What is it about beat-em-ups? They certainly allow us to release a lot of our pent up frustrations with the world around us, when the mood is right. Maybe it’s how easy it is to go running down the levels kicking various bad guys (and bad chicks!) asses, that feeling of cracking someone’s skull with a pipe, before I go and eat some chicken off the floor. The ultimate in badassery behaviour. Especially the chicken part, that stuff could have been left out too long.
Ask anyone their favourite side-scrolling beat-em-up series, and they’ll invariably tell you one of a few choice answers; Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Final Fight, or Double Dragon. All great answers, all worthy winners of the title but I want to concentrate on two trilogies, which featured on the same console, and follow nearly the exact same formulas of presentation; Golden Axe, and Streets of Rage (SoR).
Golden Axe was released on the SEGA Mega Drive / Genesis in 1989 after previously being available to play only in arcades. It was truly a wonder to be playing such a title on the SEGA home console, especially so soon after it had been released in the arcades. It was a very faithful port, ensuring you no longer had to venture out with your hard earned pennies to kick goon ass. The game came with magic spells, mountable creatures to do your bidding, and a difficulty that only seemed to increase as the game continued. Great playable characters with the best names ever (Gilius Thunderhead!!!) ensured you felt you could find yourself in some way linked to this trio. Guys never played as the chick though. You just don’t do that.
With no great reputation from an arcade release helping it along, Streets of Rage, is released 2 years later to rave reviews, being compared to the arcade greats of the time in Double Dragon and Final Fight. What Golden Axe did for a medieval setting, SoR did the same for the modern day. Introducing 3 characters in Axel Stone, Blaze Fielding, and Adam Hunter, the game followed our heroes as they attempted to take down the dreaded Mr. X’s criminal organisation. Level after level you’d be tackling the streets, ships, even dreaded elevators in your crusade to take down the evil bad guy and celebrate with your partner on a job well done! (or not… let’s not go there right now!)
Graphically, Golden Axe does the job a lot better with larger sprites and enemies which manage to ramp up the tension during the more difficult battles. The playable characters have more personality to them and fantastic looking stances, whereas SoR’s characters all come across very robotic, static. The enemies in Golden Axe just look EVIL. They look grotesque, dirty, they do just come across like beings you wouldn’t want to meet after devouring your 4AM Big Mac after a night on the sauce. SoR is just ridiculous with the bad guys. You get boomarang throwing, denim wearing guys who look more like they have issues with their arms than any actual desire to hurt you. A blatant rip-off of Freddy Krueger is on hand to try and rip you to shreds with his Wolverine gloves. Wrestlers, fire flinging clowns, palette swaps of Blaze… it’s just a weird crew in a game that’s supposed to be set in the streets of a New York style city. At least Mr. X looks pretty kickass with his machine gun there. As does Golden Axe‘s Death Adder with his own big axe. Which has it’s own plethora of spells to own you with. A nice axe that.
Levels look better in Golden Axe, but a lot of this plays to the game’s medieval setting. SoR features a level on what feels like the world’s longest ever boat, it just drags on and on and to be fair, while you’re playing you don’t notice the length of the ship. Go back and play it, it’s a monster! On the other hand, a level which sees your warriors fighting on an eagle’s back in Golden Axe seems just right after you just used a dragon to fry your enemies. And those spells look simply awesome. Boulders come crashing down while earthquakes rage and Gilius the little dude has some great looking lightning bolts going on. Tyrus however, wins the battle of the coolest spells. ALL her flame attacks just reek of epic-ness with the winner of course going to the dragon who comes roaring in from the side of the screen to obliterate everyone. The detail is great in both games, it’s very clear where you’re going, and there’s so many smart little touches going on, it’s a pleasure to view the action. Golden Axe just does the whole package a little more professionally, while SoR just feels silly at times.
It would usually be so easy to say that as they’re both beat-em-ups, they play very similar however in this case, they are so very different. SoR is clunky, and very slow. You’re restricted to simple walking and a jump. For tough guys and gals on the street, you wouldn’t be rushing to have them at your side. In fact, this is one example where a guy playing would want to play as the female, simply because Blaze is so much faster than the chaps here. In this case guys should ALWAYS play as the chick.
Golden Axe is extremely fluid in your character’s movement and you can run! This is a massive boost when it comes to taking on some of these enemies as the AI is programmed to cheat when there’s more than one on screen. You remember those frustrating times when you’d have two enemies slowly scissoring either side of you? No matter how you moved up or down they would follow in the EXACT SAME movements as if they were chained to you and you were stuck trying to break away from them. My anger would easily be represented here by the same sound given by an enemy who just died in-game.
Streets of Rage feels a lot more fair and it’s rare to feel the same kind of screwjob here. However, the bosses are really over-powered, with notable examples being the wrestler, the fire-breathing fat-so, and hell’s angels themselves… Mona and Lisa. You would have to have some real luck with you in the later stages to get through without losing lives, and naturally you’d be thankful to have your SWAT Car powerup on hand to help you doing the job.
On the press of a button, a SWAT car will come rolling in several screens down from where you’re currently fighting and unleash a volley of explosive abuse down upon the enemies on your screen. Golden Axe matches, and beats this for sheer awe, by including fire, ice, and lightning spells into the mix, and it fits in with the feel of the game perfectly. This part-time SWAT car almost feels insulting when your heroes are trawling the streets and getting rough and ready with the worst of them. Where the hell is the car in the mean-time, scraping donuts off fifth avenue?? Golden Axe also has the dragon, I mean it wins right there.
Both titles had their own unique ‘pickups’. Golden Axe saw you being able to ride different creatures which had different methods of attack, and naturally everyone wanted to find that mini-dragon whose flame would make barbecued meat of any of the bad guys within one or two attacks. Streets of Rage had no rideable creations, but it did allow you to pick up and throw pepper pots to make your enemies sneeze. AND THEY ACTUALLY SNEEZE. It is then great to pick up a lead pipe to crack the poor sneezing sod’s head in with. That should cure any headache. Then there’s the health pickups! Ranging from apples to chickens and joints of meat, finding food on the street and fields has never felt more satisfying.
Sadly, that’s about as far as pickups went with both series. SoR did introduce more weapons, and Golden Axe tried to vary the creatures on hand but really, it was the same stuff with each title. It would have been nice to see more variation, more interaction with the environments, just something else that would have you feeling like you’re a larger part of the areas you find yourself tackling.
Of course, we can’t forget about the multiplayer aspect of the games, because we have so many fond memories as kids of playing with our brothers, sisters, friends, enemies, anyone who wanted to join you in the quest for righteousness. Golden Axe doesn’t really do anything with the idea though. Sure, you can play 2 player, but other than annoyingly striking each by accident (or on purpose), there’s nothing else it really brings to the table. You could almost say the same for SoR UNTIL… we get to that final scene with Mr. X and you both have to finally decide where your loyalties lie. You’re both going to take him down? Awesome! Hang on… you want to side with him? Not me! FIGHT TO THE DEATH! Hang on… what if we BOTH work for him instead??
***NEVER EVER CHOOSE TO BOTH WORK FOR MR.X***
You will cry tears of pain. Seriously though, it was a fantastic twist to the game and one that has very rarely ever been incorporated into games since. Sure you can go down the evil route in some games or stay honest and true, but when you’re both given the option to opposite ways?? It was unique.
Music? Simply wow. To both games. The soundtracks are not only awesome but both series featured fantastic tunes to break knee caps to. SoR has a wonderfully chilled title theme which then breaks apart for some heavy bass, and slick synthesisers before all hell breaks out with the siren filled boss music. It’s an 80s electronica fans wet dream.
Title Theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f10CtaCoeVI
Level 1 Theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bf-EGuMfag
Boss Theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruRk1O-dH-c
Golden Axe introduces its title theme with the beat of some dragon-skinned drums, and a tingly little keyboard deal going on. Level 1 brings us to possibly the most famous of the Golden Axe series’ tunes, sounding like a sped up version of the Terminator theme. It sounds epic and assists well in the stabbing of a meathead’s derriere. The boss theme I always felt left a lot to be desired mind you, it just doesn’t feel hectic enough.
Title Theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-_JSjE56Js
Level 1 Theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oplzMrgPA4I
Boss theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRJt-Pcsr2E
Sound effects are also top notch, with the weapons of Golden Axe feeling particularly satisfying when you manage to bring an enemy to his knees and take the hilt of your sword to his cranium. The spells are accompanied with incredible roars of flame, crashing boulders, and buzzing shocks, and everyone grunts and groans at the right moments. SoR comes with the delicious sounds of breaking glass bottles, stabbing knives, and crunching pipes. It falls behind Golden Axe a little in vocals, simply because the enemies give the weirdest little ‘ERCK!!!’ noises when you kill them, but this can be forgiven as it’s a pleasure to see their bodies disappear.
Golden Axe is the better of the first titles for both of these series. There’s no question about that. It’s fast, it visually edges out SoR, it feels more satisfying taking out these trolls who insist on destroying everything in the world. SoR is still a great first entry in its series, but it feels slow and cumbersome in comparison to the arcade hit across the road. It needed a lot of fixes if it was to step up to the plate later on. It definitely featured the better soundtrack which would stand the test of time though.
The years following were mostly great to both of these series, and we ended up with a further 4 releases in the space of as many years. What did occur however, was a total seesaw effect. The second entries in both series arrived and SoR really ramped up the quality with far faster gameplay, extra characters to play as, and it suddenly had more vibrant looking visuals than the suddenly muddy looking Golden Axe. Streets of Rage 2 is considered the top title in the series though I always thought the difficulty was a little off the charts at some places especially when bald headed bosses were involved. Golden Axe 2 is the best in the series for me, following very closely and I gain as much pleasure from playing it as I do from SoR2, I really feel they’re so close in their quality.
There is no point in even trying to compare the 3rd titles between the two series, as Golden Axe 3 was such a mess that Sega decided against even releasing it in Europe for fear that it would ruin the the series and their reputation. It had some nice new ideas thrown into the mix that separated it a little from the prequels, but nothing worthwhile enough to include in this here article. Streets of Rage 3 on the other hand was in a league of its own with a fantastic new power move system being introduced that didn’t take away from your health anymore, better graphics than ever, and it felt a little less crazier (literally) than 2 which helps. No fighting kangaroos here. What the hell was all that about?
Does the future hold much for both gaming properties? Gaming wise, probably not. Golden Axe had an attempt at a revival fall flat on its face when SEGA released Golden Axe: Beast Rider. It failed miserably to light the Earth on fire with reviewers insisting us nostalgic lot should just stick to what we love best. A very odd piece of news arose earlier this year however which states that SEGA have actually struck a deal with ‘Hollywood producers, studios, writers, and directors’ to create various movies, TV shows and animated features based on 40 SEGA licences (http://www.stories-llc.com/film-tv-digital/sega-projects/). FORTY. Is there seriously that much demand out there for this? Needless to say, Golden Axe and Streets of Rage are both apparently ‘in development’ as actual feature films, so take that for it’s worth. Do I want to see Axel Stone in a real life form? I don’t know if it might sully the wonderful memories I have of playing as him in the games all those years ago. Now Blaze and Tyrus Flare on the other hand…
Sidenote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulVuHxOm04Q If this isn’t the greatest map screen music in history ever, then Suikoden must have took first place instead!
Follow Carl on Twitter: @Auto2112