Brief bit of history first though. Golden Axe III was only ever released in cartridge form in Japan with the sole Western release being limited to North America's ill-fated Sega Channel download service (well ahead of its time to be fair). There are all these rumours online that the game stayed as a limited release over this side of the globe because Sega were embarassed by it compared to its forerunners. I say "rubbish" to that but I digress. My first personal contact with the game came when The Sega Mega Drive Collection was first released for the PS2. I played the three Golden Axes in order and found that the third one was my favourite by far. I then got hold of a Japanese import of the physical Mega Drive version and it was here that I first beat the game (not an easy feat in single player!). Recently I have been revisiting GAIII via the PSP version of the SMDC compilation and enjoying doing so. It was while watching some Youtube videos of how to reach the 'true' final boss that I stupidly glanced at the comments section (surely the most rotten cesspit on this planet) and saw the bile and hate. This is what compelled me to put forward my defence for what I see as the best console Golden Axe game. It isn't the best in the entire series simply because Revenge of Death Adder is that bloody good but it should be considered up there near the top in my opinion. So without further waffling, I present my case...
1. The Gameplay
I'll start with the biggie. The first thing to notice when playing Golden Axe III is that everything feels a little less clunkier than before which is a definite bonus. The overall immediate impression is that it plays a little more like Streets of Rage or Final Fight but not quite as fast and really, this can only be a good thing. The last thing anybody would want is to remain loyal to a more antique control setup for the sake of it.
What really impresses about the gameplay however is the hugely expanded reportoire of moves available to each character. Previously, there was the standard combo, a dashing side attack and a jumping attack. Golden Axe III makes things more interesting by including various special attacks. As well as now being able to unleash low, sweeping strikes, each character now has a move that can hit enemies on both sides (attack + jump buttons) and a second special activated by pressing attack + jump + toward. The jumping attack is joined by unique downwards strikes from the air and projectile skills unleashed with a 360-degree d-pad rotation + attack + jump. Kain stabs his sword into the ground and sends flames across the screen, Sahra throws her sword and so on. There's also the ability to block incoming attacks by holding back + attack. Whichever way you look at it, the movelist is a hell of a lot more dynamic than before and really enjoyable to experiment with.
And this expanded moveset is very much needed because the enemy AI seems a lot brainer in GAIII, regularly working to surround the player character, blocking attacks or countering with some intelligence. The CPU challenge isn't a rock wall per se but it's definitely not to be taken lightly and so being smart with special moves and throws is a must. If I have one complaint to make about the gameplay then its that the ride-on beasts (a staple of Golden Axe) are largely redundant and more hassle than they are worth since the enemy AI immediately works to knock you off and the greater numbers usually ensure that they subsequently commandeer said beasts for themselves.
2. The Graphics
I appreciate good visuals in a game but at the same time, I'm no graphics whore. Yet I am guilty of getting fired-up when people claim that Golden Axe III's visual department is lacking compared to those of GA and GAII.
To begin with, character sprites are a lot bigger and more detailed. The same applies to their basic anatomy and animation frames which I also believe are a lot better than the decidedly wooden movement found in the previous games. Enemies - especially bosses - look a lot more impressive too and better designed from a purely artistic standpoint. I will however concede that the magic effects are disappointing with the high level stuff especially not being able to always compete with the Golden Axe II equivalents.
Is it the best-looking game on the Mega Drive? Absolutely not. The Mega Drive was capable of more as evidenced by that almighty benchmark that is Streets of Rage II. However, it is far from an ugly game and if you have a go at comparing the quality/detail of the characters/enemies with those found in the previous installments, I think you'll find that GAIII has the edge. I can only assume that people were disappointed with the slight shift towards a bit of a more vibrantly coloured game but aside from the blood in the arcade edition of the original Golden Axe, the series has never been that dark or mature in tone anyway. Perhaps it was a case of the game being visually underwhelming next to other titles - such as the previously referenced SoRII - rather than when compared to Golden Axe II.
3. The Music
As well as the gameplay and graphical prowess (or supposed lack of), Golden Axe III's audio also often comes under fire...jeez, give the game a break! This is one area that I really cannot understand the criticism for because each stage has a unique and catchy backing track that perfectly fits the locale. Again, I can only guess that some of the music was too catchy and upbeat to please some "fans" but I'll take those qualities over a forgettable OST any day of the week. There's not much more I can say about this but I'll post a 'Top Five' tracks soon to demonstrate the highlights of Golden Axe III's soundtrack.
So those are the main points that I felt needed arguing in the case for Golden Axe III. As I said at the start of this post, this is only my opinion but I have - in any case - attempted to approach this by discussing things that can be looked at in a factual way. Of course, these aspects could also be looked at from a personal viewpoint so if anybody has read this article and thought "rubbish" then that's fine. Golden Axe and Golden Axe II are both fine games still worth playing today but I personally consider them to feel dated next to GAIII. If I had to criticise III in any way then it would not be by branding it a bad Golden Axe game but more a lacklustre Mega Drive effort in general given the year of release (1993).
Again, we can look at Streets of Rage II (and even SoRIII from an aesthetic viewpoint) and see just what was possible to squeeze from the Mega Drive as far as scrolling beat 'em ups go. That was a game that embarassed so many others and I hate to keep wheeling it out as a reference point but it really was a benchmark that other games on the same hardware have to be compared to. So yes, given that such amazing games were already available at the time, anything that can't match up will be seen as a disappointment in comparison and in this respect, I can understand the Golden Axe III apathy. Is it a crap game though? Nah, mate; it's alright. It also has a bad-ass intro sequence...