"Sure, Axe is well drawn, with a gorgeous palette used shamelessly to adorn the exotic locales that your barbarian hero Gogan treks through to find Flare. But perhaps more importantly -- from the darkness of the forest, to the brightness of a mountain plateau; from the quiet mystery of a cavern, to the fanfare of one of the great final confrontations - Axe is dripping with that most elusive quality: atmosphere. "
Buy a Turbografx-16. Really. They're dirt cheap these days.
And it isn't often that a true work of art ends up on a video game console. True, Yoshi's Island did it with the Super NES. But even before that, The Legendary Axe was on full display on a much lesser known system, without the luxury of a big name developer or series to push it. Obvious to almost all who played it at any length, was the game's insistence that yes, everything it was doing, was as it should be.
Axe is a side-scrolling platform game released at a time where side-scrolling platform games dominated and flooded us up to our gameroom transoms with mediocrity. It was nothing new. Similarly, the game's premise is unremarkable: rescue your beloved girlfriend from the clutches of evil! -- we all groan in unison. But this is where the mundane ends, and the sublime begins. This time, the evil is Jagu, and he fills your screen, and meeting him is unlike meeting any other boss ever. His timing too, is impeccable: just as hack 'n slash fans clamoured for a decent port of the arcade game Rastan, they received a game that was superior in every way.
Sure, Axe is well drawn, with a gorgeous palette used shamelessly to adorn the exotic locales that your barbarian hero Gogan treks through to find Flare. But perhaps more importantly -- from the darkness of the forest, to the brightness of a mountain plateau; from the quiet mystery of a cavern, to the fanfare of one of the great final confrontations - Axe is dripping with that most elusive quality: atmosphere.
The cast of characters advances the atmosphere as much as anything else. Leaping axemen learn new tricks, and return in later levels to backflip and lunge low at your legs. Frog men, perhaps on the order of Dagon, burst cracking out of the seas to offer up flames from their lungs. Flipping amoeba creatures spit and twist and roll in the echoing darkness of blue caves. Orange rock men reveal their true selves, startling you as they hack with stone arms on the resplendence of the soaring plateaus. Bosses include clawing giant bears, monstrous spear-bearing twins, the fireball-hurling cult lieutenant, and even a magical boulder. Jagu's monster menagerie is the timeless stuff of favourite cartoons.
To further immerse the player in that atmosphere, Victor Musical Industries, operating within the 'limitations' of the Turbo's sound chip, created the best score possible. I often dream of a fully orchestrated version of this score being available in some obscure import store somewhere, waiting for me. The audiovisual experience captures you, transports you, and blocks out real-life freedom until the game is quite finished -- or you are.
Because finishing Axe won't be easy. It's a hard game by anyone's standards, but thankfully the difficulty curve is perfect. Gogan's only friends are his axe, Sting, and your persistence, so each time you play, you will pack continues onto your back and venture a little further, and see a little more of all there is to see. You begin with three lives and three continues, but you'll earn extra men by racking up points. The crystal items you find by cracking open idols will aid you towards this end.
The really crucial items to uncover though, are the mask -- that increases your axe's power in 25% increments -- and the wing that increases its speed.
Axe's brilliant game design will become more apparent as the proceedings unfold. You will not see Sting fully powered up until the later stages of the game -- the pacing is quite deliberate. When you swing your axe, a meter at the top of the screen drops. You must wait a few seconds for it to go back up, meaning that rapid swings are weaker than spaced out ones. Also, the more your axe is powered up, the longer that meter becomes, and thus the longer you have to wait for it to rise to full again. When Sting's meter has reached 100% potency, a single mighty blow from it will destroy almost any enemy -- stopping time, flashing the screen white, rending the air with the tall voice of thunder.
A common dilemma you will face when confronting a strong enemy is this: should I attack at full strength, then retreat, letting my meter rise before attacking again? Or should I get close and use comparably weak, but rapid strokes to attack?
This deceptive depth in gameplay is what makes Axe so rewarding. The adventure manages to avoid being merely mindless without confounding us with complexity. Like a good drama, it will seize your attention and hold it, as you experience with the main character his growth in the face of rising challenges until the story culminates on the grand stage that Jagu has set. The flashing madness that prefaces his arrival, then his actual magical manifestation -- it's all on a level of grandeur simply not seen before in this type of game.
Put simply, The Legendary Axe is a perfectly executed crescendo -- and that's not idle hyberbole, as much as it might read that way. The game reeks of quality, from Gogan glowing different colours as he powers up, right down to the exceptional storybook-like cover art. I cannot recommend more what I consider to be one of the great platform games of all time. The look, sound, feel, technique and difficulty are all, just as they should be.
Now go out and buy a Turbografx-16 and let Flare's oppressors feel the Sting of your conviction! Or at least borrow one, and this Turbochip game. Woe is the lender.
Staff review by Marc Golding (December 05, 2003)
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