Arcade/Sega Genesis, 1989
Here’s a two-games-in-one image review for Golden Axe, which Sega brought to both the arcade and the Genesis/Mega Drive in 1989:
Many people love Golden Axe. I am one of those people. If you are old enough to remember how spectacular its visuals seemed in 1989…
…it’s almost impossible to remember it anything but fondly. Golden Axe has a fantastic sword-and-sandal aesthetic and some innovative gameplay mechanics that set it apart from its contemporaries. I don’t know if there were brawlers that allowed the player to double-tap to run before Golden Axe, but I’d be willing to venture that none of them made it quite as fun. Golden Axe made dash attacks cool.
Though it can be completed in less than an hour, Golden Axe just oozes style; it’s a D&D game come to life, replete with fantastic spell effects, strange creatures to tame and iconic character designs. There were plenty of games to ape Conan the Barbarian in the ’80s, but none did it quite as spectacularly as Golden Axe.
Many people, though, did not have their initial experience with Golden Axe in an arcade. Golden Axe received a nigh-contemporaneous home console port, which is remarkably faithful to its source material. While the Genesis version lacks some of the arcade’s finer embellishments, this was about as visually faithful as contemporary arcade ports got in 1989:
For my money, though, the most interesting thing about the Genesis port of Golden Axe is the addition of a new final boss. As previously noted, the arcade version of Golden Axe can be beaten in under an hour. Like most home ports of its vintage, Golden Axe on the Genesis rebalances its difficulty by limiting the player’s lives and continues. It also tacks on a new final level after the player completes the game’s presumptive final battle with Death Adder. After saving the day, the player must progress through an additional dungeon stage to face the aptly named DEATH BRINGER.
Death Bringer is a real pain in the ass. He’s a palette-swapped Death Adder with a ridiculously large health meter. Additionally, every time he manages to knock your character to the ground, he gets a free full strength magic attack. He’s also accompanied by two EXTREMELY durable skeleton companions that make attacking him outright a fantastically difficult proposition.
It’s a supremely frustrating boss encounter; you can get skilled enough to flawlessly complete the game prior to Death Bringer and still lose all your lives/credits in a matter of moments during the final act. If you can gut it out though, it’s a very rewarding victory. These were the types of things that were added as “features” in the ’80s and ’90s to encourage players to lay down their cash for a home port instead of spending a few quarters to beat a game in the arcade.
There’s not much I can say about Golden Axe that hasn’t already been said. I would encourage curious readers to check out The Cutting Room Floor (where we learn that the names of the game’s villains appear to have been inspired by beer) and Hardcore Gaming 101 for more in depth overviews.
BONUS! I played through the PC Engine CD port of Golden Axe as well. It is bafflingly terrible. The screenshots speak for themselves; this port is far below the system’s capabilities:
That being said, it does have some sweet, fully-voiced cutscenes. Here is another one image review: