In the latest of her “Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games” series, Anita Sarkeesian examined what she refers to as “strategic butt covering” – the tendency for games to emphasise the buttocks of female characters as if they are the most important aspect of the character, while going to absurd lengths to avoid doing the same with male characters – and concluded that the solution is not for games to pay more attention to the essential, Male Ass, but in fact to try avoiding the objectification of their women as well as their men. Golden Axe provides a vision of a world that takes the alternative view.
You can, if you wish, play as TYRIS=FLARE, the amazon (her father and mother were killed by Death=adder), who wears a stellar example of the much derided chain-mail bikini into battle. But her male counterpart, AX=BATTLER, the barbarian (his mother was killed by Death=adder), is just as scantily clad, if not more-so. And the story in the villains’ camp is much the same; as you progress through the game, you will hack and slash your way through men and women alike, with at least as much 16-bit male flesh on display as female. Huge hulking brutes in tight briefs and shoulder pads and thigh-high boots. It’s positively 300 up in here.
If you prefer a more modestly dressed hero, however, there is the third option, GILIUS=THUNDERHEAD, the dwarf (his brother was killed by Death=adder). This was always my choice, and given his status as the series’ representative in future games like Sega Superstars Tennis, I suspect that I am not alone in this. Maybe it’s a prudish distate for the near nudity of the other playable characters, or that their image of physical perfection is more intimidating than relatable, maybe it’s just that in a game called Golden Axe, I thought I ought to pick the one with an axe (in spite of his name, AX=BATTLER wields a sword). I don’t know. It’s probably not anything to do with the way he plays; there are a few subtle differences between the three characters in the reach of their weapons and the way they build up magic, but they’re so slight as to be barely perceptible.
There’s nothing as epic as Golden Axe, at least according to the short-lived band Drive By Argument in the title of their best song. It is probably not a claim that would stand up to an awful lot of scrutiny, nor, I suspect, is it supposed to, but equally, it’s not a total non-sequitur. With Golden Axe comes the introduction of the Sega Mega Drive to our story, the first console to make a credible tilt at Nintendo’s throne. And one of the ways it did this was through technological superiority, having 16 bits to the NES’s 8, which, in practical terms, meant it was able to display graphics on a par with those found in the arcades at the time. Instead of playing a watered down, blocky version of the arcade greats, now you could play the real thing at home! What could possibly be more epic? Nintendo would, of course, come out with a 16-bit console of their own in due course, but it would never enjoy the almost total domination of the console market that the NES had. The Mega Drive and the SNES sold in roughly equal numbers, year-on-year.
For my part, I was firmly on the Sega side of this particular console war. Not that I have ever owned a Mega Drive, or indeed any other Sega console, but back when I was around nine or so, I had a friend named Elliot who did own one (and later, a Saturn), and I would visit his house fairly frequently for the express purpose of playing on it. Not for the pleasure of his company, or anything like that. Certainly, I remember precious little else of our friendship, or of Elliot himself. And while the bulk of our time was spent on exactly the Sega series you would expect, Golden Axe was definitely one of the other games we’d have played together. Which puts another spin on my choice of Gilius as my avatar; as the guest, I’d have been player two and therefore had second choice of character. But like so much else, I forget whether Elliot chose Ax-Battler or Tyris, a detail which seems at once completely irrelevant and yet absolutely vital. What would this choice say about him? What would it say about me?
Golden Axe distills the idea of the epic into its most basic elements; a journey through a fantastical realm in a quest for revenge against an enemy that absolutely, undoubtedly deserves it. It is an intensely simplistic plot, in an intensely simplistic game. Move to the right, beat up some bad guys, move to the right. And I love it. I love Golden Axe because I yearn for such simplicity, for a time when the world seemed to exist in black and white. When friendships could be sustained by nothing more than a shared interest in video games. When putting male characters into revealing outfits too would feel like equality. I want to be able to press a button to cast a magic spell that makes the bad guys go away. And also to ride around on a dragon that can shoot fireballs.