Retro Rated: Golden Axe

Factfile
Developed by: Sega
Released: 1989
Format played: Arcade

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Ruminations

The original arcade hack ‘n’ slash, Golden Axe drops you into a the middle of a fantasy world, the evil Death Adder having taken the King and his daughter prisoner. Choosing from one of three hardy adventurers, you must battle Death Adder’s minions as you make your way to his castle before facing off against the nefarious evil-doer himself.

Regarded as a classic of the genre by seasoned gamers, this would be converted to various home systems as well as inspiring numerous sequels and spin off games.

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Second Impressions

Readers of my Final Fight review will know that I have a certain fondness for late 1980s arcade games, the visual stylings immortalising a specific, unmistakable period in gaming history.

This very much carries on the trend. Colours are bright and bold, sprites are impressively large and the characters and backgrounds each have a distinct and recognisable charm to them, including sections on a flying bird and an entire village on the back of a turtle. In between levels, your progress is updated with a bit of narrative, in a nice touch the map updating on a parchment scroll.

The three main protagonists each have a different look, from the broadsword wielding barbarian to the fiery warrior maiden to the axe wielding dwarf.

Enemies meanwhile are suitably nasty and satisfying to off with nice touches throughout. The standard fare are a motley selection of goons, looking like rejects from a Lord of the Rings Orcs cosplay. Then there are the skeletal nasties that emerge out of the ground reminiscent of Jason and the Argonauts, the screen filling titans wielding dirty great swords and axes, not to mention the selection of fire breathing, tail swishing beasties that can be utilised.

To the modern gamer, there are cracks around the edges of course. Graphical fidelity is understandably lacking and the game utilises the standard, though no less annoying, mechanic of locking screen scrolling, forcing you to clear an area before moving on, effectively reducing the game to a series of single screen challenges. And as pretty as the backgrounds are, they are frustratingly non-interactive in a game crying out for the ability to swing an axe through a set of barrels or bash an enemy through a wall.

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Gameplay

The game is split across five main levels with some brief interludes in between. After choosing your character, you witness an old man being pursued and beaten by a pack of thugs. He gives you the low down on that no good Death Adder and then it’s straight into the action.

I started as the warrior, natch, although it is a broadly superficial choice. Your main attack is a one button affair, your man swishing, bashing and kicking depending on the context. The standard swing is a straight cut but sometimes the enemy goon will be bent double as your man bashes him comically on the head before kicking him to the turf or body slammed WWE style. You also have a jumping attack, swishing your sword wildly to take out anyone in the vicinity, whilst a stab of both buttons will execute a Barbarian-style roundhouse slice, although sadly without the decapitation of that classic fighter. Finally a double tap of the stick will see you charge at any on screen baddies, knocking them out of the way.

Switching out characters gives little more than a variation on the theme. The female warrior has a shorter sword but the move set is unchanged. The more limited range forces you to adjust your attack somewhat but the difference is negligible. The dwarf offers some variety, his two-button attack executing a rolling slash with his axe rather than the more static head swipe of his cohorts whilst the wider swing of his axe goes some way to compensate for this smaller stature.

These attacks will see you safely past the rank and file grunts, the first few being dispatched swiftly but soon requiring more and more beatings to get the message. As you progress, enemies become tougher, the hulking great titans that fill the screen far exceeding your reach, forcing you to become rather more reactive, attacking on the counter to avoid the worst damage.

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The skeletons in particular can be a stubborn foe, and as the enemies build up, you are susceptible to the usual frustration with these types of games as you get crowded out, unable to execute your attack because you are being assailed from behind, or worse, stuck in a pre-defined routine, unable to break off to address an attack from the other side.

Fortunately you have another couple of weapons in your arsenal. Periodically little dwarves will run onto the screen offering the chance for magic and health power ups. Give them a swift quick and they release their bounty, allowing you to unleash a magical attack to take out all foes on screen. The more potions you collect, the more powerful the attack, the full force bombardment lighting up the screen in spectacular style.

In addition, there are a collection of beasts wandering about the village that can be used by friend or foe. They offer a variety of ranged attacks including a swishing tail, fire breathing dragon and a fire ball spitting monster. It offers some variety although it is all too easy to be knocked out of the saddle and in the heat of battle, often difficult to position yourself in such a way to get back on quickly before an enemy attacks.

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Sound

Music is decent throughout, conjuring that medieval, Conan vibe that the game aims for.

Sword slashes are met with a simple swipe noise with a regrettable absence of clanging steel. A dispatched foe will emit an anguished cry including one particularly traumatised victim who screeches for all he is worth, whilst some of your female adversaries sound as if they have been sampled from Track & Field, their death rattle sounding rather more like a disappointed javelin throw.

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Conversion Capers

The various home format versions differ in quality as you might expect.

The Master System version is graphically fairly limited and only offers you the option to play as the warrior but it ups the pace considerably, your man verily sprinting into battle. It’s big brother on the Megadrive offers an improved visual palette with gameplay more akin to the arcade original. However it also offers a bonus ‘Duel’ mode which takes you out of the story and into a Street Fighter-esque series of one-on-one encounters as you see how many rounds of escalating enemy waves you can last before you are overwhelmed.

The Amiga version meanwhile looks nice and pretty with a good attempt at replicating the music of the original. Speed is comparable to the arcade right up until the point you start swinging your sword at which point your character suddenly goes into hyper speed. The one button control presents a challenge over the arcade and console versions too, jumps and special attacks instigated with an awkward button and joystick combination whilst a lunge for the keyboard to execute a magic potion can waste vital seconds.

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Bottom Line

Simple, repetitive and a little plodding at times. Pump in the credits and you can battle your way through this in about 20 minutes but it’s good fun while it lasts.

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