GOLDEN AXE WARRIOR / Sega / Master System
Hungry for non-directed exploration in the vein of the original Zelda, but already played that game to death (along with maybe the Neutopias as well)? Other than Zelda 1 ROM hacks, pretty much the only option left is Golden Axe Warrior, but fortunately it's a pretty good one.

Sega created this as their more polished take on the first Zelda ... it better be more polished, though, since it came out in 1991! For reference, that was five years after the first Zelda, and with the SNES already on the market and A Link To The Past already in development. So Sega was comically late to the party with this one, but they did at least deliver some improvements on and new tweaks to the Zelda formula -- things like towns with shops and inns, NPCs with helpful dialogue in the overworld, more colorful graphics and even a pretty nice and varied soundtrack.

Though it bites quite heavily off the Zelda structure (comb overworlds for dungeons, hidden caves on tons of screens, some of the bosses even seem derivative), GAW is focused more on combat and less on puzzles, and the engine feels slightly less sophisticated in spite of some of the other improvements. One cool feature is that you can equip multiple melee weapon types, which should be switched up for different kinds of enemies, but there's nothing like block-pushing in the dungeon and special item use is limited to a handful of select incidences. Mostly it's just about hacking your way through the dungeons and finding keys to open doors (or just buying the keys from various shops with all the Monster Wangs you gradually pick up), maybe occasionally pushing up on a candelabra to open up a wall here and there.

It's also even more directionless than Zelda; NPCs do give helpful hints fairly often, but there's never really any clear path forward -- you just kinda stumble around until you run into dungeons, and hope it's one you have the needed item for or are strong enough to take on. If not, it's back to random roaming. To be fair, manual mapping really does help in this aspect. Zelda was a little better about applying subtle direction in the way the map was designed and the sequence of items needed to gain access to different portions of it, however.

Still, as the recent popularity of the Dark Souls games proves, there's significant appetite for a game that basically has no handholding and dumps you off into a hostile land to figure everything else for yourself (and get adjusted to somewhat fidgety combat against super-aggro monsters). So if you don't mind some mapping (and blundering) in the old-school manner, GAW offers up a pretty good time. It's a worthy addition to any Master System library simply because there's a dearth of games this polished on the console, but it's also actually worth sitting through on its own rights.
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