Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Golden Age of Beat'em Ups

Staring in 1988 there was a little over half a decade or so that marked an incredible time for side-scrolling sprite-based beat'em ups.  It was an era wherein Double Dragon and Final Fight hit the arcades, but for me a series of Sega titles are what really defined the genre.  Let's take a look at one of the IPs, shall we.

Golden Axe initially came out as an arcade machine in 1989, but was quickly ported to the then new launched Sega Genesis (also known as the Sega Mega Drive).  The home console version boasted two additional levels, but oddly enough lacked some of the polish and flare of the original arcade version.  For example the eyes of the gigantic turtle and bird, that help by conveying the player(s) on their backs from one area to another, don't animate giving the impression that they are lifeless entities rather than semi-divine forces of nature.  The corpses of slain enemies also quickly vanish in the Genesis version, whereas in the arcade they remain but take on a earthly brown hue.  The final boss gets a more interesting intro in the arcade version of the game as well; snakes slither into a pile of corpses then coalesce into a supernatural executioner rather than simply having him barge through a door at the top of the screen.

Both the arcade game and the Genesis port got a sequel although neither has much of anything in common with the other.  The arcade machine, Golden Axe: Revenge of the Death Adder, draws its namesake from the last boss (of both original and sequel) which has more than a passing resemblance to a quintet of Frank Frazetta paintings entitled "The Death-Dealer" I to V.  The arcade game also allows up to four people to player simultaneously though for some reason only one of them is from the original game - the dwarf who is inexplicably riding piggyback on a big dude.  The other three characters are also pretty bizarre consisting of a little guy with a pitchfork, a centaur woman, and a blue loincloth-wearing barbarian that looks a lot like Ax Battler (A.K.A. Tarik) from the original game, but is in fact a different character named Sternblade.  The mounts are somehow even more outlandish than the original as well.  Thought riding an oversized chicken was weird?  How about a giant mantis or scorpion!  Because of the sprite size things can get pretty crowded on-screen, particularly when playing with all four players at once.  On the plus side though it's possible to perform special team attacks on enemies and even bosses.

Meanwhile, Golden Axe II for the Genesis is a very different beast.  The original three player characters are back and largely unchanged in terms of appearance and movesets.  Enemies get new looks, but aren't much different in terms of attack patterns.  However, the magic system did get a significant overhaul.  The thieving gnomes from the original game were replaced by small wizards able to fight back and who drop spellbooks in lieu of potions when hit.  Unlike the all-or-nothing potion-based magic system of the original it's possible, here, for the player to select the power level of their screen-wide AOE magic attack by holding the magic button and letting it charge then releasing it at the desired level to unleash the attack.  It's an interesting feature that is unique to the second installment on the Genesis.

Never released in cartridge form outside of Japan, Golden Axe III took one step forward and two steps back in terms of design innovations.  It had some improvements in terms of character movesets, including team attacks similar to what was in the arcade sequel, and a branching stage progression routes.  Unfortunately, the environments are pretty bland looking regardless of which direction players go and the sprite animation for characters and enemies look stiff and awkward compared to previous installments.  The magic system also regressed back to the all-or-nothing of the original game with the added setback of giving all four possible player characters the exact same magic meters.  Cosmetically speaking, each character retained their own unique set of visuals when making magic attacks, but that little extra layer of the game having to do with how best to distribute potions (or spellbooks) for maximum effect was largely removed.

There were a few other entries in the Golden Axe series, including a one-on-one fighting game and a pair of Zelda-style adventure games.  Much later the licence would be contracted out by Sega to a third-party developer resulting in Golden Axe: Beast Rider.  Suffice it to say, the game was not good.  I will return to it at a later date, but next I want to talk about another Sega beat'em up series with a more contemporary setting.

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