One of the best things about gaming in the modern age is that the power of today’s consoles allows developers to pay homage to pretty much any era of gaming they choose to — and in many cases even improve on that which they’re paying homage to.
To put it another way, we’re in a position where developers can quite feasibly create retro-style games that look, sound, feel and play in the way that we’d like to remember old games, rather than how they actually were in many cases. And Battle Axe, a Kickstarter-funded collaborative effort between “modern retro” specialists Bitmap Bureau and pixel artist Henk Nieborg (Contra 4, Shantae, Shakedown: Hawaii, Xeno Crisis), is a fine example of just that.
In Battle Axe, you (and, optionally, a friend playing with you in local co-op) take on the role of one of three characters who have sworn to bring peace to the land of Mercia by splattering the local evil sorceress Etheldred across the nearest wall, and perhaps rescuing a few villagers from slavery along the way. In true retro tradition, though, this is not a game where narrative matters one jot; once you hit the Start button, you’re right into the action without waiting around.
Nieborg’s original intention for Battle Axe was to pay homage to Ed Logg’s classic Atari Games coin-op Gauntlet, but also incorporate elements from a number of Japanese arcade games such as Golden Axe, Capcom’s Dungeons & Dragons beat ’em ups and Knights of the Round. (There’s also a hefty dose of Zombies Ate My Neighbours in there, too, though Nieborg doesn’t specifically cite that as a reference.)
To that end, Battle Axe has been designed as a short-form game that can be enjoyed for a few minutes at a time, or engaged with in the long term in pursuit of high scores and unlocking achievements or game modes.
And despite Battle Axe’s obvious arcade inspirations, this is not a game you can credit-feed your way through; if you want to see the end, you’re going to have to get good, since there’s no continue system. The game has, however, obviously been designed for play in the home rather than to extract coins out of the pockets of impressionable ’80s and ’90s youngsters, and as such always feels very fair; there’s nothing like Gauntlet’s irritating “constantly declining health” mechanic, for example.
Battle Axe unfolds as a top-down action adventure with relatively linear levels, albeit with occasional branching paths leading you to optional treasures or enemy encounters. As you progress through each stage, you’ll need to rescue all the villagers you come across, and to move on to the next level, you’ll need to fight a boss. Between stages, you can use the coins you’ve earned to purchase power-ups or healing, and you ultimate aim is either to take down Etheldred — or at the very least, bag as high a score as possible along the way.
Each of the three playable characters in Battle Axe handles markedly differently and caters to a specific play style. Dark Elf Fae, for example — who is fairly transparently a female, bikini-clad version of R.A. Salvatore’s classic Drizzt character — has rapid melee attacks with her twin swords, while druid Iolo (possibly a reference to legendary RPG series Ultima) has powerful, rapid-fire projectiles. Pirate Rooney, meanwhile, offers something of a balance between the two play styles, slightly favouring ranged attacks.
All the characters have a special move that can be used as both an attack and a means of enhancing mobility; Fae performs a spinning attack that cuts through enemies, for example, while Iolo just teleports a short distance in the direction he’s facing, splattering anyone unfortunate enough to be standing at his destination. Alongside this, various collectible items can be used when needed; chicken and potions can restore health, magic scrolls act as a “smart bomb”, clearing everything on screen, and bombs can be thrown at enemies to deal hefty damage over a small area.
The game’s inspiration from Gauntlet is most clear to see when encountering the “enemy generators” scattered around each level — these continually produce foes for as long as they stay standing, so in order to keep yourself safe you’ll want to take these out as soon as possible. At times, you’ll also need to destroy one of these to open a gate in order to progress, too — and the further you go in the game, the more well-hidden some of them are!
Battle Axe is considerably faster paced than Gauntlet, however, with its large, chunky Neo Geo-style sprites moving around the screen smoothly and the game providing lots of satisfying, visceral feedback as to what you’re doing. Enemies explode into showers of goo; huge golden numbers pop out of anything that scores you points, and an overenthusiastic announcer puts Metal Slug’s voiceover to shame, particularly with how excited he gets any time you pick up a chicken.
Nieborg’s pixel art is consistently astonishing, even knowing that he’s responsible for some of the most beautiful 2D games on the planet. Animation is smooth and slick, and every single sprite — be it enemy, player or innocent villager — is packed with personality, while the backgrounds provide a great sense of atmosphere to each level. Nieborg clearly understands the appeal of the Neo Geo’s distinctive look and feel and has created a game that most certainly wouldn’t look out of place in a ’90s arcade.
And this is helped along by the excellent music, too; in an effort to really nail that authentic ’90s arcade feel, Nieborg and Bitmap Bureau brought on board one Manami Matsumae (also known as Chanchacorin), who previously worked as part of Capcom’s sound team on titles as varied as Mega Man 1 and 2, Final Fight, Area 88 (aka U.N. Squadron) and Mercs, among others.
In more recent years, she’s also contributed to Mighty No. 9 and Shovel Knight, so she’s most certainly been keeping in practice with other “modern retro” games, and her work on Battle Axe is exemplary. Rather than attempting to over-modernise the soundtrack, Matsumae has instead opted to use authentic-sounding ’90s-style synthesised instruments, which just adds to the feel of Battle Axe as a “lost arcade game”.
While those who come into every game expecting a 40+ hour ride from start to finish may find themselves initially disappointed with the arcade mode’s seemingly paltry four levels — though it’ll take you a while to get through them with no continues on the default harder difficulty — there is plenty of replay value through the aforementioned pursuit of high scores and achievements. There’s also a New Game+ mode that unlocks after you beat the game once, which provides harder twists on the arcade mode’s levels, and an Infinite mode which features randomly generated stages.
Perhaps best of all in this day of age, though, is that this is a game that feels complete. It feels like its creators achieved everything they wanted to do, and thus it’s a title you can add to your collection with confidence right now without fearing an interminable “roadmap” of updates — and return to time and time again when you just feel like exploding a few goblins either alone or with a friend.
It really is a perfect example of a modern developer completely understanding both the appeal of classic arcade games and their potential pitfalls, and providing us with a new one that is beautifully designed for play at home. It’s one of the best “modern retro” titles out there, and a great addition to the library of any gamer who just wants an experience that is pure fun from start to finish.
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