Saturday, May 23, 2009

Legendary Axe

Victor Musical Industries / NEC

The Legendary Axe stands as one of the greatest masterpieces of the hack-and-slash sub-genre and ranks as my favorite HuCard game of all time. It got a lot of attention back in the day, so folks who don't like it now make sure to express their views as loudly as possible. And that's fine. Over the years, I've had plenty of debates with such scoundrels about Axe's relative merits and "faults." Now, I'm content with my own love for the game, as it's one that I appreciate more the older I get. I give it a run-through every couple of years, reacquainting myself with the stuff that made me like it so much in the first place and finding new things to appreciate every time.

One thing I've always appreciated is its music. Axe II gets so much credit for its audio, and rightfully so, but its predecessor also has one hell of a soundtrack. Its tunes are extremely appropriate for each stage they accompany and always help establish impeccable atmosphere. For instance, the second level takes place in a simply drawn cavern, but the ominous music makes the trek through it eerie and intense. The stage that precedes it features a bass-heavy tune that couldn't be any more fitting for the beginning of a journey through lush jungle. Best of all is the climactic fifth-stage theme, with its rich tone, dramatic melody, and wildly fast interlude.

As worthy of appreciation as the musical tracks are the enemy designs. There are some resourceful villains to wage war with here: axemen do backflips to avoid your hacks, hags drop crystals and transform into bats upon being slashed, savages club you with their polearms, and giant apes burst through walls and heave tremendous hunks of rock your way.

And then there are the mighty Punjabbis, who are not only powerful but also intelligent, as they toss their spears if you keep at a distance and crouch for the kill if you go for low, close-range attacks, defending themselves with their shields all the while. The prudent placement of these impressive demons is also noteworthy. The fourth stage concludes with an extremely difficult battle against a Punjabbi double team, after which you might be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief. But then the fifth stage commences with an awesome, inspirational melody and ANOTHER Punjabbi to fight, as if it's trying to be daunting with its villains but inspiring with its soundtrack. It executes the formula perfectly.

The level designs, while not overly complex, are head and shoulders above those in most other Castlevania-style games of the era. You always need to keep an eye out for alternative routes, concealed pits, and obscured niches and items, while partaking in a constant, consistent blend of hacking and platform-hopping.

Level 4C is both gorgeous and devious, featuring beautiful backdrops and shrouded monster pits.

Speaking of pits, the Pits of Madness are tortuous and deceptive in layout--and home to the most powerful of the enemy's troops.

The game simply has a flair for the dramatic. The giant Jagu might not be all that difficult to take down, but his flashy entrance is absolutely unforgettable. Full-power axe blows deliver a resounding "CRUNCH" and set the entire screen aglow. And I particularly love the crimson, candle-lit room deep in the Pits of Madness where you're assaulted by Punjabbis while the music goes ballistic.

These sorts of moments made my adventure through Axe one of my most memorable and fondly looked upon video game experiences.

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