In video games, success begets imitation. Shameless, wanton, property-theft level imitation. Today's sad tales of shameless cloning (e.g. the sordid Threes/2048 saga) have been a fixture of the industry since the start, when American arcades consisted almost entirely of naked Pong ripoffs and a handful of driving games.
Classics and landmark works find themselves quickly mimicked. Unsurprisingly, then, Nintendo's Legend of Zelda games have always seen their share of derivatives as well. Not too many, mind you; the complexity of design that goes into a proper Zelda knockoff creates something of a high bar for imitators to clear, and publishers looking for a quick and easy cash-in on someone else's idea go after softer targets instead. This has the unusual side effect of making most Zelda-alikes genuinely good, sometimes even downright innovative, as opposed to the mushy warmed-over junk that tends to characterize other series' clones.
Since Zelda and its sequel were a pretty big deal for the Nintendo Entertainment System — did you see those gold carts!? — it was only a matter of time before the Sega Master System, forever the Salieri to the NES's Mozart, saw its own attempts to do the Zelda thing. Of the system's two major Zelda-esque adventures, Sega's own Golden Axe: Axe Battler fell directly into the "brazen derivative" category, a shameless knockoff that followed Zelda's design to the letter. The other one, however, aimed higher. Compile's Golvellius: The Valley of Doom wasn't content simply to imitate Zelda or Zelda II, but rather attempted to combine both into a single bold adventure.
Admittedly, Golvellius didn't begin life on the Master System; the game originally debuted on the MSX home computer. But Sega, always on the lookout for worthwhile games to add to its 8-bit system's library, snatched up the rights and reprogrammed it for Master System. This was the only version Americans ever saw, the MSX having never managed to make any headway in the U.S.; and for Sega fans weary of their NES-owning friends crowing about great RPGs, it was a huge coup.
Structurally, Golvellius seems to owe a great deal to Zelda II, which debuted about half a year before Compile's adventure appeared on the scene. As in Link's second outing, the game's viewpoint alternates between top-down and side-scrolling action. What differentiates Golvellius is that its top-down portions weren't simply abstractions designed to get the hero from place to place; instead, they offer their own form of combat and challenge, with big, fast-paced, free-scrolling arenas that wouldn't appear on NES until SNK's Crystalis came along a couple of years later. The tradeoff, however, came in the side-scrolling areas; rather than playing out as complex labyrinthine dungeons, Golvellius' caves took a much more straightforward approach, with only a handful of branching paths as the player darted toward the end.
Golvellius also lacked the polished controls and enemy mechanics of the Zelda series: Its hero had a looser feel, making the action faster but sloppier in both viewpoints. On the other hand, it looked much nicer, especially on Master System. Its detailed environments played host to huge (and curiously cartoonish) monsters to be battled at double-speed. And while its soundtrack isn't usually remembered as one of the greats of the 8-bit generation, it had a downbeat, almost melancholy vibe that gave the game its distinct atmosphere — one that admittedly felt somewhat at odds with the goofy snake monsters and sassy NPC dialogue, but whatever.
In the grand scheme of video game history, Golvellius has turned out to be one of those games relegated to obscurity primarily because of the platforms it appeared on rather than for any intrinsic flaw. By the standards of 1987 (or 1988, when the enhanced Master System version appeared), it was an ambitious and honestly sometimes incredible game. Given the tiny market share of the Sega Master System, though, it was doomed to never see the sort of sales its inspirations and competitors did. The game never saw a sequel, just a remix for MSX2... but in a way, its spirit lived on through Compile's cult classic NES game The Guardian Legend. A good idea never truly goes away, it just gets better with each new permutation.
Images courtest of HG101.