Console: Sega Genesis
Golden Axe: C+
Golden Axe 2: B-
Golden Axe 3: C-
Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 46th
Years: Golden Axe – 1989
Golden Axe II – 1991
Golden Axe III (Sega Channel only) – 1995
Genre: Crowd Management
Although this review was supposed to be about the entire Golden Axe series, we’ll be spending almost the entire article discussing our unanimous favorite of the trilogy, Golden Axe 2. The original Golden Axe, while a solid game, is basically a more primitive, less fun version of its successor, with no significant differences in terms of game design or mechanics, and Golden Axe 3 was only available via the Sega channel. Considering that few people had the Sega channel to begin with, and it hasn’t been around for over 10 years, that’s kind of like saying that the game was only ever able to be played at Better Than Ezra concerts.
Golden Axe 2 tells the story of three brave warriors as they attempt to defeat the evil lord Dark Guld. Dark Guld, possibly upset over having such a silly name, has been leading his army of evil creatures across the land, spreading chaos and destruction in his wake. Also, he has taken the powerful Golden Axe, which is a symbol of peace and prosperity. Shockingly, it turns out that an axe can also be used for destructive purposes. The game never really explains how he managed to obtain the Golden Axe in the first place – maybe after they recovered it in the first game, the good guys had left it laying around in the mud or something. Who knows. This introduction also doesn’t give us much insight into our characters or what their own motivations might be, but come on, it’s not like we needed some kind of explanation for why a barbarian known as Axe-Battler wants to chop guys up with an axe.
What it lacks in story, it tries to make up for in awesome racks.
Not like anybody cares, though. I think it’s safe to say that very few people pop Golden Axe into their Genesis expecting a riveting tale with interesting characters that will make them feel emotions other than “SMASH!” What you get with the Golden Axe games are some of the finer entries in the beat ‘em up genre. Do you want to experience “games as art” or do you want to kick the living crap out of somebody with medieval weaponry, while listening to music that you’ll be able to recall 15 years from now? I know what I’d rather do.
See, back in the days of the Genesis, we didn’t have a class of asshat “game journalists” trying to make our hobby out to be more than it was. Nobody talked about the emotional impact of Double Dragon, or the underlying themes of Barkley! Shut Up and Jam! (which included the importance of keeping one’s mouth closed. Also, dunking.) If you wanted a great story you read a book or watched a film. Life was better this way – games could focus solely on being fun, and our literary standards hadn’t been lowered to the point where you can walk into a Borders and buy 30 different books written about Halo.
The Golden Axe series is a throwback to a simpler, and in some ways better, era when games didn’t have to take themselves so damn seriously. Golden Axe 2 excels because it’s a well-designed game, supported by some neat graphical effects (the lava cave has a background “heat haze” effect that ought to thrill enthusiasts), a kickass soundtrack, and a few minor gameplay refinements, such as magic spells and better enemy AI.
Don’t get me wrong on that last one, though – the enemies you fight aren’t exactly Harvard graduates (or maybe they are are – does attending Harvard make you better at fighting?), which is actually for the better. The last thing you want in a beat ‘em up is a bunch of bad guys who know how to block and avoid getting their skulls cleaved. Comix Zone had that, and it was a slow-paced grind. Golden Axe 2’s enemies are still dumb enough for you to split them like firewood, but use a couple of clever techniques, most notably, constantly trying to surround you. It’s just the right amount of smartness from your enemies, and it turns every skirmish into sort of a weird puzzle game, where you’re constantly trying to maneuver in a way that keeps everyone on the same side of you. The game is designed around this principle, so that you’ll almost never encounter a lone enemy. Even bosses fight in pairs or at the very least bring along some underlings.
The woman and old man are fleeing to a place where the typical greeting involves less weaponry… so probably not Oakland, then.
Golden Axe 2 begins in a village that’s being overrun by the enemy horde, with your heroes arriving just in time to save some of the populace. From there, you’ll travel across some ruins, then through a lava cave that leads to Dark Guld’s castle, and then finally into the castle to face the dark lord himself. After each of these stages will come a short cutscene, which fleshes out the story by giving you important plot details like “We went through the ruins” or “Now we’re going into a cave”. You could argue that these little interludes don’t really tell us much we couldn’t have figured out just from playing the game, but again, you probably shouldn’t expect too much from a story starring characters named Dark Guld or Gilius Thunderhead.
Actually, the more I think abut it, I’m starting to think these guys might have intentionally let the Golden Axe get stolen, just so they’d have an excuse to run around killing stuff. It’s not like barbarians, dwarves, and amazons have a lot of marketable skills in peacetime, so once they recovered the Golden Axe in the first game, there probably wasn’t much for them to do other than sit around and wait to die of plague. The intro mentions that Dark Guld was supposed to be imprisoned, but somehow he got loose and started wrecking havoc everywhere, so it’s not hard to imagine one of our protagonists sneaking into the jailhouse, covertly unlocking his cell and then slipping a note under the door saying “By the way, the Golden Axe is sitting in a crate down at the end of the hall.”