Golden Axe II was less clunky and easier than the first Golden Axe, resulting in a more playable version of the Genesis original. Appropriately, Golden Axe III can often seem like further improvement of the formula. But as I zipped through the game’s stages, I came to an unfortunate conclusion: Golden Axe III is a slicker yet neutered version of the hack n’ slash classic.
Golden Axe III is perhaps the best-looking game of the bunch on the Genesis. The animation is more fluid, and the sprites have more detail. While the backgrounds are still not great, they have more life than those of the previous two games (the stage where you fight on top of a flying eagle is pretty awesome). One downside is that the colors in Golden Axe III are nowhere near as vibrant as they were in the first game. Another limitation is the overall beast design, which has dropped off. The main beast is a dinosaur snail thing – yep, it looks pretty stupid.
Following suit with the first two Golden Axe games, the sound effects are a mixed bag. The death groans in Golden Axe III are neither outrageous (as in the first game) nor uninspired (as in the second game’s “Bleh!”), but the groans lack personality even though they might be technically superior. The hacking and slashing sounds fine, but the blunt attacks now sound weird. The worst sound effect has to be the dinosaur snail’s tongue attack.
The biggest disappointment, however, is the music. Golden Axe III has some good music, but half of it doesn’t even sound like it should be in a Golden Axe game. For example, the music in the second stage sounds urban and reminds me of Streets of Rage. The mixed-up soundtrack essentially means that Golden Axe III doesn’t have the same dangerous tone as its predecessors.
Finally, Golden Axe feels like a dream … for the most part. In III, you can unleash combos on enemy after enemy and generally feel in complete control. The game adds a quick low attack (down + attack) and weapon projectile attacks that make fighting even more rewarding. The grappling and throwing also feel much smoother. The clunkiest feature is blocking, which is performed by pressing the attack button and holding the direction that you aren’t facing. Needless to say, the block is not as responsive as other moves. Sometimes I accidentally do a block when I just want to attack, which creates a few awkward moments.
The smoother combat can be fairly fun. At the same time, the challenge of the game has been gutted, and this isn’t just due to the superior control. The enemies are simply dumber than they’ve ever been in Golden Axe; they no longer stop at nothing to backstab you and make your life a living hell. You’ll also rarely see more than two or three enemies on the screen at once, which is fairly strange: Golden Axe III was released in 1993, but Streets of Rage 2, released in 1992, had a far higher average number of on-screen enemies. In short, Golden Axe III has smoother gameplay but lazier AI.
My other big complaint is that the beasts in Golden Axe III suck. The dragon’s fire attack is extremely lame, and another beast is practically useless: you have to be very close to perform its throw attack, but most of the time, the move doesn’t even work! Sure, the game’s multiple pathways in certain stages are kind of neat, but I would rather have cool beasts than multiple pathways. The piss-poor beast design destroys an important feature of the Golden Axe series.
Perhaps the saving grace of Golden Axe III is the four new characters, though two of them (the warrior and amazon) are similar to previous characters. The four character choices might give you a reason to play this odd Golden Axe game again. Golden Axe III also retains multiplayer and The Duel options, as well as difficulty settings.
Unfortunately, the Golden Axe series on the Sega Genesis ended with this game. Even though Golden Axe III makes several changes to the Golden Axe formula, it seems more repetitive than either of the previous entries. No wonder the 2008 Golden Axe: Beast Rider (360, PS3) knocked the beast riding out of the park: Sega must have felt guilty for killing the most fun part of the Golden Axe series with this third entry.