Way back in the infancy of post-crash video gaming, the old warriors and wizards motif meant only a few things: A typical hack abd slash adventure game or an RPG. Then Golden Axe came along. I'm very hard-pressed to say Golden Axe changed video games. It really didn't. But it changed our perceptions of what kinds of characters and settings could be used for certain kinds of video games. Until then, the warriors and wizards motif was stuck in the genres people automatically, mentally assigned to them, and ruffian, gritty street settings were saved solely for brawlers, action games with pseudo 3D viewpoints and enemies who took ten puches to the gut before falling over and crying mercy.
Golden Axe combined the two. You had the warriors and wizards setting in a brawler! This meant it was a little bit funny to see enemies getting slahed in the face ten times with a broadsword before being killed, but people liked it. It was great fun at the time.
It's redundant at this point to write about how bad the test of time can be on video games. I get sick of saying it. Not many games hold up well against time, but Golden Axe had the misfortune to come along in the brawler genre at what may be the most inopportune time possible: It was released when brawlers were just getting their feet under them, and the big party brawlers like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons had just arrived on the scene while Capcom's classic Final Fight - and its fine-tuned mechanics which every brawler from then on out began copying - was just on the horizon. That people are able to remember Golden Axe at all these days is a minor miracle. Maybe it's a testament to Sega of America's developers too, because the way Golden Axe looks and plays by even the standards of later 16-bit games should have pushed it out of peoples' minds in favor of Streets of Rage.
Golden Axe puts you in the land of Yuria, where trouble is afoot: The villain, Death Adder, has kidnapped the King and Princess and is holding them captive. But screw them! What really has folks up in arms is that Death Adder also found the land's magical emblem, the Golden Axe! This means it's high time for three awesome warriors to mosey on over to the Adder and avenge him for the terror! You choose between these three warriors: Ax Battler, a broadsword-wielding barbarian whose attacks and magic are neither the strongest or the weakest; Tyris Flare, a longsword-wielding amazon with low attack power but killer magic; and Gilius Thunderhead, the character with the weakest magic, highest attack power, and only axe in the game you're actually allowed to wield.
There are truckloads of cheapness in Golden Axe, and there are just no safe ways to attacks some of the guys you'll be fighting against. The problem is kept fairly in check through about the first two levels, but by the third it's completely absurd. Particularly in the case of the bosses - cheap bosses are such a trademark of the brawler that games can't be considered proper brawlers unless they face cheap bosses, but Golden Axe really overdoes it even by those standards. Every simultaneous attack between you and the boss is going to go against you, you'll be knocked out of the air if you rely on jump attacks, and don't even think about approaching them on foot. If you double-press left or right, you'll break into a charge, and you can attack with a powerful headbutt while charging. This is literally the only way to hit some of the bosses.
At some point the regular enemies become impossible to hit with the basic ground approach too, so if you have trouble learning double-tap moves on d-pads, tough luck. You're either going to learn that headbutt or you're going to let the game totally stomp you after the first couple of levels. I can't help but think Sega intentionally did this in order to pad the game; it's only five levels long, and the levels aren't especially long either. The enemies can all take more punishment than is common in brawlers too, so you're looking at the headbutt as your primary method of offense.
Oh hey, there's magic too, and you power it up by collecting little blue bottles you get from beating up little elven thieves. But this isn't magic you think of when you think of magic in RPGs, where you cast spells according to strategic necessity and find the proper spells to counter a barrage of other spells from whoever you're fighting against. This is a brawler, after all. The magic basically serves as a smart bomb: Ax Battler harnesses earth, Tyris Flare gets the useful fire element, and Gilius Thunderhead uses lightning, which is weak and doesn't even look cool.
There's something that feels a little weird about the hit detection, and hit detection is extremely important if you're hoping to make a good brawler. It's difficult at times to know when an enemy is on the same plane as you so you can attack it. There will be times you think you're right in a position to attack an enemy, only to take a swing at it and have it do nothing. Enemies, yet, are able to hurt you almost at will, knocking you down, and throwing you back with a well-placed kick. You're going to get knocked down a lot, and after awhile it will feel like every attack knocks you down. This is a real pain because your characters take time to get up, during which the enemy who knocked you over can walk up to you and knock you over again. You're going to be losing plenty of lives because of this, and the only way to escape it is by hoping the enemy delays itself for a split second while you hold the d-pad up or down so your character can get up and immediately move into a safe zone.
You can get some sweet rides on dragons or cockatrices, provided you knock off the enemies who ride in on them first. The cockatrices make fantastic attack steeds too, but you can't say the same for the dragons. There are two kinds of dragons: One spits fireballs across the screen, the other spits a powerful stream of fire for a short distance. The delay between the time you press the attack button while riding a dragon and the time it actually spits fire is more than long enough for whatever you're aiming at to get out of the way.
The graphics are pretty stiff, since this IS a first-generation Genesis game. It's also a brawler, and that of course means you're going to see a ton of palette swaps. In those two respects, Golden Axe doesn't disappoint - even some of the bosses are swapped. Some of the character designs, however, are pretty cool, and the scenery design is fantastic - perhaps some of the best on the Genesis. The sounds are basically forgettable music and muffled smacks. The only thing you'll remember hearing are your characters' screams upon their deaths, and they ranks among the most annoying sounds in video games.
You can move diagonally, but the gameplay feels rigid and clunky. The jumps in Golden Axe are just plain evil, and unlike other brawlers, jumping isn't just an excuse to launch an attack. There are real gaps that you have to soar over, that will kill you if you fall inside them! The controls for the dragons don't work right - everything they do is delayed. It definitely feels like the developers didn't have a real handle on what they were supposed to be doing. Also, you're not allowed to grab and throw enemies yourself. In a show of supreme design stupidity, the game does it for you automatically when it thinks you have an enemy sufficiently in a barrage.
Golden Axe, to put it simply, has an overemphasized place in gaming history. It can be fun, but that has more to do with being a brawler than anything. If you're a game history buff, you should definitely take the time to check out Golden Axe, but only to see why it isn't really of the infallible classic status which is so often bestowed upon it.