Review by Hikuusen
Featuring: the TRUE ENDING PATH...REVEALED (maybe)
Golden Axe III is most famous for a bad rap. For whatever reason, it was originally released only on the Sega Channel in the U.S., which fostered the idea that it wasn't ready for prime time, and despite its inclusion on a number of Sega's omnipresent rerelease packages, it remains relatively unknown as a result. To be clear: this is the effort of a B-team and, as that 6/10 score indicates, not an entirely successful one, but it's an effort with at least some degree of heart. There's a sense, at least, that the creators were trying to identify and improve on or add to what people liked about the first game. These efforts don't always bear fruit, but they were totally absent from II - and I enjoyed playing the final product, even though it's got a few too many rough edges for a blanket recommendation.
We start, as Golden Axe is wont to do, with Gilius Thunderhead, now too old to fight even for a dwarf. For what he believes to be his final act of the franchise, he elects to do the only sensible thing with the great lamé dog bone of the divine Golden Axe: return it to the land of the gods, considering how much trouble it's been over the years. This plan is predictably fouled by our Death Adder wannabe for the evening, a man with the righteous name of...well, I don't think this site will let me type it, so let's refer to him as Darned Heckstrike. Stealing a move from Gilius's own playbook and heckstriking the dwarf's boat with lightning, Darned leaves Gilius for dead and his sweet ride smashed - and, of course, absconds with the axe. Half a year later, barely on his feet, Gilius pins his hopes on one young hero (or two, if playing with a friend!) formerly brainwashed by the enemy to go give that Darned tyrant what the hey.
You've got four warriors from which to choose: there's Kain Grinder and Sarah Burn, a young swordsman and a muscled dancer you might expect to be analogues of Ax Battler and Tyris Flare, and you'd be right, plus Proud Cragger, a lumbering giant reminiscent gameplaywise of Max from Streets of Rage 2 who fights bare-fisted, and the oddly-named Chronos "Evil" Lait (or, possibly and regrettably, "Late"), an enchanted panther-man. As the wheel of barbarian progress rolls on, the typical Golden Axe moveset has been greatly expanded for III: there are a bunch of move types unique to each character (Sarah, for example, can acrobatically bounce off the walls) accessed with fighting game-like inputs. Heroes and enemies alike can now also block, which becomes a major mechanic the designers clearly want you to use to create attack opportunities (though the more agile characters can weasel out of this and rely on maneuvering instead). In two-player, there are also combo moves and combo spells, plus a host of neat, new-to-the-series tricks like throwing your weapon.
Much of your repertoire is executed with a good deal more button-finagling than Golden Axe typically entails; it seems as if the designers were going for something like a Streets of Rage game combined with Knights of the Round. Pulling that off is a tall order, and the designers bit off more than they could chew. For one, both Sarah and Chronos have an attack that is usually unblockable - a F-B-F B + C charge for him, and a simple B + C roundhouse swing for her. Streets of Rage 2 required you to learn your character's moveset and figure out which attacks worked best against which foe; while Golden Axe III tries that, the aforementioned overpowered moves negate a lot of the need for experimentation and skill. Now, Tyris had a running kick in GA1 that had priority over everything, but that was fun as heck and satisfying to land, not overly powerful, did require some targeting, and was in a game that was 25 minutes long. Golden Axe III is 75 minutes long, and thanks to button gymnastics, your fingers are going to be sore at the end of those 75 minutes. The movesets do look cool, have some fun tricks, and succeed in giving each character a distinctive attack style that both feels and looks unique, but they're also messier and more ill-considered than in SoR2 - as well as redundant, thanks to the finger-contorting insta-win attacks.
The structure of game is quite neat, relying heavily on branching levels - there are six or seven forks in the road here, each leading to a visually-distinct level or area. While there isn't any location as unique as a village on the back of a turtle, there's a great deal of variety: a jungle, a desert, crystal caverns, a port town, a sailing ship, and more. Experiencing the multitude of paths and collections of levels I could take on my way to the castle was a great source of joy in the game. Also, after the chalky antics of GA2, I was very glad to see vibrant color make a return - as befitting Golden Axe, the predominant tones are still wilderness brown and gray, but liberal use of primary and secondary hues holds visual interest. The backgrounds, however, rely on a few too many walls o' tiles, which makes them seem mundane at points - and unlike the first game, they lack the distinctively imaginative details that lend a spark of inspiration.
Visually, though, this is certainly an upgrade from II, though not as striking as I. The characters do, at least, boast original designs, as opposed to II's "let's just put spikes on their wristbands" antics, and the character sprites look good, having shading, weight, and heft that lend them a robustness befitting the barbarian days. (An unfortunate choice was made, though, to have the enemies' skins get darker the tougher and badder they get; this would have to have been fixed for a mainstream overseas release.) The spells, even the combo spells, are a weak spot, as they have ambition but are a little lacking in graphical execution: Kain's final spell looks downright Commodore 64-ish, and only Sarah's sorcery could hold court with the original. The score follows the graphics' suit in its successes and failures: it's better-composed than II's but a little more generic than I's, with that Golden Axe barbarian-wilderness flair but instrumentation that's a little reedy.
Bizarrians, sadly, are a bust. The game's beasts of burden consist of these weirdo snails that spit out their globby tongues to attack, and two types of stubby lizards: one that throws foes with a shrug of its neck, and one that breathes an unimpressive short blob of fire that runs along the ground and probably won't connect with the enemy. The rides are weird but not really cool; plus, their attacks are easily dodged by enemies and don't make you feel significantly more powerful. I mostly skipped them, which I would never do with a GA1 Bizarrian.
There are, though, more successful tweaks, such as how certain stages will culminate with fights against possessed player characters, making for a more knock-down, fighting game-ish challenge. (Also, possessed Sarah announces her presence by nailing you in the head from offscreen with her jumpkick, which, given her Tyris Flare associations, I found a hoot.) Golden Axe's thieves now attempt a variety of gambits to pilfer your power-ups between levels, from rappelling on in ropes to playing keep-away with joints of meat; different tactics are required to thwart them, making for a fun minigame-ish distraction. You can also save captured civilians during the adventure to get extra lives, but the number of hostages you'll encounter differs depending on the route through the game you take, adding a dimension of strategy to your level selection. Then there's the unintended comedy on the game over screen, where the concluding overview of the route you fatally followed ends with an unceremonious "AND YOU DEAD", which would have become a meme if this game were more widely-known. Golden Axe III doesn't skimp on little extra touches, and it tries a heck of a lot that actually gives some thought on how to improve the Golden Axe formula, even though the execution is at times lacking. This is a long review, but - there's a lot here!
This conversation pales, however, to the debacle that is GETTING THE GOOD ENDING. Upon your first completion of Golden Axe III (which'll come quickly; game's kinda easy), you'll probably be informed that despite your efforts, the Golden Axe has been lost forever. Which, considering what Gilius wanted, mission accomplished, right? Well, no: that's the bad ending. Outside of the "lol how legit is this game???" circus, how to get the elusive good ending has become *the* controversy of Golden Axe III, with theories including some or all of the following requirements: free 10 captives; take the bottom route all the way through the game; play on Hard; don't use a continue; don't use most of your continues; don't be on your last continue when you reach the final boss; ensure the number of continues you have when you reach the final boss and the number of possessed characters you defeated throughout your game is greater than or equal to 4 (um...yes); get a rank of at least A, maybe ("I think it's possible to get the ending with a rank B, but I really think it's more to do with the actual score than the rank?"). Through my own gameplay, I can confirm that the 10 captives, bottom route, most continues, last continue, and "greater than or equal to 4" theories, at least independently, are not the key, despite GameFAQs endorsing the last one as of this writing.
Now, I did get the good ending once - I played on Hard, used the bottom route, got to the last boss with 2 continues left, and got a rank of A with a score of 718 (using Sarah). Given that all the good-ending runs currently on YouTube feature a rank of at least A (and that none of the bad-ending runs hit anything above a B), I'd have to say that rank/score is probably the key, with Hard mode, if you can clear it, just more likely to get you there.
I kind of hate having to give a score here. Golden Axe III is clearly the product of a respectable amount of time, effort, and, yes, love, particularly after the abysmal II, but major swaths of gameplay mechanics are rendered irrelevant, and while there's lot of heart, there's a lot of stuff in the corners that needed more ironing. It seems wrong to give it a 6 but unearned to give it a 7. I have to err on the side of caution, but here's a bottom line that perhaps matters more than any score: I *did* enjoy playing it.
Product Release: Golden Axe III (JP, 06/25/93)
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