Saturday, July 19, 2014

Golden Axe - Stealing Our Time and Our Magic
In a world characterized by warriors, magic and monsters, we instead emblemized a nightcap-wearing midget.

If you've read some of my more recent entries, you've probably picked up that I'm a pretty big fan of the beat-'em-up genre. While I have a ton of good memories in general of playing video games with my close-knit group of friends, some of the most fun times I can remember were those shared playing cooperative brawling-type action games with my whacky pals, who enjoyed them as much as I did.

I always associated beat-'em-ups with arcades, which I thought were perfect venues for such games in how they inspired a very specific type of jocular social interaction and encouraged no-nonsense teamwork (you didn't want to screw over the guy standing right next to you when he was pumping real money into a machine, after all). Attempts to emulate the beat-'em-up experience on 8-bit consoles usually fell flat, with companies misguidedly trying to assemble the mostly closely approximate reproductions of popular titles but instead creating stiff, spiritless action games that were too difficult and at best captured only a smidgen of their aesthetic flair and none of their social appeal.

Despite my clinging to the notion that arcades were the place where beat-'em-ups belonged, I couldn't help but be intrigued when my closest friend, Dominick, introduced me to Altered Beast for his Sega Genesis; it was the first time I'd seen in action a visually and mechanically top-shelf beat-'em-up on a console, and my subsequent experience with the game--during which Dominick and I had an absolute blast--convinced me that these new platforms might be worthy of second-home status for them. I left his house that day excited about the potential for high-octane brawlers on consoles.

I wasn't fully convinced until one day during the early months of 1990, when Dominick surprised me with his most recently purchased Genesis game: The unfamiliar Golden Axe, which I never saw in arcades.

My first session with the game entailed Dominick teaching me about the characters' motivations (they all wanted a piece of an evil tyrant named Death Adder, whose campaigns of slaughter claimed the lives of their relatives), how the fighting mechanics worked, and the process for procuring and using magic. The manual's descriptions made it seem as though the characters possessed unique physical and statistical attributes, but this wasn't the case at all; they differed only in terms of their application of magic. The dwarf, for instance, had limited magical propensity (weaker spells, mainly), but he reached his maximum potential quicker--with the collection of only four magic pots; conversely, the amazon's nine-unit meter required a more-laborious effort to max out, but her higher-level spells unleashed pure devastation.

Golden Axe's best addition was the dash maneuver, which was great for getting the jump on enemies. It added a new dimension beyond the standard beat-'em-up gameplay, where the protagonists were sytlistically lumbering or methodical, and was just plain fun to use. As did the flip-throw move in Ninja Gaiden, there were times when dashing accounted for 90% of my offense; maybe it was because of the augmenting thud that accompanied a successful charge-attack, but headbutting, shoulder-charging and dropkicking unexpectant foes always felt so very satisfying, particularly when the result was them being sent flying into a bottomless pit! As Reggie Hammond would say: "That's my favorite."

I was drawn to the dwarf character, who had an impressive-looking weapon and the best standard combo (a series of axe-swipes before clubbing an enemy atop the head with the giant axe's handle), which to me made up for his small number of marginally effective spells. I almost never used the ax battler or the amazon, and I never felt I was missing anything beyond a few cool-looking spells (Dominick would usually pick up the slack, anyway, since he leaned toward the magically gifted amazon). Besides: The dwarf was the only character who had a unique supplementary move--a rolling strike executed by simultaneously pressing the attack and jump buttons. It was great for picking off enemies that liked sneaking in from behind, which describes pretty much all of Golden Axe's cast.

I was taken by this newly tasted brand of brawling action. As I hammered away at the game's array of barbarians, knights and skeletons and gleefully tossed them from one end of the screen to the other, I was overcome by a sense that the arcade experience I so adored had finally been replicated. We had so much fun with Golden Axe that it quickly came to replace Altered Beast (whose flaws were increasingly evident) in our daily ritual and took up the mantle as our go-to console beat-'em-up. It was simply the superior game--the more successful of Sega's attempts to use its arcade lineage to establish an aggressive, gritty personality for its console.

We perceived Golden Axe as a considerably difficult game, and I'm not sure if we were able to clear it more than once, nor were we always capable of making it to the final stage (at least not without the help of the stage-select code). Regardless of whatever progress we made, we still played it a ton and always had a great time. I fondly recall its more-distinct contributions to the genre--mostly the highly advantageous magic system, whose most powerful spells conjured raging infernos and summoned fire-breathing dragons, and the ability to ride "creatures," whose abilities included tail-whips, flame breath, and fireballs. I liked how heroes and enemies alike had equal access to them. As we did with Renegade, we otherwise had fun mocking the game's defeciencies, whether it was imitating the enemies' stunted movements and wall-hugging mannerisms or mimicing their scratchy, shrill-sounding death cries.

Our favorite element of the game were any of those brief encounters with the diminutive thieves, who would occasionally run onscreen and dart about, pausing momentarily as if inviting us to strike them; doing so would knock them back and wrest from their possession magic pots. Mostly, we had a weird fixation with those between-stage intermission sequences where thieves would pop in and try to steal our magic pots; it was these instances of theft and our banter during their elapsing that spawned the creation of a legend.

We decided to name these thieves "Dink" after the Jawa-parodying characters from Spaceballs, which was Dominick's favorite movie (he watched it anytime it was on the movie channels, and for his birthday I even bought him a VHS copy, which he and his younger brother, Michael, watched literally every day). Like those characters from Rygar we so enjoyed satirizing, Dink became participant in our extracurricular activities and regularly appeared in our "Master Criminals" series in which we'd draw over newspaper pictures, cut them out, and then tape small notepad papers to their backs, where listed were the characters' powers and such. More definingly, Dink became amalgamated with one of our usual targets of defacement--New York mayor David Dinkins (whose name not coincidentally shared a "dink" portion)--and was given solid form as a magic-stealing miscreant. I guess even at a young age we perceived politicians as crooks. 

Though, we felt Dink also needed a catchphrase, so we threw a third party into the mixing pot: The mugger from Deja Vu, who the game described as "wanting all of your money." When socked in the face, he'd flee, yelling, "I'll be back!" We for some reason loved the mugger's interplay and reshaped his words to form our desired catchphrase. Thus, the true personification of Dink was born, his accosting demand and retreating threat repeated as one: "Give me allllllll your magic! I'll be baaaaack!" Dink would go on to make many special appearances as a member of our imaginary wiffle-ball teams and as the unkillable joke character I'd often phase into during our live-action renditions of Law of the West, one of my favorite Commodore 64 games.

We had a lot of problems.

Golden Axe was ultimately another of those games I very rarely returned to following those years my friends and I went our separate ways. The last real memorable experience I had with it was a few years ago when my brother returned from Missouri to stay with me for a few weeks; he brought along his Nintendo Wii, and I was surprised to learn that he and his step-family were fans of the Virtual Console and had purchased quite a few older games, including Golden Axe. We only played it once or twice during the nighttime hours while his Xbox 360 downloads were completing, but it was still nice to enjoy a fun, banter-filled evening whose activities were somewhat reminiscent of those old times. Even if they're abbreviated or lacking a certain substance, I hold dear to such memories because, as I've learned, they become increasingly infrequent as your get older.

For the sake of writing this piece, I've recently played it again, and yeesh--it has a lot of issues to which I was apparently blind. I almost forgot how the enemies tend to abuse the dash maneuver more so than the player, their variation of it difficult to counter since it's usually initiated from off-screen, where you can't see it coming. They're otherwise fairly stupid in how they robotically move about and voluntarily walk into pits. Also, the level design is disjointed and inconsistent, the stages' varying lengths ranging from acceptable to criminally short--some of them ending abruptly and without anything resembling a boss battle. Golden Axe is advertised to be "eight" stages long, but that's a clear embellishment; there are maybe four-stages-worth of content in the entire game. Seeing it now for what it is, I don't know how we weren't able to consistently beat it. Maybe we just sucked at it.

Still, like Altered Beast, it served its purpose and kept us entertained in what were more-simple times. Considering the depth of the playful vernacular it inspired and our affinity for the unofficially dubbed "Dink," we wound up deriving far more value from Golden Axe than we ordinarily would have. I guess that was part of the magic of youthful friendships formed partly around video games.

The Genesis was to me, at least in those early years, the "beat-'em-up machine," and Golden Axe was one of its most luminous beacons. I can point out its flaws thanks to 20-plus years of retrospect, but I can't deny that it was a provider of some of the most memorable experiences we had with the system. We'd eventually move on to much-superior beat-'em-ups like its two sequels and Streets of Rage, but we never forgot what Golden Axe meant to our personal gaming culture.

Isn't that right, Dink?

Dink: "Give me alllllllll your magic!" 

Mr. P: "No." [smacks Dink in the face with an axe handle] 

Dink: "I'll be baaaaaaaaack!" 

You damn well better.

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