It would be fair to say that the expansion of the Wii Virtual Console to incorporate arcade releases has been extremely welcome, but it has resulted in one rather unusual side-effect: we’re seeing rampant duplication of titles already available.
We’ve already had the likes of Solomon’s Key (NES), Altered Beast (Mega Drive / Genesis), Space Harrier (Master System) and Tecmo Bowl (NES) - all of which have already seen the light of day via the original Virtual Console channels - and now we have Sega’s Golden Axe to add to that list.
Released in arcades in 1989 (the same year as Capcom’s seminal Final Fight), this side-scrolling fantasy brawler was one of the first games of its type to shrug off the clichéd “urban” setting and locate the Double Dragon-inspired gameplay in a setting more akin to Lord of the Rings.
The player is given the choice of three different characters. Ax Battler is a stern barbarian and showcases a decent balance between speed, power and magical ability. Tyris Flare is the token female fighter and is blessed with a impressive command of magic as well as a swiftness of foot, but such talent comes at the expense of strength. Finally we have Gilius Thunderhead, a dwarf who is weak with spells but sturdy and powerful, boasting impressive offensive capabilities.
Although the characters are markedly different in appearance their move sets are near identical. All three are capable of devastating multi-part combos, which change depending on your proximity to your opponent. For example, your typical flurry is a couple of slashes, followed by two blows to the head with the butt of your weapon before a final slash is delivered. However, it’s possible to move your character after the initial two attacks, and this results in either a throw or a quick upwards slash, or stab. Tinkering with this combo system is vital when you’re going up against several enemies at once. Often, if you choose to execute the full combo you’ll find that you’re being assailed from all sides before you get chance to complete it.
Although it’s possible to throw your opponent – as we’ve just mentioned – there isn’t a grapple option in Golden Axe, like there is in games such as Final Fight and Streets of Rage. This limits the potential of the combat somewhat, but such an omission is mitigated by the presence of dash attacks – an innovation in 1989 that even the mighty Final Fight lacked. Double-tapping left or right causes your character to launch into a sprint, and pressing attack results in a shoulder charge (Ax), flying kick (Tyris) or a head-butt (Gilius).
In addition to this, pressing jump whilst running causes your on-screen avatar to leap higher in the air than normal. Pushing down and attack executes a particularly potent vertical thrust which is hard to land successfully but causes a considerable amount of damage to any enemy unwise enough to remain beneath you.
While Golden Axe arguably lacks the combat possibilities of other titles released at the time, it does have one unique feature up its sleeve: magic attacks. By collecting the blue potions dropped by the numerous elves that are scattered across the land, you can build up more powerful spells. Tyris – who is the most adept with magic – has to collect more potions than her companions, but can control arcane powers of a truly terrifying magnitude. Conversely, Gilius prefers to let his axe to the talking and therefore requires fewer potions to max out his meter because his magic attack isn’t as potent. Ax Battler – the “Mr. Average” of the Golden Axe world - falls somewhere in the middle.
Another feature that makes this title stand out from the crowd is the variety of imagination displayed in the level design. The unusual settings add immeasurably to the overall appeal of the game, and after scrapping through countless nondescript back alleys in other 2D fighters, they come as a breath of fresh air.
So then, in conclusion Golden Axe is a pretty nifty game, despite the fact that it’s slightly overshadowed by other genre classics. However, with the Mega Drive / Genesis version already available, you might ask if such a game is even worth considering – especially when you take into account the fact that the domestic edition contains extra levels and a “Duel mode” where two players can fight each other or a single player can face off against a succession of enemies.
The choice is made even more difficult when you consider just how faithful a conversion the 16-bit port is. Granted, there are lots of graphical touches missing from the Mega Drive / Genesis version (the awesome coin-op ending has also been removed) but it’s only when you place them side-by-side that they become apparent. When it was originally released, the home port was hailed as “arcade perfect” and while this isn’t quite true, you can see why reviewers jumped to such a conclusion.
It’s hard to see why someone who already owns the Mega Drive / Genesis version would want to download this – unless of course they’re a massive Golden Axe fan. However, if you’ve not purchased Golden Axe in any form on the Virtual Console yet, then this is worth considering. You’ll miss out on the bonus levels that were featured in the home version and it costs 100 more Wii Points, but you get the added benefit of improved visuals and sound – as well as that fantastic ending. Ultimately, the differences between this and the 16-bit release are negligible; both offer plenty of “hack and slash” gratification and both feature a brilliant two-player co-op mode. Which one you decide to purchase is really down to your own personal preference.