Golden Axe proved to be one of Sega’s most popular arcade games, taking the essence of Double Dragon, but adding a fantasy slant to it. From riding dinosaurs, to kicking pixies up the bum, Sega’s game, was ambitious, imaginative and, most importantly, fun. Here creator Makota Uchida explains how a love of Conan The Barbarian and The Lord Of The Rings inspired him to create his popular scrolling beat-’em-up.
Here’s a fun question for all you retro-heads… which came first, Final Fight or Golden Axe? Both made their appearance in arcades in 1989, but it might surprise some to find that Golden Axe appeared a few months before Capcom’s brawler, in the summer of that year. And while Final Fight was a more influential and arguably more polished title, and the template for the myriad of clones that followed it, Sega’s fighting fantasy perhaps had the more visually engaging theme. With its axe-wielding warriors, scantily-clad Amazonians and dragon-riding adversaries, Golden Axe evoked the stylings of Hollywood B-movie cult classics like The Beastmaster and Conan The Barbarian. Its fiery, magic attacks that cut through baddies like a coin-op apocalypse were a novelty the likes of which had never been seen, and its background design, with turtle-back villages and scraps on the back of giant eagles, felt fresh and, let’s face it, looked extremely cool. After all, Mayor Mike Haggar never got the thrill of jumping on the back of a chicken-leg monster and bashing a couple of sword-wielding skeletons to death (again) with its tail.
Riding on the back of the bizarrians is rather awesome.
Golden Axe was the second Sega arcade game project from Makota Uchida, following his mythology-inspired brawler Altered Beast. “When we reached the final stages of the development of Altered Beast, our boss asked our team to come up with a new game,” he recalls. “The given proposition was an action game that ran on [Altered Beast’s] System 16 arcade board, with similar gameplay to Technos’ Double Dragon, which was a popular arcade game at the time. My idea was to come up with a Double Dragon that was not a Double Dragon… Technos was an experienced rival who had been working on the Kunio-Kun series, so there was no way we could compete if we did the same thing as them. I had a feeling that arcade games should be competitive against the great hit console title Dragon Quest (created by Enix) and therefore studied the world of magic and swords, combined this with the gameplay of Double Dragon, and finally came up with the concept of Golden Axe.”
What emerged was a East-meets-West vision of high fantasy, sprinkled with a little of the spirit of Enix’s role-playing game, along with liberal helpings of pulp and classic American and European influences. This offered a welcome and refreshing change to the murky ghetto-like stylings of Renegade and Double Dragon. “My father loved action movies and I used to watch them with him,” Uchida tells us. “During the development of Golden Axe, I rented a video of Conan and watched until the tape was worn… Of course I was also inspired by Lord Of The Rings. I bought many illustration works based on Middle-Earth and used them as reference materials. If I could, I would vote Gandalf for president!”
Kicking pixies will never get boring.
Although the game’s plot is hardly Tolkien, it’s a reasonably entertaining premise in a cheesy midnight-matinee kind of way. In the fantastical realm of Yuria, a fiendishly intimidating villain named Death Adder has captured the King and his daughter, and has imprisoned them in their castle. He’s also got his evil mitts on the Golden Axe, the magical emblem of Yuria, and threatens to destroy the royal family and their precious heirloom unless the populace accept him as their divine leader. So begins the quest of three mysterious warriors, each with a score to settle with the Dark One, who set out on a quest to free Yuria and seek their revenge.
From the start, Uchida’s team opted to mirror Double Dragon in providing support for two simultaneous players, with a choice from three suitably buff characters – a lead male barbarian, Ax Battler, a female Amazon, Tyris Flame, and a dwarf, Gilius Thunderhead, possessor of the game’s most aggravating-looking weapon. “I thought that the balance of having one hero and two support members was best, comments Uchida. “We differentiated the support characters by changing their abilities. One who is superior in using magic (Tyris), and the other who is not so good with magic, but strong in melee combat (Gilius).” Given that there were three playable characters though, did Uchida’s team think about adding three-player support at all? “We did consider that plan, but we gave up due to the hardware specs,” he replies. “The maximum number of characters, including the enemies that we could display and operate at once was six. But by the time we created the next title, Revenge Of Death Adder, the hardware specs had allowed us to make the game playable for up to four players simultaneously.”
Collect enough potions and you can unleash amazing magic.
As a genre scrolling beat-’em-ups are by nature fairly simplistic and repetitive, something that still applies to modern titles like Castle Crashers. But Uchida’s team made an effort to vary the standard attacks from slashing blades and throws to bashing baddies on the head with the hilt of the hero’s sword, complete with a satisfying clunking sound. Double-tapping the joystick allowed for a shoulder charge or flying kick, while attacking in mid-air pulled off a powerful diving weapon smash that was tricky to time right but highly damaging if it caught an enemy off-guard. One of the game’s most notable signature moves was the backward spin attack, when pressing both attack and jump buttons together whirled your hero around 180 degrees to hack at an enemy behind you. This was particularly useful when enemies surrounded you.
While Golden Axe was one of the games that pioneered the concept of the weapon-based brawler, this added a few other design restrictions, as Uchida explains. “The general gameplay for action games is to carefully observe the distance [from] your enemy and to attack in the correct timing. It is very similar to hitting a ball with a baseball bat. The reason those games were generally side-view was because a silhouette of a human is most recognisable when seen from the side, and you could draw the human large enough to invoke emotional involvement. Now, if we want the character to permanently hold a weapon in a side-view game while maintaining the size of the character, the character will have an enormous reach and will become too strong. It will become too difficult to adjust the game balance, so you would have to draw the character smaller if you want him or her to walk freely with a weapon, and this was another difficulty. For those reasons, most of the games in the genre were fought with bare hands. It was the same with Sega games [including Altered Beast]. But, we decided to give weapons to the characters to make the game different from Double Dragon. We adjusted the swing so the characters could not attack too far. We had to draw the playable character small, but instead we made the boss enemies and magic [effects] huge…”
The levels are packed with imagination. This is the back of a giant turtle.
And they were certainly impressive, from Ax’s mini mushroom-clouds and Gilius’s lightning-bolts to Tyris’s ultimate magic attack, a screen-high fire-breathing dragon. Each of the three characters had to collect magic potions to power-up their spell bars by whacking little gnome creatures, either in the main game or a humorous intermission around a campfire. Working out the best time to use spells, either casting lowly, less damaging attacks on smaller minions, or saving up all your potions to unleash a massive firestorm on bosses, added a degree of strategy to the gratuitous hacking and slashing. “I happened to have knowledge of element-based magic, so I simply applied it,” says Uchida rather enigmatically. “Although we did not select water, because water would be a healing magic, rather than an attacking magic.”
Another memorable feature of the game was the addition of rideable beasts. One creature that makes an appearance in Golden Axe – the so-called chicken-leg monster or cockatrice – had first cropped up as a monster in Altered Beast. In Golden Axe it makes its entrance as the steed of a clan of ferocious Amazon women. Later, players encounter two types of dragon which, after demounting their riders with a swift blow to the head, can be ridden into battle spewing flame or blasting fire bolts at the bad guys. “This idea came from an art asset painted by a senior artist,” adds Uchida. “A character was riding on a monster using a saddle. I saw it, and thought we could use this in the game…”