There’s nothing like indulging in the Mega Drive’s delightful FM synth on vinyl, retro begetting retro as it were. We’ve previously had an amazing time listening to the oft-underrated Shinobi 3 OST on vinyl, and when the opportunity arose to check out Data Discs’ latest release compiling the soundtracks to Golden Axe I and II on the Mega Drive, we positively swooned to the turntable.
As games, Golden Axe I and II are interesting entries in Sega’s iconic, classic series. The original game made its debut on Sega’s System 16 arcade hardware, a platform that spiritually influenced parts of the Mega Drive’s eventual architecture, albeit on a less grand (and accordingly less expensive) scale. The port of the original arcade title brought with it compromises, but the OST’s transition was impressive given its development so early in the console’s life cycle. While the arcade original would be followed up with the excellent (though now rare and expensive) Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder, the Sega Mega Drive would see a return to form in a much more refined sequel as Golden Axe II. The game in many ways built on the foundations set in the original title and refines them, and despite the change in composers, managed to also retain enough thematic similarities in the revised sound engine to feel a worthy follow-up.
Golden Axe as a series owes more than a passing inspiration to pulp epics like Conan The Barbarian in terms of its visual aesthetic, something immortalised in the unashamedly 80s fantasy-inspired artwork that adorns this beautiful release form Data Discs. Oiled body building, epic dragons and lush vistas seemed destined to give this vinyl release an appropriately prog-rock 12″ cover and fits the OST’s collective echo of the epic instrumentals that inspired muscle-bound cinematic fantasy.
This is perhaps most evident in Golden Axe I. The opening track is all blaring attract mode twangy noise, but beyond this point it brings back a surprising amount of nostalgic love. I clearly sunk more time than I realised into this game back in the day, with memories of plugging in rubbish headphones to the Mega Drive’s dedicated 3.5mm output jack, sitting on the lounge room floor playing the family Mega Drive (often with my brothers, sans headphones of course) and generally being terrible at the game. Technically you can hear that the original game is symptomatic of early Mega Drive development with relatively simplistic layering of audio channels in the console’s audio chipset, but to be honest if you directly compare it against the arcade version, it’s a faithful and at times very clever adaptation of the more fully-featured FM synth on the System 16 PCB.
Where things get interesting is in the sequel. The Mega Drive port of Golden Axe credits Nankyoku/Decky/Imocky as the trio responsible for bringing over Tohru Nakabayashi’s arcade original tracks, but Naofumi Hayata is listed as the sole composer in the sequel. Motifs persist here, with warm synth pads continuing to approximate strings and military drum sequences, but we can clearly hear a more refined control over the FM synth’s abilities. This can be seen in some excellent drum sampling, especially the opening track, and counter melodies that suggest an influence of late 80s/early 90s dance music. The counter melody in the intro track demonstrates some interesting plays on the drum beats, and we see this again in the ending credits whose percussion sequencing sounds very similar to elements of Yuzo Koshiro’s iconic Streets of Rage 2 intro. These elements seem a little out of place compared to the original game’s, though there’s technically precedent given the upbeat nature of the credit sequence in the original title, “Sutakora, Sassa”.
In terms of mastering, this release is deliciously transparent with a really lovely dynamic range. Like most vinyl you’ll get some surface noise, but the record itself has a nice heft to it and the finishing is actually better than some of the new vinyl I’ve purchased over the years which can sometimes be a little tight on the platter. Our review copy was the transparent gold version, with Data Discs featuring a purple-splatter as part of their limited pre-order campaign in addition to plain black if that floats your boat. The cover printing, obi and lithgraphic prints are absolutely stunning too, with the gold colour inlay a nice, subtle touch to the package.
In some ways, Golden Axe’s soundtrack may be a bit like Shinobi 3 in that it may lean a little heavier on nostalgia than compositional wizardry. There are certainly elements that are technically impressive amongst the selection of tracks, and the way the system’s FM synth was utilised really gives these soundtracks a fantastic and iconic sound. If you haven’t grown up appreciating these games I still firmly believe this is worth a few spins on your turntable though, and it goes without saying that if you played the Golden Axe games in the heyday of the 16-bit era this is a lovely and highly recommended stroll down memory lane.
A review copy was provided by Data Discs to the author for the purpose of this review.