Kain Blade is vicious. Often, you will see him called Ax Warrior, the lead barbarian of Sega’s Golden Axe franchise. He was deemed powerful enough to warrant his own game, Ax Battler, and with the exception of Beast Rider, has found a place in each series entry no matter the format change.
He is a stand out in the franchise’s only branching foray into the one-on-one fighting category, a wide-reaching broadsword making Ax Battler, or inexplicably Kain Blade in The Duel, a perfect jumping point for newcomers. Entering into the arena alongside the broadening Street Fighter Alpha and Samurai Shodown titles, The Duel lacks the panache and style. Kain Blade is a great starter simply because of his familiarity and generous range.
That does not lessen his appeal amongst a total roster of 10, merely appointing him a worthy standout to sell the game. Despite lackluster appeal in the modern era, Golden Axe still wore its violent fantasy images proud amongst the hardcore within the 32-bit stage.
Sega tries a little of everything to appeal to an audience already becoming overwhelmed with fighting entries in 1996. Sprites carry heft, with broad shading strokes that give them a muscular, steroid-esque look. Dense color choices work to broaden contrast, and zippy scaling will attempt to enhance the width of the battle.
Sega also plays to the franchise pedigree. Weapon based battles play to the magic system of the beat-em-up entries, thieving elves kicked around and dropping potions. A full meter means access to higher strength or hyper special moves. Those are the types of screen-filling attacks that sold games as people passed by in arcades. They would be too flashy to miss as they lit up a CRT.
Unfortunately for The Duel, that flash is its demise. Despite stable and quite familiar six-button fighting, the polish is missing. Lost is the impact at times, jittery movement and gross pixelation on zooms weakening the game’s energy. Animation sets feel overextended for the sake of it, either to show off 2D hardware capabilities or merely add punch where there is none. Screeching musical compositions are wildly off-key or compressed, while failing to pay homage to the series droning, ominous drums.
In terms of pick-up-play appeal, The Duel is a passable effort, even if it is unable to secure a groove. Beyond Ax Battler… err, Kain Blade, only a handful of characters carry any immediate appeal. Tyris Flare, Gillius Thunderhead, and Death Adder star, while the rest are oddball minions. They may or may not have any prominence with the player depending on previous knowledge of Golden Axe’s ins and outs.
You cannot fault Sega for the idea. A weapons-based rumble in a time when SNK was mastering the concept seems like an easy sell. Slap a name on it and recognition elevates the concept. There is a so-so, decent entry level fighter here, although an instantly forgettable one. The Saturn outlier from Data East titled Dark Legend is equally bland in execution, while offering tighter gameplay. If the Golden Axe license does not mean anything to you, chances are Dark Legend is more what you’re looking for in one-off sword clashing fighters.