Play By Play - Golden Axe Warrior

By Brian • 3 June 2024

Sega Master System
Available as an unlockable on Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection.

A few weekends ago, we took our Xbox 360 out of its storage bin for the first time in at least a couple of years. I wanted to introduce our daughter to Peggle, a casual, low-stakes game she took to immediately and asked to play again last weekend. Also, with the 360 in service, my wife and I took the opportunity to get in a game of Rock Band, a nostalgic favorite for us. I should note that the thought of Rock Band as nostalgic just added a fresh clutch of crows’ feet to the corners of my eyes. We are old.

What’s our 360 doing in a storage bin, you ask? Well, we keep a lot of “classic” consoles on hand (more crows’ feet), but they are put away for space issues. Our house is small, and as much as I’d love to weigh down an aesthetically pleasing entertainment center with every console since 1985, we just don’t have the room. Not only that, a 1-year-old patrols these corridors—no unattended electronic device is safe.

As I sat enjoying Peggle with the 6-year-old, I glanced at the console, thinking with some unease at what a hassle it was to set up. I had to unearth it from its bin, its cords and controllers from another bin and, let us not overlook the cramped, treacherous dive behind the TV stand to plug in all the appropriate cords, which instantly tangled beyond organization. Apprehension tickled the edges of my subconscious as I accepted the inevitable: all of this would have to be put away again soon.

It occurred to me that I really needed to get the most out of the 360 while it was available, so I arbitrarily created a new rule for myself. If a console is pulled out of storage, I need to play and beat a game on it before putting it away. The game can be an old favorite or something from the backlog, but something’s getting played.

For the purposes of taking advantage of the Xbox 360, I picked possibly the most non-Xbox game at my disposal. I loaded Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection and chose Golden Axe Warrior. Not only is Golden Axe Warrior not an Xbox game, it’s not even a Genesis game. It’s an unlockable Sega Master System game. On a compilation of Sega Genesis games. On an Xbox 360 console. I feel like there are too many degrees of separation at work here. Can I pick ’em, or what?

You may or may not be familiar with Golden Axe, an arcade, fantasy-themed sidescrolling beat ’em up that sees a barbarian, a princess-turned-amazon, and a dwarf team up to defeat a conquering giant named Death Adder. It spawned a Genesis port, two Genesis-exclusive sequels that are a lot of fun, and an arcade sequel, Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder. I’ve only played that one once, with Craig at the Galloping Ghost, but I remember it being bonkers and exhausting, and probably also the best game of the series. They aren’t the most elegant beat ’em ups, lacking in finesse and well orchestrated combos, but I think they do a good job of capturing raw fantasy violence.


Now, Golden Axe Warrior is an action-RPG spinoff from 1991 set in the same universe. Death Adder is up to no good in this game, as well, duping a high-ranking minister into selling him nine powerful crystals that ward off evil in the country of Firewood. With the crystals in his possession, Death Adder deposes the king and takes over, and it’s up to me to put a stop to his evil ways. Having experienced a wealth of adventures in the main Golden Axe series, I thought it was time to try the spinoff.


Before we dig in, I just want to comment on the absurdity of the game’s intro message. As if I have to be reminded that Death Adder killed my parents? To be fair, there’s no mention of this circumstance in the manual or elsewhere, so there has to be some way of giving the player context, but it just feels silly. Hey idiot, don’t forget Death Adder killed your mom and dad! Better do something about it!

Golden Axe Warrior begins in a town called Milliver, in the country of Firewood. Here, I found a shop selling items in exchange for horns (Firewood’s currency, apparently), an inn kind enough to let me stay for free because I’m poor and haven’t actually started adventuring yet (I guess Death Adder stole all of the family’s money, as well), and a sage who can save my progress. The villagers shared a few helpful hints and the latest news, including a report that Death Adder has killed the King of Firewood and Princess Tyris. Is this Tyris Flare, the playable princess-turned-amazon from the rest of the series?! Unforgivable. Death Adder must pay!

Stepping out into the wilderness, my first and most certain observation was that Golden Axe Warrior is a lot like the original Legend of Zelda, which is a pretty exciting prospect for me. I knew going into the game that it was similar to Zelda—in fact, that’s the reason I wanted to try it. More games like Zelda I? Awesome. I will play them. No excessive snark or criticisms of sameness here. (Although some good-natured ribbing is probable.) Moving screen by screen, I ventured into a colorful forest and used my sword to battle slimes and green, spear-tossing pigmen similar to, but legally distinct from moblins—they are called snoutmen, thank you.

I quickly discovered that defeating all the enemies on a screen was worth my time, as it occasionally opened a secret passage to an inn, save point, or something useful. The problem is that combat can be tricky—the controls aren’t quite as fluid as in The Legend of Zelda, and I had a lot of difficulty lining up sword strikes and timing them so as to not be hit by the snoutmen’s spears when my guard was down. I also had trouble getting close enough to enemies to hit them without also inadvertently running into them and taking damage. I died a lot in the early going, which is not good, as each death cost me a percentage of horns (though it seemed different every time—if there’s a formula, I haven’t picked up on it). I have not yet found any items for which to save my horns, but I know I’m going to wish I had those lost horns back soon enough.

As I delved deeper into the woods, the sprawling trees overwhelmed me. They seemed to continue in all directions. The manual provides a small section of map for the region right around Milliver, but it looks like I’m otherwise on my own with regards to navigation. I may have to pull out my graph paper for this adventure, not just to prevent me from getting lost, but also to plot the inns and sages I’ve uncovered in the wilderness. Having played Zelda 1 probably 40 times in my life, I just know where everything is. I think my complete unfamiliarity with Golden Axe Warrior, coupled with an almost completely unknown lay of the land, might prove to be one of its greatest challenges, but also one of its greatest draws. It’s a new adventure in a new world, which is really exciting, but certainly intimidating, as well.

Despite not taking the time to map during this first play session, I did wander around long enough to discover two labyrinths. Well, I had a little bit of help from the scrap of map in the manual—let’s not forget that. Again, I found the labyrinths quite reminiscent of those in Zelda 1. Exploring the first labyrinth, I defeated enemies (bats and skeletons, no less, another Zelda parallel) to find keys or open shuttered doors. One door had to be opened via a switch hidden in a wall sconce. Conspicuous by their absence were block-pushing puzzles, and I wondered if they would make an appearance in a later dungeon. Also notably missing were a dungeon map or compass—again, it looks as if I may need to depend on graph paper and note-taking as this adventure progresses. I like to do it, but it’s always a challenge. The temptation to skip it and just brute force my way through a game is strong, despite the hours of frustration and walking in circles it adds to the experience. Why, brain? Why you do this?

Within short order, I discovered a battle axe somewhere in the back of the dungeon. My guy issues a thrusting attack with his default sword, but swings the axe in a wide swath, a godsend in the early going as I try to adjust to the nuances of Golden Axe Warrior’s combat. The range is still pretty short, but fighting enemies already feels much more forgiving, since I no longer have to be lined up perfectly to hit them.

You bet I do.

The axe especially came in handy during my first boss encounter. Hey, I know that guy! He’s the boss of the first level of the Golden Axe arcade game—a bald, mustachioed giant wielding a hammer. (Actually, there are two of them in the arcade game.) He wasn’t too tough, but almost got me with his hammer strikes to the floor, which created little shockwaves that spread around him at a short range. I prevailed—barely, collected a life upgrade and the first of the nine crystals, and...walked back out of the dungeon. Where Zelda gives the player the courtesy of an instant exit back to the overworld when a piece of Triforce is collected, Golden Axe Warrior demands tedium and a trek back through the dungeon hazards, all the way to the front door. Thanks? I foresee this causing much frustration later in the game—I hope I’m wrong.

A familiar, if not villainous face. I'm loving these parallels to the original Golden Axe.

With the battle axe now in my possession, a new facet of exploration presented itself: tree-chopping. Secrets can be hidden in the trees, but a lot of the trees on any given screen are choppable, so finding those secrets can be an obtuse task. It beats burning bushes with the blue candle in Zelda, though.

Sorry I chopped down your front door.

Amidst my superfluous chopping, I found Gillian the Dwarf hidden in the forest! Gillian is the character I normally use in Golden Axe 1 and 2. But, he’s injured here, and needs a golden apple to recuperate, so I guess I’ll need to track one of those down. He says I can find them to the north, a direction I haven’t traveled yet because a townsperson said there were tougher monsters in that direction. Right now, I’m having trouble with the basic slimes, so Gillian may have to wait a few more in-game hours for that golden apple. Sorry, friend. At least a cheerful 8-bit rendition of the Stage One music from the Golden Axe arcade game plays inside his hovel. The whole encounter is a delightful and welcome homage to the arcade game, and I hope to see more of these down the road.

I hit my first real wall in the second labyrinth, which is noticeably trickier than the first. It introduces statues that shoot fireballs, which caught me by surprise. There are also some scorpion(?) enemies that I have to get really close to in order to hit them. Ultimately, I had to leave the labyrinth because I couldn’t beat the dragon lurking at the end. The dragon spits three fireballs in a spread pattern, and my dodging abilities have absolutely left me. I must have been killed five or six times simply because I couldn’t dodge the fireballs, and kept getting too beat up on my way to the dragon, as well.

Wandering aimlessly, but running short on play time, I stumbled upon a shop near the sea selling a Knight’s Shield for 250 horns. Is this my solution to defeating the dragon? It looks like I finally have a reason to start saving horns. Well, there’s that golden apple, too. Gillian still needs my help!

Oh, I found a torch in the second labyrinth. It lights dark rooms, but I haven’t needed it, yet.

With that, my first session came to an end. Despite some frustrations and the realization that I’mma need to draw some maps, I’m having fun about an hour and a half into the game, and I’m ready for more adventure. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back with more Golden Axe Warrior (or maybe some other content) soon!

Screenshot Credits: MobyGames and World of Longplays