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Golden Axe Review

Developer: Sega Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 1989 Also On: Genesis/Megadrive, Arcade

A legend if there ever was one. This was definitely one of several arcade games that really made for some memories and I still have vivid memories of playing this in the local pizza shop arcade way before it finally closed down. As I moved on to different systems and eventually picked up a Genesis, it was great to see an accurate port of the original that I could play at home. Of course, nothing matches what I wasted quarters on, and I found this out recently because last year I went to my brother’s graduation and they had the original in the hotel I stayed at. That’s the stuff right there. At any rate, in my Master System fandom, I was well aware that Sega had ported Golden Axe to the 8-Bit wonder in the late 80s, but after seeing what they did with Altered Beast, I was less than enthusiastic about it. Since it’s been sitting in my collection for awhile uncompleted, and since I’ve finally gotten to it in review list, let’s see what it has to offer. To start, I’ll say it’s amazing how much they crammed in here.

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Graphically, Golden Axe is one of the more impressive SMS titles, but not entirely. I’m familiar with the arcade version, and to see them nearly duplicate and program almost every feature from this game is pretty incredible. Only a few details are missing, which do in fact lower a few of the other category scores, but it’s still amazing they could do this. The bulk of the original color scheme remains, the detail is nearly on-par with the 16-Bit version, the backgrounds have nice layering and most of the features have been retained, including some of the more important ones like the bosses and the creatures you can ride. Usually for a port on a system that has much lower capabilities, you expect to lose some prominent characters or segments, but they’ve managed to keep nearly everything here including the showy magic segments.

However, it does have its faults, because this game suffers from some occasional, serious graphical slowdown depending on the amount of characters on-screen. In addition, it seems the programmers may have come across a problem when they were putting this all together. For some reason your character, named Tarik on the SMS, moves around about five times faster than his enemies. In the arcade, everyone pretty much moved at the same speed. I assume they must have had two choices; either make the enemies move faster than you, which would have made it impossible to play, or move you faster in order to make it playable. There’s no way to know this without asking the programmers, so it’s merely an assumption, but I believe there may be some truth in it to explain why the enemy animations are choppy while Tarik moves like a wasp on amphetamines. Overall it’s still quite a show of what the Master System can do, but at the same time it has some flaws that make it play less than perfect. Cool ending sequences, though.

The sound, however, is a different story. Keeping with their attempts at including as much of the original as possible, Sega was able to properly duplicate the classic score and most of the sound effects flawlesslyn using the occasionally less-than-capable Master System sound chip. I’m impressed with this, because as I’ve always said the SMS is not known for its sound capabilities. As far as I can remember, the entirety of the music is all here and sounds so close to the arcade that I can’t tell them apart in my head. Of course, some things are missing and other aspects have been stripped down, but they’ve done a great job here nonetheless. This is certainly enough to make the graphics more tolerable in spite of the flaws I mentioned.

Now for the gameplay. If you’re familiar with the arcade or any home version of it other than this, you’re going to be surprised. Basically, for those of you who haven’t played it, Golden Axe was an earlier side-scrolling fighting game eventually made legendary by titles like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men. All you do is move your characters around, slash-up enemies, take out bosses, and collect the occasional power-up, which for this type of game typically increases some sort of special ability you possess to use for stronger attacks. If you were a fan of the arcade version, you’re going to be right at home with this. Graphical problems aside, almost every aspect of the classic title has been crammed into this version. All of the levels remain, most of the characters (the only ones I noticed missing were the villagers you see running by in the second level) and surprisingly all of the magic.

I was expecting them to have stripped away a ton after seeing Altered Beast, but they only chose a few because it seems at this point they knew what they were doing. One, they eliminated the other two characters you could play as; Gilius Thunderhead and Tyris Flare. Obviously they had to lose something for the 8-Bit version, and it seems to me this was the best choice though it kind of sucks not having the ability to pick different characters. However, as you may know, the other two were essentially the same as Ax Battler (Tarik) except for their magical abilities. There was really no real advantage in using one character over the other, they just looked different and only one actually had a different weapon. Thus, I can see why Sega decided to eliminate them while keeping all of the magic, giving you the ability to choose which one you want to use instead of which character. This was a great idea and a clever way for getting around programming difficulties. I would actually assume they wouldn’t be able to pull it off, but it really seems like they knew exactly what to take out and what to retain in order to stay as close to the arcade as possible because all of the magic, including their cinematic scenes, are here.

So other than this, and the fact that the story has been arranged specifically around one character, nearly everything else is present. You have the same number of levels, the same enemies, the same monsters to ride and attack with including both of the dragons, and almost all of your attacks aside from this one I remember where you pound your opponents on their heads with the butt of your sword before kicking them. Each level has its own background, but generally, as always, you have the same enemies coming at you and you need to progressively figure out strategies for attacking more than one since this is only a one-player title. Oh, nearly forgot, since only one player can play this game, so it does lose that arcade effect. The only problem I have here is that Golden Axe is definitely easier than the original. While not easy enough for you to complete in your first attempt, when you learn how to maneuver properly and exploit the fact that you move faster than all of the enemies, it really isn’t that hard to complete. Still, it’s close to the arcade in terms of how it feels to play, and I’d definitely say it’s a lot of fun. One cool feature that they kept is the rating system that appears when you win or lose all your lives. Definitely captures the feel of the original and it’s a nice touch in a game already pushing the limits of an 8-Bit console.

Now the creativity. I always have difficulty deciding on what’s right and what’s wrong for this category in cases like this. It’s hard to call the SMS version of Golden Axe or any version of it other than the arcade creative because they’re merely ports. Therefore, I think it best to set a mean score and see what else they did with it. Well, for one, they stripped down the game slightly and removed two of the characters. Second, they changed the story and that’s really all they did to make it different. I have to score low here, because in my opinion I can only consider a port of an arcade title creative if and only if the programmers added something to the game to make it stand out among other versions. Ghouls n’ Ghosts, also for the Master System, did this by throwing in different skills and suits of armor that were programmed specifically for the console and nowhere else. They didn’t add anything to Golden Axe, though it plays fine, and the only real differences are due to the fact that they had to eliminate certain features so it would work in the first place.

To bring the score back up from the roller coaster ride it seems to present the reviewer, I definitely think I’d play this in the future because I have already several times. Because it’s a little easier than the original and, furthermore, because you don’t have to keep paying to play it, it seems to be a nice title to sit down with now and then. Since it only takes about fifteen to twenty minutes to complete it once you master it, it would be easy to play Golden Axe and complete it before your wedding ceremony or what have you. I wish it was a bit longer, but that’s not a problem with this version by itself, that’s simply how it was in the arcade to begin with so I’m not scoring lower for that. Overall this has pretty high replay value and perfect length for a short game if you’re looking for that.

This has to be one of the most up-and-down scores I’ve ever given for a game. Luckily, for those of you interested in the Master System, Golden Axe really stands out where it needs to and manages to achieve an average score overall. Again, I can state that you’ll likely be impressed with what they were able to do with this, and if you’re familiar enough with the original you’ll be really impressed when you realize how they worked around the original programming to end up with a classic title that every SMS fan should include in their collection. It’s not the best, and the 16-Bit version is far superior, but it’s still a great example of the library of a forgotten system.

Graphics: 6
Sound: 9
Gameplay: 7
Creativity: 4.5
Replay Value/Game Length: 8
Final: 6.9
Written by Stan Review Guide