- Buy Video Games for Consoles and PC - From Japan, Korea and other Regions!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

SMS Golden Axe - A defence

I am writing this in response to the mini-review of this game on the Hardcore Gaming 101 site, which is less than complimentary …

The Sega Master System version is more or less a tragedy. You can only play as Ax Battler, renamed here as Tarik. The only reminder of the other two heroes is that you can choose to use their magic attacks during the game. Pretty much everything is pathetic - it has ugly graphics, terribly choppy animation, and awful control. It does have a new intro and ending not found in any other version, at least. It also removes the two player option.

( as of 10/01/09)

Golden Axe SMS cover
The most bizarre thing I considered about this review was that the author had also seen the other 8-bit versions of this game – the Spectrum and Amstrad, with severely compromised graphics, and the Commodore 64, with well-designed graphics but butchered gameplay (as I shall refer to presently) – and thus must have realised that, as an 8-bit game, the Master System version fares very well in comparison. Perhaps in this age of high-powered consoles that can bring arcade quality games to the home we have become less forgiving of the valiant efforts of earlier programmers to squeeze coin-op experiences onto home consoles with a tiny fraction of the power … which is exactly what the SMS version of Golden Axe amounts to, and should be judged on those grounds. However successful it is or is not, I think it would be hard to deny that it was a sincere effort to bring as much of the arcade game onto the Sega 8-bit as it could possibly cope with. So how well did it cope?


There is good and bad, but mainly good. 8-bit machines, from the Atari 7800 to the ZX Spectrum, C64, and NES, are not the ideal platform for large, colourful, or high-resolution sprites. A compromise generally has to be made: large and blocky, monochrome, or small and detailed, in order to get the game to run. The SMS programmers of Golden Axe ignored those rules: the sprites are not arcade perfect, but all are clearly recognisable, detailed, shaded, and generally well animated. There is a price to pay, in that they don’t run too smoothly: the game always seems either too fast or too slow, and invariably choppy (though that is more of a gameplay issue). The backgrounds are simplified from the arcade, but still pretty well detailed for an 8-bit game, and recognisable as the arcade locations. Some incidental animations have been left out (fleeing villagers, snakes, etc), but the arcade map interlude screens have been recreated very well indeed, and the magic effects – give or take a few frames of animations – are all present, correct, and very spectacular. The new presentation graphics – the intro and end screens – are a very stylish bonus: not animated, but beautifully detailed. I fail to see how this could have looked better without actually sticking a new graphics chip in the cart …



The limitations on the Z80 chip are far more severe than the SMS’s graphics limitations, and the sound effects in Golden Axe are, alas, merely functional. No sampled cries of pain: just generic crunches and bleeps. The music fares better, in spite of the PC-speaker quality sound: a testimony to the greatness of the original tunes (and I base my score on the fact that the programmers managed to make them recognisable on such inferior hardware).



The biggest gameplay issue is the choppiness caused by the over-ambitious graphics, which makes precise control awkward (which matters quite a bit, when there are two or more enemies on your case). Smaller, less detailed sprites (such as in Double Dragon or Renegade) might have improved this, although it would have meant the loss of some of the best-looking graphics ever seen on the system, IMO. Other negatives include the loss of the two-player mode (though, given the performance as it is, it could hardly have coped with that) and the fact that only the barbarian character is selectable. Many have questioned that choice, although he is the logical one to retain (as he is the mid-range fighter). All three magic options from the arcade remain selectable, so the actual difference is slight.

I turn briefly to the C64 version: also only one-player, but it did keep all three characters. On the other hand, it made no attempt to copy the arcade attack waves, with only one type of enemy per level, not including the boss. Not that this mattered as such, since all of the enemies on the C64 (bosses included) shared the same attack pattern, none of them could jump, dash, ride the beasts (which were useless, in any case, and best ignored), and they could only appear on screen one at a time, making a thorough mockery of the dual boss attacks and turning the whole game into a yawn-fest of identical (and painfully easy) one-on-one battles.

The Master System – a machine very close in power to the C64 – delivers attack waves very close to the arcade version, enemies that can attack in groups, jump, dash, ride the beasts (some of them, anyway), beasts that were actually useful, and nearly a full range of moves (only missing out the sword-pommel attack). Even Death Adder (the final boss) is well depicted, and retains his magical attack. The between level “camping” stages (in which you attack elves for extra magic) are included, and magic itself is an important factor in gameplay (unlike in the C64 version, where it was basically eye candy).

In short, not a perfect copy of the arcade gameplay, but a highly commendable effort (and by no means the worst seen on an 8-bit machine).



If you assume this should be arcade perfect, or as good even as the Genesis version, you will be disappointed (albeit rather deluded in your expectations). However, bearing in mind the quality of 8-bit arcade conversions at the time – many of which bore hardly any resemblance to their coin-op parent (Cisco Heat, anyone? Or any 8-bit version of Strider you care to name … ) – it would be grossly unfair to label this game as anything other than a top-drawer effort, and a mostly successful one at that.

90% (not an average)


gnome said...

An excellent write Anthony, and I for one am more than convinced. Despite the apparently not so fluid gameplay...

Welcome to the Sega Master System Junkyard and thank you for this fantastic post.


fatherkrishna said...

What a quality post! Spot on analysis of the 8 bit/16 Bit dilemma of the same game being presented on two systems. It is one close to my own heart.

Aside from Golden Axe, similar arguments have ranged for such titles as "michael Jackson's Moonwalker" and "Altered Beast".

I have only played both titles on the Master System and I found them to be sublime.

It's great to have someone with your technical abilities here to educate and inform us all!

Great post!

Anthony Burns said...

Thanks for your kind words. :) I was a late-comer to the Master System, having owned both a C16 and C64 before. Although there are many excellent games (especially original games) on both machines, I also have vivid memories of extremely poor, rushed arcade conversions, or well-intentioned ones that concentrated on unimportant details and completely sacrificed gameplay (as was the case with C64 Golden Axe). On coming to the SMS, I was quickly impressed with the quality of its arcade converions ... with one or two exceptions, which I may deal with in due course. But Golden Axe definitely impressed me more than most. :) I could, however, repeat much of what I have said here for Altered Beast, though I'll have to take your word for Moonwalker (until I can get a copy, anyway ;) ).

gnome said...

And that's how you decided to come up with the Legions of the Damned, eh? Knew that name rang a bell... Oh, and you must try Renegade SMS.

Anthony Burns said...

Well, the main reason I made "Legions of the Damned" was because there are very few Sideways SEUCK games around at the moment, and I felt I ought to give it a go. The look of the game was inspired by Golden Axe, but it doesn't really extend to the gameplay, which is just a sideways Commando affair with beat-em-up pretensions.

Having said which, I did take a few cues from C64 Golden Axe in including things that I wish that game had managed: a two-player mode, distinct enemy attack patterns, bosses that are actually more dangerous than regular enemies, beast-riding enemies, and a 20-foot tall voluptuous vampiress ... not that there was one of those in any version of Golden Axe, but I hope to be pardoned for a little creative licence. ;)

The C64 version of Golden Axe, incidentally, starts beautifully, with amazing arcade-style presentation screens. Indeed, in terms of graphics, and given the limitation of the platform, it actually impresses me more than the Genesis version, which (as with Genesis Altered Beast) aims below the capabilities of the machine and comes out looking worse than the Amiga version, and tries to make up for the deficit by throwing in an annoying extra level and an infuriating near-invincible extra boss. Looking past the graphics, however, C64 Golden Axe is easily the shallowest conversion, with no variety whatsoever in the gameplay: your regular combo move, with proper timing, would deal with everything. You could vary your moves and use the beasts, but there was no point (except to take risks and relieve the boredom). But it is an impressive feat of C64 programming, even if it isn't a particularly great game, and has enough pure atmosphere to remain endurable for the first two levels. The SMS version, which was the second version I owned, blew me away with its comparative quality ... hence this very defensive review. ;)

gnome said...

A 20-foot voluptuous vampiress, you say? Well, I absolutely have to review this game then, don't I?

Anthony Burns said...

Well I warn you it is only a SEUCK game, without any flashy enhancements (except for a bit of music that Richard Bayliss was kind enough to add to the title screen). But if you would like to review it, I would be most honoured. :) I ought to point out, though, that the latest update (downloadable on TND64) has a small bug, that means 10000 points no longer earns the player an extra life. If you were planning to play without cheats, please let me know and I can send you an earlier (pre-bug) version.

gnome said...

Ha! A puny bug wont stop me! Well, of course it will, but as long as cheats are available it won't. Heh. I'll let you know as soon as I get the review done oh most creative person!


Anonymous said...

If you want good, fair info on the Master System, C64 or Spectrum then AVOID Hardcore Gaming like the plague, I have seem numerous posts there which prove that when it comes to those machines the site writer has absolutely no idea what he is talking about.

gnome said...

I'm pretty sure Anthony would agree with you on that bit...