Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Search for the Ultimate Barbarian Game (Part 2)

I spent my childhood playing side-scrolling beat 'em ups.  They run in my blood.  I own, at least, three different versions of Final Fight.  I've played some good ones and some really crappy ones, but none of them get as much enthusiasm from me as the Golden Axe games.

I was one of those kids lucky enough to play both sides of the Nintendo/Sega console wars.  Mom got me the NES one Christm... I mean Kaisernacht.  Dad got me the Sega Genesis on another Kaisernacht.  And my younger brother and I both saved up to get a Super Nintendo.  To be honest, before I got the Genesis, I didn't even know I wanted one.  The Genesis opened up new gaming opportunities in the video game section of the rental store.

One of my most indellible moments of Genesis gaming was when I first played Golden Axe II (I actually played the first two Golden Axe games in reverse order, so the sequel was my first experience of the franchise).  I thought the "Conanesque" style of the game was great and the gameplay was fantastic.  I was in beat 'em up heaven.  Of course, I had to play the first one and I enjoyed it too.  I even remember, a couple of years ago, my friends and I stayed in a hotel in Oklahoma that had the Golden Axe arcade cabinet by their large pool (which, in my opinion, is a huge mistake - don't ever put arcade games in a room with a lot of moisture).  I left my friends for thirty minutes to drop a few quarters in.

Needless to say, I love the Golden Axe series, but is it the ultimate barbarian game?  I decided not just to scrutinize the franchise as a whole, but each game to see which Golden Axe game would best represent the series when sized up with other barbarian games.  First off, let's take a look at the original trilogy.

Golden Axe

The original Golden Axe was created by Makoto Uchida (who co-created Altered Beast) in 1989 for the arcades and, later, for Sega's Genesis and Master System.  The premise centered around three warriors: barbarian Ax Battler, amazon Tyris Flare, and dwarf Gilius Thunderhead.  Their quest was to fight through the hordes of chaotic barbarians, skeletons, and thieves to reach the powerful Death Adder and defeat him to rescue the king and princess of the realm.  Unlike other beat 'em ups, which focused on martial arts, this game took a focus of swordplay as the major attack, which defines it as more of a hack 'n' slash game.  The game was definitely inspired by the movie Conan the Barbarian (the arcade version even used some sound bytes from that movie as well as the Rambo film First Blood, for death screams) and had a sword & sorcery feel to it.

Along with the swordfighting, each character could use magic by storing up magic potions obtained by beating up these gnome looking thieves.  Tyris Flare (who I still think is one of the sexier video game characters) had the most powerful magic, but required more magic potions to unleash it, while Ax Battler and Gilius Thunderhead had somewhat weaker magic, but focused more on sword attacks.

The initial success of the arcade game made sure that it was ported to almost every video game system (except, of course, for the NES).  The Genesis version does suffer from the conversion from the arcade.  The graphics and sound are a big downgrade (remember, this was a time when console games could not surpass arcade games, unlike today).  The hit detection against your enemies was really hit or miss (damn, crappy puns!).  You had to be on the exact same level as your opponent to hit them; a fact that the enemies frustratingly exploited by constantly moving up or down to avoid you.  Even the arcade version had better hit detection.  In fact, I find the arcade version slightly more forgiving than its Genesis counterpart.

This isn't to say that the Genesis version sucks, just that the arcade version is better in every way.  Compare these two videos.  The top one is arcade, while the bottom one is Genesis.  If anything, you can tell the graphics and sound are much better in the arcade version.

Despite this, Golden Axe for the Genesis is still a standout title for the system.  One thing the Genesis version did add was "The Duel" mode, which allowed one player to fight in this gladiatorial style "survival mode" as they encountered numerous waves, each one stronger than the last.  The Duel also featured two-player action as each player tried to beat the crap out of the other, which is not as fun as the one player version.

You can actually still play both versions of this game.  If you're a Wii owner, both the arcade and Genesis versions are available on the Wii Shop Channel.  For the XBOX 360 owner, I recommend Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection, as it actually has all three Golden Axe games for the Genesis as well as other must have games for the Genesis lover in your family.

Golden Axe II

There are some whiny little bitches out there who were disappointed with Golden Axe II.  They thought the game was too similar to the original and didn't add anything new to it.  These people are either blind, deaf, and/or stupid, because Golden Axe II took the formula from the first Golden Axe and made it ten times better.

While it was not completely superior to the arcade version of the original, it took all the problems with the Genesis version and fixed them.  Hit detection was not a problem anymore.  The graphics, though similar enough to the original, were improved with new and cleaner sprites.  The music is probably one of the biggest improvements in this game.  The music in the original Golden Axe didn't necesarily suck, but the music in this sequel was completely kick ass.  "The Duel" mode made a return, as did all the main characters from the first game, as this would be the last time you saw Ax Battler or Tyris Flare in a Golden Axe game for a long time.  Everything in this game has been polished to near perfection.

Of course playing the sequel before playing the original may have biased me a little toward preferring this game, but who gives a shit?  It may be a bit premature to say this, but Golden Axe II has got to be my choice for the best game in the series.

Golden Axe III

So what does that say about the third game in the series?  Well, before I go into that, let me tell you a little about the history of Golden Axe III.  First off, this game had a very limited presence Stateside.  You couldn't buy the game in America.  The only way an American gamer could play Golden Axe III, short of moving to Japan, was on the Sega Channel, which was a premium cable service that allowed you to download and play from a changing selection of 50 games transferred from your cable connection to the Genesis.  It was, of course, ahead of its time, which is why most parents didn't grasp the idea and refused to see the point in paying for such a service - stupid-ass parents.  Anyway, most of us would not get a chance to play it until Sega put it in Genesis compilations, such as the Sega Genesis Collection for PS2 and, obviously, Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection.  These collections were the first time most American gamers got to play the third Golden Axe game.  The question is was it worth waiting all this time to play it?

Well... Golden Axe III isn't bad, but it isn't as great as Golden Axe II.  This time, there are four new characters to play from: Kain, the sword-wielding barbarian, Sarah (what kind of name is that for an amazon?), who wields a very short scimitar and wears the requisite "amazon bikini," Proud, who looks like an escaped neanderthal slave and can kill some enemies in two or three hits, and Chronos, a panther-man who some claim is the most powerful character.  To be honest, I prefer Kain with his excellent attack reach or Proud with his immense power.  Gilius Thunderhead appears in the game, but only to tell the player of their quest at the beginning of the game.  (Addendum: I found out that in each American release of this game, both on the Sega Channel and the recent Sega Genesis collections, they refer to Kain and Sarah as the original Ax Battler and Tyris Flare, insisting that they are not new characters.  I guess they were kind of embarrassed about having an amazon named Sarah.)

Graphically, the game looks significantly different, closer to games like Streets of Rage 3, and features bigger sprites.  The overall thematic look is different, as well, as it seems to go for more desert and jungle themed locales and enemies, thus seeking to expand the world of Golden Axe.  The music is okay sometimes.  Other times, it sounds like it belongs in a Streets of Rage game, not Golden Axe.

Gameplay is decent, but problems arise.  First off, the hit detection is not as good as Golden Axe II.  On inclines, you have to be on a slightly lower plane (if you're below the enemy) or on a slightly higher plane (if you're above them) to hit.  Unless you're using Kain and his amazing reach with his sword, most enemies are going to have an advantage with reach, meaning when you miss them, they'll be able to counter back with a hit.  They're not exactly game breaking flaws, but it really stands out, considering this is the sequel to a far superior game.

While this is a decent Golden Axe game (the look and feel is still sword & sorcery), something is definitely missing from it.  Maybe it's the original characters or the graphical look of the first two games or the fact that the riding beasts are giant snails on legs (who the hell thought that was a good idea?).  I think Sega took the complaints of those fucking pussies who didn't like the previous one to heart and tried to make the third one on their suggestions.  If that's the case, there's only one piece of advice I can give to those who whined about Golden Axe II - when I come to kill you, pray it will be quick.

So, there you have the core trilogy to one of Sega's more successful franchises, but we're far from done.  There's still plenty of  Golden Axe games to look at.  Check back tomorrow for the rest.

Kaiser out

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