Last year, when I tried to revitalize a bunch of old series I left by the wayside, there was one concept that I struggled to revitalize. Considering the fact that I haven’t done an article in this series in exactly two years – and that one came after a similar two-year hiatus – it’s safe to say that this has been a long time coming. Of course, two things kept me from moving forward with it. For starters, many of the old concepts I revisited had either had much longer hiatuses or just never became actual series, essentially dying after a single article. Far more damning, however, was my inability to decide on a topic. Obviously, both problems have since evaporated and due to a lack of any other ideas, I’ve decided that it’s finally time to revive another series. Welcome back, “Retro or Reboot?” – you’ve been missed.
As I said, I haven’t done one of these articles since 2017, so it feels reasonable to do a brief refresher on just what Retro or Reboot entails. Basically, I take a video game series that has lied dormant for a fair amount of time – let’s drop the formalities on generations and just put it in the ballpark of “at least a decade” – and come up with two pitches to revitalize the series for modern audiences. The first (better known as the “Retro” pitch) will be substantially more faithful to earlier incarnations, combining the best elements of previous games and streamlining some of the more outdated concepts for modern audiences. The “Reboot” pitch, on the other hand, takes the original concept and universe of the old games, but recontextualizes them into a more modern video game genre. Of course, sometimes I just pick out a single modern game that would be a perfect base for a complete reinvention of the IP in question. It depends on the game, really.
Today’s topic – if you haven’t guessed – is Sega’s classic medieval fantasy beat-‘em-up, Golden Axe. Debuting in arcades in 1989 and made substantially more popular through its near-perfect conversion to the Genesis, the Golden Axe series technically enjoyed three follow-ups in the same vein as the original, as well as a few spinoffs that tackled other genres. Of course, no other game in the series could come close to the renown of the original, which is still considered a bona fide classic even by today’s standards, receiving several ports and appearing in several compilations of old Sega titles. In fact, I would be shocked if it didn’t manage to find its way onto Sega’s upcoming Genesis Mini retro console. All the same, even if the names Ax Battler, Tyris Flame and Gilius Thunderhead have been lost to most of us, the iconic looks of “the barbarian”, “the amazon” and “the dwarf” are unforgettable to scores of gamers who cut their teeth in Sega’s halcyon days.
Before we begin, it’s time to address the elephant in the room. Now might not be the best time to pitch a fourth Golden Axe game. After all, Sega has recently given DotEmu and Lizardcube – the companies behind the recent remake/enhanced port of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap – the greenlight to create a fourth entry in the Streets of Rage series, Sega’s other prominent contribution to the beat-‘em-up genre. Still, both games were substantially different from one another, in terms of theming and gameplay. One must remember that Golden Axe originated in the arcades, while the entire Streets of Rage trilogy was built from the ground up for consoles, leading to completely different experiences. Besides, if Sega can license out a third Shenmue while still working on Yakuza games internally, there’s probably room for both IPs to coexist simultaneously.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the four major releases in the series. I think everyone’s familiar with the original arcade game – likely through the Genesis version or some other console port – so I’ll just skip over that. After that, the franchise itself took a forked path, though as I said before, no other game in the franchise managed the success and recognition of the original. Golden Axe II for the Genesis barely managed to drop first – barely squeaking out in December 1991 in Japan, with Western releases in 1992 – but the game itself was nothing special: it was essentially a level pack sequel to the first game, with the original cast of playable characters returning (with slightly tweaked graphics) for a brand-new adventure.
Meanwhile, Sega prepared for another sequel to Golden Axe for release in 1992, one developed on their System 32 arcade hardware, the same tech that gave life to Sega’s Spider-Man arcade game and other obscure sequels in popular Sega franchises like Outrunners and SegaSonic the Hedgehog, among others. Titled Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder, it’s arguably the pinnacle of the entire series. Featuring a brand-new cast of characters: Stern, a barbarian who is essentially Ax Battler; Dora, a female centaur wielding a pugil stick; the pitchfork-wielding imp known as Little Trix and Goah, a giant who carries Gilius in a pouch and wields his axe. Best of all, four characters means four-player cooperative action. It’s a shame that the game never received any home ports, but it’s definitely a fun game and worth trying if you ever have the chance.
One year later, Sega released one final beat-‘em-up in the Golden Axe series. Simply titled Golden Axe III, it’s easily the most obscure of the console trilogy. The game only received physical releases in Japan and Europe for the Mega Drive. In North America, it was exclusive to the Sega Channel service, though it would appear years later in various compilations and was also released on the Wii’s Virtual Console. Like Revenge of Death Adder, III contains a cast of four brand-new characters, with Gilius Thunderhead acting as a non-playable mentor to the new characters. Kain Grinder and Sahra Burn are essentially homages to Ax Battler and Tyris Flame, respectively. Proud Cragger is a descendant of giants who fights with his bare hands and Chronos “Evil” Lait is a humanoid panther created by the black magic of the new game’s main antagonist, who slashes with his claws. The game also adds several new features, including teamwork attacks and various mobility options like double-jumps and wall jumps, and junction points that allow players to choose their path, allowing for alternate stages. Golden Axe III was certainly the most ambitious of the Genesis games, but contemporary critics felt that the game didn’t offer enough to differentiate it from the previous games and praised Sega’s decision to make it a Sega Channel exclusive in America.
Now ideally, any new retro-themed Golden Axe would pay heavy homage to Revenge of Death Adder for two major reasons. For starters, it never received any home ports and emulating System 32 arcade games is still something of a mixed bag to this day, so the only way to properly experience it would be through the original arcade cabinet – thank you, Galloping Ghost! More importantly, it’s easily the best game in the series. Having said that, it would be smart to implement some of the mechanics found in the third game as well, specifically the ability to perform double-team attacks. While this mechanic isn’t particularly special by modern standards, it would be extremely interesting within the context of a new Golden Axe. One aspect that both the third Genesis game and Revenge of Death Adder share that I would love to see in a new entry would be branching paths, a rarity in the beat-‘em-up genre.
Likewise, multiplayer is a must – but a new Golden Axe game should put equal emphasis on delivering on both offline and online co-operative play. In fact, the main reason I bring up Revenge of Death Adder is that I’d love to see any future Golden Axe beat-‘em-up-style games incorporate four-player multiplayer. On that note, I also wouldn’t be opposed to the “Duel Mode” found in the Genesis games. These essentially allowed players to duke it out in a one-on-one fight against either another player or a gauntlet of computer-controlled opponents, using the standard Golden Axe engine. In fact, imagine the possibilities of a Duel Mode with four players: there could even be team battles or co-operative runs for the single-player gauntlet.
As usual, I’m not exactly picky when it comes to the game’s aesthetic. Granted, in ideal circumstances, we’d see traditional sprites on par with the Sega Saturn or even the System 32 itself – but the majority of the gaming public have long since grown beyond those retro aesthetics and my gut tells me that Sega would view the revival of a franchise like Golden Axe as a potential moonshot. With that in mind, chances are they would either go for the hand-drawn look (like the aforementioned Streets of Rage 4) or the all-too-common “2.5D” style – which didn’t exactly pan out well in the Sega Ages release of Golden Axe back on the PS2. Granted, judging the latter art style based on a game that came out nearly 15 years ago isn’t exactly fair, but neither is life. If you don’t think people will dig that sucker up if Sega announces a 2.5D Golden Axe, I don’t know what to tell you.
Finally, we come to what could arguably be simultaneously considered the most and least important decision regarding a brand-new Golden Axe: the branding. Specifically, what would we call this new Golden Axe game? I’d honestly go out of my way to avoid the “same name” title scheme – simply calling this new game “Golden Axe” could lead to some series trouble, given Sega’s history. Likewise, it wouldn’t technically be “Golden Axe IV” – in fact, Golden Axe III was technically the fourth game in the series. Regardless, given the relative obscurity of the two numbered sequels (and that’s far better than the poor reputation they have among enthusiasts), it would probably be for the best if Sega just used a subtitle. That way, they’ll sidestep the strange way previous games were numbered and as a bonus, avoid drawing attention to just how old the series is.
The first major concern with developing a modernized Golden Axe revival is that the traditional genre for the series – the humble beat-‘em-up – would need to be abandoned. Aside from retro revivals (like Arc System Works’ recent dives into Technos Japan’s classic IP library and the upcoming Streets of Rage 4) and low-budget titles that clearly lean on nostalgia (like the Scott Pilgrim game, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds and Fight‘N Rage), the beat-‘em-up genre is essentially no more. While a clear successor has taken up the reins and shows that the spirit of the genre still lives on, the original playstyle itself is simply no longer relevant in the grand scheme of the gaming medium.
Fortunately, Golden Axe has had a few spinoffs in the past that explored different genres. For starters, there was Golden Axe Warrior, which was essentially the Sega Master System’s answer to The Legend of Zelda. After that came Ax Battler: A Legend of Golden Axe on the Game Gear. While there was no indication that this game was linked to the previous game, its gameplay greatly resembled Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, right down to incorporating side-scrolling segments as random encounters on the overworld. There was also Golden Axe: The Duel, a one-on-one fighting game that details the conflict between a new generation of warriors over the titular weapon. The game was originally released in arcades, but also received a home port on the Sega Saturn. And while none of these games were particularly well-received when compared to the mainline games, they do illustrate the IP’s flexibility when it comes to gameplay.
Of course, there is one major hurdle that Sega would have to contend with if they decide to reinvigorate the Golden Axe brand with one of their premier marquee titles: they already tried doing that before… and things didn’t turn out well. Yep, it’s time to discuss the elephant in the room, 2008’s Golden Axe: Beast Rider, an edgy reboot brought to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 by Sega Studios San Francisco (formerly known as Secret Level before they were purchased by Sega outright) and was one of the games that ended up sealing their fate as a studio. I’m not going to lie to you: I’ve never actually played Beast Rider – and likely never will, unless I can get it for a laughably low price – but the game’s reputation speaks for itself. While scouring the internet for some gameplay footage, it just appears to be an extremely mediocre hack-and-slash action game that probably would’ve been looked upon kindlier (and probably reviewed slightly better) if it weren’t associated with the Golden Axe name. Fortunately, it’s been over a decade since that game released, giving fans of the series more than enough time to forget Beast Rider, and Sega has really improved the quality on a lot of their output in recent years – so long as Sonic the Hedgehog isn’t the title character – so there could be a good chance that revisiting Golden Axe now could give the series a much needed jump-start back to prominence.
With the series’ past covered, it’s time to discuss the best possible genre for a revival. While the beat-‘em-ups of old have clearly evolved into the modern “character action game” sub-genre, the Golden Axe of yore was cut from a different cloth than the clear ancestors of games like Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, God of War and the like. The gameplay in the original game was a bit slower and more deliberate than many of its contemporaries, almost emulating the heft of using a melee weapon compared to more agile hand-to-hand combat. In other words, if Sega just decided to hire Platinum Games to plug Golden Axe characters into the Bayonetta engine, the resulting game would feel just as wrong as Beast Rider did. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved the first two Bayonetta games, but if Sega decides to reboot Golden Axe again, I want to be left with a game that feels like a proper successor to what came before.
Having said that, I still think that a modern action game would probably be the best way to approach a modern take on Golden Axe – it just wouldn’t be nearly as stylish as Bayonetta and the like. Instead, I’d pitch something with a more grounded combat system, something almost akin to Bloodborne or Sekiro but with less of an emphasis on memorization. Ideally, this new Golden Axe would end up resembling a modern take on Onimusha: slower combat that would force players to read their enemies’ movements and react accordingly instead of just performing smoking sexy styled combos on hundreds of disposable mooks. Back in the original Golden Axe, while individual enemies weren’t necessarily threatening on their own, they could become incredibly imposing in numbers due to the slower combat. Any new take on the series should be able to recreate the tense feeling I had when I was surrounded by three Skeletons while playing the game solo. That’s my most distinct memory of Golden Axe: how later stages would leave me feeling as each step I took could lead me into an onslaught I wouldn’t be able to overcome.
Of course, there are some other unique elements from the earlier games that might be a bit more difficult to incorporate into the action genre. One that specifically comes to mind would be the rideable mounts. While most people are familiar with the dragons and “Chicken Leg” from the first game, the later games added their own monsters to the fray. While the concept may be a little difficult to incorporate into a modern action game, it’s undeniable that they were a core element of the classic games. Perhaps the best way to approach them would be to just not fix what isn’t broken: essentially leave the mechanic itself in the game unaltered from the old days, certain enemies can be found riding them, they can be knocked off and the player can take the powerful monster for their own (and vice versa). Handling it like that would add a risk/reward mechanic to the game, making it more in line with Souls-style games – albeit on a smaller scale.
Meanwhile, Golden Axe’s signature magic mechanic – casting spells at varying strengths based on how many magic pots (or books, in some games) the player has collected at any given moment – would be easy enough to implement into a modern action game. The real question is whether or not it would need to be tweaked: as I recall, the original game forced players to use all of their available magic at one time, but a more modern take would ideally allow players to use only as much magic as they need, effectively using a small attack when overwhelmed by a group of standard enemies, while saving what they can for the far more threatening boss fights. That would allow for better strategy, but it almost seems blasphemous given how the magic attacks in the old games were balanced. Likewise, I’d tweak the thieves who drop the magic pots in the first place. While they would generally only rob the characters of their remaining magic between stages (in what I can only describe as a bonus stage) in the earlier games, a more modern take should have them become substantially more aggressive in standard play instead, adding another risk/reward mechanic by forcing players to choose to chase them down to stockpile magic – or regain any pots that might have been stolen from them – or play more carefully, as the thieves could hypothetically appear at any time, even during a boss fight.
Multiplayer is also a concern: it almost feels blasphemous to pitch a Golden Axe game without even considering cooperative play. The problem is that modern action games generally work best as a single-player affair: even the maligned Beast Rider managed to get that much right. Frame rate is generally a concern when it comes to the genre and while there have been many examples of multiplayer within the genre, a significant portion of them have been relegated to separate bonus modes, effectively acting as minigames rather than a variation on the standard campaign. With that in mind, I’d have to insist on all-or-nothing when it comes to multiplayer. We should either be allowed to play through the entire single-player mode with friends – ideally with both online and offline options – with the game’s difficulty receiving a proper rebalance to account for the additional player, or the game should just be a purely solo affair.
Enough about gameplay, what about the game’s aesthetic? Personally, I’d like to see a graphical style that evoked the classic box arts from the American home releases of the Genesis cover art, essentially aping the style of Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell, the two artists responsible for much of the artwork I’m referencing. One of Beast Rider’s cardinal sins was just how drab and generic everything looked in-game. Attempting a modernized take on the classic look is a mistake. If anything, Sega should lean into the cheese. As for the music and sound design, I’m afraid that the only thing that would match with this art style would be a suitably epic soundtrack with a full orchestral flourish. Hopefully the composers would be able to sneak in some references to the older games’ soundtracks in there, but chances are it’ll end up being one generic composition after another, similar to Castlevania: Lords of Shadow or most modern gaming soundtracks. I guess sacrifices have to be made to keep everything consistent.
That just leaves one question regarding a potential Golden Axe reboot: who should develop it? Now ideally, Sega should be able to handle development internally, but given the fact that the only studio I can recognize within the company that would have anything involving the skill to develop something like this is the aptly-named “Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio”, and I’m pretty sure they’re busy with more pressing projects. Of course, most people would recommend that Sega reignite their partnership with PlatinumGames, but I’ve got my doubts on that for a few reasons. For starters, PG has recently declared their intention to start self-publishing their own games and the sheer amount of other partners they’ve been working since their exclusivity agreement with Sega ended – Activision, Nintendo, Square Enix – tells me that they likely would want to keep their options open. My primary concern is that a lot of Platinum’s action games have stuck to a specific formula: each evoking the kind of “stylish action” gameplay I’d like to avoid in a proper Golden Axe reboot, regardless of how hilarious the mental image of Gilius Thunderhead doing backflips and spin dashing into enemies with his axe may be. The truth is, I can’t really think of a developer that I’d specifically want to work on this game. That’s not to say that there isn’t an ideal choice out there, just none that I’d can either name from the top of my head or seem remotely possible – like wholly-owned developers from other publishers.
On the plus side, if Sega wants to go with a same-name reboot for the series, this would probably be the best way to handle it. After all, while the stink of Beast Rider has been rinsed away from the franchise’s reputation, if Sega intends to go big with any type of revival, they might as well go all in. All but the most dedicated fans’ knowledge of Golden Axe begins and ends with the 1989 classic, so they essentially have a blank slate to work with here. Sure, references and other nods to the other games in the series could easily be woven into this reboot, but a retelling of the original adventure of Ax Battler, Tyris Flame and Gilius Thunderhead’s journey to wrest the titular artifact from the diabolical hands of Death Adder seems like the safest bet when it comes to attracting an audience.
I wish I could promise there won’t be another long hiatus between now and the next time I write another “Retro or Reboot?” article, but let’s be honest: when it comes to series of articles, I have a tendency to think up new concepts way more easily than I revisit old ones. Of course, with all of the old ones I’ve already come up with, can you really blame me? I just hope I can manage to squeeze out another one of these in less than 2 years next time. Of course, by that logic, chances are you can expect the next one by the end of April 2021. But here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.