Golden Axe originally came out in what I like to call the "Dark Period" of arcade games; a sort of vaguely defined time between the late 80s and early 90s where it seemed like arcade developers were trying to make games as morbid, violent and disturbing as possible. Golden Axe falls nicely into the middle of this period, though it is rather on the mild side of it in terms of violent content.
Still, the Sega Genesis version (which is now the Wii version) was cut down and censored somewhat. For example, the guy that shuffles in at the beginning all shot up with arrows and soaked in blood is censored in this one. Some of the enemies died with bloodcurdling digitized screams of "Ohhh Gawwwwd!" ripped off from some action movie or another, which are not present in the Genesis port. On the whole you encounter a lot more enemies torturing hapless civilians, so if your bag is seeing nuns getting their heads stepped on by barbarians you may be saddened. Also, Death=Adder had a way cooler intro and death scene. There was some pile of carcasses on the ground that a bunch of snakes went over and started feeding on, then they all sort of coalesced into him. Also, he gets impaled by his own axe upon defeat and there's a nice gush of blood as it sticks in his torso.
The Genesis version did add a couple of new levels, but what that really does is just prolong the pain. Golden Axe is one of those games whose popularity I can not figure out. It was another in the fine tradition of Japanese game developers ripping off their concepts from popular American action movies, this time obviously Conan and Red Sonja. I think the whole thing was just the presentation -- the skeleton character select screen, the righteous dwarf, the bikini babe barbarian, etc.
The story is that this former accountant turned evil warlord named Death=Adder (yes with the equals sign, that is what the game said) kidnapped the King and Queen of the Land (what Land, don't ask me, I don't know. The one you're in.) and is trying to force everyone to swear loyalty to him and become ruler and such. So your motley crew of three sets out to rescue the royalty and knock Adder off his throne. Basically it's a beat-em-up, moves at a slow pace. The game's main thing is to make your attacks really slow, then send two or three guys out at you so that while you're trying to deal with one the other(s) will go behind you and crack you in the back of the head repeatedly. Also, it likes to have fuzzy hit detection so it's hard to tell when you're actually lined up with the enemies and able to hit them, but they have like these super high arc wide swings and ultimate priority close hits that knock the stuffing out of you when you get anywhere near them.
Aside from your normal attack and jump, you can kick elves in the face and steal their magic bottles to cast spells that knock everyone on the screen down. If you hit jump+attack at the same time, you do this ridiculously elaborate turn-around swing that not only does very little damage but takes forever to pull off, so while you're executing your perfect Conan form the enemies are stabbing you up your poser ass. The only other move that is of any real use is the dashing attack, which is weak but really quick and has priority over a lot of the enemy attacks. Basically due to the game's shabby setup you have to spam this attack repeatedly to win most of the boss fights without dying 800 times.
There's no variety, no replay value at all but to grind through the same bullshit enemies over and over again. The one decent thing about the arcade game, the weird ending where the arcade machine blew up and the monsters from the game started chasing hapless kids all over Tokyo, has been cut out of this version and replaced with some boring nonsense. The sound pretty much sucked to begin with and there's little appreciable difference between the versions. Don't fall into the "popular=must be good" trap on this one and blow your money, this is a game that is best left behind.
* Gameplay Video