Review: Golden Axe (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18)

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Any of Automation 399, Fuzion 23, Pompey Pirates 64, SuperGAU 402, Vectronix 281/828
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

My Review

So we’re bringing out the big guns. Golden Axe. A true arcade classic. My experience of Golden Axe as a kid came from the demo on the ST Format cover disk – I played it plenty of times of course as one tended to do with demos when games were often out of my budget, but for whatever reason the full game never ended up in my collection. I didn’t have the pirate contacts others may have had, so I had to pay full price (well the cost of mail-order actually which was usually £10 less than in the shops), so I had to select my games with care. The games that meant most to me were invariably not the likes of Double Dragon, but more games Sim City, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Midwinter 2, Damocles, Mega lo Mania, so perhaps I’m not the most qualified person to review an arcade hack and slash.

The story isn’t terribly relevant, Death Adder isn’t very nice and among all the other killing he decides to murder your mate. Being rightfully peeved, you crack on with a bit of the old ultraviolence. You have three characters to choose from and the option of playing as two of them. Ax-Battler is your standard meat head – he’s a big burly brute in his pants in the tradition of Conan the Barbarian, a little slower than the others but with a good dollop of power. If that’s a little too homo-erotic for you then you could play as Tyris-Flare the Amazonian warrior – she struts around in just a bikini of dubious usefulness as armour, and she’s our fastest character, but not quite as powerful a hitter as Ax-Battler. If you want someone actually wearing some clothes you’ll want Gilius-Thunderhead. He’s a dwarf with a bloody great axe. Not golden. His speed and strength lie between the other two characters.

Much of the game is fairly side-scrolling standard beat-em-up fare. You advance and waves of enemies attack. At the end you get a big bad guy or two to deal with. The magic serves the same purpose as the police mortar in Streets Of Rage. There’s clearly a template at work then. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just genre conventions mostly, but it’s worth being aware that Golden Axe isn’t doing too much that’s new or innovative.

If one were to compare it to similar ST games, you’re probably looking at the Double Dragon games. Compare we must. Clearly, on a visual and audio level, Golden Axe is vastly superior. The graphics look gorgeous, though animation and scrolling aren’t always particularly smooth, while sound is excellent with plenty of sampled sounds to enjoy. Sprites are huge, much bigger than in Double Dragon, and this is both blessing and curse. It is of course an impressive technical feat, but at the cost of being able to see more of the area and the enemies within, and may be the reason for not having a huge range of movement vertically. Like Double Dragon this game offers you that 2.5D view with the ability to move into and out of the screen, giving you options to manage enemies. This is particularly helpful when dealing with the big chunky bosses.

One area where Golden Axe doesn’t compare so well is in the hits. Most of the time you whack an enemy and it doesn’t really feel like you’ve hit him. Now it’s hard to explain why this is, but I suspect it’s in part related to the weapon motion and the sounds. One particular hit goes over well which is the bonk on the head, it has a satisfying thud and the weapon stops at the head, where other hits go through the enemy with sound effects that don’t really give the satisfaction of hitting them. Double Dragon had its faults but that was not one of them – it always felt like you had hit your enemy.

Continuing with the act of punching the crap out of someone – the controls are a bit of an embuggerance. The Atari ST has a single fire button, which is a bit of an issue with fighting games. If one compares it with the Mega Drive version for instance, to attack you press B, while on the ST you press fire. Fine so far. Jumping is C, while the ST is up and fire at the same time. Magic is A on the Mega Drive, while on the ST you have to press the Alt key on the keyboard. The Special attack (eg spinning the sword to attack behind you) is B+C on the mega drive vs down and fire on the ST. The controls are just that little bit more clunky. There are problems beyond that though, which are more about the game itself rather than necessarily specific implementations. The problem is one of its best innovations. It’s the context-sensitive attacks. It turns the game into a bit of a button-bash. It’s disappointing as it takes out the rhythm and timing elements of a beat-em-up and contributes to the slightly mushy feeling.

Other issues include the dash being unreliable to trigger, and so the dash attack too, and it being a little tricky to board the Bizarrian (the little dragon fella that you can ride). Said dragon also suffers from a touch of the Yoshis in that he will run away once you’ve been knocked off him a few times. Note that your first mount only has a tail-whip and a dash-barge move available to him, but the next one is a proper fire-breathing dragon, which is pretty cool.

So far I have perhaps been a little bit harsh but that’s because I wanted to get into the nitty gritty of detail. In truth, that detail isn’t everything, and one must consider the whole. Certainly at the time I remember being hugely impressed by the enormous sprites and the artwork is lovely, it has a real otherworldly nature that was so popular in an age of He-Man, Knightmare, and the likes. What the game lacked mechanically it made up for in an abundance of atmosphere, music which still to this day gets stuck in my head (one of my previous reviews had some Golden Axe music in the crack intro and it didn’t leave my skull for days), and that magical ability to transport a person back in time, like all the best games do.

Video

Just for fun I threw together a little video to compare the ST, Amiga and Mega Drive (Genesis) versions of the game – I had fun making it and hopefully you’ll enjoy watching it.

Verdict

Golden Axe is a classic for a reason – its technical prowess is clear but if that’s all it had we wouldn’t see it still talked about today and people wouldn’t be so keen to play it in various Sega retro collections, but it’s there, featuring every time alongside the essential Sonic games. There’s a reason – and that’s that despite its mechanical failings it’s a game that transports you somewhere, both in time and place. It’s a game with a fantastic atmosphere, and one that still holds up pretty well today. Being honest I’d suggest the Mega Drive version is probably the one to play due to the controls, with the Amiga version a close second due to the quality of graphics, but while the ST version isn’t quite as good as those it still holds its own and is a decent example of what the ST is capable of. It’s not quite a Seldon Gold, but it’s well worth your time.

Resources

Manual: https://www.gamerscreed.com/attachments/manual-golden-axe-pdf.29/

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