DEVELOPER: Sega CS
RELEASE DATE: 04/1991 – (US), 05/1991 – (EU)
Years ago, I reviewed the Master System’s Golvellius: Valley of Doom and said that it “owes its very being to The Legend of Zelda. From the top-down perspective to the wherever-you-may-roam exploration to the caves with old people who give you junk. The influence… is impossible to ignore.”
The Legend of Zelda released about a year before Golvellius strutted onto the MSX, so comparisons were inevitable. Still, Golvellius‘s user interface, artwork, and unique top-down scrolling dungeons didn’t resemble Zelda in the slightest. Whether Golvellius intentionally stole (or “borrowed”) ideas from Zelda or not, developers Compile at least had the good decency to blend Nintendo’s concepts with their own.
The same can’t be said for Golden Axe Warrior, an unashamed Zelda clone that wholeheartedly steals the original game’s look, style, and feel. The overworld map, the sprites, the dungeon design, the top-down perspective: just about everything in Golden Axe Warrior is a ripoff.
Whether Golden Axe Warrior‘s tasteless theft is a good or bad thing depends upon your love for the original Legend of Zelda. Do you like wandering around large open maps as a romantic armored vagrant, unsure of where to go next? Do you enjoy exploring dungeons (or “labyrinths” as they’re known in GAW) with lots of enemies, traps, and secret passages? If so, Golden Axe Warrior might surprise you. Copying the Zelda formula is easy. Justifying existence as a Zelda clone, however, isn’t.
GAW‘s unnamed overworld is as inscrutable as Hyrule’s. The instruction manual does provide the location of the first two labyrinths, but the remaining seven labyrinth locations are up to you. Necessary items like magic and armor upgrades can only be discovered by chopping down trees or climbing mountains. Townsfolk will occasionally give you hints on where to go next, but for the most part, you’re on your own. Perfect for those who want to explore every nook and cranny. Torturous for those like me who just want to progress.
Visually, I appreciate Sega’s level of care and attention here. The overworld’s size and depth are comparable to Hyrule. Forests, deserts, mountains, swamps, and oceans are rendered beautifully with the Master System’s rich color palette. Yet, despite these positives, the overworld still feels mostly hollow. Enemies litter each screen, and that’s about it. Yes, secrets can be found in numerous parts of the map, but once they’re found, there’s no reason to keep exploring. The Legend of Zelda has this issue as well, but that game was released in 1986 (or 1987, depending on your territory). Golden Axe Warrior was released five years later, in April 1991. Clearly, Sega’s goal was copying Legend of Zelda outright, rather than improving upon its original design.
Unfortunately, GAW‘s labyrinths fail to capture the magic of Zelda‘s dungeons. They’re large, meandering, and incredibly difficult, even if you have the best armor, weapons, spells, etc. Stronger enemies take off multiple hearts, and most rooms have too many of them running around at the same time. Traps are common, as are areas where you can’t proceed if you haven’t found certain types of magic. Lastly, the music – so iconic and moody in Zelda – just plods along tunelessly, failing to provide needed encouragement in the face of adversity.
The more I played Golden Axe Warrior, the more I disliked it. The game isn’t just a Legend of Zelda clone. It’s a mediocre Legend of Zelda clone that doesn’t understand or care why the latter is so revered. Sega took characters from the Golden Axe world, slapped basic Zelda design and mechanics around them, and called it a day. The end result is completely playable, but also feels lazy, half-hearted, and needless. The Master System already has a near-perfect Zelda-like in Golvellius: Valley of Doom. Stick with that instead.