When it comes to our childhood pastimes, memories aren't always the most reliable narrators. Many things are recalled through rose-colored glasses, with the memory seeming much better than the original experience. So it is with the games featured in the Sega Vintage Collection: Golden Axe.
There's no denying that the Golden Axe franchise was one of the key pillars of the beat-'em-up genre. The original game first hit arcades in 1989 and was later ported to a number of systems, including Sega's 16-bit Genesis. Franchise sequels spawned in the arcade as well as on the Genesis system. In pretty much every regard, Golden Axe was a critical and commercial success. Sitting down to play it today, however, it is difficult to enjoy the game in any context other than historical.
The version of Golden Axe included is the original arcade version. It lacks the additional modes found in the Genesis port, though the visuals are a bit sharper. English and Japanese versions are available, and options to adjust the default number of lives and power meter are available. Because it's an arcade game, the difficulty really only matters if you set an arbitrary limit for yourself. As it is, continues are unlimited since you can keep pumping virtual quarters into the machine.
Where Golden Axe breaks down is in the gameplay. The first time you fire it up, nostalgia takes hold, and you think about how awesome the game is going to be. Then you start playing. Movement is slow and deliberate. Enemies appear to have a faster movement speed than the player, most likely as a way of generating challenge. After all, the arcade machine was designed to be a quarter-eater.
Combat moves are extremely basic, with limited attack options. Collectible magic pots allow for impressive attack animations when unleashed, but only the strongest magic attacks do any appreciable amount of damage. Still, even that would be manageable if not for the way in which the game handles depth. Unless your character is dead even with an enemy, your attack with not connect. This leads to many frustrating instances where it looks like an attack should be dead-on, yet it misses entirely. Oddly, opponents don't seem to have the same issue.
Golden Axe II is a sequel designed for the Genesis system, so that's the version that appears in the collection. European, Japanese and North American versions are all included. In terms of gameplay, Golden Axe II includes many of the same mechanics as the original game. As a result, the overall feel is much the same. There are some core changes, such as the ability to choose your magic level when casting a spell and being able to pick the direction you throw an opponent, but by and large, this is Golden Axe with a new set of levels. Much like the first game, it's also rather short.
One thing of note here is the inclusion of duel mode. This first appeared in the Genesis port of Golden Axe and makes a return appearance here. The idea is simple; the player is given one life and a series of opponents to eliminate. Defeat them all, and you win. Die, and it's game over. Though the execution is simple, it is interesting to look back and see a basic survival mode, especially since it's still a popular mode in the current generation of games.
Of the three games included in the collection, Golden Axe III is easily the best of the series. Oddly enough, it's also the game that got the lowest scores when it was first released, most likely due to the fact that although it is something of an improvement overall, the core gameplay was already getting dated.
Oddly, there are two versions of Golden Axe III here: Japanese and European. There is no American version. The Japanese version is the default (though it plays in English). Japan is also the only territory that actually saw a cart release of Golden Axe III. Americans only saw it on the Genesis via the Sega Channel download service, and Europeans never saw a Genesis release. The first time Golden Axe III hit retail outside of Japan was when it appeared on the aptly named PlayStation 2 release, Sega Genesis Collection.
Jumping into gameplay, the improvements in control are immediately obvious. Granted, the game is nearly two decades old, but comparing it against Golden Axe and Golden Axe II is like night and day. Movement is much more fluid, attack options are greatly expanded, and a shadow circle underneath each character makes it much easier to estimate depth when battling an opponent. You'll still endure a number of "WTF? That's not fair!" moments, though they won't happen with the frequency of the prior games.
Also new to Golden Axe III is a selectable stage system. This means your path through the overworld can change with each playthrough. Choose a different direction at a fork in the road, and you'll experience a different stage. On the downside, the selectable magic of the second game is gone, replaced by system similar to the first game. Duel mode is also gone, replaced with VS mode.
VS mode is best described as a prototype fighting game. It contains five characters and four levels, but the move sets are limited, and the AI is easily exploitable. All of your VS opponents are vulnerable to a downward slash, to the point that it's the only move you need to know. It's nowhere near fleshed out, though given the success of Street Fighter II at the time, it's not surprising that Sega tried to include a basic fighting mode within Golden Axe III.
As with the other vintage collection releases developed by M2, there is no issue with the emulation quality. Video is sharp, sound is good and everything appears to work as it should. This goes for all three games in the collection. All three games are enabled for online play, and M2's jukebox mode is also present. From a purely technical perspective, the collection is top-notch. So, what's the problem?
It goes back to the games. Of the three, Golden Axe III is the only one that is worth checking out, and even then it's a hard sell. There's also the fact that all three games have been previously released as part of other collections (most recently Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection on PS3 and Xbox 360), so most gamers who want them probably have them. Unlike the Streets of Rage games, which justified a re-release due to sound quality and changes in different region ROMs, the Golden Axe collection simply doesn't bring anything new to the table.
In short, if you have a hankering to play the Golden Axe games, take a pass on this collection and spend $20 on Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection. It'll cost you an additional ten dollars, but you'll end up with a total of 49 games instead of just three.
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