By Joseph Walter
By rejuvenate, I mean remake the games with less-than Nintendo 64 quality graphics, unresponsive controls, a framerate that begs for death, and then, finally, defame the previously air-tight version of the game with one that is unfairly unplayable.
While others were somewhat passable (like "Space Harrier," and I mean somewhat) "Golden Axe" seems to have taken the biggest blow. Aside from an intro that adds a new layer to the oddly memorable plot, it goes from hilariously easy to impossibly difficult on a whim (and I use "impossible" with its literal definition) and has a framerate that is so weak in the knees that a scene of a flowing river drags the game down to a fatally slow pace.
It's apparent that the programmers all failed on the grandest scale imaginable, but there is one person on that cursed team that did their job, and took it beyond even my wildest dreams.
Using the already stellar themes from the original "Golden Axe" and then releasing them from the odd Genesis sound-chip shackles, the composer was able to show off the potential of these themes with synthetic orchestral versions that are far greater than what the entire "Sega Ages" line deserved.
An entirely new piece accompanies the surprisingly fantastic new intro. The first section of the piece focuses on woodwinds, a gentle choice considering the brutal nature of the Conan-like world. It transitions to a spectacular interpretation of the "Old Map" theme from the original game, this time with a mystical flair, as the titular Golden Axe's legend is explained. This is, unfortunately, the only time the "Old Map" theme makes an appearance, as the map interludes were inexplicably cut (and head-scratchingly awful cutscenes were added instead... but that's besides the point). As the intro begins to describe the game's villain, Death Adder, a section of his newly reinvigorated theme plays, which is simple but thrillingly effective.
The transition from "Opening" to the title screen theme "The Battle" is fantastically sharp. If, up until this point, you've only heard the music and watched the intro, you might be inclined to believe that this game was awesome (it's not). It takes all the thrill of the original version, although it's slightly less spine-tingly. A strong show of percussion and deep, menacing horns populate this brief piece. The sharp string hits are a great contrast to the masculinity of the main body. The title, "The Battle," is an interesting one for a main menu theme, but it's definitely a great foreshadowing to the amount of head-bashing and stabbing you'll be doing moments after pressing Start.
This version takes all the energy from this most remembered "Golden Axe" level theme and builds upon it with an outstanding use of counter-point, giving it a much fuller sound. It's the perfect theme to open a game about three folks banding together to beat the crap out of anyone who stands in their way on their quest to defeat Death Adder. Opening with an heroic battle anthem led by many powerful horns breaths an unbelievable amount of new life into the original tune. When the strings take their place, the brass counter-point is complex, powerful and just downright cool. 1:25 takes a somber turn with a militaristic drum beat, dire violin, and what can only be described as someone plucking the strings of a piano. That section evolves slightly with sinister timpani, symbol crashes, and string/horn combo before triumphantly returning to the main lick, which then transforms into a victorious, thrilling major mode rendition. This song, more than the previous two, exemplifies what's so fantastic about the SEGA Ages "Golden Axe" score. It proves that, despite the inferior sound quality and instruments of the Genesis version, there was extreme potential and talent in the writing. This version takes what was obscured by technical limitations and reveals its grandeur for all to see. Of course, the composer (God bless them, whoever they are) was not satisfied with a simple orchestration of the original, but instead opted to make it much meatier with a lot of fancy complexities in the background, calling to mind the work of Oscar Araujo with his "Lords of Shadow" score. Demanding particular attention, give a listen to the horns in the background during :28 - :57, and the percussion throughout.
It's very hard to appreciate the level of evolution with these reinterpretations of the "Golden Axe" themes, so here is the original Genesis version of "Wilderness" for comparison.
Turtle Village 1
After the dangerous wilderness, the trio of heroes march through the subjugated Turtle Village, decimating any foes that cross their path. Another outstanding arrangement of one "Golden Axe's" best songs, "Turtle Village 1" adds a ton of substance. The first thing you'll notice is its prominent and varied percussion at the start, a MASSIVE upgrade from its predecessor. An expert use of solemn strings quickly layers on top of the percussion, while a lone horn foreshadows the theme from the upcoming "Fiend's Path." It then takes an unexpected turn into a frantic cacophony of strings, sinister horns and screaming piccolo before returning to its main form once more. At 1:31, it goes in a new direction, with a more drawn out form of the intro, this time with more horns. We're then treated to a brief percussion solo before the track finally loops.
Both this and "Wilderness" are such gargantuan evolutions from their sources while easily proving the merit of the original compositions. However, there's one track that we've yet to reach that, although a slight tonal shift from its original incarnation, utterly trumps it in every way.
Another one of Golden Axe's more memorable tracks, the "Ages" rendition is a welcome, if not straight-forward, re-interpretation.
Sturdy, deep horns, backed by intense percussion (including shakers) prominently play the motif hinted at in "Turtle Village 1." High-flying strings add a hint of danger to the main motif at :21. The main horns drop out shortly after, but are replaced by awesome, resonant chimes that not only add an air of destiny, but are also a fantastic interpretation of the sound used in its Genesis counterpart. The counter-point during the strings and chimes sequence is stellar, as is the yearning return of the brass, which blends in nicely.
Following that sequence is a brief breakdown with stabs from the different horns. After that, we're given a reference to the boss theme, "Battle Field," before one final detour. The last section is a memorable sequence of descending horns, coupled with swirling strings, before regaining their composure in what could be described as a cathartic musical representation of a battered warrior slowly getting on their feet for a legendary last stand.
Turtle Village 2
A fitting rendition of the creepiest theme in the game. Managing to be both spine-tingling and menacing, this version "Turtle Village 2" embodies the dread that the players have when coming against the dangerous Skeleton enemies. The sick-sounding woodwind, ear-splitting strings, deeply threatening horns, and what sounds like a xylophone made of bones make for a short tune, but one that sticks with you.
This is the crowned jewel of the soundtrack. Out of all the tracks, this is the one that received the most in-depth revitalization. What made the original "Battle Field" stand out was its antithetical approach to the blood-pumping boss music of its era. Instead, it was a somber piece that traded in heart-pounding excitement for decisive duels. When it slowly rolled in, you knew something big was about to go down. The "SEGA Ages" version decided to forgo that pace and tone. While I have mixed feelings on that move (in theory), the final product more than makes up for any perceived slights towards the source material.
First off, "Battle Field" makes use of the most instruments and intense arrangements in the collection. It treats is past form as a skeleton (perhaps one of the dreaded skeletons from "Golden Axe" itself) and then endows it with new organs and flesh. The structure and native allure is still present, but now threatens the land with its immense new power.
Upon the start of the song, the percussion's precise punctuation makes itself known, then the sharp blasts of horn start the main motif, which is then given even more life by desperate strings. Following that, xylophones and heroic horns expand on what came before. As if the song wasn't complicated enough already, the composer elects to incorporate chimes and then strings to harmonize with them. 1:15 starts a sequence that sounds closest to the old version, but uses unique instruments. While the militaristic snare drum and hypnotically-looping strings fill the background, the song bravely chooses what sounds like a bassoon for the main motif, which is then followed by flutes (with a stabbing presence of strings) which then, against all odds, becomes what can only be described as a duel between clarinets and violins before the two, at the behest of the rest of the orchestra, join forces for a climactic build up that explodes into a the meatiest rendition of the main motif, complete with extra prominent timpani, yearning strings, outstanding chimes, and lionhearted brass. At 2:21 it all slows down into a contemplative chime, tuba, and string sequence before looping.
It successfully takes the soul of the original and just expands in every regard. Again, the original track is a unique, memorable, even haunting piece of music that fits the gameplay perfectly and gives the feeling of a warrior about to enter fateful, brutal fight, but it's such a departure in terms of simplicity that I recommend giving it a listen, too (which you can do right here). That way, you'll be able to appreciate it on its own terms, while also being able to appreciate what this version brings to the table.
Inexplicably played during the final stage instead of the final battle like its counterpart, "Showdown" is still a serviceable remix. Unfortunately, it's one of the few weak spots on the entire soundtrack, as it opted for a simple orchestration rather than an intelligent and intricate reinterpretation. Even stranger, its Genesis version is more effective due to its otherworldly soundfont. It's a major shame as "Showdown's" fateful tune is wasted with such a comparatively low-energy rendition with very simple orchestration. The stand-out part is the brief allusion to the "Battle Field" motif, but even that was more effective on the Genesis.
Finally, after being hinted at in the "Opening" score, the three warriors get to hear the full song for themselves while they confront the deadly, Golden-Axe-wielding warlord, Death Adder, himself.
Much like "Showdown" (but far from as severely), "Death Adder" loses some of its fateful mystique and supernatural sound that its Genesis forebear has. In its place, though, is a very forceful-sounding track, fitting for someone as brutal Death Adder.
A fateful horn, surrounded by threatening, ethereal strings, slowly builds to a climax, which erupts with an impressive display of orchestral power, containing the strongest, densest brass bursts on the soundtrack for the exciting and memorable theme of this particular track. It is a superb musical embodiment of the overwhelming, imposing power that Death Adder wields with the Golden Axe. This immediately transitions to the quick, electrifying, xylophone-centric motif heard in the "Opening," before going through an abrupt change of pace that slows the track down considerably. In this slow sequence, heavy horns and timpani play the xylophone motif before, just as abruptly, switching right back to the xylophone sequence.
All in all, an effective, stirring track that loses a little bit of the unsettling menace that the original oozed happily.
The thief's penchant for stealing the hard-earned magic jars of the main characters is represented perfectly in this whimsical interpretation of the original's charming tune. What sets this version apart is its unique set of instruments. Lots of woodwinds, but also delight hits from a tom-tom, and great use of percussion in the form of shakers and temple blocks.
Out of Context:
Also, once more, I must send my praises and prayers to the demigod composer who defied their inadequate contemporaries and produced something that transcends the most outlandish aspirations of this doomed venture.
Surely, they earned an A+++ Class with a strength score of (at least) 157.0 for their efforts.