As a kid, I was firmly on the Nintendo side of the 16-bit divide. I feel I backed the right horse, as it were, but my fealty to the Big N wasn't strict enough to prevent me from straying to the dark side of Sega and their sleek, black consoles. In 1991, this defection meant a trip across the road to my friend's house to play his Mega Drive, and it wasn't Sonic I was interested in: no, I wanted to play that game with the dude who looks like Conan and the dwarf with the axe and the lady with the magic dragon powers and aww cool you can ride those dinosaur things! I'm going to just call it Golden Axe II from now on though. You know, for brevity.
In case you're too young to remember the glorious 16-bit era, or you were serving about a top-secret nuclear submarine deep beneath the Arctic or something, Golden Axe II is the sequel to Golden Axe, a side-scrolling beat-em-up released in the arcades in 1989. Heavily "inspired" by the Conan movies, down to the cover art for Golden Axe II being created by fantasy art heavyweight Boris Vallejo, Golden Axe was a big success and was ported to pretty much every conceivable platform that didn't have "Nintendo" written on it. 1991 rolls around and instead of an arcade sequel, Golden Axe II is released for the Mega Drive and, well, here we are.
In the previous game, three heroes set out to defeat Death Adder, a big evil fella who has conquered the kingdom and stolen the titular golden axe. The plot of GA2 is pretty much identical, the only difference being that Death Adder has been replaced by a different axe-thieving evil lord called Dark Guld. According to the intro, Dark Guld "should have been imprisoned in ancient times", which makes him sound less like he's risen from the depths of Hades to enslave mankind and more like he's just got a really good lawyer. Anyway, the only people who can stop Dark Guld are the same three heroes from Golden Axe 1, and here they are!
I suppose the "main" character is Ax Battler, the Conan rip-off in the blue trunks. Despite his name, he uses a sword and is just a bit boring over all. The fairer sex is represented by Tyris Flare, an amazon whose outfit leaves nothing to the imagination. Speaking of imagination, none was used in defining her fighting skills: she's quick, does less damage and is good at magic. I suspect some form of template was used when designing GA2's characters. Finally there's Gilius Thunderhead the mighty dwarf, who is by far the best character. Why? Because with his flowing beard and horned helmet, he's like a miniature Viking in a skirt. Plus he has an axe, and is therefore simply better than those other two peons with their (ugh) swords. Plus, I never got to play as Gilius as a kid because I was always too slow at selecting my character. I was always stuck with Tyris, who admittedly has her plus-points, but today I'll be using Gilius. Onward to stage one!
Here we see a village in the process of being ravaged, presumably by those barbarian-lookin' guys. I'd hate to think they were part of some ravaged village relief effort that Gilius mistook for Dark Guld's troops. Part of Gilius' charm is that due to his dwarven proportions, he always seems to be attacking at groin height.
Fighting itself is as basic as you'd expect: one button to attack, which becomes a combo if you keep hacking away at the same enemy's groin. Don't feel sorry for him, he's an evil barbarian! You can dash and attack, jump and attack and even dash, jump and then attack, resulting in a more powerful downward thrust which is quite difficult to connect with, as most enemies have the common sense not to stand directly beneath an axe-wielding dwarf as he comes screaming out of the sky. Oh, and you can press attack and jump together for a special attack: in Gilius' case, he plants his axe in the ground and spins around it like the world's hairiest stripper. If you have photos proving the existence of hairier strippers - please, keep them to yourself.
Wizards riding dinosaurs! Yes, GA2 truly does have it all. That wizard looks like he's fair bursting with confidence. "Haha, foolish dwarf!" he seems to say, "You will never get past me, my dinosaur-dragon-thing and these two club-carrying hard-asses!"
Two things of note here - number one is that, as promised, you can ride the dinosaur. They're called "Bizarrians", and they come in several different flavours. This one is the worst, because all he can do is attack by kicking his hind legs, but he's still better than nothing. The second thing is that hitting a wizard, apart from sounding like it means using a bong, gives you a magic book. See, each character has a magic technique. Gilius here has rock magic:
Today's news: sudden landslides, hundreds killed.
Ax Battler's uncannily high level of tedium is kept up by his boring-as-fuck wind magic:
Today's news: strong winds, some minor roof damage. Yawn.
Tyris Flare has the most magic, and therefore needs more books to fill up her magic-o-meter. It's worth it, though:
Today's news: OH FUCK IT'S A DRAGON RUN. Yes, magic is Tyris' saving grace. The magic system works slightly differently to Golden Axe 1, as pressing the button doesn't just use all your accumulated magic in one go. Instead, you have to hold the button until the bar fills up, which allows you to do smaller versions of your spells using less magic and is also very helpful if you used to accidentally press the magic button all the god-damn time with your clumsy child fingers. It's okay, I'm over it now.
Also over is stage one - well, nearly. Before we get to the boss, here's another reason to love GA2.
This is the first stage theme, "Battle of Ravaged Village", and it's one of my (if not my all-time) favourite bits of music from a videogame. The rest of the soundtrack doesn't quite reach the heady heights of "Ravaged Village" but it's still very good, especially the intro theme that starts off as a standard swords-and-sorcery type military theme but then turns into a funky, almost hip-hop thing:
Odd. Anyway, now it's time for the first boss, and I'm as baffled by him now as I was as a child.
Is he supposed to be a minotaur? I mean, he's got horns, but that's clearly the head of a dog, right? And what's with his speedos? Before you say "he's wearing them so you can't see his giant minotaur dick", why not a loincloth or armour or something, anything but a neon-green banana hammock. Has he just come from the swimming baths? At least Gilius can talk to him about the fact they shop at the same bracelet store, so he's got an ice-breaker. Otherwise his attempts to stove my head in with his giant mace might have been awkward.
Best way to deal with a Minocanine is to drop rocks on its head. You don't get this kind of information from Ray Mears, now do you?
Stage two starts in the mountains, and straight away there's a scene of a poor villager being tormented by Dark Guld's troops, a scene I assume was included to ensure I didn't forget who I was supposed to be killing. The villains must have this area under complete control; otherwise, going out in fluorescent pink uniforms might have seemed like a bit of a gamble. "Hark at our oppressors! What colour is that I see upon your garb, pray tell? Flamboyant Flamingo? Electric Salmon? I would wager a large sum that you were borne here upon a unicorn!" Sadly, the villager cannot say these things to his captors, because they're beating him to death.
Some very Jason and the Argonauts-esque skeletons turn up next, and that makes me happy. You know it's going to be a good game if it's got skeletons in it: they're just cool. Here's hoping skeletons take over from zombies as the go-to for relentless undead enemies in videogames.
A little (like two screens) further on, you'll face some black skeletons. In a shocking case of racism, the black skeletons are just naturally tougher than their white counterparts. I bet you think they're just built to run faster too, huh Sega? Shocking. After the
...Okay, I'm not touching that one. Make your own jokes.
Here's the boss, and he's missing his head. Not that it seems to cause him any problems with depth perception or anything, because he seems pretty good at clobbering you with his unnecessarily-serrated sword. Perhaps the face on his shield is his real face. Actually, take a look at the shield-face: the Y-shape is the eyes and the nose, sure, but what about the curved black line beneath it? Is it the line of his jaw or, as I prefer to see it, a big goofy smile? If so, he sure is cheerful for someone who's getting their knees hacked at by an angry dwarf.
Of course, I'm not saying GA2 is perfect; it has its flaws, and the start of stage three will demonstrate a major one. The enemies in this game are stupid. Really, really, Danny-Dyer-after a lobotomy, "how the hell did you survive into adulthood" stupid. Look at the scenario pictured above and take note of the positions of Gilius, the Minocanines (who have returned as regular enemies already) and that hole in the bottom-right corner. You see, the enemies are so dense that in their haste to beat you to death they will completely ignore any obstacles in their path and dash toward you. So, if you stand near the hole, they'll walk into the hole and fall to their deaths. Brilliant.
Once you've waded through some more regular enemies, it's time for the boss. This time it's not one, not two, but four lizardmen! I think their gold jewellery really complements their black satin minidresses. They're a pretty tough prospect as there's four of them, but eventually you'll win through.
Now, in all the previous five hundred or so time I've played through GA2, I have never noticed that this area is shaped like a tooth-filled mouth. Yeah, it seems pretty obvious now, but it obviously never registered because I thought "what's the point of having a cave shaped like a mouth? It's not like it ties into anything..."
Ah. Well, into the Dragon's Throat it is then. Don't worry, it's not an actual dragon's throat, ha ha. Nothing so dangerous. It's just a cave full of vicious warriors, evil wizards and searing lava that will strip the flesh from your bones in an instant.
Truthfully, the magma isn't a problem. I mean, Gilius is a dwarf, right? He's used to being underground. As for the other two, they're not wearing enough clothes for the heat to bother them. Finally, an advantage to the "chainmail bikini" school of defence. Take that, lovers of historical accuracy!
Here's Gilius riding the red Bizarrian, which is the best because it can breathe fire. That wizard is fucked.
The boss is boring, because it's just two lizardmen and two Minocanines. At least the dog-monsters' trunks match their skin tone; now it looks like they're just smooth down there, like Action Man. I think that's a change for the better. Still, no matter their colour, they don't like having rocks dropped on their head and axes lodged in their shins. Next stage please!
There're some castle gates to storm, and what better way to do it than riding a fire-breathing dinosaur? Quiet, there are no better ways.
The sleeping Bizarrian is called "Chicken Leg", despite not being the one that attacks with its legs but rather with sweeps of its tail. However, he can't breathe fire, so he can bloody well stay where he is.
Things taught at barbarian school: claw maintenance, correct bondage wear for a formal occasion, subservience to a dark warlord. Not on the curriculum: gravity.
The castle's main gate is in sight, but it's being defended by a clan of warriors clad in gold hotpants and go-go boots. Let's just... go with it, shall we? In their defence, they are the strongest gold-hotpants-wearing opponents I have ever faced, apart from that one time I arm-wrestled with Kylie.
The bosses really aren't GA2's strong point, as you can see by the repetition of the headless knights. They're not really headless, they've just retracted their heads into their torsos in shame after seeing their glittering golden troops. The fight is pretty standard, as long as you don't get stuck between them so they can take turns hitting you. Once they're dead, you break through into the final stage: Dark Guld's castle!
As you'd expect, the final stage throws a little bit of everything at you, albeit with a slightly different colour palette.
Green lizardmen! Who would have believed such a thing was possible?
The wizards look more like Orko than ever. I love the nonplussed expression on that wizard's face. He's not howling in pain as the axe crashes into his abdomen, but rather wondering "Why? Why must we fight?" Well, you kept trying to kill me with mystical lightning, that's why. It's no good trying to back out of it now, you little prick! Now get out of my way so I can kill Dark Guld.
I guess the golden hotpant troops are like those red guys who protected the Emperor in Star Wars. I don't care how shiny their costumes are, they're still just men with clubs, and I can handle men with clubs. As for the boss, he's just a golden version of all the other headless knights and nothing special.
I have to take something of a step into the unknown here. You see, when I was a kid, the only way I could play GA2 was over at my friend's house because when I was that age, owning two different current-gen consoles was the kind of luxury reserved for Arab sheiks and gods of the Roman pantheon. That'd be fine and everything, I mean, my friend only lived across the street. However, his parents had a very strict limit of only thirty minutes of gameplay per day. Thirty minutes! I mean, it didn't matter when we were playing something rock-hard like The Terminator or Hellfire because we were dead and out of continues by then anyway, but thirty minutes just isn't enough time to get anywhere in most videogames - lord help you if you fancied playing Shining Force 2. So, we had to combat this time limit by getting really good at certain games. I remember his older brother being some kind of transcendent master of Sonic the Hedgehog, but for our part, we got good at GA2. Granted we had to play it on easy for brevity's sake, but I would tentatively say that, for a while at least, we were the best GA2 players in the country, a phrase which I am going to start adding to my CV.
So, we could rattle through the game on easy mode, and it took us just about half an hour. However, on easy mode, this headless chump is the final boss. No Dark Guld, just a swift return to the title screen and an admonishment to try again on a harder difficulty, you pussy. That's exactly what I'm doing this time through: hard mode all the way, and now Headless Gold Warrior is dead, I finally get to meet Dark Guld.
Slightly underwhelming, but at least he's got a brand-new sprite and they didn't just plonk a head onto the headless knight. I'm not sure why Gilius is bowing to him in that picture: perhaps he's trying to look up his own skirt using the reflection of that extremely shiny floor. Anyway, Dark Guld: he's got the Golden Axe for chopping, but he spend most of the fight creating a horde of skeletons to get in your way.
So this is the Golden Axe's fabled power? To slowly spawn low-level grunts? They're not even pink skeletons. If I were Dark Guld, I'd have spent my time making hundreds of thousands of skeletons and just packing every room in the game with them. Forget having one or two dog-monsters or headless knights, if every square foot of the stage contains ten skeletons then the heroes will never make it though.
Dark Guld's not that clever, though. His skeleton army is woefully undermanned, and he's not great with that axe either. Soon enough he's dead, the kingdom is saved and Gilius can get back to forging rings of power and drinking mead.
And that's Golden Axe II. It seems that GA2 is regarded as something of a poor relation in the Golden Axe series, or at least a missed opportunity: most criticisms of the game seem to be about it's similarity to the first one. You could address that by say, hey, if it ain't broke don't fix it, and GA2 certainly ain't broke. It's still fun to play, the fighting has more depth to it than you might think, the music is excellent and you can ride a dinosaur. Of course, there's probably a certain amount of interference coming from my nostalgia-goggles when I look at GA2, but maybe that's a good thing: having not played Golden Axe 1 until many years later, I can see the good points of GA2 without comparing it to the original.
It's a classic, one of my favourite games of all time, and you really should give it a go. It's included (along with Golden Axe 1 and 3) in the PS3 / Xbox 360 compilation Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection, (Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection for any Americans who may be reading,) which you can generally pick up pretty cheaply. In fact, I highly recommend it, as it contains the entire Golden Axe, Streets of Rage and Sonic series and most importantly, the Shining Force games.
Finally: did I mention that your performance is analysed and graded? Well, let's see how I did. Surely defeating Dark Guld must count for something!
...I'm sorry, I have shamed you all. And with this shocking revelation, I'm going to crawl away and remove all mention of my GA2 skills from my CV. Farewell!
P.S. Some bonus things!
Here's the Japanese Mega Drive boxart:
And here's a great remix of "Battle of Ravaged Village" by Diggi Dis, courtesy of OCRemix.