Golden Axe - A retro look back at a classic beat 'em up

Now where's my Horn of Mead wench? After playing Golden Axe, I am definitely feeling my inner barbarian. This great game from Sega was almost a world apart from the game we have come to know and love. Originally inspired by the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian (staring our old friend Arni), mixed with the Traditional Korean Folk Tale "Golden Axe Silver Axe" also known as "The honest woodsman", Golden Axe was intended to be an RPG game with ornate graphics giving an inspiring journey. Sega however, weren't keen on this idea but loved the character concepts. Since, at the time, the main money making was in the Arcade, Sega knew, they needed a game that had a faster pace.

There was, however, an extra twist to the launch of Golden Axe in the Arcades. This was the launch of Sega's new 16 bit home console the Mega Drive (or for everyone else, the Genesis). One of the main selling points Sega were aiming for with their new hardware was that it was capable of producing near Arcade graphics. To prove this point, Golden Axe was designed in such a way that it could be very faithfully reproduced on the Mega Drive. It didn't have to be perfect but near enough.

So, Makoto Uchida who was also the creator of games such as Altered Beast and Dynamite Cop was allowed to create the Golden Axe series along with his tiny crew of 5 extra people.

In typical Sega fashion, plenty of research was performed to find all the elements that would make this a hit and it proved its worth. They created 3 memorable although very generic characters: Axe battler (who is not really Conan the Barbarian), Tyris Flare (The Amazon Warrior again, not really Red Sonya) reminding you of the Gauntlet series anyone? And finally, Gillius the Thunderhead (The Dwarf again generic may well have been influenced by The Lord of the Rings style books)

Though the characters are generic, they work very well. Each have their traits to suit your style of play. Be it slower strength or less powerful but fast.

Now, what of the main bad guy? The final goal of the game is to defeat Death Adder

Now, history lesson complete. How does it play and look?


It seams to make sense to start with the original.

First impressions you get is that the graphics and sound are nicely executed and produce just the right atmosphere. A little bit of story is given to start but as is needed, not too much and you are strait into the action.

Animation is nice and smooth, but swords swoosh fast without much of a delay from hitting the fire button and give a nice trail emulating the speed that you are swinging your sword at the soon to be dead minion.

Speaking of dying, I have to admit, the game does give a little bit of satisfaction when after being knocked down several times, the minions finally scream as they finally croak. (See how I put that nicely)

Playing through, I did find there were a few moments when the controls just don't react fast enough. In particular, it is possible to become trapped between to minions. Each one thwapping you from each side until you loose a life. This does become a little annoying unless you have infinite credits.On the whole, the game does feel a little on the short side but for its short length, it is very enjoyable to play time and time again.

In particular, I do love Sega's sense of humour which is found in many of their games. In particular, on completing the game, you are first greeted by the normal "and they all live happily ever after" standard ending but this is followed by an amusing little scene where 3 kids are shown playing Golden Axe in the arcades as the game characters blast out of the machine in puffs of smoke and the kids get chased down the street by the minions and Death Adder.

Mega Drive :

On the Mega Drive, there were 3 versions of Golden Axe.

Golden Axe

The Mega Drive version did exactly what Sega were after. It gives a very faithful representation of the Arcade game. The only obvious differences are that the smaller colour pallet can be seen by the bolder colours rather than soft pastel shading and the sound utilizes the built in audio and 8 bit samples however, it still works very well.

I would say though that there are times when it feels that the characters don't quite react as quickly as in the arcade version. Though it is relatively easy to get to the last level.

To make the game longer, Sega added an extra level where you have to fight against the bosses boss. Yep, Death Adder, they decided wasn't the real baddy. It was in face, Dark Guld. The same guy but in new colours.

Golden Axe 2

In 1991 (2 years later) Golden Axe 2 was released for the Mega Drive. This time Dark Guld is back.

Though there are a few changes, this still keeps the essence of Golden Axe. Same 3 characters with slightly better graphics. Very much geared towards the Mega Drive rather than being an Arcade convention.

Control is nice and fast though some of the sounds are........ Interesting. For example every character that dies now screams "Blair!" Maybe he had more of an influence in evil minions than we realised.

Golden Axe 3

Again, Mega Drive only, Golden Axe 3 came out another 2 years later in 1993.
This time, they dropped Gilius Thunderhead as a playable choice and added a new character a man-panther who has mastered the power of frog (not quite sure what they were taking at this point).
Well, this one is different.

Same hack and slash game play. This time with again, slightly changed graphics. I'm not sure they work as well though. The shadow effect is constantly flickering and most of the background colours are made up using hatching to emulate an increase in colours. Admittedly, this may have all worked better on an old school tube TV but on modern HD tv's the effect simply detracts from the game.

A choice of route is added which is a great idea since the main complaint of the Golden Axe series was always that it was too short. This idea shows that not only were Sega listening but also that the game can be played multiple times and be different each time.
However, even though there are; on paper; many good points here, some how, it doesn't work as well as the original.

Music too is an interesting point. Gone is the atmospheric music, instead it has been mixed with what sounds like a semi attempt at the Streets of Rage sound track.

Atari ST :

Now this was the 1st version I ever played.

I remember when the 1 level demo came on the ST Format Cover disk shortly before my birthday. I went into town when my birthday finally came through, loaded it up marvelled at the sound and graphics. It was fantastic. I also remember how gutted I was when by the end of the night, I had finished the game. This version looked and felt fantastic but was WAY too easy. Sadly, playing it again, I found that the lower still colour pallet of 16 colours is further apparent as many of the minions were created using the same colours as the background. Also, other than the few samples, the sound was quite beepy.

That being said, considering the limitations, it plays very well and brought me great joy for many years.

PS2 :

Golden Axe received a 3D update for the PS2. Hmmmmmmm..........

Well, it looks very pretty.

Most of the 3D graphics look very nice. Great lighting glows, nice sounding audio track but the reaction to key presses are slow, direction controls rely on the characters turning around in time.

There are most of the old favorite characters faithfully recreated and some new ones to add to it and the stages follow the original arcade quite closely all be it upgraded.

The game just doesn't cut it. Largely due to the control issues and to boot, for some reason, you have no control using the analogue stick. All is done using the cross pad.

I think this game is a very sad case. It is the main reason that the 3D upgrades of Sega's classics were canceled as it had so many bad reviews. A great idea but not executed well at all. We can solely blame this version of Golden Axe for the reason we never saw an upgraded version of Streets of Rage.
In short, grrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

Finale :

The Golden Axe legend has now sadly come to a holt. The last known versions I am aware of are the Mega Drive conversions for the iPhone which play very well and are well worth downloading. However, they are best played on the iPad Mini as the iPhone feels like a squash trying to fit your thumbs on screen with out blocking your view and the full sized iPad requires you to borrow the Hulks hands as the larger screen size ironically makes the buttons too big. (This feels like a Murray rhyme the iPad mini was juuuuuuust right!)

A great set of games. No doubt in my mind that the original Arcade version is by far the best with the Mega Drive (be it on console or iPhone) makes a great runner up.

For memories and return ability, I would give it 8.5 out of 10. Only beaten because the Streets of Rage collection of games did the same job even better.

Article by : Drew Kenaz


  1. How about the PC (DOS) version? That's the one I used to play.

  2. INDIERETRONEWS1 July 2014 at 21:33

    Amiga version for me! Thankfully in about two weeks or less I'll be able to try out the Amstrad version in all it's 8bit wonder!


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