February 12, 2014

In RETROspect: Golden Axe

I've been trying for a while now to figure out how to go about discussing a retro game. It's such an obvious move for me because I love retro games, and they're why I'm a gamer, but it's tough because you can't really evaluate them under the same standards as today's games. Normally you'd basically just ask yourself: "could they do better?" but it's kind of pointless to ask this of a retro game because most of them are 20+ years old and nobody is really going to change them now (yes, they could port or reboot, but then I'd be reviewing that…).

So I thought I'd try to begin to conquer this curious territory with Golden Axe, because God knows I talk about it enough, and it's a pretty well-rounded retro game that helped set a lot of standards for console games at the time (and some arcade games, too!).

There is no way I could possibly recall my first impressions of Golden Axe, but I can ask myself this: how much could I figure out without the manual?
In this case the answer is "everything you need to know". At the beginning of the game, you get a handful of screens and text boxes explaining who the characters are and why they're seeking Death Adder. The controls are painfully simple and the rest of the game doesn't take long to figure out.
The story takes place in a sort of medieval setting, with a touch of fantasy. Levels include the wilderness, atop a flying bird, the back of a giant turtle and various castles and small villages. The detail in the level design is just enough to clearly depict the setting, and soundtrack really beefs up the atmosphere. There are two types of levels and at least one additional screen to see: your regular battle level, which you conquer piece by piece by taking out the enemies with your weapon, magic, or - when applicable - throwing them off a cliff. At the end of each level (and sometimes in the middle!) you fight a mini boss or two on the same stage. These guys are gargantuan and usually require a little more brute force than the ordinary lackies. You can also employ the help of mountable fire-breathing dragons or cockatrices (Altered Beast, anyone?) to help you take down enemies. If you're hit, however, you will fall off and your enemies can take them!
The second level is a brief one in which your nightly camp is raided by gnomes who steal your magic potions. You then awake, kick the shit out of them and retrieve not only your stolen goods, but some additional potions as well. Sometimes a green (instead of blue) gnome will appear, carrying food instead of potion, which will restore a little health. The last screen is just a short animation in which you see the next part of the map revealed on your way to Death Adder's stronghold.

On your battle/adventure screen is your character avatar, adjacent to your life count and health meter, which isn't a 1 for 1 system. That is, you need to be hit several times to lose a health bar. Once your meter runs out, you lose a life; once you've lost all your lives, you can use a continue, but other than that: game over. One perk in this game is that when you die, you return to the same spot in the same predicament as when you died, rather than returning to the beginning of the level.
At the top of your screen is your magic inventory. You collect blue potions from gnomes to fuel your magic; how many magic bars you have filled dictates which spell you use. Obviously, a full magic bar uses the most powerful spell. Each character has a different sized inventory, so for Dragon Lady to summon her all-powerful dragon, she requires many more potions than the other characters need to summon their most powerful spells...
Somehow, Dragon Lady walked away with her head.
There are only so many buttons on an arcade machine Genesis controller, and as such there are only so many controls in Golden Axe. Of course your D-pad navigates you around the screen, and you can program the controller to suit your fancy, but one way or another you're going to have jump, attack, and use magic on your ABC buttons. You can press start to pause if you need a moment to rage.

As far as menus go, apart from your game menu there is none. The game menu consists simply of 1 Player, 2 Player, settings and sound test - in which you can program your controller and review the game's awesome soundtrack and iconic sound effects (seriously, the Wilhelm scream has nothing on these). Within the 1 Player menu, you can choose whether to play traditional arcade style, a beginner's introduction, or enter duel mode in which the game turns into classic monster arena fight game, on the clock! You have, if I recall correctly, 30-60 seconds to eliminate all the enemies in stages that increase in difficulty.

Easily the most outstanding feature in GA is the soundtrack. I don't know how many people consider GA's music "iconic," and I understand why people say it sounds very 'Conan the Barbarian', but for me, this OST is not only unbelievably catchy, but I'm flooded with nostalgic happiness every time I hear it. I've even got it on my iPods, and when it pops up I can't help but smile and boogie along with it. Apart from that, it's a very primitive 16-bit music track, with a lot of horrible samples, tinny instruments and the best, worst drum machine ever. The composition itself, while simple, is super effective. I have so much love for this soundtrack!

Another neat aspect of the game is that it actually grades you on your gameplay. At the end of the game (or after you die), you are ranked by your speed and success (hits taken) by a number which corresponds to a letter rank. I'm pretty sure I used to get A's all the time but now this game is just out to get me...

If you pay attention to all of the available content, the plot of the game is quite clear and concise. Death Adder is attempting to take over the world and has killed everyone's loved ones to do it. Your job is to avenge these people. To do so, you can take control of either Ax Battler, a.k.a. Underwear Boy, who uses his sword (I know, right?) and Earth magic to rattle his enemies; Tyros Flare, a.k.a. Dragon Lady, an amazon woman wielding a rapier and fire magic which - when fully powered - amounts to a great big dragon swooping in and barbecuing the entire level; or Gilius Thunderhead a.k.a. Beardy Drawf, who uses his axe and thunder magic to light up the baddies.
…But things aren't always what they seem, are they?

On your own, the game is actually pretty challenging until you memorize it, and even then... I seem to recall it being much easier when I was younger, but alas, I now struggle to complete it on my own. With a friend, however, the game is very manageable for the experienced retro gamer. You can edit the number of health bars you begin with in your settings to make the game a little easier.
I reckon the game takes about an hour to beat.

In case this love letter of a blog hasn't made it clear, Golden Axe is one of my favorite games of all time. I'd happily recommend anyone play it, and I frequently force people to join me. It's an easy-to-grasp, classic, arcade, hack and slash with a cool, albeit basic story and an amazing soundtrack. I have so much fun playing this game AND! it has sequels! So if you enjoy Golden Axe, welcome to club, and go get Golden Axe 2 and 3.

So instead of LOTIPS, where I try to provide first-time players with some helpful hints, I'm going to adorn 'In RETROspect' blogs with LOCHEATS, which will - whenever possible - showcase my favorite cheats associated with a particular retro game. Back in the day, cheats were notorious, mysterious, and unbelievably helpful, so I'll see what I can remember from each game.
  • When you enter the character select screen, holding the D-pad down and left will have the character wheel spinning, hold B as well, and press Start, and a number will pop up on screen. This number corresponds to one of the game's 8 stages, and you can choose which one you'd like to play.
  • Again on the character select screen: once again hold the D-pad down and left, and press A, C and Start as well. It won't seem to do much but I think you'll find that if you die, you have many, many, many more lives than expected. (9 continues).

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