The late 80s and early 90s was the Golden Age for side scrolling beat-em-up titles. With games like Double Dragon and Final Fight, the genre thrived in a way that hasn’t been seen since. Sega had thrown its hat into the ring with Altered Beast before but Golden Axe was the game that became its mainstay beat-em-up title. Well, at least until Streets of Rage appeared. But with the original game now 25 years old, does it hold up today?
The game takes place in the world of Yuria, a medieval style fantasy world. The evil Death Addler has captured the King and taken over his castle. He has also found the Golden Axe, the magic emblem of the land, and now demands that all of Yuria accepts him as their ruler. Three warriors, who have had loved ones killed at the hands of Death Addler, set out to save the King and liberate Yuria. As far as plots go, there seems to have been a lot of thought put into the lore of the game. However, it ultimately just seems to be a means to an end to beat up a bunch of monsters.
And beat up you shall! Like most beat-em-up titles, you will walk from left to right and you can walk into and out of the background for a somewhat isometric view perspective. You have a jump, attack and magic button and hitting enemies multiple times will result in combo attacks. To use magic, you need to collect blue vials of magic, which the thieves in the game will drop when you hit them. Each character will have different levels of magic and different spells they can unleash when enough vials have been collected.
So the mechanics are very simple but sweet. However, this is where the issues come into play. All of this is very well and good if the hit detection were better. It isn’t and it’s a frustrating part of this game. I should mention that I’m talking about the Genesis port as it was on the Sega’s Ultimate Genesis Collection and it seems to be accurate to the original Genesis title. This has always been my problem with this game. The hit detection sucks and sometimes feels like I’m hitting these enemies only to have them combo me right in the middle of an attack. It’s a serious flaw that hampers the entire experience.
Another problem is whenever two or more enemies gang up on you, there is no escape. It’s not unlikely to have your entire life drained by two enemies on both sides of you attacking. Stuff like this would be fixed in the Streets of Rage series to carry combos through number of hits rather than number of concurrent attacks from one enemy but it’s alive and well here. Finally, controls feel loose and a bit imprecise. It’s not that the controls are unresponsive but you don’t feel confident in your attacks. You’ll find yourself mashing the buttons harder in an attempt to make sure your attacks are coming out.
Despite all of that, however, the game remains enjoyable, if only for a little while. Beating up bad guys, riding creatures with special attacks and wiping out a screen of enemies with your magic is still fun even today. What’s more is the three playable characters in the game each feel different to play with, making the game slightly different depending on who you play with. The most fun you’ll have though is with a friend. Going through the story mode with two players instead of one is the best way to do it and Golden Axe is definitely one of the better couch co-op games of its time that still holds up okay today. If you’re in a competitive mood, the Duel mode is available as well. Still, it’s hard not to see what Golden Axe is doing and think of other games that have done it better, even at the time.
Graphically, the game definitely shows its age. Even for a Genesis title, the characters lack definition in their details and a lot of the back drops and levels have a muted color palette, making it a less than visually appealing game. It still isn’t bad though and Golden Axe was an earlier Sega Genesis title. The music sometimes sounds a little harsh but overall has some great music that fits the mood and tone of the action on screen perfectly.
Golden Axe is definitely a game that shows its age and unless you have a friend might not be worth the time or investment. I own it on the Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection and that might be the best way to go, as there’s other awesome games on that collection that make it well worth the price. If you collect for the Sega Genesis, this is a no brainer and needs to be on your shelf. Otherwise, there are other games in the genre, even in the series that I would point you to first. Golden Axe is not a bad game by any means but time has definitely had its toll on it.