Let me tell you a story about GOLDEN AXE from my youth.
Or, rather, the sequel I never knew existed..
I don't know about you- perhaps you were the kind of person who was better versed in import games back in the 90s, or had access to the Sega Channel- but until the advent of emulation (and, well, every Sega collection under the sun including it as part of its roster) I never actually knew Golden Axe III waa even a thing, so to find it when first downloading Genecyst was a shock. A third Golden Axe? I would've been all over this, surely! I love Golden Axe! Why was I not informed? Sega passed on releasing this in the West? But why, it's all in English! This is nonsense! Thus, one of the first Mega Drive games I looked into for emulation was Golden Axe III... And I couldn't stand it. The verdict the only-slightly-smaller-than-now version of me had of this was that it wasn't the Golden Axe I knew. Ever since then, I've disliked the game and yet been unable to articulate why. I kept retrying it every time it showed up on those aforementioned Sega collections (beating it for the first time in the Sega Vintage Collection rerelease on XBLA) but every time it was the same. I didn't like it, but the specifics were hard to define. It couldn't just have been the backgrounds being dull and the lack of Chicken-Leg, right?
If only there was a way I could play it a lot and then write down my analysis on why I feel it doesn't wo- oh.
That's what this site is for.
So then, actually talking about the game now. With the exception of Gilius, who appears briefly at the start to lift a curse placed on your chosen player character, the classic Golden Axe trio are nowhere to be found. Instead, four new warriors- Kain Grinder (basically Ax Battler), Sara Burn (basically Tyris Flare), Proud Cragger (basically Max Thunder) and Chronos "Evil" Lait (basically the game breaker)- take up the task of trekking across the land to defeat the forces of Damned Hellstrike (also known as the Prince of Darkness) who has stolen the Golden Axe, brainwashed all the warriors of the land (including the characters you didn't pick), and ushered in an era of darkness. Over six stages, with a branching path system similar to the one in the arcade-only Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder, your chosen warriors must fight for the Golden Axe, for the last time on Sega hardware. Until Golden Axe: The Duel.
While Golden Axe II was based entirely on the original game's engine (although I actually like Golden Axe II, so come fight me), III has been made from scratch, with a fighting system that brings it more in line with contemporaries like Streets of Rage II... In theory, anyway. The player characters still have the moves from previous games, such as dashing, crowd-control back attacks, jumping stabs and so on, and as ever there are Bizarrians to ride and help you out, though they're few and far between. Now, though, every character has stronger forward attacks with Forward + Attack + Jump, low sweep attacks with Down + Attack, and one Street Fighter-esque special move each with different effects- Sara throws her sword like a boomerang, Kain
does a Power Wave fires a flame across the ground, etc.. There's even co-op attacks and magic spells that cane be used by players facing each other briefly, although the utility of the physical attacks is limited as you often won't have time to use them. However, some magic mechanics have disappeared- characters now all have three magic levels rather than the character-specific levels previously, and you can no longer pick what level of magic to use as in Golden Axe II. Aside from these slight omissions though, the additions make the game move away from the Double Dragon feel the original games had, and more like the contemporary competition. That has to be good, right? Well...
There's one more addition, possibly the biggest addition- a block command, done with Back + Attack, and you can hold it to become impervious to most enemy attacks!... Except it's pretty much useless. As well as causing control issues if you try to turn around and lamp an enemy behind you quickly (surprise! You're blocking the wrong way now!), the pushback when you block an attack is so severe that you'll usually be out of range to counterattack, the exception being some special moves if you can pull them off while you're being pushed back (Sara's sword-throw, Chronos' leap) or if you're very, very close to the enemy, in which case you may as well attack anyway. It's an interesting addition in theory, but in practice you're much better off just trying to avoid enemy attacks.
The problem here is that it was decided that enemies can block too. Not a new idea in brawlers- Axl and Slash of Final Fight were the game's blockers, but you could get around that. In Golden Axe III, Skeletons, Knights and all bosses can block attacks, almost all of your moves are indeed blockable, and past the halfway point of the game, they will block almost everything you throw at them. At this point, playing the game like a normal brawler- or perhaps, like Golden Axe- becomes frustrating, eventually impossible. It's not even a case of playing smarter- sweeps can sometimes catch them off, but it's rare, and getting in close for a throw is harder too, as they become far more aggressive as the game goes on. Fights that would normally be standard turn into long drawn-out affairs and slow the game's pace to an absolute crawl... Unless you're playing as Chronos, whose Forward, Back, Forward + Attack + Jump lunge is unblockable. Needless to say, he completely breaks the game and makes things a little less frustrating (at the cost of turning it into a very repetitive game quickly), but there's more to this game's problems than that.
This is just one element, you see, of a few that contribute to the game's biggest problem, which we'll get to, but for now, those other elements are the stages themselves. On the one hand, the idea of having branching paths is ideal- you can make it a different experience each time! However, almost all of the locations in the game, no matter which path you take, are as dull as dishwater. If you just picture them in your head, you may think Golden Axe I and II are very brown and muddy games, and yet they have vibrancy in parts. Their backgrounds have little touches and details, such as the sign for Turtle Village, the mobs of villagers who run for shelter, the moving eye of the eagle making up the Fiend's Path, and so on. It'll sound silly, but they both sell the idea of building a world, even in a small way, through the use of details like that and also, critically, the heroes' commentary on the minimap between stages. These little things all add a charm and appeal to those older games. There's no such love or detail here, and the game feels really lifeless as a result. Sure, there is a segment similar to Fiend's Path where you ride a giant eagle, but it's just a static eagle bobbing up and down, barely like it's alive. Many of the other areas don't fare better, the sole neat background being Scorching Sand because the sun starts to set midway through it.
Furthermore, these stages are stretched out with way too many mobs of sword-fodder enemies, making the game exponentially longer and more drawn-out than its predecessors. Golden Axe I and II may be cruder, and have less going on under the hood, but they know the value of being brief and to the point. They build a little world through the medium of sword-whacking and background details, offer you a zippy experience, and then end. III feels like it was designed to be longer just for the sake of it and not for its benefit, and it suffers greatly as a result, becoming much more of a slog the further you go in, compounded by the aforementioned blocking enemies and dull environments. As for the enemies themselves, they generally lack the personality of the previous games which much less vibrant colour swaps, and even the Bizarrians you can ride on are a disappointment, with the one you'll see most often being a weird slug-thing with a tongue attack. The branching paths don't help either- each stage is as overstretched as the last, and the lack of between-stage commentary like previous games makes it all feel arbitrary (and taking the wrong path will lead you to the Cursed City, by far the longest, most difficult stage in the game that will absolutely take a credit from you if you're not Chronos).
That's the big problem, then- on paper, Golden Axe III should, with all its additions and its apparent commitment to bringing the game in line with contemporary brawlers, be the best in the series, on home consoles at least. The blocking, drawn-out levels, and dull and lifeless backdrops all contribute to the game-killer I alluded to before- it's slow. All the practice, all the extra mechanics in the world can't help a brawler if the pacing is off, and it is absolutely off in Golden Axe III, to the point where to play through it, I have to take multiple breaks. Not an issue with the other Golden Axe games, and while I might pause in some of the longer ones I enjoy, it's never multiple times like this. Add in the fairly disappointing soundtrack (aside from the standout track, Wilderness (or The Vast Field) which thankfully plays at the start) and the Duel mode being dropped for a throwaway Vs. Mode (although it has an extra playable character, the sub-boss gryphon Eve) and you have a very disappointing end to Golden Axe on the Mega Drive. I don't think it's entirely without merit- if you have a lot (and I mean a lot) of patience, the wider range of moves does have a certain appeal, and the spritework is detailed if not extravagantly animated, but overall the game just feels mediocre, not fit to carry the legacy of the titular Axe.
I think to cap this off, I'll just point something point that really speaks to how, even at the time, Golden Axe III was massively outclassed. In Japan, it came out only half a year after... Streets of Rage II. Would you want to release something this sub-par after your own company put out one of the defining games in the same genre? I certainly wouldn't, and such is the fate of Golden Axe III. A dull brawler that isn't a patch on its predecessors or even its contemporaries, and proof positive that you can add all the bells and whistles in the world to your combat mechanics, but if the other elements are off, you've got a bit of a duffer on your hands. Now, let the Golden Axe rest, until Sega decides to finally port The Revenge of Death Adder to home consoles... I can dream, right?
For just not being sharp enough, Golden Axe III is awarded...
In a sentence, Golden Axe III is...
Mechanically decent, but lacking in pace and care.
And now, it's that time, folks!
Golden Axe III has two different endings, and the requirements for the 'true' ending are shrouded in mystery.
... Actually, no they're not. There's a million different methods listed on the rest of the internet, including defeating all of the cursed warriors on your way to the final boss, beating the game without using a continue, reaching the second fight with Eve without using a continue, and so on and so forth, but to get the 'true' ending is actually more simple than any of that. You can continue as much as you like to reach the end, but you must not continue during the final battle with Damned Hellstrike in Stage 6. If successful, after you rescue the Princess, the ending will continue as normal but then lightning will strike and you will fight his second and final form. At this point, you can continue again (and you probably will, like Death=Adder he's got magic) and you'll get the proper ending after his defeat. The only wrinkle is there may be a Rank requirement, but if you've made it this far, you're playing as Chronos and you've got that locked down. Additionally, at the end of this ending, any cursed warriors you defeated will show up on the final screen next to Gilius.
For the curious, here's the bad ending's text, showing that you messed up. Try again, punk.
Next, a couple of cheats and notes from The Cutting Room Floor.
First up, a useful cheat! At the Character Select screen, highlight the character you want then tap A four times, Start then C six times.
It's a very basic level select cheat, just pick a number.
The next cheat is... A bit more unusual.
On the Options menu, tap the sequence Up, Down, Left, Right five times, then the sequence A, B, C five times.
Alternatively, on the title screen, tap the sequence Up, C, Up, C, Up, C, C, C, B, A, Left, Down.
This screen will pop up. You recognise it, don't you?
Press any button to go back to wherever you entered the code.
... Well, that screen won't appear if you're being naughty and using a ROM from a certain releasing group. You get this instead:
The other thing mentioned on TCRF's page is a one-player version of Eve the gryphon.
It seems he was intended to be playable at some point outside Vs. Mode but never made it.
Ports of Golden Axe III are pretty plentiful for a game that never made it outside of Japan!
For a start, back in the 90s, the game was one of a handful of import-only games (some of the others being Pulseman, Mega Man: The Wily Wars and Alien Soldier) available on the US Sega Channel. An ideal game for the service, seeing as all the text is already in English, I can't really tell you anything else about this particular version!
Beyond its Sega Channel appearance, the first official release for the game outside Japan was the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis Collection for the PS2 and PSP, developed by Digital Eclipse and released in 2006. As with most post-Midway Arcade Treasures collections by Digital Eclipse, the emulation's not great on this package, especially the sound, and Golden Axe III fares pretty badly- the sound effects don't sound great, and the voice clips seem to be missing completely. It was also included in the follow-up set, Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection / Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection for the PS3 and 360, released in 2009, with less crap sound emulation but with hilariously bad edits of the game's box art and cartridge- how it might have looked had it made it to America (and had its box art designed by an idiot)... Except that's absolutely not how it would've looked. Boris Vallejo, famous fantasy artist, was commissioned by Sega to create box art for a Western release, as he did for Golden Axe II, but as the release was cancelled, the Japanese box art uses a new piece inspired by his work. In any case, both the PSP / PS2 and PS3 / 360 collections erroneously refer to Kain and Sara as Ax Battler and Tyris Flare, and don't even list the names for Chronos or Cragger.
There's also the Wii Virtual Console release from 2007- this was by M2 and so we can guess it's solid.
However, the PAL version is forced into 50hz, so it's slower and with massive borders. Boooo.
Another one for the 'straight emulation' pile is the Steam version, which took until 2012 to arrive for some reason.
Dunno who made this one. Can't find any credits for it. It's just an emulator in a (digital) box.
Originally, you could buy it on its own or as part of the Sega Genesis Classics 5 pack, alongside Phantasy Star II, III and IV, Beyond Oasis / The Story of Thor, The Revenge of Shinobi, Streets of Rage 3, Dynamite Headdy, Vectorman 2 and Wonder Boy in Monster World (yes, that is indeed a very eclectic selection). After completely retooling their Mega Drive ports on Steam to add a 3D user interface and support for mods (yes, really), you can now only buy it on its own or as part of the full set of 59 games (that throws in the Christian Whitehead port of Sonic CD for good measure). It is important to note, also, that one of those games is Ecco Jr., but not The Ooze.
Finally, it was also rereleased on Xbox Live Arcade as part of Sega Vintage Collection: Golden Axe, a triple-pack featuring the arcade version of Golden Axe, and II & III for the Mega Drive. Unlike most of the Sega Vintage Collection games, these weren't rereleased individually on the Playstation Network. Again, this was by M2 and while I didn't think the sound emulation on the arcade GA is completely accurate here (unusual for M2- seems a bit crackly to me but I could be wrong), the two Mega Drive games seem to have been translated faithfully. This version includes some nice extras- online co-op (in case you really need someone to back you up when you're wreckin' shit as Chronos), Trial Modes that record your best scores / times for beating the game and the Vs. Mode, and a Jukebox mode for listening to the music. Bit of a shame, really- the world could do with a home port of Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder rather than more ports of the Mega Drive games, but alas, it seems that game's confined to the Sega Arcade of Despair, where non-home-ported games live (see also: Cool Riders, Planet Harriers,
I'm Sorry Spatter SCUD RACE). At least it means we get an awesome original track from chibitech for the menu!
It feels good to finally get that out of my system. Been stuck with that for a few years!
Let's go and play Golden Axe II instead. It's better. Fight me.