Played Before: No
Also on: Master System Exclusive
Progress: Completed (with help of a map)
Our old giant adversary Death Adder (minus points for lack of traditional equals sign in his name) has gone bonkers again and stolen the kingdom of Firewood’s nine protective thingymajigs. It’s a video game, you can guess the rest. Does Sega’s Zelda clone give me the horn or are we looking at a missing Link? That’ll make sense if you’ve played it or read on.
There appears to be great debate over whether Golden Axe Warrior really is a clone of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda, with fans citing various minor differences as reasons why it isn’t. In order to properly review this game, I’ll have to play through Legend of Zelda as well as I’ve never done so before to any great degree. Talk amongst yourselves…
(You can either simulate this and carry on reading or play along in real time and come back in about 10 hours.)
Basically, what’s happening here is that one of the Firewood village elders has decided to sell out to Death Adder and give him the village’s protective crystals, presumably in exchange for pots full of horns. Death Adder immediately decides to storm the town, kill everyone in sight and generally be a bit of a pain. As is often the case with RPGs, monsters roam outside of villages and there’s a legendary warrior who has to go on a giant fetch quest before he can face the final battle. So our hero, he resembles Gilius Thunderhead and I called him LINK because I’m hilarious, sets off to avenge all sorts of shenanigans, deaths from ruined villages and recover the family silver along with, ultimately, the actual Golden Axe with which to give Death Adder his equals sign back in a less than agreeable place. Let’s cut the crap here. This is certainly a Zelda clone, definitely ‘heavily inspired by’ Nintendo’s surprise hit, but that’s not to say it pales into insignificance and isn’t worth your time. Now we’ve got that out of the way, it’s clear that there are strong parallels. You’ve got dungeons, upgradable attack and defence equipment, a torch, hidden areas to discover, extra maximum energy hearts and Zelda’s rupee currency has become horns. Both games are very similar in appearance with enemies palette swapped to denote strength and Golden Axe Warrior’s map appearing to be constructed with a very similar layout to Zelda’s. It even has a sodding forest maze.
Hold onto your baggy, forest-green hats because, in some ways, Golden Axe Warrior is better than Legend of Zelda. The hidden room feature has been extended so that there’s a secret doorway on almost every land-based screen in the overworld. These lead to caves or underground rooms containing all sorts of things: a shop, people who’ll give or take horns arbitrarily, hidden heart meter increases and shortcuts to other areas of the map, among others. The world map is also almost 60% larger with 225 screens to Zelda’s 128 and there’s also one more dungeon to get lost inside of. However, even with the extra dungeon, Golden Axe Warrior’s labyrinths have 15 fewer screens in total and are a little simpler to solve. Given that the dungeons are the main draw of the RPG genre, this is a shame, but it doesn’t detract from the overall experience. One thing Zelda offers that Golden Axe Warrior does not is a second quest mode with rearranged overworld and dungeons. It’s a little surprising that Sega didn’t include this as an option, but entirely possible that cartridge space was at a premium.
Golden Axe Warrior retains the high difficulty of Zelda, it being very easy to quickly die if due care isn’t taken to methodically clear a screen of obstacles. This is exacerbated by the hero’s lack of a ranged attack and it’s particularly felt on the overworld while trekking a long distance between dungeons. There’s no low health warning sound so get used to dying unexpectedly and restarting as it will happen a lot. This is one game where mapping is key as it’s easy to end up in situations where you’re desperate to get to the nearest town to refill your energy. As with Zelda, a basic location map is provided but logging the details is up to you. Be warned that wandering around aimlessly is deadly. So it’s difficult, a shameless clone of a well-respected game and on a console that didn’t do particularly well outside of PAL regions. Why should you play it? Because it’s a clone done right. There are enough differences to make this not just a Zelda map pack on a different console but, even if you think it is, that’s not such a bad thing. A small disappointment is that the bosses attack patterns are quite basic and they’re easily defeated. Given that it was released a full five years after Zelda, more effort could have been put into differentiating it from its inspiration but one of the pioneering action role playing games of the 8-bit console era has been aped perfectly right down to its flaws and overall the quest is a worthwhile one.
It’s a huge disappointment that Sega didn’t follow Golden Axe Warrior up with a sequel. Having an RPG of this calibre with the Golden Axe name attached as a launch title on the Mega Drive would possibly have encouraged other developers to bless the system with more RPGs and shifted even more consoles in Japan. Of course, as A Link To The Past wasn’t released until 1991, Sega didn’t have anything to copy in 1988 (huge winking smiley goes here) but it’s also odd that they didn’t expand on Golden Axe Warrior and release it in 16-bit form instead. Perhaps this game had been hanging around waiting for a suitable release date and that never came, so it was pushed out in 1991 as a last hurrah for the Master System. The closest thing to an extensive Action-RPG that I’ve seen on Mega Drive is The Story of Thor/Beyond Oasis. If Sega had been as brutal and ruthless as Nintendo were at the time, they could’ve made Ancient slap a Golden Axe licence on that and continued the saga. The Game Gear’s Ax Battler is often cited as a sequel as it bears more remarkable similarities to the second Zelda adventure. Sadly, that seems to be where this promising pseudo-series ended.
Exciting SEGA rating: