depth in terms combat. You can perform a few different attacks, cast a spell that can wipe out multiple enemies on the screen, and you want to avoid getting overwhelmed. That’s really all there is to it.
Like most beat ‘em ups, the goal of each stage is to walk from one end of the stage to the other and kill the enemies in between. Your life meter shows how many health bars you have and when you take enough damage, you lose a bar. Lose all of your bars and you lose a life. Lose all of your lives and you can use a credit to continue. If you have no credits left and lose all your lives again, it’s game over. You can adjust how many health bars you have from the options menu and I would recommend first-time players select the maximum amount of health bars possible because this game will kick your ass. Thieves will appear throughout the stages and attacking them will cause them to drop magic potions that level up your magic when acquired. Each character can cast magic spells and the higher the magic level, the more powerful the spell. In between stages, the characters will rest and thieves will arrive to steal your magic potions but you can beat them up to get them back and the Green Thieves will drop food which replenishes your health. In some stages, you’ll engage enemies riding different creatures. You can knock an enemy off and mount them yourself and each one has its own unique attacks. There’s one that will whip enemies with its tail and another that can breathe fire which is pretty cool. These creatures do make getting through some areas easier but all it takes is one hit to get knocked off and enemies will mount them whenever they have the opportunity.
The land of Yuria is a high fantasy medieval world of sorts complete with the typical enemies you would see in this kind of genre like skeletons and knights for example. Enemies will arrive from all directions and getting overwhelmed and caught in a chain of attacks are what you want to avoid. The bigger enemies have a further reach than you do and we often found ourselves exploiting certain moves, like the dash move for example, just to defeat certain foes. All of the enemies are humanoid types but do vary in appearance and size and the game’s credits will reveal their names, some of which are fantastic. You’ll face numerous enemies on your adventure and most of them are recolors. They each have different attack strengths and speeds and most of them wield different melee weapons. Multiple enemies will always try to get on either side of you and then start attacking. It’s very easy to get caught in a combo where you’re unable to really defend yourself. You need to learn how to avoid that. The beginning of the game starts out easy enough but the difficulty ramps up fast and playing with a friend does alleviate some of the challenge. However, it can also make things more difficult if you don’t pay attention since you can smack each other around. Enemies always seem to outnumber you and each stage normally ends with big tough baddies or a boss and we found it best to save our magic spells for these battles.
The stages are short and if you’re really good at the game, you can probably beat the Arcade mode in under a half hour. You’ll battle through some interesting locations like on the shell of a giant turtle, on the back of a giant eagle, and a castle. The game is all about going from point A to B and it will never hold your hand. There are no magic potions or food just lying around the environments. You need to hope thieves show up. You are ranked at the end of your run based on how well you did and the replay value comes from trying to do better. Memorization will be required to beat the game and there’s high probability it will take multiple attempts before you actually beat it. Some areas, enemies, and bosses just feel cheap but you need to remember this is a port of an arcade game. You can fall off ledges to your death which is the only real environmental hazard you need to worry about but you can use them to your advantage. You can get through battles quickly if you can knock or throw enemies off ledges.
In addition to the Arcade and Beginner modes is The Duel. Two players can fight each other and it gets old pretty quick but the single player component pits the player against increasingly difficult foes. You basically battle enemies until you win the final battle or die. You can’t cast any spells and your health does not replenish in between battles.
If the gameplay doesn’t expose the game’s age, the visuals certainly should. You can tell Golden Axe is from a previous era but I think it looks pretty good for a 1989 game. The sprites look good and there’s a decent amount of color, a neat wind effect in one stage, but some areas certainly appear a bit bland, many of the backgrounds are kind of plain, and the animations are simple. We do think the spell effects look cool. Tyris can summon what looks like a dragon to burn enemies which is awesome. On the audio side, most of the music is pretty good overall. The main theme is awesome, catchy, and memorable. The tunes have a dramatic adventurous sound to them which compliments the fantasy theme going on here nicely. The sound effects are simple at best. Spells sound good, the hits and bangs are okay, and enemies will scream when they die which can sound humorous. Ultimately, the audiovisual presentation is just dated so we can’t really knock the game for it, it’s just very noticeable. On the technical side, the game ran smoothly and the only issue we noticed is in one area where it seems very easy to get stuck in the environment. Other than that, no issues.
Honestly, considering how often I hear about Golden Axe and how it’s often referenced in discussions about the genre, I really thought it would be better. I enjoyed it but I think my expectations were set too high. Although, I can see how this was impressive in 1989. It’s stiff, simple, challenging, and very short. It doesn’t help that we’ve played far better beat ‘em up games that were released well after this so it’s age just shines through. I think my biggest issues with the game is the length and lack of content. Granted, if you never played this before, it may take a little while to beat it and the replay value stems from practice and memorization, but there’s not a whole lot to see and do. The Duel mode can be a nice distraction but the fun will only last for so long. Golden Axe is a good game but it’s certainly been surpassed by others of its kind in most respects.
Golden Axe is a product of its time but we would recommend it to those who enjoy the beat ‘em up genre. It may look and feel dated but it’s still a good time. The Arcade mode is challenging and should keep you coming back, The Duel mode is nice way to mix things up, and the experience can be enjoyed with a friend. Golden Axe was impressive for its time and I can see how it was an inspiration for other games in the genre and considering I have no nostalgia for this series, I do think there are better beat ‘em ups out there. I can only hope the sequels have improved a few things and I am looking forward to playing them. If you like beat ‘em ups, definitely check out Golden Axe.