Golden Axe II improves upon the original Genesis arcade port, but it's just simply more of the same thing.
Although the antagonist is different (at least, by name only), the plot is similar to the first game--just when you thought the Golden Axe couldn't possibly be stolen again, Dark Guld (who looks an awful lot like a certain other villain in the series) seizes it for the sole intent of shattering entire countries. Not surprisingly, our three legendary warriors from the original have answered the call to get it back. Six levels round out the package (provided you're playing in Normal mode) and, as before, you'll choose one of three characters--Ax Battler, Tyris Flare and Gilius Thunderhead. They haven't changed much from the first game other than Gilius now possessing Earth magic--which is considerably weaker than it looks. Your enemies haven't varied much either--insofar as lizardmen, dog-faced barbarians, headless Durahans, and pint-sized Wizards that replace the little gnomes from the first game. Only, they don't jostle around the play field like giddy squirrels on happy pills---they actually behave like normal enemies and attack you with magic fireballs and a good swing of their stick. Maybe it's just me, but kicking defenseless little gnomes around and robbing them of their precious belongings was a lot more fun.
To its credit, Golden Axe II makes some improvements over the first game. Hit detection is better than it was, the game moves faster and controls are smoother and more responsive. You can now hold down the button and charge your specific level of magic attack so as not to fully spend your hard-earned stock in one press as was the case in the first game, making things much more manageable when it counts. Graphics have improved slightly, and exhibit much more detail. You may not get to ride on a giant turtle with a village on its shell or a mountain-sized eagle this time, but at least you can delve deep into the sweltering boons of a dragon's throat (which is actually a cave shaped like a dragon's head) The Duel mode has returned from the first game as well, but the mode is threadbare at worst--as if cut and paste from the first game without so much an afterthought.
Golden Axe II is by no means a bad game, but with all due respect, you've played this before. It can be compared to an apprehensive young child entering kindergarten for the very first time--it has the potential to grow and change, but it doesn't want to leave its comfort zone. That said, Golden Axe II falls regrettably short in being a worthy sequel to one of the greatest arcade games of all time.