Golden Axe
Image: Sega

Once upon a time, Golden Axe was a key franchise for parent company Sega. It arrived in arcades in 1989 in the middle of an explosion of side-scrolling fighters, competing successfully with the likes of Double Dragon, Final Fight and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Alongside Altered Beast – which, coincidentally, shared the same lead designer in Makoto Uchida – Golden Axe would spearhead the Mega Drive's push for domestic supremacy by showcasing how accurately the console could replicate the arcade experience at home.

Sega followed up with sequels and spin-offs across several platforms, cementing Golden Axe's position as one of the firm's most recognisable properties. However, in recent years, the series has been somewhat forgotten – which means now is the ideal time to dust it off and talk about how great it was (well, apart from the rubbish bits, like Golden Axe: Beast Rider).

Below, we've ranked all of the main Golden Axe entries and have included multiple entries for the first game, mainly because it was the most-ported entry and each of the console versions is somewhat distinct. We've not gone as far as including the myriad home computer conversions, though, because we'd be here all day if we did. Sorry.

13. Golden Axe (TG-16)

As was the case with a few other notable Sega games on the PC Engine, Golden Axe wasn't ported by Sega itself but by Telenet, a company with a sketchy track record regarding the overall quality of its games. The end result is a shambolic mockery of the coin-op original cursed with terrible visuals, awful animation and, amazingly, no two-player mode. To make matters worse, the animated cutscenes that have been added to the game to "take advantage" of the CD-ROM storage space are abysmal; it takes superhuman willpower to sit through them even once, let alone multiple times. The sole upside is that the CD soundtrack is half-decent, but even that feels slightly too peppy when compared to the brooding, Conan-like brilliance of the original. This is easily the worst Golden Axe game in existence and one you should avoid at all costs.

12. Golden Axe (SMS)

The Master System port of Golden Axe was handled by Sega in-house, but it's only just better than the reprehensible PC Engine version. Like that edition, it's limited to one player, but you don't even get to select from three characters this time – Ax Battler is the only playable character, and he's been renamed Tarik here for some unknown reason. The animation is choppy and everything feels very scaled-down; the visuals are washed-out and rather poor, even by Master System standards, and the music is below-par. Because you can only play as Tarik, you get to choose from three different magic types, and there's a unique ending that isn't seen in any other version of the game. Even so, that's scant consolation for having to sit through one of the worst ports of the coin-op. Avoid.

11. Sega Ages 2500 Vol. 5: Golden Axe (PS2)

The Sega Ages 2500 range was a series of classic titles that were upgraded for the PlayStation 2 in Japan and released at bargain prices. Golden Axe gets a complete overhaul here, with 3D visuals and a new soundtrack, but the results aren't pretty. Everything feels wrong about the game; movement is awkward, attacks don't chain together like they do in the arcade version and it all ends up feeling a bit cheap and nasty – like a totally different game with Golden Axe on the title screen. The music is good, at least, with the coin-op's iconic themes given a grand audio makeover. Golden Axe was just one of 33 'volumes' released in Japan under the Sega Ages 2500 line; 9 of these titles (including Golden Axe) would be bundled together in Sega Classics Collection for western release.

10. Ax Battler: A Legend Of Golden Axe (GG)

The '90s were unquestionably the zenith for Golden Axe as a franchise, and Sega took advantage of the popularity of the series by releasing two RPG-themed spin-offs – Golden Axe Warrior on the Master System and Ax Battler: A Legend of Golden Axe on the Game Gear. Ax Battler is the least successful of the pair; like Zelda II on the NES, it alternates between a top-down view and side-scrolling action segments for battles and dungeon exploration, but the mix is nowhere near as successful. The issue is that neither of these sections is fleshed out as well as it could be; there are no 'hard' RPG elements like stats and gear, and the action sections – whilst looking fairly attractive – are a pain to play through due to the sluggish controls and frustrating enemies. It's a shame that Ax Battler wasn't put together with a little more care because the template here is interesting – it's just that the final product is too half-baked to hang together convincingly.

9. Golden Axe: Beast Rider (PS3)

In the 2000s, Sega went through a phase of trying to resurrect some of its classic franchises. While we got the excellent OutRun 2, we also got dross like the PS2 update of Altered Beast (so bad it was never released in North America) and Golden Axe: Beast Rider. Coded by American studio Secret Level (which later became Sega Studios San Francisco before being closed in 2010), this attempt to update the Golden Axe concept in 3D has some redeeming features; the combat system (when it works) can be fun, and there are some cool nods to the original thrown in for good measure. The problem is that there's so much wrong with Beast Rider that it's impossible to truly enjoy it; there's no lock-on system so actually connecting your attacks is frustrating, and Tyris Flare is the only playable character, which limits variety. Worst of all, there's no multiplayer mode, which seems foolish considering how much fun the arcade original is with two people. A sequel was apparently in development when the plug was pulled on Sega Studios San Francisco; on the evidence of this game, fans were spared further ignominy.

8. Golden Axe: The Duel (Saturn)

The mid-'90s saw one-on-one fighting game fever reach boiling point, and even Sega wasn't above shoe-horning its existing properties into such a title. Golden Axe: The Duel was, in the eyes of many fans, the wrong game at the wrong time. The amazing arcade sequel Revenge of Death Adder had been released a few years previously but hadn't been ported; instead, Sega put its energies into The Duel. Looking at it from a business viewpoint, that was the smart move – Street Fighter's success had made the one-on-one brawler the genre of choice, while belt-scrolling fighters were very much out of fashion. The issue is that The Duel isn't a particularly great example of this sort of game; while the visuals are fantastic, the cast of characters is uninspired, and the gameplay mechanics feel lightweight compared to what Capcom and SNK were pumping out at the time. Don't get us wrong, there are some nice ideas here – like the little thieves from the original game running around the arena dropping items – but Golden Axe: The Duel feels like a second-rate fighting effort from a period which was flooded with much better alternatives, and it carries the additional stigma of not being Revenge of Death Adder, the game fans actually wanted.

7. Golden Axe (WS)

The WonderSwan port of Golden Axe came at a time when there was very little happening with the series and caused a fair degree of excitement; after all, this was a portable version of the arcade original that you could play on the go! While Bandai's handheld does an admirable job at replicating the coin-op's graphics and even goes as far as to include the bonus level from the Mega Drive / Genesis port, it still feels like a little too much like a compromise. The hit detection is somewhat imprecise, making it hard to connect with enemies, while the music is a big downgrade on the arcade original. Even so, this is a decent handheld port of the game that's well worth a look if you're a serious fan of the franchise – provided you're comfortable with shelling out a fair amount of cash. Golden Axe on the WonderSwan is something of a collector's item today, you see.

6. Golden Axe Warrior (SMS)

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so Nintendo must have felt pretty flattered back in 1990 when Sega published Golden Axe Warrior on the Master System. The first series spin-off, the game is clearly based on the original Zelda on the NES, boasting similar character design and enemies – it even has flip-screen movement between locations. Despite taking an almost criminal degree of inspiration from Shigeru Miyamoto's '80s classic, Golden Axe Warrior is a fine game and actually manages to improve on The Legend of Zelda in many ways. The visuals and music are both excellent, and there's much more to interact with in the game's world, including towns to visit and more NPCs to converse with. It's still not quite as enjoyable an experience as Zelda is, but ranks as one of the Master System's best action adventures – even if the links between it and the original Golden Axe are limited at best.

5. Golden Axe III (MD)

Despite the frosty reception afforded to it at the time of release (it didn't get a physical release in the west and was only available in North America via the Sega Channel), there's actually a lot to like about Golden Axe III. The combat engine is expanded massively, perhaps in response to legitimate claims that the Mega Drive Golden Axe II was too similar to the original game. There are four characters to choose from, and each is blessed with different attributes and moves. Branching pathways mean you must play the game several times over to see everything, while special moves for each character add variety. The music is also superb, with several memorable tunes on offer. The biggest problem with Golden Axe III is that it's perhaps too ambitious for its own good; the combat, while boasting plenty of nuance, can be frustrating due to annoying enemies who have unblockable and unavoidable attacks. The visuals, too, are disappointing; while there's a lot of variety in foes and backgrounds, it's no exaggeration to say that the first two Golden Axe titles on the Mega Drive are more attractive. Even so, Golden Axe III isn't anywhere near as bad as history has made it out to be – again, like Golden Axe: The Duel, one of its biggest crimes is not being Revenge of Death Adder, which Mega Drive owners would have killed for at the time.

4. Golden Axe II (MD)

Golden Axe II came at a time when Sega was rapidly building momentum in the domestic market and was heavily reliant on its string of coin-op hits in its battle against Nintendo. The original game had been a smash hit both in arcades and living rooms, so a sequel was a dead-cert – the big problem here was that Sega rather lazily reskinned the first game and slapped the number two on the end of its title rather than create something totally new and different (as it would do with Streets of Rage II, you could argue). The end result is a game that's by no means terrible (hence its high ranking in this list) but also isn't different enough from its forerunner. Still, there are plenty of positives; the music is fantastic (especially the level one theme), the visuals are (generally) improved, and the two-player action is as fun as ever. Oh, and you can also choose how much of your magic meter your want to use, instead of expending all of your blue pots in one go. Golden Axe II might have been too close to Golden Axe for many people's liking, but it's still a decent belt-scrolling brawler.

3. Golden Axe (Arcade)

The game that started a franchise. Golden Axe hit arcades in 1989 and instantly stood apart from its rivals due to its fantasy setting, amazing visuals and fantastic music. Even today, it's incredibly enjoyable to play, especially when you can convince a friend to join in. The frantic action, inventive levels, use of magical attacks and ridable monsters all make Golden Axe feel like a Conan the Barbarian movie you can actually play; the biggest criticism you could level at it is the fact that it's perhaps over a little too quickly. Special mention must also go to the game's ending, which sees its cast of characters escape into the real world – something Makoto Uchida had also explored in the ending to Altered Beast. Sadly, this ending wouldn't make it into the Mega Drive port of the game.

2. Golden Axe (MD)

It might seem odd to place the Mega Drive / Genesis port of Golden Axe above the technically superior arcade version, but we have a good reason – the domestic version adds in an extra level and a new final boss, as well as a 'duel' mode. While the visuals aren't quite as nice as the coin-op, they're astonishingly close – so close, in fact, that many reviewers at the time of release swore blind that it was 100% arcade perfect. Minor shortcomings aside, the home port captures everything that made the arcade version so great, without the need to constantly feed it coins to keep playing. Perhaps the first real indication that Sega's 16-bit console was truly capable of bringing the coin-op experience to your living room, Golden Axe is a solid-gold classic.

1. Golden Axe: The Revenge Of Death Adder (Arcade)

Released in 1992, just as the popularity of the belt-scrolling fighter was starting to wane and Street Fighter II fever was taken over arcades, Golden Axe: Revenge of Death Adder is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the entire series. Running on Sega's powerful System 32 arcade board, it features smooth scaling, gorgeous animation, massive enemies and wonderfully evocative music. It's also a total overhaul of the first game (unlike the Mega Drive Golden Axe II, which is too similar to the original), replacing all of the characters and bringing in new ones with different attributes and magic. It's also a much longer experience – although, like many arcade games of the time, it is designed to suck coins and can get a little unfair at times. Still, with multiple players involved it's a wonderful way to spend an hour or two, and it's a crying shame that it never got a home port at the time of release; the Mega Drive wouldn't have been able to host a 100% faithful port, but the Saturn certainly could have done. Thankfully, the game has recently made it to the home via Sega's Astro City Mini micro-console.