Hone your blade, strap on your battle bikini and, I dunno, prepare to ponder the riddle of steel – it’s time to slap some skeletons and snake-men with Sega’s 1989 arcade classic Golden Axe!

That’s right, it’s the Conan-inspired barbarian beat-em-up we all know and love… except I don’t know it that well. Of the Golden Axe games that are traditional side-scrolling brawlers, this is the one I’ve played the least – although Golden Axe 2 is so similar I’m sure I won’t have any trouble figuring it out.
Hopefully I’ll enjoy it as much as I do Golden Axe 2. Whenever I cover a game that has achieved some degree of consensus as a “classic,” I’m always a little worried it’s going to turn out to not be very good. Happily, this is rarely the case, and most classic games I’ve covered have held up very well indeed – which I suppose is why they’re considered classics. Before we get into the game itself, though, let’s meet the ragtag group of heroes who have risen up to protect the land from evil.

Ax Equals Battler? What is this, a maths test? No, thank god, Sega just went with the design decision of putting an equals sign between everyone’s name in Golden Axe. I have no idea why. Flair, I suppose. Ax Battler is an underpants-clad barbarian, and the first thing you might notice about him (besides the pants) is that he fights with a sword, not an axe. Presumably this is an act of rebellion against the parents who named him “Ax,” thus forcing him into a life of adventure and mortal peril. Well, he was never going to be an accountant with a name like “Ax,” was he? Death Adder, the villainous warlord and Golden Axe’s antagonist, killed Ax Battler’s mum, so he’s got a solid motivation for joining the fight.

Next up is the amazon, Tyris Flare. Not wanting to be outdone by Ax Battler, Tyris’ mother and father were killed by Death Adder, giving her twice the impetus for her quest of bloody revenge. Tyris is the more magically-inclined of the three playable characters, plus she’s got a fantastic running kick move that must go down as one of the most satisfying attacks to land in any side-scrolling beat-em-up. Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing might imply her name is pronounced “Tirris,” but she’ll always be “Tie-ris” to me.

Last and by no means least – unless we’re talking purely about height – is Gilius Thunderhead, the axe-wielding dwarf. The titular golden axe, even. Despite it being the title of the game, Golden Axe never actually mentions the weapon for which it is named, so I’m forced to assume Gilius’ weapon is just a regular ol’ axe that he’s spraypainted gold for a little extra pizazz. Gilius Thunderhead’s family name comes from his clan’s love of headbutting people, and his brother was killed by natural causes. No, of course not, it was Death Adder. He doesn’t half get about, that guy.

And here is Death Adder himself. Shadowy helmet that obscures his face, extremely well-armoured shins, prominent codpiece: yes, Death Adder cuts a figure of pure malice whose evil reign must be destroyed. I’ll get right on that, then.

Once you’ve selected your character – I went with Gilius, for no real reason – you’re given a brief introductory scene where a wounded soldier named Alex informs you that Death Adder has kidnapped the regent and the princess. He’s got an appreciation for the classics, has Death Adder. Alex then beseeches you to “revenge them for me,” and of course having played Metal Gear Rising Revengeance I immediately started hearing “Rules of Nature” in my head.

Okay then, time for some fighting. Golden Axe is a side-scrolling beat-em-up, which tells you eighty percent of how the gameplay works. In most other beat-em-ups it’d tell you one hundred percent of how the gameplay works, but Golden Axe has a few unique flourishes. Basic combat is still the same as ever: you’ve got an attack button and a jump button, you can keep tapping attack for a combo of blows, there are jumping attacks, and you can dash by double-tapping the joystick. You can follow up your dashes with a charging attack, which I recommend you do frequently. Not only is a good attack for knocking enemies away and clearing space, as I mentioned earlier it is an intensely satisfying move to pull off thanks to the sense of solidity Sega have managed to capture as you blows thud into the enemies. You’ve also got a special move activated by pressing jump and attack at the same time, naturally, but unlike most brawlers this isn’t a wide-ranging spin attack that costs you some health to perform. Instead, it attacks any enemies directly behind you with a whirling chop (or a rolling stab, in Gilius’ case) and it feels very Double Dragon-y.

The other thing is magic. There’s a reason the genre’s called swords and sorcery, you know? We’ll see some magic spells in a while, but before you can use them you have to fill up your magic bar, which you can see at the top of the screen. To do so, you must collect potions. You probably already know this – it might well be Golden Axe’s most famous feature – but to get potions you have to beat them out of the small blue imps that appear during stages. Don’t hold back, run right up to that imp and give it a hefty kick up the arse. We’re only a couple of screens in and already Golden Axe has given us two wonderfully satisfying types of attack, and clobbering the small, defenceless imps and harvesting their magical juice never gets old. Thanks for turning me into a bully, Golden Axe. I was always told bullies are just cowards, but it turns out sometimes bullying is just fun.

So on we go, chopping down any of Death Adder’s troops that stand in our way, and during these early areas it’s pretty easy going. Gilius’ axe has a wide hitbox and the enemies aren’t that intelligent, as encapsulated by this minion who refuses to stop harassing a poor villager even as a furious dwarf with a huge axe advances on him with murderous intent.

The action takes a different tack with the introduction of rideable dragon-creatures, including the beaked pink thing pictured above. You might recognise them from their appearance as monsters in Altered Beast. They’re called “Chicken Legs,” apparently. If I saw one of those things my first thought would not be “they’ve got legs like chickens,” but hey. Both the player and enemies can ride the dragons, and can be unseated from said dragons with a well-placed attack. The dragons have their own unique attacks – in Chicken Leg’s case, it sweeps in front of it with its tail – and they change up the gameplay considerably. They’re more powerful than your non-dragon attacks, but riding one makes you a bigger, slower target, so it’s easier for enemies to surround you and if you miss with an attack you’re left vulnerable.

Soon after, the game’s first boss battle begins. These two large chaps are called the Bad Bros., presumably because they’re bad at dressing themselves. If I was that tall and I was about to fight a dwarf, I’d make damn sure I wasn’t drawing so much attention to my crotch. The Bad Bros. have a rather simple fighting strategy, which mostly involves trying to get on either side of you and bash your head in with their hammers. Keeping on the move to prevent this from happening is (as it is in almost every other beat-em-up) a good strategy, and you can whittle down their health safely enough if you don’t take too many risks.

Alternatively, you can use Gilius’ magic powers to call down a ferocious barrage of lightning that hits everything on the screen. Erm, including Gilius, by the looks of things. Well, if you are going to summon lightning while carrying a large metal implement this is going to happen. Not to worry, though, Gilius is not harmed by his own magic but the Bad Bros. most certainly are. Not enough to defeat them in one magical attack, sure, but it turns the fight from a long, drawn-out battle into mopping up duty.

Between the main stages, there’s a mini-round of sorts. The imps harass your mighty champion of justice while they’re sleeping, because the imps are apparently intensely stupid. You wake up, see the imps and realise it’s all-you-can-eat at the magic potion buffet, so you slap the imps around to collect a few potions before the next stage starts. In later iterations, there are also green imps that drop health items rather than potions. The health comes in the form of big cartoony slabs on meat on the bone, because this is an arcade beat-em-up from 1989.

You even get a brief interlude showing a map between stages, complete with scrawls and scribbles to show the route our heroes have taken That’s a really nice touch. You can also see that the map says “Sega” on it. This becomes a common theme during the game, as though Sega really wanted to make sure you remember who developed Golden Axe, and their name can be spotted on backgrounds throughout the game. As for me, I guess I’m off to the Turtle Village.

Judging by the very obvious shell around this “island,” I’m going to say that Turtle Village is a very literal name.

As the villagers flee in panic, Ax Battler wades into the fray and immediately boots a lady off a dragon. That sounds like something Conan would do, which is appropriate because Ax Battler is definitely inspired by Conan the Barbarian. The whole game is, obviously, and I think Sega have even admitted as much just in case the story of a brawny barbarian and his companions hacking their way through the minions of a snake-themed villain wasn’t enough to tip you off. There are even some direct references, like Ax Battler’s extremely Conan-esque backwards spinning strike, and some of the enemy death screams being ripped directly from the movie. That’s fine by me, though. I think one of the reasons I like Golden Axe so much is that it is such a Conan rip-off, a hack-and-slash barbarian adventure played straight. Sometimes it’s nice to just be a hulking muscle-man slaughtering his way through a horde of villains with extravagant shoulder-pads. It occurs to me that this might also be why I like Fist of the North Star so much.

Ax Battler climbs aboard a new type of dragon. This one breaths a jet of fire just in front of it. It’s called, erm, “Blue Dragon,” Sega having seemingly expended their dragon-naming talents after the mighty Chicken Leg. That reminds me, I should get something out of the freezer for my dinner. Anyway, this is a good dragon with a powerful attack, so it’s a shame I’m about to lose control of it when the amazon woman currently hurtling towards Ax’s exposed back at one thousand miles an hour makes contact.

Frankly, I should have my dragon license revoked.
There’s not much else to say about the rest of this stage. It’s just good, solid hack-and-slash action, enlivened by the introduction of skeleton warriors. I don’t think I’ve ever not enjoyed fighting a skeleton in a videogame. I even like the Bonewheels in Dark Souls, because dodging past them as they roll towards you like some undead matador is fantastic.

Yes, Turtle Village was on the back of a turtle. Quelle surprise. Forget that, though, and imagine Ax Battler sitting at the camp fire, his tongue sticking out of his mouth as he concentrates really hard on drawing a little picture of the Turtle Village onto the map without smashing his red crayon to pieces in his enormous meaty hands.

On to stage five, which is really stage three because for some reason the imp-kickin’ intermissions are counted as full stages. For the first half of the stage you’re still fighting on the back of the turtle, an area heavily populated by dragons. A little too heavily populated, in fact.  Because it’s often easier to knock enemies off their dragons while you’re on foot, there’s a decent chance you’ll want to spend a fair portion of this stage not riding a dragon… but because you immediately hop on to any vacant dragon when you approach it, if can be difficult to move around without unexpectedly mounting a dragon only to be immediately pummelled by the two enemy dragons.
On the plus side, the red dragons – imaginatively called “Red Dragons” - can shoot a fiery projectile across the screen, a useful skill to have in a beat-em-up.

Here’s the turtle’s head. I think it’s pretty bloody ungrateful to build a jetty directly on top of his bonce after he’s given you his whole shell to work with, people. I was half-expecting the turtle to say “it’s a living” as I leap off his uncomfortable hat and onto solid ground, but the stoic turtle remained silent. That might be because the legs of the jetty have lobotomised him, though.

Waiting in the town beyond is the next boss. His name is Lieutenant Bitter, and he’s the knight with the big shield and a much better understanding of the concept of “armour” than his companions. Bitter’s main shtick, besides the ludicrous range granted to him by his massive sword, is that he’s got a small army of regular minions ready to back him up in the fight. I think such a large number of foes calls for Ax Battler to unleash his magic powers, don’t you?

I suppose to the relatively unadvanced inhabitants of Golden Axe’s world, a nuclear weapon would seem like magic, yes.

Each character actually has multiple levels of power for their magic spell, which is why the power bar at the top is divided into sections. After unleashing Ax’s maximum-power magic, there was a potion kicking around so I got to use a level one attack, too. It summons a rain of small meteors, which is nice for distracting your opponents if nothing else. I feel like the extra magic levels are kinda wasted on me, honestly. I’ve never been able to resist saving up for the biggest magic spell I can, because a) the lower-tier spells don’t do much damage and are useful mostly because they knock enemies down and b) the big spells look cooler.

Moving on to the next stage, and I’ve taken control of Tyris Flare for the remainder of the game. She’s got the biggest magic bar of the lot, and being the game’s female character you’d expect her to be weaker but faster than the others. Well, she isn’t, not really. In fact, magic spells aside there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between the characters, and I certainly didn’t feel like I was having to hit enemies more times with Tyris than I did with Ax Battler or Gilius. On the flip side, it’s not like I managed to dodge more attacks with Tyris either, so swings and roundabouts.

Most of this stage takes place on the rocky back of a huge eagle soaring through the skies. You might wonder how the eagle can fly when some thoughtless bastard has installed a patio on its back, but in this case the answer might literally be “a wizard did it.” More importantly, the majority of enemies in this stage are skeletons who dig themselves out of the “ground” - which means that some slain warriors were buried with their swords and shields atop a colossal eagle. It doesn’t get much more metal than that, folks. Quite how Helloween haven’t written a song about the subject is beyond me.

It’s not just a great eagle, folks. It’s a great, great eagle. And that’s a great drawing of an eagle, Tyris, although if it were me I wouldn’t have been able to resist drawing a bunch of little skeletons on its back.

Having reached the next stage and disembarked the eagle, Tyris is accosted by two Bitters at once. God damn but I do love that flying kick. Anyway, things get pretty difficult at this point. Golden Axe’s only real trick to increase the level of challenge it offers is to throw more enemies at you. This is especially noticeable when you’re forced the two Bitters on a narrow pathway, their long, pink weapons with bulbous tips battering you from either side. If I wasn’t scrabbling around for potions so I could see Tyris’ fully-powered magic attack, I would have rained fire upon them both: as it was, I had to resort to running away and repeated dash-kicks.

After that, it’s time for the final confrontation with Death Adder himself. He starts off as a mound of dead bodies, before multitudinous snakes slither into the corpse-pile and form themselves into the hulking form of the Death Adder we all know and love. It’s a fantastic introduction and manages to even out-metal the flying eagle graveyard, but it could have been better. For starters, it’s difficult to take in the full majesty of Death Adder’s introduction when you’re having your head bashed in by more powerful versions of the Bad Bros. and their assorted companions. Also, because Death Adder’s still transforming when you get there, the whole scene has the feeling of walking in on someone just as they’re getting out of the shower. The snakes are basically the same as hastily wrapping a towel around your shame, you see.

Mental note: don’t get too close to Death Adder, he did not appreciate my criticism of his introduction.
As you can see, Golden Axe’s final battle is a hectic struggle against overwhelming odds and shoulderpads of all shapes and sizes. Suspended above the battlefield are the prince and princess. I hope for their sake they’re wearing their most fireproof finery.

Was it worth saving up for Tyris’ fully-powered magic attack? It most definitely was. Just look at that thing! The fire-breathing dragon is in the best Sega tradition of dazzling arcade graphics, its fiery breath has laid waste to (most of) my foes and best of all Death Adder was just about to punch me in the head when I unleashed this spell and froze (actually, “froze” might not be the best word choice here) him in place. Job’s a good ‘un.

There is a reason that Death Adder has surrounded himself with so many minions: it’s to disguise the fact that he’s not really much good in a fight. Oh, sure, he’s seen Gilius’ golden axe and thought to himself “pshaw, you call that an axe?” but his axe is no use to him if he can’t hit me with it. If you keep your distance from Death Adder, he resorts to a different move: he punches the floor, sending a shockwave along the ground. The shockwave is easily avoided by walking upwards slightly, which is unfortunate for Death Adder because it takes him ages to stand back up again. Simply walk over to him while he’s recovering from the shockwave, clobber him a few times and then retreat to a safe distance and repeat the process. Of course, this is easier said than done if you’ve got a horde of skeleton warrior interrupting your plans with some impromptu kidney surgery, but once the chaos of the battlefield has died down a little you’ll have Death Adder at your mercy and Golden Axe will soon be over.

Then you get to see the ending, and what a wonderful ending it is too. In a parallel universe, some kids are in an arcade playing “Great Axe” when the villains from Golden Axe jump out of the cabinet and into the “real” world, pursued by Ax, Tyris and Gilius.

There go the villains, pouring onto the streets of an unsuspecting city and embarking on a brutal reign of carnage and terror that lasts about five minutes until the police show up. I don’t care how much shin armour you’re wearing, it’s not going to protect you from a tazer. Sadly you don’t actually get to see the bad guys being zapped and cuffed, but I think it’s fair to assume that’s what happens.

With the sounds of clashing steel and the minions’ “oh goaaahhh!” death-cry still ringing in my ears, Golden Axe draws to a close. What a fun little romp it is! It’s clear why it’s still fondly-remembered today, because it’s a simple-but-effective dose of villain-chopping action with enough interesting twists to the formula in the form of the magic system and the dragons to elevate it above many of its contemporaries. It’s quite a slow, methodical game, but thankfully it’s short enough that it never becomes a slog. My major gripe with it is that it can be a little bland-looking sometimes, with most of the backgrounds being quite sparse and rendered in the same dull, earthy tone, and that’s why I think I prefer Golden Axe 2. The sequel does all the same things as the original, but it’s a bit brighter, a little more visually appealing and it has a better soundtrack. Not that the original Golden Axe’s soundtrack is bad, of course. It’s actually rather good, especially the theme from the first stage.

All in all, it’s another classic that just about deserves the title, even if it isn’t as good as Final Fight. Maybe if Ax Battler got rid of the sword and dished out more spinning piledrivers, I’d revise that opinion. I’d still recommend Golden Axe, though. It’d be difficult not to recommend a game where you can beat up skeletons by knocking them to their knees and then bopping them on the top of their skulls with the pommel of your sword.

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