To appreciate Golden Axe for the Sega Master System, you doubtless need to have played it in its original era. I didn't. I played it on an Amiga 500 (in the early days when all games for that format came on a single disc). The game is a sideways-scrolling beat-'em-up. In one player mode, you can play a warrior, an enchantress or an elf. In two player mode, you can play cooperatively with a friend.
The plot (such as it is) is to find and slay Death Adder. He is not, as you might expect, a snake but merely a quite large warrior whose palace can be found at the very end of the game. His minions have heard about your plan to come and topple his reign, however, and so they are out in force to kill you.
In the Amiga game I played in my youth, the type of weapon you had depended upon the character you had chosen - the warrior had a sword, the elf had an axe, etc. However, the type of weapon doesn't matter at all... because the damage it inflicts is identical. But a feature of Golden Axe that is a little different, in a number of respects, is that you can also cast spells upon the enemies you encounter.
You can't cast a single spell when you start. However, what look like little cartoon raccoons carrying sacks appear on scene every couple of enemies. A quick swipe with your weapon, or a kick, will force the raccoon to jump a little and to drop a potion. Each time you collect a potion, you extend the "spell intensity" meter at the top of the screen. In the original arcade, and Amiga version of Golden Axe, the meters varied with the character. The enchantress always seemed to have the very best magic, but the trade-off was that she needed to collect at least five or so potions before the player was in with a shot of seeing the more powerful spells demonstrated. The elf's maximum magic only seemed to reach about a third of the enchantress', so he got to third-strength in just four potions.
Now in this review I'm not looking at the Amiga 500 version of Golden Axe; I'm playing the Sega Master System version of the game. This version is considered by many to be one of the "best" games that were produced for the Sega Master System. It had, for its day (1989), marvellous graphics, superb (and very "hummable") sound and a high level of "just one more go" about it...
Unfortunately, I'm afraid I think it's lousy.
Firstly, the three characters that were such an intrinsic part of the playing experience are replaced with just the warrior. Rather than rotate the characters on the skeletal hands that signalled the beginning of the arcade game, you instead get to simply select which "spell intensity" you would like.
Secondly, that beautiful co-operative play that the arcade and Amiga versions allowed. Also gone.
Thirdly, although the game has indeed retained the great graphics and sound of its arcade contemporary, it plays so differently as to constitute a completely different playing experience. I barely recognise this as the same game which I played back in the day. The characters move with a very jerky motion and at near supersonic speed. When one character lines up in front of you, and the other creeps up behind you, I was adept on the Amiga at loosing one blow to the right, spinning around and clobbering the enemy behind, spinning again to whack the first and... well, you get the idea, I'm sure. This version affords me no such tactical fighting opportunity - the warrior doesn't seem to react to my command to turn him around and frequently the enemy behind has buried a hatchet in my skull as I hammer the D-pad with frustration.
As in the original, the warrior is an agile chap and leaping up in the air and bashing the action key will oftentimes mean that such styles of attack can be avoided by making sure he comes down, sword flailing, behind the would-be attacker. OK, so you can make progress doing that... but, like I said, this feels like a very different game - one that's much more difficult, much more finicky and much more frustrating to play. The supersonic speed affects those raccoons too - I could land a few blows on them (and increase my spellcasting) on the Amiga. Here, they're on-screen for a few seconds (at best!), and any blows that meet their mark are more by good luck than skill.
You only get a single continue play too, which meant for me that level three was about the furthest I could get. Having put in more than ten hours playing the game now, I'm really starting to wonder what sort of superhuman effort is required to get any further...!
As I said in my introduction, it could be that to appreciate Golden Axe, you need to have played it in its original era. Perhaps the Amiga 500 version was considered too easy. I don't know as I purposefully avoid reading reviews written by others before I write my own, just to be sure that they don't, consciously or unconsciously, affect my opinion. Which is, also to repeat, that Golden Axe for the Sega Master System is lousy.