Friday 29 April 2016

Mega Drive Review - Golden Axe (Game 105)

Sega sold their 16bit dream machine as "the arcade at home", but should this famous fantasy hack-and-slash have stayed there? 

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. 

In the late 80s there is no denying that Sega were "King of the Arcades". It was a reputation based on the success of games like 'Fantasy Zone', 'Space Harrier' and 'After Burner'. Then there was also little game known as 'Altered Beast', designed by Makoto Uchida. His next game was intended to be a 'Zelda' style game bound for the struggling Master System and It would be based on the 'Conan the Barbarian' film. "I watched the film 'Conan', researched Boris Vallejo's illustrations and read the 'Lord of the Rings' to the point that it inflated my dreams" Uchida admits. It would focus on exploration and adventure but Sega did not approve. They wanted a game similar to his previous one, ideally another scrolling beat em up like 'Altered Beast'. They wanted a game that would lure in arcade goers but also one that could be ported to their upcoming 16bit home console. 

The Mega Drive was initially sold as providing "the arcade experience at home" and 'Golden Axe' was used as the poster girl for the campaign. "Check it out” said the bombastic advert announcer. "Arcade screen left, Genesis screen right, if they look the same you've answered correctly"

The story of 'Golden Axe' is surprisingly developed for a scrolling brawler, perhaps because Uchida had ambitions of making an RPG. The game tells a tale about a mythical weapon called the Golden Axe that can grant its user great power. It is weilded by an evil lord called Death Adder, a towering monstrosity of a man who has massacred many, corrupted by his weapon's absolute power.
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.  

And there's a lot of hacking and slashing to be done in this fast paced, pretty typical, scrolling fighter. You move from the left of screen to right, beating up anyone you meet. Once the area is cleared "Go" appears on screen and you can continue till you meet more people to fight. There's a single attack button which can be tapped repeatedly for combo blows.

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.

The game according to Uchida was inspired by 'Double Dragon'. In this the title characters could pick up weapons throughout the adventure, a feature that impressed critics. To imply 'Golden Axe' was a step up from this, all the enemies and players carry a weapon from the start. The player gets to "upgrade" their characters attacks by riding on "Bizarrians"; essentially fire breathing dragons. 

Environmental hazards affect enemies just as much as the player and while playable avatars can be forced off the edge of levels so can foes. In fact the artificial intelligence in the game is so bad that simply standing at the edge of a precipice is often a brilliant tactic. Idiotic enemies will simply walk off the edge. The majority of attackers in level 3 can in fact be killed without swinging a weapon; all you need do is lead them to a deathly fall. 

As with most scrolling beat ‘em ups the biggest problem facing a player is when enemies attack from both sides at once. It's a failing of the genre since it’s usually impossible to defend against two foes at once. While it remains a huge problem in 'Golden Axe' at least you have your magic power that will knock down every enemy on screen. But the best plan of action is to avoid the situation all together. 

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. 

However even with a friend it's unlikely you'll see the game's ending without either spending a great deal of time memorising enemy attack patterns or using a cheat. 'Golden Axe' has the tried and tested arcade difficult curve; one designed to take maximum pocket money from anyone playing. The first level is easy, with regular health pickups and fewer foes. This instils a sense of confidence in the player, leading them to believe that success in the game is possible. However the difficultly noticeably ramps up in the second stage and the challenge increases until the end of the game where lives can be lost in seconds. In an arcade to continue the player would have to pay for another credit and lest we forget, an arcade's raisin d'être is to take as much money from each player as possible. It's always a case of making the game's player feel victory is within their grasp all they need do is keep grinding away and keep dropping coins into the machine.

In a home conversion though continues are limited, it's not a case of the more you pay the more likely you are to win. As soon as the continues are used up a player is sent back to the start. This is particularly irritating when facing the (exclusive to the Mega Drive) final boss, Doom Bringer. With almost limitless health, he can kill a player with two magic attacks and neither can be blocked or avoided. Limited continues of course elongates the games life and justifies the price of the cartridge perhaps, but it does mean that most players end up knowing the first half of the game by heart while they may never see the end. 

At least there are merits to repeat play owing to the character selection. For me choosing who to play had less to do with the minuscule strength and speed difference and more to do with their varied magic attacks. Each character cast different spell types; either earth, light or flame. Each type consist of a range of different spells too, depending on the number of pots acquired and unused. For example, on a low level, Tyris Flare will summon flaming ghosts to wail around the screen. But with more magic pots to be used she'll summon a dragon to toast everything on screen. It has a noticeable effect on Bosses in particular 

So with its flaky collision detection, questionable AI and limited number of enemies to fight, how close is the Mega Drive version to the arcade? Pretty close according to reviewers at the time. "The game itself is an exact (and I mean exact) copy of the arcade original" Mean Machines magazine noted. "This version of 'Golden Axe' is so similar to the arcade original that if you were to enclose the Mega Drive in a coin op cabinet and place the system in an amusement arcade few people would notice the difference" agreed Zero magazine. Sadly though they both give the game too much credit as when you play the 'Mega Drive' version of 'Golden Axe' right after the arcade game the differences are very apparent. Everything is scaled down, diluted and simplified. Sprites are slightly smaller, with fewer colours and less frames of animation. The biggest compromise has been the backgrounds though; parallax scrolling has gone so the rich world feels flatter.

Though I found it a little creepy in the arcade edition, the Eagle's eye no longer moves and village buildings look less varied on the Mega Drive. The arcade game was the first to leave dead bodies on the floor once enemies had been beaten, but sadly they vanish on this home version. Also, some parts of the game are censored. There’s no blood for example and there's also no pub, which now bizarrely says "Deb" instead. The Japanese arcade version of 'Golden Axe' saw an intro where you character decapitates an enemy, causing their head to fly towards the player in a shower of blood. This was cut from the Western arcade version and replaced with a scene showing a friend named Alex dying conveniently after given some story exposition. Even this tame scene is excised from the home console version and instead the hero explains the story. All these cosmetic differences really don't detract too much from the overall look though, as the game remains impressive especially for a very early Mega Drive game. "The character sprites are all bold, with more than a rainbow full of colours" Games Machine magazine once said. However it was 'Golden Axe's "pounding soundtrack" that really impressed them.

While the visual have suffered slightly in the home console conversion the same couldn't be said for the music. Composed by Tohru Nakabayashi, known for his work on 'Thunder Blade', the rousing tunes resembles 'Conan the Barbarian' in almost every way. There's very little difference between the original arcade and the Mega Drive's soundtrack with each stage having its own music, each one distinct yet complimentary to one and other. The arcade version of 'Golden Axe' had a wealth of digitized screams that were lifted from the movies 'First Blood' and 'Conan'. They were however not licensed so the choice of such familiar and hilarious screams wasn't a sensible one. Understandably, these have been changed in the Mega Drive port to far more generic death cries, played at different pitches depending on the character slain. "The soundtrack only adds to the involving and inviting atmosphere of the game" Games Machine magazine once said and it's a soundtrack that really has stood the ravages of time. 

Reviewers across Sega magazines went to great length to point out the exclusive levels that were added to the Mega Drive version of 'Golden Axe'. Many claimed these actually made the game "better than the coin op". The reality is the new eighth level is the worst and most frustrating in the game. Also, the aforementioned exclusive boss is simply a palate change of Death Adder with cheap unfair attacks that rob a player of a deserved ending sequence. The home version also adds a mode called "The Duel", where you either fight through stages of increasingly difficult groups of foes, or engage another player in one-on-one combat. It adds some replay value to the game, but there really isn't the variety of moves to make the game work as a one-on-one fighter. Victory in this mode mainly depends on who can get to the attack button first and who can tap it fastest.

So it may not be "the equivalent of the 'Golden Axe' arcade machine in a cartridge." As CVG magazine once claimed. They were wrong to say "There are no noticeable differences [...] the sound graphics and game play are exactly the same". But, ultimately does that matter all that much? Unless they are sat side by side the differences won't be noticed and what Mega Driver owners have is an enjoyable, if slightly repetitive scrolling fighter. The fond memories of many are well founded and reviewer Julian Rignal was right to say "'Golden Axe' is a superb game" especially at the time.

Sega's mission statement was to create arcade like experiences at home and this is what they did with 'Golden Axe' on the Mega Drive. True in spirit, if not a carbon copy. It obviously didn't single handily shift the balance of power in the console wars, but 'Golden Axe' certainly fired the first volley of arrows. It was games like this that eventually chipped away Nintendo's significant lead and with such impressive titles the Mega Drive started to become a much more viable choice of platform.

Where did I get this game?

Like the majority of my Mega Drive games I actually got 'Golden Axe' in a bulk buy. You can read about how this purchases wasn't as great as it sounds here. My version of 'Golden Axe' is actually on the 'Mega Games 2' collection cart, which actually is a much cheaper way of buying the game on eBay. 

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