Might Have Been: Golden Axe: The Duel

[Might Have Been tracks the failures of promising games, characters, and companies. This installment looks at Golden Axe: The Duel, released for the arcade and Sega Saturn in 1995.]  

Golden Axe: The Duel brings back fond memories. They’re not actually memories of the game; I’m sure I played it on the Sega Saturn in its day, but never with immense devotion or in notable circumstances. No, it just reminds me of a time when just about everything was a fighting game. Claymation dinosaurs? That was a fighting game called Primal Rage…and another called Dino Rex. DC Comics’ superheroes? That was a fighting game called Justice League Task Force. Spheres stuck together in humanoid shapes? That was a fighting game called Ballz, though it was rarely called that without a snicker or a roll of the eyes.

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.


  1. Panchos, Right? This sounds like "belly" in my language. Do you think this is what they were going for?

  2. Anonymous3:14 PM

    Interesting. I actually bought this game about a week or two back for next to nothing. For me, everything about the game was adequate enough but one things - the soundtrack.

    For me, this was the game-breaker. Without a decent soundtrack, I find it very hard to play through most arcade games.

    Not that you mention it, it is strange Sega didn't jump on the 2D fighter bandwagon more, after the success of SF2, despite their success with the 3D fighter market with Virtua Fighter. Then again, Capcom gave Sega a lot of support for the Saturn with their various 2D fighting series, and I'm sure Sega knew if they'd resorted to cashing in on the craze, Capcom probably wouldn't have been so smitten with them.


  3. Anonymous3:41 PM

    Worst Golden Axe game? The Master System version of the original was pretty irritating and so was Ax Battler on the Game Gear. Surprisingly, Golden Axe Warrior is a pretty good clone of the original Zelda.