Developed by Sega AM1
Published by Sega
Released in 1989
We talk of the 16bit console wars as if they were an equal fight. However, the reality is that Sega really started so far behind Nintendo that they were always going to be the underdog. Of course the Mega Drive came to market years ahead of the Super Nintendo but it launched in a market that was very much dominated by their rivals. Sega's previous console The Master system, had failed to make any impact in the home console market. According to Game historian Keith Stuart "the Nintendo entertainment system was the biggest console on the market. Thirty million American households owned one and the word "Nintendo" was synonymous with the medium." Vice present of Sega Shinobu Toyoda was all too aware of this. "We officially claimed that Sega had 10% of the market, the truth was, Nintendo has 94% market share with their NES system. Sega only had six." The 8 bit console battle between the two industry competitors had been a massacre on a par with something George R Martin writes about. For their 16bit successor console to stand any chance of success Sega would have to tap into the one area they were excelling at; The Arcades.
A player can chose one of three characters, each of which has a personal reason to hunt down Death Adder. Ax Battler the barbarian is an all-round average fighter clearly based on 'Conan'. Tyris Flare is the bikini clad Amazonian who, though weaker, has the strongest magic. Finally, Gilius Thunderhead is a dwarf who despite being smaller and slower is actually strongest but has the weak magical abilities. According to Uchida the character design was easy and immediate, based on his three original sources of inspiration. "Ax Battler was born out of 'Conan', Tyris Flare was born out of Boris Vallejo and Gilius Thunderhead was born out of Lord of the Rings'". Prior to each new level, you're privy to the journal of one character. It's an elegant way of continuing the story, adding detail to the adventure that couldn't easily be given another way. Perhaps to appease Sega, the narrative building intimations can be skipped easily. "With arcade games" Uchida says "people get irritated if they could not interact with the game for three seconds or more". This means action fans aren't keep too long from their hacking and slashing.
There's a jump button to reach higher platforms, pass over holes and also to do jumping attacks. Finally there's a magic button, which really is how 'Golden Axe' was distinct from many other scrolling fighters at the time. Along your adventure you'll bump into thieves who, when hit, drop magical pots. The more pots you have the higher of level of spell you cast. Every spell will harm every enemy on the screen, but the stronger the spell, the more dramatic the spectacle and the more damage it'll cause.
Success in the game depends less on fighting and more on herding opponents. Each weapon swing can hurt numerous foes at once so the best form of attack is to keep everyone on the screen bunched up. It must be an amusing spectacle for anyone watching. As soon as a group of sword welding ruffians appear, all the hero has to do is sprint around in a circle till there's a fearsome huddle. Then a crafty shoulder barge can knock them all down at once, like pins in a bowling alley. Even using this technique there are frustrations though. Enemies have a far greater reach than the player so can easily hurt you before you are even close enough to hurt them. This is acutely apparent during boss fights which can be brutally unfair. Playing with a second player certainly mitigates the problem. Due to the on screen sprite limit, the game can't increase the number of enemies in accordance with the number of players. The volume of attackers you face in two player mode is the same as the number that one player faces, which in theory makes the game twice as easy when played with a friend. The frustrating two-enemies-on-one-hero-pincer-attack can also be side steeped as one player can rescue another. In fact the playing fields can truly be levelled as the heroes can use the same approach when only one opponent is left on screen, significantly reducing the challenge of boss battles.