Golden Axed: A Prototype with a Dark Past

As part of Sega’s 60th anniversary celebrations, the company has been putting out a number of limited-time-only free minigames on Steam, including a Streets of Rage-inspired brawler based on the Yakuza series, a tank blaster based on Company of Heroes and a Fantasy Zone/Endless crossover.

By far the most controversial of these freebie releases is an unfinished prototype that has become known as Golden Axed. It was originally intended to be part of an ambitious series known as Sega Reborn, which would not only feature reimaginings of Sega classics such as Shinobi, Altered Beast and Streets of Rage, but also tie them all together with some sort of coherent plot and a “hub world” to explore.

The project as a whole never happened, but the team from Sega’s Australian studio behind the pitch did manage to put together a short prototype for the Golden Axe part of the whole package. But there’s an interesting — and somewhat depressing — story behind it that is well worth sharing. So let’s explore further.

Let’s start with the prototype itself first, because there’s only so much to talk about. It lasts about five minutes, and serves as a solid proof of concept of what a “next-gen” Golden Axe (circa 2012) might look like. It’s brown, it’s full of bloom lighting and God rays, and it features overblown, bloody, splattery, squelchy fighting.

The prototype as it exists allows the player to move in 2.5D as in the original Golden Axe games, as well as jump and unleash either light or heavy attacks. Like in most modern two-button takes on the beat ’em up, performing a certain number of light attacks before a heavy attack causes a particular finishing move — for example, two lights then a heavy causes a horizontal slash with a wide reach, while one light then a heavy allows you to knock an enemy over the head with the pommel of your sword and then kick them away.

The overall look has that distinctive 2012 grimness about it, but the action feels solid and true to the original Golden Axe games. The controls are responsive, the action is satisfying and, while brief and lacking some features — most notably the magic system, despite the UI for it being visible on screen — it feels very much like what you’d want a modern-day update of a classic beat ’em up to feel like. It had a lot of potential, in other words — and it’s a shame that big daddy Sega never greenlit the project for Sega Studios Australia to work on. In fact, Sega would shut the studio altogether in mid-2013 to pursue “better agility in moving to the digital games market”. Ugh.

Some of the staff from Sega Studios Australia went on to form the independent developer Witch Beam, who you may know as the company responsible for the excellent shoot ’em up Assault Android Cactus and the pixel art puzzler Unpacking. Since they’re no longer affiliated with Sega, these developers are now free to talk about their experiences. And they most certainly did — largely because the release of Golden Axed to the public came as something of a surprise to several of them, particularly as Sega made a big deal of “reaching out to some of the original development team” in the game’s blurb.

“This appears to be a surprise to everyone I know who actually worked on it,” wrote “arty codey dev” Tim Dawson on Twitter when the release was first announced. “This project was my personal nexus of nightmare hours, inept management, industry realisations and heroics achieved with a small team under unreasonable conditions, so it’s an odd feeling to see it surface eight years later without context, credits and with a joke title sequence.”

Indeed, there are no credits anywhere in the Golden Axed prototype, which raises numerous questions about exactly who Sega supposedly “reached out to” before bringing this game to light. It also explains why Dawson and his peers took such umbrage with the original wording on the game’s product page on Steam, which described the game as being “janky, buggy and an artifact of its time” but offering a “unique glimpse into the prospect of a project that could have been”.

Dawson explained that the prototype was put together because he and his colleague Sanatana Mishra (who would go on to become the founder of Witch Beam) had previously delivered a solid proof of concept for what would become the 2013 reboot of Castle of Illusion, and that the pair were trusted by a producer to put together a “polished gameplay prototype” in the space of about two weeks.

“We agreed because we were assured management wanted us to develop it ‘our way’,” recalled Dawson. “But they did mandate a darker, bloodier Golden Axe, with splatter and decapitations and two-button combat. So we tried to combine all that with the spirit of the original game. This would have been a difficult line to walk at any time, but we had two weeks and no time to iterate, so we made do. We just really attacked the design knowing we wouldn’t be able to course-correct much, but luckily we had a talented team of artists, animators and sound designers.”

Indeed, Dawson’s words here are backed up by how solid the prototype feels, despite its obviously missing features and short length. For something that feels this competent — and which feels very much like it could plausibly be expanded into a full game — to be produced in the space of two weeks is absolutely remarkable. But the story doesn’t end there.

“Much less luckily, we also had the lead designer who thought he was designing it,” continued Dawson. “Sometimes [Mishra] would have to physically block him from reaching my workstation or he’d start explaining insights he’d received playing the mobile port on the train on the way to work.”

Dawson wasn’t specific about what those “insights” were, but reading some discussion in his replies, it’s safe to assume that some sort of lootbox mechanic or other microtransactions were involved. And looking back on Twitter, you can find a few more thoughts from Mishra.

“I know from first-hand experience that Sega’s inability to do good ‘comeback’ versions of classic games is a self-inflicted wound,” he wrote on Twitter back in 2017 in response to a VentureBeat article on Sega franchises the editorial team wanted to see make a comeback. “My favourite ‘Sega will never do this right’ bit was our lead designer explaining Streets of Rage and Golden Axe are identical because he played them on his phone once.”

Dawson backed this up, noting that a week into development, said lead designer “campaigned for branching the prototype and making a Streets of Rage pitch concurrently, because to him they were the same game; it took me sending a 2am email to the studio head and a ‘let’s go for a coffee and a chat’ the next morning to get that stopped.”

The biggest problems for the team came a week and a half in, Dawson recalls.

“Combat was working, it was all on track,” he continued. “I was called for a meeting in the big room, so I put the latest build on the network and went to see what was up. All of management was sitting around the big table. I showed the game. Grave faces. There was a pause. ‘Where’s the wow factor?’ someone asked. The lead designer once again complained it wasn’t a God of War-like 3D brawler like he wanted. Someone said maybe it’d have been better to have made a prerendered video where the barbarian fought a monster.

“I experienced a moment of clarity,” Dawson recalled. “Either they couldn’t see what was in front of them, or wanted me to feel bad because it’s the only way they knew how to manage. I was ‘the guy who makes playable prototypes’. I had over-delivered and if they didn’t want that, they had screwed up.”

The experience left Dawson, Mishra and the rest of their team utterly demoralised and full of mistrust for the people who were supposedly “running things” — particularly when, after half a week of polish, the very same management team seemingly completely reverse their opinion on the project and claimed they thought it was really good now.

“I felt dead inside,” noted Dawson. “Not just because of a couple of long seven-day work weeks and the start of the RSI in my right arm that would go on to jeopardise devleopment of Assault Android Cactus, but because I had no trust left in the people who ran things.”

It’s understandable that seeing this project resurface — and without any direct credit to those who worked on it — would stir some mixed emotions for people like Dawson and Mishra. They have, of course, since moved on and found their own path with Witch Beam after Sega Studios Australia’s dissolution, but negative experiences such as those that Dawson describes are the sort of thing that can stick with you for a very long time.

Dawson’s comments also come amid more widespread discussions in the games industry surrounding “crunch culture”, where it is seemingly accepted as the “norm” for development teams to work overly long hours towards the conclusion of a project, despite it being demonstrably bad for both physical and mental health. The team’s experiences with Golden Axed were essentially nothing but crunch — and without the reward of a finished product at the other end of it to boot.

Don’t feel bad if you’re still interested in playing the prototype, though — it’s an interesting look at what might have been.

“I think people should check it out if they’re curious!” concluded Dawson. “We did work hard on it, it just feels weird to see it surface now and under these circumstances.”

Be quick though; there’s only an hour left to download it after the publication of this article! If you’re after 6pm BST, you’re too late.

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