Make no mistake, Golden Axe Warrior is a shameless clone of The Legend of Zelda. Fans of the original Zelda on NES may be left aghast at the similarities between the two titles, as the aesthetics and gameplay seem to be changed only enough to avoid a lawsuit. It is therefore easy to dismiss the game as lacking creative merit or artistic achievement.
You just might be right in doing so, if Golden Axe Warrior weren’t such a fun game.
The crux of the thing here is that The Legend of Zelda is a really good game. If a game strives to be like it and succeeds, you’re likely going to end up with another fun game. This is exactly what happened with Golden Axe Warrior.
To understand the nature of this unique spin-off of the Golden Axe series of brawlers, it must be placed in perspective. The timing here is crucial. Golden Axe Warrior debuted in 1990, roughly a year before The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was released in Japan. At this point, we had seen Zelda as a top-down action RPG and as side-scrolling adventure game, but the series had yet to double down on its core precepts. It is then perhaps easier for us in this late date to draw the comparisons between Zelda and Golden Axe Warrior than it would have been in 1990. The creators weren’t yet aping an entire series, but instead an aging game whose only sequel seemed to eschew its main tenets.
This was, for a brief year or so, maybe the most fully realized version of the gameplay that Zelda introduced in 1986. Though Golden Axe Warrior also found itself on an 8-bit platform in the Master System, the graphics and gameplay hold an extra layer of depth to recommend it over its inspiration.
Within the game, the player will discover multiple towns with NPCs that can be spoken to and shops to be perused. The hero can also equip various weapons that can be used to interact with the environment. One notable addition from the standard Zelda formula is an axe that is useful for both bashing enemies and chopping down trees to search for secrets. The player can also learn magic spells that have various effects, such as freezing lava.
The Master System also manages to push an impressive color palette, giving the game’s visuals more depth and detail than its NES-bound counterpart. Dungeons come in fiery red, icy blue and indeed the whole spectrum between. The colors are deep and evoking and improve tremendously over Zelda’s flat tones.
It would be unfair to review Golden Axe Warrior without mentioning Zelda. Luckily, it doesn’t have to end there. There are enough improvements over the source material to keep experienced players guessing while still following the formula close to enough to preserve what made it worthy of such an overt copy. Consider it, if you must, a second look at a classic adventure with a new quest and new secrets, boldly embracing its derivative nature.
Article by Aaron Littleton
GameSpite Journal 12: Golden Axe Warrior