Golden Axe 3 (Virtual Console) Reader Review
Gilius Thunderhead. What a name. Sadly the axe-wielding dwarf with one of gaming's most memorable names wasn't a playable character in the third and final outing of Sega's Golden Axe trilogy. That didn't stop it from being a good side-scrolling fantasy beat em' up though and the final game in the trilogy boasted a number of improvements on its predecessors.
For starters, two new playable characters join the familiar sword wielding Conan-like warrior and scantily clad swordswoman; the man-panther possessed speed and agility while the barbarian was a typically slow but powerful addition to the line-up. This meant that there were a total of four faces each with their own strengths; you want to sacrifice speed for power? Go for the barbarian then. Prefer to use your agility to run rings around the enemy? Choose the man-panther. Or maybe you prefer to have stronger magic at your disposal in which case the busty swordswoman will gain your favour. As usual, it's a case of wisely selecting one of these heroes and battling your way through side scrolling levels on a quest to defeat the predictable rise of evil forces that have nicked the titular Golden Axe and generally caused a load of trouble throughout the land.
Of course, it would be silly to proclaim Golden Axe III to be the best example of its genre but the improvements made to the original template make it a more playable experience than its sometimes clunky and often punishing predecessors. Some of these refinements are purely aesthetic such as a proper health bar (which can be slightly extended with certain pick-ups) that makes it easier to judge how much life you have left. Other notable improvements include upgraded graphics, a decent soundtrack to accompany the varying locales and enemies that are less brutal but still provide a healthy challenge (as the latter stages/boss battles prove). Perhaps the most noticeable addition however is the branching pathway feature which presents the player with an option of two different directions to take at certain intervals in the game. The sequential levels/areas that follow differ based on your choice, adding a much-needed element of variety to the game as well as an incentive to play through it again and take the alternative routes.
While the single player game is an enjoyable experience, co-op play has always been the strong point of side-scrolling beat em' ups and the Golden Axe games are no different in this respect. Teaming up with a friend doesn't necessarily make it easier to reach the game's end but it certainly makes it a whole lot more fun, especially when the pair of you squabble over who is going to get the health/magic pick-ups or which one of you gets to free the hostages (freeing five hostages grants the player an extra life), leading to your mate beating you up so he/she can reach the pick-ups first. Obviously, you won't get far like that so learning to co-ordinate and divide your strength to take down enemies efficiently is as important now as it was back in 1993.
As well as the main game, there is also a rather odd Vs mode in which you and a second player (or a CPU if you're playing alone) each select one of the playable characters and battle each other in one of four arenas taken from various levels in the game. Imagine yourself in an enclosed area similar to the main game's boss battles with the only objective being to deplete your opponent's life gauge. This strange mode plays exactly like the main game so a Street Fighter style showdown with combos and move-sets etc. is out of the question. With a friend, it's mildly amusing for a few scraps but ultimately, this seemingly tacked-on mode is lacking any sort of depth for it to be noteworthy.
Golden Axe III was never widely available the first time around, being available in Japan only followed by a US version that was playable through the Sega Channel service but with a recent appearance in the Sega Mega Drive Collection compilation and now a Virtual Console re-release, the game is more accessible than ever. Granted, it isn't the best side-scroller of all time but as a hack and slash beat em' up, you could do far worse. Well worth downloading, even as a momentary diversion from the likes of Streets of Rage.
7 / 10