Golden Axe: The Duel is one of those curious cases of what became of Sega's more popular franchises following the end of the Mega Drive's lifespan. It was finally time for the company to move on from its 16-bit powerhouse, and to the average fan, the anticipation of seeing Sega franchises like Shinobi, ThunderForce, Streets of Rage, maybe a new Eternal Champions, and Golden Axe make its transition to the Saturn. When Golden Axe: The Duel was announced, I remember being kind of excited, but at the same time a little confused that it was a fighting game.
I would've preferred a home port of 1992's Revenge of Death Adder, but I absolutely love fighters, so this could be interesting. This was the mid-90's, the golden age of tournament-based fighting games, many studios were trying their hand at them. Golden Axe was a brawler, the genres are essentially cousins, series is made for it.
The third coin-op game in the franchise, Golden Axe: The Duel was ported to the Sega Saturn in 1995, hitting the United States in 96. The plot involves many warriors from across the world seeking Gillus Thunderhead's magical axe, which was used to defeat Death Adder in the previous encounter. The playable characters are Kain Blade, Milan Flare (a descendant of Tyris, one of the heroes from the first two Golden Axe games) jungle girl Jamm, demolitionist Panchos, veteran teacher known simply as "Doc", elf mage Keel, Gillus Rockhead (Thunderhead's great grandson), plant-man Green, and sorcerer Zoma. Death Adder is also selectible. The lore does have ties to the series, but beyond some bloodline descendants, very little of it ties with any kind of cohesion with previous entries in the Golden Axe series.
Visually, Golden Axe: The Duel looks around the standard of most fighting games per this era. With its weapon-based warriors, impact flashes, and scenic backgrounds, it always gave me Samurai Shodown vibes. The game has fine animation, albeit a little stiff. While the sprites pack a respectable amount of detail, none of the warriors seem to flow with any agility. It has some well animated backgrounds, and the endings are decently drawn. When it comes to bringing the graphical quality of 2D arcade fighting games to home, the Sega Saturn was very good at accomplishing that feat more than either the N64 or the PlayStation.
While the game controls fine enough, The Duel is pretty disappointing from a gameplay perspective. By 1996 standards, it plays like most other games in the genre by this time, but nothing that separates it from the variety of King Of Fighters or the speed of Street Fighter Alpha or Night Warriors: Darkstalkers Revenge. It's got a modest combo system and some powerful Super Moves, there's no problem executing them. The problem is, there's a strong chance you'll doze off with the controller in your hands.
I can really only recommend this game for avid collectors. If you looked over Golden Axe: the Duel, you realistically missed very little that pretty much any other competent fighting game could provide. The hand-drawn sprites do look decent, but none of these characters left any kind of impression on me besides Jamm, who looks like Cham-Cham Samurai Shodown II. The controls lack personality, the music is alright, though I doubt any of these tunes will be lodged in the brain. For its first foray in the tournament fighter arena, Golden Axe: The Duel ends up being a rather milquetoast offering.
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