Golden Axe‘s strength lies in its simplicity. Its trio of heroes essentially share one small moveset between them. They all wear one defining colour, and their clothes have no complicated flourishes or fine detail. There aren’t many enemy types for them to fight, those enemies more or less all behave in the same way, and the stages they appear in are short, linear, and entirely free of the sort of gimmicks that tend to give programmers headaches late into the night. It’s the perfect port fodder, and it should have been an easy win for the Sega Ages 2500 series.
It was not an easy win for the Sega Ages 2500 series. In fact this remake doesn’t come close to being a victory of any kind at all – not even a hollow or Pyrrhic one. It pains me to say it, but the only thing that’s spectacular about this 3D remake is how badly it misses its mark.
But as easy as it would be to point the finger and baselessly claim someone had been “lazy” along the way, the truth is no game gets pressed onto a disc unless a team of professionals have put a great deal of effort in first. So the real question has got to be this: How much time were they given to put in that effort?
There seems to be a mere month between Monaco GP and Fantasy Zone‘s August release dates and Space Harrier‘s and Golden Axe’s September debut – however the work was split up between whoever happened to be doing it, they must’ve been working quickly. Really quickly. You can’t make a PlayStation 2 game that fast – not even if you want to, not even if you have to because it’s literally your team’s job to do so, not even if you only want to make a “basic” game, and not even if a bunch of other people did all the complicated “thinking things up” stuff years ago. Something’s got to give.
And in Golden Axe’s case, just about everything did.
There are a few exceptions though, so let’s celebrate those bright spots here. The soundtrack is uniformly excellent – the arrangement of Wilderness in here is just great – and I sincerely wish it had been given some space on a Golden Axe soundtrack collection, because it truly deserves it. You can see they’ve tried to add some exciting new areas to the game, such as a brief fight in waist-deep water. And Tyris Flare’s remade stomach is so sharp and muscular it you’ll believe she could crack boulders on it like a hungry otter opening a juicy clam.
Even so, those happy moments can’t paper over the numerous cracks in a game that almost certainly got caught between a low budget and a tight release schedule. The amount of really basic, obvious, deeply Golden Axe-y features that are plain missing is staggering – the sort of things I used to see in the Amiga port, never mind the arcade original. There’s no character select skeleton. No strength rating – or anything to replace it either. No in-game intro with Alex hobbling in before his untimely death. No map screen charting the group’s adventure or campfires to sleep next to (bar one non-interactive cutscene), and that means the game loses any real sense of time passed or distance travelled.
All of that could have been forgiven if what had replaced it had been better, if the time that could have been spent on those features had been better used elsewhere, but instead we get a scrappy attempt to tell a story through a selection of deeply inconsequential cutscenes. Nobody hoped an old boss would take a whole cutscene to say “Hahahahaha“, or in the minotaur’s case, angrily moo at the cast for a bit before getting on with the miserable show. And even if these scenes were utterly fascinating glimpses into deep Golden Axe lore the 3D models used to convey it really don’t benefit from the close inspection these “cinematic” camera angles, Death Adder’s appearance in particular rather spoiled not only by his new “Forgotten He-Man toy” look but also the way he throws his head back during a close-up, making it plain as day the darkness within his helm is not some frightening void, it’s just a flat black coating on a hat-shaped box.
Of course there’s a lot of fighting between the title screen and him, and none of it’s technically competent, never mind any fun. The collision detection is questionable at best – hitting enemies behind you with a standard forward-facing attack is a common occurrence – and the animation is stiff and mechanical, your chosen hero often seen lifting and then throwing no one at all just because that movement is the next part of an inflexible sequence. There’s no weight or connection between these bodies, and certainly no personality. The old sprites gave vicious swipes and put their full force behind powerful blows, but you’ll find nothing like that in here. The combat here is just not as good as it is in the 1989 game it’s based on, any Golden Axe after it, or even the insensitively-titled Golden Axed proof-of-concept demo released as part of Sega’s 60th anniversary celebrations.
Not even the old magic system has escaped unscathed. Killing enemies now fills up a character’s magic meter, and as there are a lot of enemies to kill the whole system is thrown out of balance. There’s no longer any reason to save magic for a tricky spot because when the bar’s full – and even Tyris with her six levels of magic will frequently have a full magic meter – a spell saved for later isn’t a sensible decision based on keeping hold of your precious reserves, it’s a waste of the guaranteed opportunity to build up and then use even more magic. So generous is the game in this regard that it’s not only possible but also likely that killing a group of enemies with a spell will immediately fill up the bar enough to cast another.
This remake just doesn’t work on any level. It’s not an accurate recreation of a simple game that had already been mechanically surpassed decades ago by its own sequels on weaker hardware, and almost everything that has been added spoils something that didn’t need fixing in the first place. Under these circumstances the inclusion of all-new survival and time attack modes feel more like threats than added features – please don’t try and make me spend any longer with this than I have to. Please.
I think what stings the most about seeing Golden Axe in this state is that not only was the original a fun game exactly as it was, it’s knowing that by the time this release came about Sega themselves had released several 3D beat ’em ups – such as two Dynamite Dekas and one wonderful Zombie Revenge – that proved beyond all doubt the genre could work in this new polygon-based era, that they could keep the intensity, absurdity, and that shining arcade spirit without necessarily needing a huge budget, years of development, or any design ideas more complex than “What if a guy wearing sunglasses punched zombies?“.
We’re only five games in but it already looks like the 3D Ages project can’t keep its very limited promises – compromises I was prepared to accept wholeheartedly in return for thoughtful if undeniably budget-conscious remixes of Sega classics. Where does the series go from here?