Written by: Stoo

Date posted: January 1, 2010

Six months after I wrote this, Sega went and re-released Golden Axe along with a stack of other Megadrive oldies on Steam. As far as I can tell that release is a perfect match to the Megadrive version. So it’s a definite recommendation for anyone who wishes to revisit the 16-bit days. It also means there’s no particular reason to play the somewhat lacking MS-DOS port that I was writing abut here. For now though I’m going to leave this document in place; just as an example of how we often had to turn to ports for our action gaming.

I seem to recall repeated fly kicking being the best way to deal with these guys.

I seem to recall repeated fly kicking being the best way to deal with these guys.

In over eight years of reviews, we’d not until recently looked at any beat-em-ups, or other such games based on the noble art of people punching each other a lot. Not until Rik reviewed One Must Fall, anyway. That’s mostly because, on the PC there haven’t been many games worth commenting on in the first place. If you’re thinking back to the early-mid 1990s days of Chun-Li and her epic thighs kicking people in the head, or muscular heroes prowling around the mean streets hitting punks with baseball bats, odds are good that your fondest memories come from the 16 bit consoles.

The PC just wasn’t taken too seriously as a platform for such things. One reason being that if you were playing with a friend then you wanted to be using proper controllers, and sat comfortably on the couch in front of a decent sized TV. Hunching in front of a small monitor with one of you on a 2-button joystick and the other on keyboard, the likely PC setup of the early 90s, was rather less appealing.

There was a fairly meagre crop of home-grown PC efforts, OMF probably being the best. Otherwise, especially at the start of the 90s, we had to fill the gap with ports of games that mostly originated in the arcades then moved to consoles. These ports could often be a bit half-arsed, with sub-par graphics or sound, or poor handling. I recall Street Fighter 2 for example being poorly received. Still, they weren’t always terrible. So today we’re looking at the famous Golden Axe, from Sega.

As you probably remember these fighting-based came in two flavours. A bit of research (well 2 minutes on Wikipedia) tells me there are naming conventions that are widespread, although not totally fixed. On the one hand you have the one-on-one match-based games where two combatants fight it out until one is knocked out. These are apparently the ones we should call “fighting games”. A “beat-em-up” then is where you fight through scrolling levels full of enemies, usually with an isometric view and a pseudo-3d effect to levels (ie you can walk in two dimensions and also jump). Since Rik reviewed a PC-native fighting game, I thought I’d like to take a look at a ported beat ’em up.

Golden Axe began in the arcades, while Sega’s Megadrive received boasted the definitive home version. While most beat ’em ups went for a gritty urban theme, this one stood out for its Conan the Barbarian style fantasy setting. So instead of some dude in a karate outfit or an angry cop, you choose one of three sword-and-axe wielding heroes. There’s a barbarian guy (blue underpants), barbarian chick (red bikini) and a Dwarf (thankfully in a sort of tunic). Meanwhile the locations are castles, villages and a few rather cool fantasy concepts like a town on the back of a giant turtle.

No you can't run away like that.

No you can’t run away like that.

When you sit down and play, it’s all pretty easy to pick up. The range of moves isn’t particularly wide – slash, jump and slash, running kick\headbutt, throw. I’m sure there’s meant to be a jumping downwards-stab too, but it seems to have been removed from this version. Also the game can seem a bit punishing sometimes, with you being beaten down onto your knees and several bars of health being knocked off by common enemies while you’re defenceless. Some reviews suggest it wasn’t that bad on other systems. Still it’s not unmanageable. You might just have to use the running attacks a lot.

There’s one more cool feature you encounter a few minutes in – small dragons that you can ride. These come in three varieties: one has a tail swipe with longer reach than your own weapon, another breathes a jet of flame, while the best ones launch a fireball right across the screen. They always appear ridden by an enemy; you can knock the rider off and leap on to take control, but enemies can in turn knock you off and reclaim their mount. If the poor creature loses its rider enough times, it will get fed up and run away. However if you can hold onto the dragon, its powerful attacks help you dominate a fight.

Another memorable feature is magic; you pick up little blue potions by kicking gnomes(!) and these are used to charge up your powers. When unleashed there’s a fancy graphical effect and everyone goes flying. So it can serve as both a hefty extra punch against bosses and just a general purpose panic button. It’s also part of what differentiates the three heroes: Bikini chick can build her magic up to the highest levels but is the weakest at regular fighting due to low weapon reach. The Dwarf is the other way around, and bluepants the barbarian is predictably in-between.

Graphically it’s fine for its day. The sprites and backgrounds are a bit flat but crisp and effective in setting the scene. Certainly it’s as good as any other system’s version of the game. Sound-wise the jangly adlib-card music is acceptable, but the digitised sound effects sound rather tortured. As I recall they were actually squeezed somehow out of the PC’s internal bleeper (now simulated by Dosbox), as adlib couldn’t do digitised effects.

So overall, there’s definitely still some oldskool fun on offer. Even if it does come down to charge, kick, slash a lot. There’s a cheerful simplicity to jumping back nearly 2 decades and hitting skeletons with an axe until they fall down. It’s not something you’d play at great length, but with a few beers can be part of a great retro-gaming evening with a friend.

Ride a Dragon! And yes that's an enormous eagle we've just climbed off.

Ride a Dragon! And yes that’s an enormous eagle we’ve just climbed off.

However, unsurprisingly my best experiences have been on the Megadrive version, which you can buy on the Wii’s virtual console, or in compilations for other modern consoles. I’ve mentioned a few annoyances in the PC version, and there are a couple more that suggest file sizes were cut down to fit the game on a single floppy. Like, each hero has only one graphical effect for their magic, whereas originally it varied according to the strength of the attack. Also the ending sequences were drastically cut down.

To be fair none of these annoyances ruin the game and the core playability is still there. Also if you lack a console, these days you can always plug in two USB joypads to your PC, and you might own a large monitor or be able to attach to a TV. So you can capture that traditional fighting camaraderie. But then you could still fire up the Megadrive version on an emulator, so there’s still no particular reason to choose the PC port. Which is what you may have been expecting me to say from the start but what the hell, I thought this was worth including just for the records.