I love video games. If you don’t like them, that’s fine, but if you say they are rotting our children’s minds I will fight you. I grew up reading and playing video games and found them equally fertile grounds for the imagination. I don’t think I would ever have got the bug for wanting to tell stories, for wanting to wow people, without them. They were – and still are – wonderful, magical forms of expression, a uniquely human response to the world. They’re lives within life. Bizarre artefacts. Forget jet black obelisks – what would an alien species make of us if their first encounter was Donkey Kong?
Every Tuesday, I’ll be writing about games and gaming and my life as a gamer. I won’t assume prior knowledge, so if you’ve never played a video game in your life, you’ll learn all you need to bluff your way through a conversation. Think of it like a safari through a weird, pixelated land. I love video games, and I hope, after a while, you’ll come to understand why.
This week, I’m kicking off a history of beat em ups. If you’ve got any feedback or requests for games I ought to cover, pop em into the comments box below.
Welcome To The Fantasy Zone Presents: GOLDEN AXE
Release date: 1989
Systems: Arcade, Megadrive, Master System, DOS, Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad, C64, ZX Spectrum
Look, I’m a big enough man to admit when I’m wrong. I was wrong about Golden Axe.
Perhaps a hangover of my old Nintendo fanboyishness had prejudiced me. Perhaps I had a bad experience with one of its home system ports. Whatever the reason, I had been going around loudly opining that Golden Axe was pants.
‘Overrated!’ I’d cry. ‘Samey and joyless!’ When my comments were greeted with looks of stunned incomprehension, I assumed that people were blinded by nostalgia. Golden Axe seemed to me the type of game fondly remembered by people who stopped playing video games around the age of 13, the type of game liked by people who, as a rule, don’t particularly like games. When people praised Golden Axe I consigned them to the same dingy compartment as people who brightly assert that Shawshank Redemption is ‘the best film’.
Since I’m tackling the history of beat em ups, I knew I had to approach Golden Axe sooner or later. Though, with its swords and axes and magic spells, some might question its inclusion at all (it has more in common with Conan-knockoff Rastan, a platformer, and top-down D&D-alike dungeon-crawler Gauntlet, than, for example, Battle Arena Toshinden), for me it’s absolutely central to the genre, even if some superficial elements mark it as an outlier. I conceded its importance within the canon, even as I dismissed it as crap.
I was wrong.
In Golden Axe, you play as one of three characters – the inaccurately-monikered Ax Battler (who carries a broadsword), amazonian magic-specialist Tyris Flare, and axe-toting dwarf Gilius Thunderhead. You’re all bent on avenging the deaths of various family members slain by Death Adder (who has one of the most awesomely-creepy entrances of any end-of-game boss, as snakes writhe across the flagstones and crawl into a suit of armour, knitting together to form his body).
Most people remember Golden Axe for the magic, and the steeds. There are three types of monster you can ride on – a mauve cockatrice (from Altered Beast) that whips opponents with its tail, a blue dragon that spits a gout of flame, and a purple dragon that spits fireballs. If you can avoid getting knocked off your mount, they’re ridiculously powerful, making short work of most enemies and even end-of-level bosses.
Your magic gets powered up with the iconic blue potions, dropped by capering imps carrying sacks. Kick the imps, collect potions, then press the magic button to release a smart bomb of varying intensities. Tyris has the most powerful magic (a huge howling djinn made of flame) but also requires the most potions to power it up.
So look, replaying this, I realised that it’s pretty great. Combat feels tough, but fair – even fighting Death Adder, it’s possible to dodge his attacks and get in some clean hits. You feel as if beating the game is a question of skill, rather than the shameless attrition of credits that some later titles require (yes, hide your face, Captain Commando). Pressing attack and jump together makes you swing round to strike the foe behind you, giving you a chance to fight off bad guys when surrounded. There are no impossible situations, allowing for some glorious backs-against-the-wall triumphs against the odds.
If there’s a grain of truth in any of my old criticisms, it’s that Golden Axe felt dated, even on release. 1989 is the same year that Capcom released Final Fight. However deliriously smitten you are by Golden Axe, there’s no comparison. The two games look and play like they were made in different decades. With various weapons, breakable scenery, and a broad suite of moves, not to mention faster, more visceral gameplay, and graphics that feel streets ahead of Sega’s offering, Final Fight justly elevated Capcom to kings of the side-scrolling beat em up.
What do you think? As usual, any gripes or memories or requests, stick em in a comment below.
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