Review | 6/14/2012 at 2:20 PM

Sega Vintage Collection: Golden Axe Co-Op Review

The axe still shines after all these years.

SEGA has been good to beat-em-up fans lately. They’ve just released not one, but two Sega Vintage Collections containing three brawlers a piece, giving us a total of six belt-scrollers all at once.  Yes, technically Streets of Rage 2 and the first Golden Axe were already available on XBLA, and all six games in these collections can be found in the retail Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection. But not everybody has that disc, and the new Achievements and other enhancements provide much more incentive to play through each game from start to finish. That’s just what I did in preparation for my SVC: Golden Axe review and I came away mostly impressed.

First let’s discuss the three games contained in this collection: Golden Axe 1-3. Sadly, neither the beloved Golden Axe: the Revenge of Death Adder nor the underappreciated Golden Axe: The Duel are included, making this an incomplete collection. Sure, those two games would have made SVC: Golden Axe an instant must-buy for series fans, but you have to remember this is just a ten dollar download. Emulating two totally different types of arcade hardware simply wasn’t in the cards. Let’s just hope SEGA makes Revenge of Death Adder available for download someday so I don’t have to break down and buy an arcade unit!

And now for the games on-hand:

The original Golden Axe

Golden Axe is the original arcade version of the first game in the series. It would have been nice to get the Sega Genesis version too since it added an extra level and versus mode for longevity’s sake. Still, the arcade game has superior graphics, animation, voice, music, intro, and ending, so it’s the version to play if we can only have one. Golden Axe was notable for being the first fantasy beat-em-up, allowing players to choose from three character archetypes (barbarian, Amazon, and dwarf) and battle their way through hordes of burly warriors and skeletons in their quest to defeat Death=Adder. Riding mounts and beating up gnomes for magic bottles further distinguished Golden Axe’s gameplay from other brawlers.

Golden Axe II is a straight-to-Genesis/Mega Drive sequel that mostly feels like more of the same. Not such a bad thing considering how fun the series is. The graphics and sound are noticeably weaker than the first arcade game but they’re actually an improvement over the first 16-bit home version. Level design is less memorable but the game lasts longer, which kind of balances out. The mounts are less useful this time out, but I never could resist jumping on them anyway.

Golden Axe III never saw an American release – odd because it’s arguably the best of these three Golden Axes. Four characters to choose from (five in versus mode) and branching paths offer a great deal of variety compared to the first two games. The ability to rescue hostages for extra lives and a handful of fighting game-like special moves make the game feel slightly more modern as well. There are also two different endings and bosses depending on your rank at the final level.

Just like SVC: Streets of Rage, the game-selection menu impresses with polygonal recreation of all three games’ hardware. Visual options include three different widescreen borders per game, several ways to stretch the display, a blurring filter, scan lines, and more. Controls can be customized separately for all three games (including five different rapid fire settings). Finally, a full jukebox offers access to the series’ mostly memorable and catchy tunes.

As classic beat-em-ups, the Golden Axe games lack specific co-op moves or mechanics, though they’re still much more exciting with a friend. Friendly fire can’t be turned off, unfortunately. The Sega Vintage Collection does offer the ability to create and load save states even in co-op, making it easier for less-skilled players to reach the end of Golden Axe 2 and 3 (1 has unlimited continues). One big disappointment: only the first player can earn Achievements. On the other hand, you can get all 400 GamerScore in just two hours or so, thus running through the games again to help your partner isn’t a huge time investment.

Golden Axe III

SVC: Golden Axe’s online mode allows you to play solo while waiting for a second player to join, just like Streets of Rage. Definitely a cool feature, though online was simply a ghost town when I tried waiting for partners on a Saturday afternoon. We don’t get the option to host a match for any of the three games – you have to pick one and then hope someone searches for that particular game, fragmenting the matchmaking more than necessary. Like other XBLA games with small user bases, the online mode will probably be restricted to playing with friends due to scarcity of players.

As a Golden Axe fan, I jumped at the opportunity to play through all three numbered games in a single collection. Sega Vintage Collection: Golden Axe is simply a fantastic way to experience SEGA’s beloved fantasy brawlers. The excellent interface, display, and control options far surpass those of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection. Still, people who own that disc and aren’t concerned with online play, extras and Achievements can safely skip this collection. But I for one couldn’t resist all of those features and the convenience of playing from the hard drive. If you like beat-em-ups and haven’t tried Golden Axe yet, don’t hesitate to give SVC: Golden Axe a download.