It made a great deal of business sense for Sega to make a Golden Axe fighting game. The barbarian-fantasy brawling of Golden Axe ruled mightily over arcades in the late 1980s, but those days were long gone by 1994. Belt-scrolling brouhahas like Golden Axe were rarities compared to Street Fighter II and many other one-on-one fighters. So if an executive stomped into Sega’s arcade division and told them that Golden Axe was going to be a fighting game, nobody could’ve argued for long.
Not that Golden Axe: The Duel is poorly made. The pulp-fantasy trappings of earlier Golden Axes fit into a fighter pretty well, and Sega dressed it all up with detailed characters, rousing music, and some backgrounds that remain impressive today. Mechanically speaking, however, the designers jumped eagerly on what came before. The special moves and six punch-and-kick buttons are Street Fighter boilerplate, with some Samurai Shodown complexity in the most elaborate attacks. To this they added one fine Golden Axe tradition: kicking blue munchkins until they drop potions. The little scamps, now resembling Dark Crystal muppets, scurry in and out of the fight, and belting them releases vials to fuel your super-move meter.
Sega didn’t try any harder in filling out the character lineup. The descendants of the original game’s Barbarian Guy, Amazon Woman, and Dwarf are on hand alongside a robed wizard, a hulking forest giant, a dagger-wielding elf in Clockwork Orange makeup, and a girl in beastly furs (who’s basically Cham Cham from Samurai Shodown). Like the play mechanics, the warriors are casually engaging but unmemorable. They’re not offensively generic or annoying. They’re just there, like co-workers you rarely even see in the hall.
If I had to pick two favorites among them, they’d be the most ridiculously dressed. Milan Flare, the requisite amazon warrior, has a boardroom haircut and a business-casual battle bikini, perfect for the enemy-slaughtering executive on the go. Yet she’s the second-placer next to Panchos, a portly medieval bombsmith. He’s armored just about everywhere but his torso, and he jovially slaps his stomach when he emerges the victor. No one’s going to shame him into sensible battlefield garb.
A sequel might've turned Golden Axe's fighting-game foray into something memorable, but no redemption arrived. In fact, Sega ignored 2-D fighters for a good while after Golden Axe: The Duel. The 3-D appeal of Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers forged Sega's path in the genre, and there was no place there for sword-wielding women of Wall Street.
I will not tell you that Golden Axe: The Duel is an underrated pleasure among fighting games. If that’s what you want, try Asura Buster, Waku Waku 7, or the more recent Chaos Code. Golden Axe: The Duel is merely adequate in every respect, a workmanlike fighting game from an age where workmanlike fighting games could’ve been burned for fuel. But if I’m going to end this on a positive tone, I can say that it’s far from the worst Golden Axe out there.
But what is the worst Golden Axe? Good question. I’ll get back to you on that.