Friday 30 August 2019

Mega Drive Review - Golden Axe II (Game 181)

‘Golden Axe II’ is not a generic leap, it’s more of a slight awkward shuffle in a forward direction where progress is almost imperceptible. But, is that enough for fans of the iconic first game?

Developed by Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

Over the years the distinctions between genres has become so blurry. Obviously we can lump certain games together: Puzzle games involve thinking and sports games obviously replicate their real world counter parts. But genres that used to be very clearly defined have become indistinguishable. Is ‘Final Fantasy XV’ really a JRPG or is it an action game? Are adventure games like ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ or MMORPGs closer to traditional Role Playing games with their character customisation? Admittedly 20 years ago many games straddled different genres taking inspiration from a variety of places in an attempt to create a new player experience. But, there were also genres that never deviated too far from a tried and tested formula and before you even pressed start. If someone tells you “this is a 16bit shooter” you know the game you’re about to play will involve you shooting waves of enemies as the screen perpetually scrolls. If a SNES or Mega Drive game is described as a “Side scrolling brawler” you’ll also fairly accurately be able to predict how it will play.

Alongside ‘Double Dragon’ and ‘Final Fight’ 'Golden Axe’ was one of the pioneers of the genre. From playing these games we that we will typically be moving a character from the left of the screen to the right, bartering anything that’s stands in our way. Most games tried to offer a variation or a unique quirk, but the core game play remained the same.

‘Golden Axe II’ is so similar to its prequel that it’s almost impossible to tell the apart. By introducing ride able animals and a throwing mechanic the first game may have felt like it was treading new ground. The sequel however adds nothing additional, and in an increasingly crowded genre that wasn’t well received by critics at the time. “Those looking for a significant departure from Golden Axe should pass on this sequel. It is the same hack-and-slash action with a slight change of scenery” All Game Guide said. SEGA Pro magazine was even more damning “If ever there was a poor sequel produced to cash in on the original, this is it”.

It’s telling that this sequel wasn’t based on an arcade game like the first game was. There was a true arcade sequel entitled ‘Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder’ that Introduced new ideas, but this lazy sequel simply reused the first games engine and changed sprites. Even this was handled badly. Breaks between levels in the first game saw you having to attack thieving imps. These have been replaced with wizards and immediatley the game is less amusing. The marketing for the first game was built on a “sex sells” concept with posters and box art depicting the game’s protagonist in ridiculously skimpy medieval garb.
While the sprites in the first game we’re suggestive in this sequel they leave very little to the imagination. The levels visited are less imaginative than the first game. There aren’t levels set on the backs of Turtles or flying Eagles. ‘Golden Axe II’ sees you instead visit a village, ruins, a fire cave and three variations on a castle. The fire stages look nice enough but they’re hardly unique to this game or evolving the genre in any meaningful way. “We were all expecting improvements and additions which just aren't there” CVG magazine said. Some reviewers were so frustrated by the lack of effort put into the sequel that they started to create wish lists of what could have been. “New twists like riding a dragon through the skies, playing as a monster, gaining levels, mastering finishing moves, or even using different weapons.” All Game Guide realistically knew what fans wanted, but were there really no improvements at all in ‘Golden Axe II’?   

For me the two biggest gameplay headaches in the prequel have actually been addressed in this game. Before I found it frustrating when multiple enemies surround your playable characters, as in single player mode it was impossible to escape. Now you can press two buttons simultaneously and attack on both sides. It doesn’t always seem to work though.  Thankfully, a back attack is also more effective now meaning simply alternating attacks works as effectively. In ‘Golden Axe’ you would collect magic pots to build up a special attack meter. The more you collected the stronger the attack would be. While this works in theory, what it meant in practice was that you would only use it on bosses, as it always seemed to be overkill otherwise. Now you can dictate how much magic is used during a special attack and that makes it far more versatile and useful. For the most part you’ll save the magic for the bosses, but when there are multiple enemies on screen it’s nice to have an alternative to just repetitive attacks. And repetition is something you will almost certainly notice during this short forty minute, surprisingly easy game. The better side scrolling beat ‘em ups maintain interests by changing the look of levels, by introducing new level gimmicks and by varying baddies. ‘Golden Axe II’ does none of these. Five of the six levels look the same, and you’ll meet the same enemies throughout. The laughably bad enemy AI also hasn’t been improved in this sequel. Like before, just as many will die by falling down holes than by your weapon. Bosses can still be trapped in the corner of the screen, easily beaten by well-timed combo attacks that they seem unable to avoid.

Much is made of the music in ‘Golden Axe II’. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if people perceive it to be better than it is, since it was composed by Naofumi Hatayawho’s gone on to write other incredible game scores. Naofumi Hataya may have written the soundtracks for ‘Sonic CD’, ‘Nights into Dreams’ and much of the ‘Yakuza‘ series, but this later success doesn’t retrospectively improve the dull pedestrian soundtrack of ‘Golden Axe II’. Some tracks like the boss battle theme is better than others but that doesn’t make them good.

A similar lacklustre approach was taken with the story. A villain has the Death Adder’s Golden Axe, and is using it to enslave a nation. Unlike the first game, the motivations for the playable characters isn’t explained, nor is the reason why a Previously destroyed Holy weapon is now in the grasp of a new armoured giant. Infamously the first games arcade ending saw the Fantasy characters escape from the arcade cabinet into the modern day. Admittedly this was removed from the home console piers but it could have made for an intriguing set up for the sequel; a ‘Streets of Rage’ style fans with fantasy magic and rideable dragons. It wouldn’t have been a huge leap for the developers, but much like everything else in this game, a safe by-the-numbers near-identical sequel is far easier.

It’s difficult to know who ‘Golden Axe II’ was aimed at all those years ago. There are tiny game play improvements, but they only really fix problems with the first game rather than add much. Fans of the original would have felt they had played it all before, and with a diluted difficulty the sequel wouldn’t have posed much challenge. It’s hard to imagine anyone’s who hadn’t played ‘GoldenAxe’.  By the time of the sequel’s release it was already being included in Compilations. The ‘Golden Axe’ brand was well known, but people intrigued by it should have picked up the original with its greater story, more diverse stages, additional level and more memorable music.

Its lazy games like ‘Golden Axe II’ that gave sequels a bad reputation, a legacy that continues today. Games ticking established genre boxes are not in themselves a bad thing, the problem comes when that’s all they do.

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