Here’s a fact: in my slightly threadbare and weary mind there is one game that constantly rises from the gloom and instills a passionate sense of nostalgia. Several of its irritable chip tune melodies bounce around my head at any given time and maps, models and gameplay can all be recalled with frighteningly accurate clarity. It is almost as if this one game has affected my life like no other. That game is Golden Axe.
Released in 1989, originally for the coin-op arcade, the side-scrolling brawler was quickly ported to the Sega Mega Drive where it found a home as an essential purchase for the system. The original was promptly followed up by two sequels, which form the basis of this Sega Vintage Collection. The fantasy setting, simple but elegant magic system and effective cooperative battling made it an enchanting experience for gamers of a certain age bracket. Hours would be spent slashing through wave after impenetrable wave of enemies in a bid to reach that ever elusive final boss. Slowly we would refine our techniques and tactics and eventually survive the onslaught and battle our way to finally defeating the evil Death Adder. The experience was almost mystical. At least that is how I remember it...
Nostalgia, it seems, plays cunning tricks on the mind. Through my rose-tinted early-nineties style glasses (rather like those Timmy Mallett once wore), I happily return to my youth through this Sega Vintage Collection of Golden Axe. Bashing buttons on the Xbox pad just as I did on the Mega Drive twenty years ago. Yet, if I plough through the incandescent waves of inherent bias my mind creates, the game underneath has rather suffered through the test of time. The fighting is supremely basic, with very few tactics to employ other than slashing, jumping and charging. The clunky controls remain, made even more irritating by the 360’s woeful d-pad (an arcade stick is recommended) and the constant confusion of whether foes are on the same plane or within range is still a constant frustration. What this essentially means is that those who have not experienced the pleasure of being brought up with this stalwart of the early gaming generation, may find themselves unimpressed. All three Golden Axe games viewed in the bright lights of the modern world look old, tired and sadly irrelevant.
This release then is aimed squarely at the old-school purist, and to Sega’s credit they have been well catered for. The virtual lobby where the game is selected is well presented, with cute representations of the games shown on their original systems (Golden Axe on an arcade machine, II and III on the Mega Drive). Within each game the country format can be selected (Japan, America or Europe) as well as control configurations and screen size settings (ensuring that the original screen ratios can be maintained on widescreen TVs). Also welcome is the additional ‘Trials’ mode which increases the longevity of the collection, with various challenges such as speed runs, limited lives and the gut wrenchingly tense sudden-death mode (where any hit kills: friend or foe!). The ability to save states of the game at any point, as well as storing entire replays is also thrown in for good measure. All games are naturally playable cooperatively, which was always the most enjoyable format, but the ability to also play over Xbox Live only goes to sweeten the deal. The only complaint a purist may make is that it is missing The Revenge of Death Adder, an arcade exclusive that still has never made the transition to any console.
Perhaps the most confusing part of this release is simply why it needs to exist at all. All three games can be found on the all encompassing Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, which can most likely be picked up for a similar price as this download, and comes with thirty-seven other Sega classics. Perhaps as an installable arcade download, with added achievements and fitted with the neat extra features just explained, this release is at least convenient but it is far easier to recommend the monster sized collection instead if your nostalgic gaming fingers are twitching.
Personally it is nice to see Golden Axe get some form of late limelight before it fades into the dark cavernous depths, trapped with other obscure relics from a forgotten gaming age. Yet, this release shows just how archaic the original side-scrolling hacking & slashing brawlers really were. It was surpassed in its own lifetime by the more vibrant Final Fight and interesting Streets of Rage series (also seeing a Vintage Collection release) and modern arcade releases such as the delightfully charming but crazy Castle Crashers are a far more enticing prospect. All that being said, if, like me, you too still vividly reminisce of the times those pesky little impish thieves stole your magic while you slept, or those irritable laughing giants waiting to be sliced in two, or that village that randomly and completely inexplicably turned out to be on the back of a massive turtle, then you can revisit those fond memories right now, piped directly to your Xbox 360 or PS3 for just a small fee. But as they say, you cannot put a price on memories.