"Since just walking through a jungle, cavern, or castle wouldn't be nearly exciting enough, Gogan found himself an axe. A REALLY BIG axe. He can't throw it like Simon Belmont, he can't use it as a boomerang (Lycos of Shape Shifter), and he can't summon magical thunderstorms from it (Gilius of Golden Axe). But Gogan can SWING that axe!"
Legendary Axe was one of the first releases for the TurboGrafx, a competent hack-and-slash platformer that demonstrates some noticeable (and surprising) improvements over the typical 8-bit NES action-game fare. Take charge of the heroic caveman GOGAN, heft your mighty axe, and set forth into the woods to tear some demons and butterflies apart. Axe proves that the "caveman concept" is a viable premise. However, it still suffers from several drawbacks that bar it from classic status.
Like the typical left-to-right platformer, loincloth-clad hero Gogan (out to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend... imagine that!) runs and jumps through lush scenery while fending off legions of enemies. The landscapes, be they vivid green jungles, blue-streaked rivers, or glowing red caverns, are colorful -- however, the backgrounds are formed from tile patterns (similar to old RPG's like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy), so they lack in detail. Furthermore, since there's no parallax, there's little sense of depth -- especially when compared to later 16-bit titles. Nonetheless, the forest's vibrant greens put the pale foliage of Ghouls 'n Ghosts to shame.
So, you'll take control of Gogan and walk (not run) through these still-life settings. In his favor, Gogan walks quickly -- this is no Yuko Ahso*.
[*Yuko Ahso is the heroine of Valis, episodes one through three. She moves pitifully slowly, despite her 'running' animation. I like the level design and gameplay mechanics of Valis. I don't like the attractive sprite's snail-paced movement.]
Since just walking through a jungle, cavern, or castle wouldn't be nearly exciting enough, Gogan found himself an axe. A REALLY BIG axe. He can't throw it like Simon Belmont, he can't use it as a boomerang (Lycos of Shape Shifter), and he can't summon magical thunderstorms from it (Gilius of Golden Axe). But Gogan can SWING that axe! There's the swing, the jumping swing, the ducking swing, and... that's it. Does this sound shallow? Well, it's really not. At the top of the screen is this nifty little meter. As you stand and wait, it acquires power and turns red. The redder it gets, the more powerful the impact. However -- once you press that button to strike a foe, the bar is entirely depleted! So, you need to make sure those swings connect.
Basically, you can slice quickly but feebly (mash the button), or slowly and devastatingly (let the power gauge fill up). This adds a nice bit of strategy. For something like the axe-tossing Nomads -- imagine a big, bald, goonish caveman -- a weak axe slice will suffice. When facing a GIGANTIC ROLLING BOULDER, you've got to run and let your power charge, else there's no hope. A fly swatter won't do diddly to ten tons of granite! If you've played Valis, then you'll be right at home with the Weapon Meter System. However, unlike Valis, powered-up swings will not suddenly send laser beams streaking forth from your axe. The weak slice and the strongest slice are essentially the same in appearance and range -- the difference being the amount of damage dealt.
This system doesn't come without its drawback, however. Fans of fast-paced action might want to look elsewhere -- since you often have to plan accordingly (Do I continue onwards? Do I stop and let the axe recharge?) this is a more strategic experience, which will appeal to some and turn off others. You'll need an intelligent (and patient) mindset to succeed at Legendary Axe.
Complementing the intelligence required of the player, is the resourcefulness of the enemies. Even the simple nomads will jump and flip to avoid you, or they'll run at you and LEAP at the last moment, hitting you in the head as your axe slashes through the empty space where they used to stand. Often, multiple types of enemies will attack at once -- from the right and left, acid-spitting amoebas. The obvious solution is to leap over their shots -- however, vampire bats and poisonous moths patrol the skies, so you need to be prepared to fight as you jump. This game keeps you on your toes, and that's a good thing.
Unfortunately, there are moments of cheapness scattered about. For example, the Punjabbi (shield-bearing, spear-wielding giants). Their thrown spears can be ducked, but if they decide to poke their pointy sticks at you... SORRY! You get hit and lose a lot of life! Now one alone can be dealt with, but the fight against two of them, while exciting, isn't even remotely fair -- as you're trying to recharge your Axe Gauge to get a second hit against the behemoth on the right, the guy from the left will creep right up on your ass. And then you're screwed! It's a situation where the only consistent way to win... is to try again and hope that this time, the terrible twins won't crowd you to death. If Gogan had the ability to deftly dodge their blows, the enemies' cleverness wouldn't be a drawback. In that case, even if they could negate all of your attacks -- and they can -- at least then, a (skilled) gamer could negate all of theirs, too. But setting my utopian fantasyland aside, Axe sometimes forces you to take hits (and possibly die).
Towards the end of the game, be it dispatching multiple bouncing monkey-men (shake one off only to have another latch onto your back) or dealing with rooms of poking Punjabbi, much of your success is dependent more on luck than on any self-imposed sense of timing. There are several instances of annoying, frustrating gameplay in Legendary Axe, from aggravating "Jungle Hunt" rope swinging, to the Castlevania-style bouncebacks (into pits) when you get hit -- except that Axe will also sometimes knock you forwards. Into a pit.
Holding the game back further is its simplistic level structure. Most of the stages are more straightforward and more easily managed than what you'd find in Ninja Gaiden or the Mega Man games. The instruction manual proudly proclaims "find keys to open secret areas!" There's exactly one key in the game -- it's a one-shot secret in the third level. That's a nice inclusion, but when a game already has several foibles, it needs more coolness than such a minimal "secret" to establish itself as worthwhile amongst the hundreds of platformers available today.
When compared to close contemporaries, such as Shinobi 3 or Super Castlevania 4, Gogan's adventure doesn't quite measure up to Shinobi's secret-laden levels or Simon Belmont's superior abilities and control. Nonetheless, Legendary Axe still offers solid platformer action, and I can easily recommend it to all the HuCard-starved Turbo lovers out there.
Staff review by Zigfried (January 16, 2004)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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