Wednesday 29 September 2010

Golden Axe II

Well it's a better idea than removing status bars. We don't all use netbooks.

Golden Axe II, one of many sequels to Golden Axe. Released exclusively on the Sega Mega Drive in 1991, it's a sequel few seem to remember these days, but those who do recall its existence also pair it with the fact it's pretty much identical to the original game, and in many ways worse. Most therefore look towards Golden Axe III for salvation, but I'm here to ruin your day with number 2. Because I'm crazy like that.

Golden Axe II, like so many games of Sega's home console games in the early 1990s was built to prove a point. Or in this case, re-enforce a point already proven... and it wasn't really much of a strong point to begin with. The NES can't do beat-'em-ups without shrinking all the characters and having a nationwide enemy cull, but the Mega Drive can cope with them fine, so Sega took it upon themselves to release half a dozen beat-'em-ups to please someone.

Golden Axe, Alien Storm and later Streets of Rage came to the rescue and drove away the Nintendo menace. And then people stopped caring about the beat-'em-up genre as a whole (though that's okay since Sega were moving onto 3D games in the arcade by that point and had exhausted their supply).

Surprisingly the Golden Axe series managed to get quite popular, it's just failed to retain its popularity because it doesn't have the musical appeal of Streets of Rage and two thirds of the cast are forgettable. The series had mostly been forgotten about by 1994, and though there was a 2008 sequel/remake thing for the Xbox 360/PS3, as you can probably guess by the fact it's not mentioned much, few cared. The 18 ratings probably didn't help.

But Golden Axe still managed to be a big Sega brand throughout the lifetime of the Mega Drive. Sure the series branched to other consoles and all the real fun was to be found in the arcades, but Golden Axe II is a prime example of a Mega Drive classic, even if it hasn't held up too well. I'd say about 75% of Golden Axe players were friendly with the Mega Drive version.

But I've never been a huge fan of Golden Axe, or the beat-'em-up genre for that matter. Wave upon wave of mashing the same two or three buttons in an attempt to cleanse the streets of clones just didn't really do it for me. Until of course, I met Streets of Rage II. But though I'm now quite happy to lend myself to the beat-'em-up franchise, Golden Axe still isn't a big favourite of mine. I feel it's aged quite badly and I didn't think it was particularly stunning to begin with, but that's just me.

The series mostly follows the adventures of three heroes, tasked with saving a kingdom from the evil Death Adder (though in this game, Death Adder was replaced with the oddly named "Dark Guld"). You have Ax-Battler, the manly hero type totally not based on Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tyris-Flare, the scantily clad, generic female protagonist added for both gender balance and sex appeal, and the fun character everyone is always drawn to - Gilius Thunderhead, a dwarf.

They're all mostly equal. You could maybe say some are slower than others, but a normal player would never notice. Using the then standard control scheme for beat-'em-ups, A triggers the special move which wipes out everything on screen, B is the attack button and C is jump. A variety of enemies appear on the screen and you have to kill them all. Tapping the d-pad in the same direction twice allows you to run. And there's combos and stuff. As with its prequel and sequels to follow, the game also lets you ride animals.

Golden Axe II takes place after Golden Axe, but the adventure must have started fairly soonish as neither of the characters have gained much in terms of abilities. In fact, a lot is recycled, and it would almost be fair to class Golden Axe II as an "expansion pack" rather than a stand-alone title. Many of the sprites are identical and I'd place good money on the theory that most of the sound effects weren't altered either.

What Golden Axe II does have going for it, however, is the sound track. Though not on par with Yuzo Koshiro's work in Streets of Rage, it's a notable improvement over the original and this time was actually built with the Mega Drive in mind. But that's more-or-less the end of the praise. Because Golden Axe II is hindered by a few key problems.

Firstly, the sound effects. In a rush to get digitized voice samples in game, Sega clearly neglected to think which voice samples would be appropriate for Golden Axe II. Top tip: when you die, the last word you say doesn't tend to be "BLEH". Though I'm not going to say it ruins the game (after all, it's not the only game to binge on digitized voices idea), it's not a wise move, and it's a common complaint.

Though the game doesn't really drop any features, it struggles to really give the player a taste of something "new". As said, it's like an expansion pack. The core gameplay is identical, with only slight changes to the enemies and levels which apparently justify a new purchase. Even a selection of new characters would have made a difference here. That's what Final Fight did on the SNES and that series didn't turn out so bad.

Though what I would point out is that there are plenty of issues the game didn't bother to address. Like for example, the enemies which spend their time running into you... constantly. Or the fairly bland backgrounds. Though there's less time spend hitting idiots with bags and there's been a slight layer of polish added, you're still stuck with the same character after you continue (which raises the question why they even bothered to include continues and not just more lives). It's little annoyances like that which make Streets of Rage the better game... and the fact that Streets of Rage is a much more appealing and playable product. Did I mention I love that series?

There's very little point in purchasing this one if you've got the original (unless of course you're a huge fan of the series) but I suppose if you had to pick between the two Golden Axe II would have the edge. And it's a little less common than the first game so you can astound your friends. I'm sure they'll be thrilled.

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