Tag Archives: virtual console

Then and Now – Golden Axe

24 Jan

Golden Axe was one of the true Mega Drive classics as far as my friends and I were concerned. We played this, along with Sonic 2 and Streets of Rage, constantly, arguing over who would play as the dwarf. I remember valiantly fighting my way through the forests and cliffsides, battling nightmarish monsters who were no match for my mighty axe. The fantasy world wasn’t a huge hook for me in most games, but in Golden Axe it filled me with awe and wonder thanks to the unique setting. The game just looked so different to usual side scrollers, which inevitably took place on the mean streets of generic cities. The graphics were great – large, detailed enemies took up plenty of on-screen space, and took a lot more punishment than the thugs Streets of Rage offered. The combat felt intense, and the characters had a weight to them that made them feel much more powerful than other game characters could. In essence, I was Conan the Barbarian, setting off on an epic adventure. Golden Axe was a treat for the imagination, bringing the settings of movies and books to life. It really felt like a world of its own, and that gave it a quality that drew me, and indeed countless others, in. This was a game that really stood out from the crowd. Plus I could ride a dragon and spit fire on enemies, how could it be bad?

I’m confused, I thought I was powerful, tall, strong, a mighty barbarian in an unjust world. But I’m a damn human-shaped tank. Golden Axe has aged poorly, it’s once gorgeous graphics now look dull and uninspiring. The fantasy world which fuelled my imagination was actually just my imagination. I know graphics have come a long, long way, but great art design is timeless. The art in Golden Axe is truly generic, full of fantasy clichés. The basic enemies repeat ad infinitum, with very occasional change. They come in different colours, and that’s about it. Of course, there are some other enemy types, but the amount of repetition is just ridiculous. The damage needed to knock each enemy down for good is also far too high. It’s not challenging either, just cheap, as you knock one enemy to his knees, attempt to finish him off, only to be blindsided by another generic mace-wielding grunt. I would have turned around, but doing so feels sluggish so it’s inevitably too late by the time I do. Getting to ride one of the beasts that pop up from time to time is far from fun either. I used to love getting on the turkey and wreaking havoc on enemies, but now when I manage to wrest one from the grasp of a buxom Amazonian, she, or another grunt, simply knocks me back off before I can get anywhere.

Maybe I’ve just lost my touch. It’s been a long time since I played Golden Axe for any extended period of time, but I can’t help feeling that I’ve killed a part of the child inside me. Going back to this game I expected to be as glowing as I was about Super Metroid, but I just can’t help hating it. Maybe I’m jaded. There was one level I loved more than any other way back when, it basically consisted of wooden platforms on the back of stone fish. I adored the concept, in fact I still do, but the execution is awful. Aside from the occasional fishy face at the bottom of the screen, it’s as generic as levels come. Brown on grey makes up the background, and the same boring enemies keep coming, and keep taking too long. Even the bosses from the first two levels are repeated, and this is level three. It just seems like laziness on the developer’s part, as does the length of time it takes to kill an enemy. I know I mentioned it already, but it really feels like they wanted to flesh out an incredibly short game by making it tedious.

I’m going to take a moment here and mention my most despised aspect of Golden Axe. The gameplay and graphics may disappoint, but the sound quite simply offends. From the hideous squeals when enemies die, to the pitiful sound as sword meets flesh, to the gentle thud of axe on skull. How this seemed like visceral, raw and brutal combat, even in 1990, bemuses me. The sound really detracts from the action, as the swing of a sword sounds robotic and digital. I can’t become immersed in a game when every time I do something, I’m reminded that I’m playing a game, not battling my way through a world of adventure. Nothing in Golden Axe draws me in, it’s just below par in every respect in comparison to similar titles. Streets of Rage has a superior, more intuitive combat system, Comix Zone boasts a wonderfully executed and gorgeous art design, and those are just two examples. I’m starting to wonder if Golden Axe gained popularity entirely because of its inclusion in the Mega Games compilation.

There is one aspect of Golden Axe that still holds some appeal. 2-player co-op. The same enemies which frustrate now fall faster and there are no back-attacks with a friend keeping you safe. Most of the cheapness is negated. The fact that each boss has a twin is no longer a source of incredible irritation, but a necessity. Fighting over who rides the dragon is still as bitter as ever, and rows will still break out when you’re unceremoniously booted from its saddle by player 2. The camp enemies and ridiculous female characters soon become a source of amusement, as the game takes on that novelty appeal that bad action movies have. In fact, Golden Axe has aged like the movie that so obviously inspired it, Conan: The Barbarian. It seemed great in its time, but now it’s fairly awful – yet with a few friends can become a huge amount of fun. If only to laugh at.