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Golden Axe Warrior (Sega Master System) artwork

Golden Axe Warrior (Sega Master System) review

"The missing Link"

Golden Axe Warrior (Sega Master System) image

I sometimes talk about older games as if they were all glitz and glamour. Hell, a lot of us old timers do that, and seldom address aspects of retro gaming we don't miss. For my part, I'm glad the medium mostly moved past non-linear adventure titles that hardly offer any useful guidance. Releases like Castlevania II: Simon's Quest and Legacy of the Wizard dropped you into fantastical mazes and said, "Good luck!" Sometimes you'd wander for ages until you broke down and checked out back issues of Nintendo Power from the local library, or you'd try to chat up the in-game locals looking for info you may have missed. At best, townsfolk might offer a tiny hint in regards to your next move. Mostly, though, they dropped outright misinformation or useless flavor text. Konami, I'm looking in your direction again...

Maybe that's why I waited so many years to play Golden Axe Warrior. It didn't help that I never owned a Sega Master System, but I still had access to this title through emulation and via Sonic's Ultimate Sega Genesis Collection, where this entry in the similarly named beat 'em up franchise served as an unlockable extra. I knew going into it that it was basically The Legend of Zelda according to Sega, but something about that knowledge reminded me of the perplexing, tiring quests I encountered in my tween years, such as the two mentioned above. I just couldn't wrap my mind around the concept of Sega actually doing the Zelda formula justice.

Upon landing in Warrior, I found myself surrounded by NPCs who dispensed the usual chatter, but also offered some insight. "The second dungeon? Why, that's just a bit to the west!" an excited old woman might told me. "You're looking for top grade armor? Legend says there's a sealed cave in the mountains with such a piece," said a random child. Straight off, I knew this wasn't going to be the same sort of misadventure Mr. Belmont had to endure, and that realization laid mountains of fear to rest...

Even with the advice the game offers, discovery still boils down to exploration, examination, and experimentation. For instance, someone might inform you that a certain character who can teach you a spell dwells somewhere in the south. What that NPC doesn't mention is that you have to chop down a few trees, walk across a river, and eventually slice through a certain pine in order to access the trainer in question. In other words, Warrior doesn't hold your hand, but it also doesn't leave you in the dark. It strikes a solid balance between steering its players and keeping mysteries well hidden.

After the first dungeon, I found myself rarely utilizing an overworld map or a FAQ to travel. This is thanks to the game's successful usage of not only Zelda elements, but those of the classic NES title Metroid. As you advance, you obtain items that allow you to overcome various obstacles. For instance, the first dungeon rewards you with an axe, which is capable of removing certain trees. That, in turn, allows you to advance northward by cutting down a tree that happens to block the path. You might notice that the developers carefully crafted the overworld such that you only gain access to so much of it at a time, similar to Metroid. As with Samus' journey, newly discovered impasses and acquired equipment serve as clues, suggesting where your journey may lead you next.

If you're a fan of Zelda-style games, then you know that dungeons serve as the main attraction here. However, you'll find the dungeons on offer are less complex than those found in this title's inspiration, albeit for the better. For instance, you won't explore many stages where you must demolish random walls in order to advance, or pound your way through convoluted networks of chambers only to discover dead ends. At the same time, the game's stages aren't straightforward. Each level provides plenty of forks in the road and multiple pathways to search, not to mention tons of devious creatures--a great portion of which were pretty much swiped from Zelda--to keep you busy.

Golden Axe Warrior (Sega Master System) image

Combat proves to be as intuitive as you would expect. Like the original Zelda, there are no combo attacks. You simply hack away at your opponents, while also watching them closely to discover their movement patterns. The main difference here, though, is that you can choose from one of two different weapons: a sword or an axe. The sword stabs foes from a distance, but can only nail beasts that are directly in front of you. The axe, on the other hand, swipes across three spaces before you, but lacks the reach of the sword. While this doesn't add up to a complicated combat system, it's still refreshing to find that the developers devised a system other than mere, repetitive poking or relying on a sword laser.

Unfortunately, combat is not always glorious or exciting. For starters, Warrior's control response is somewhat touchy. When moving your hero, it's pretty common to overshoot your intended destination and accidentally walk into an adversary, especially bosses. I was actually stuck on the second boss for a long time because I kept careening into him and dying. Things only worsen after that battle, too, as you end up going toe-to-toe with massive miscreants who move quickly in confined spaces. As you can imagine, precision is imperative in most boss encounters, which is difficult to muster when your controls aren't adequately tight. Thankfully, acclimation does eventually set in and battles in the rest of the campaign go off with fewer hitches.

Shall I lay on even more pain? I'll drop a single word that'll cause anyone who remembers fantasy games of yore to cry for a few hours: rust.

Occasionally, you'll run afoul of slow-crawling crabs in dungeons. Touch one of these pests and your armor will rust, which reduces your defensive capabilities to their weakest state. Rust doesn't wear off on its own, either. The only way to remove it is to have a special cleaner, of which you can only carry one at a time. Worse, this item is expensive and farming cash is an ordeal in itself. I recall one occasion in which I touched a rust monster and didn't have a cleaner on me. I had to abandon my progress, travel across the world, annihilate a bunch of weak monsters for an hour in order to procure an acceptable amount of gold, then purchase the item. Just to be safe, I decided to kill some more and buy another cleaner, which set me back yet another hour.

All of this stemmed from touching a single, pokey monster in a dungeon. I'm not going to write this off as an effect of challenge. There's nothing difficult about ceasing game progress and spending two hours attempting to rectify a minor mistake by undertaking a chore-like task. Rather, the rust concept comes off as the developers deliberately being pricks.

But I guess that's the price you pay for improved guidance in a retro action-adventure affair. Most of the time, you either get a game with an obtusely designed campaign and overworld that's otherwise quite easy, or a quest rife with helpful hints that hits you with with a load of some other kind of bullshit. Personally, I'd rather take the latter because I'm accustomed to dealing with a lot of nonsense, and games like Golden Axe Warrior at least deal enough solid content that their more irritating qualities are easy to overlook, especially when you're not spending most of your adventure wandering and scratching your head.

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (February 13, 2022)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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dagoss posted February 14, 2022:

An aside on the topic of games that give poor clues: if you want to go down a rabbit's hole with some of these games, find unofficial translations. Many of the clues in Simon's Quest (just to pick a more famous example) are still vague in Japanese, but many are mis-translated beyond use in English. It's illustrative of the slip-shot, whatever nature of translations during the 8- and 16-bit eras.

I also think Japanese action RPGs in particular were heavily influenced by the Tower of Druaga, which is notoriously and intentionally cryptic to create something of a social aspect to the game as people talked about secrets (and the game sucked up yen)
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honestgamer posted February 14, 2022:

I remember swapping Zelda tips with a classmate in elementary school, which was quite the feat since I only had a few classmates overall in the one-room, multi-grade elementary school I attended at the time. A lot of them couldn't even read yet. And I remember writing to Nintendo Power's counselors to ask about tips I gleaned from the game's manual, trying to figure out what they meant, only for counselor's to tell me, "That was actually a mistranslation." For example, the manual talks about using the whistle for Pol's Voice, when really you should just fire a single arrow at them (which I already knew before writing). And there was talk of hidden doors in caves, but no such hidden doors actually exist. Anyway, the early days of gaming were a wild and crazy time, and sometimes I do miss the sense of mystery.

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