As Golden Axe is one of my all-time favorite games, I was expecting great things of Golden Axe II. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite live up to the original. For one thing, the graphics got a little ugly. Everything looks a bit grainy and drab, though some of the enemies are nicely done. Another thing that stands out are the horrible sound effects: swordplay results in a tinny "clink, clink, swish, swish" and the death screams of the enemy are absolutely pathetic. They're not even screams really, and why a dying opponent shouts "bleh!" I'm not quite sure.
Gameplay is pretty much the same as in the first, though both movement and attack seem a bit faster. The enemies are also tougher to kill, and avoiding their blows isn't as easy as in the first game. As in the original Golden Axe, you take control of a muscle-bound warrior, an amazon, or a dwarf. The dwarf has the weakest magic but the strongest attack. The amazon seems the reverse. The warrior seems to fall somewhere inbetween.
If there's one change in Golden Axe II that I'd call an improvement, it's the magic system. Instead of collecting magic potions and spending them all in one shot when you hit the magic button, in Golden Axe II you can decide how much of your magic power you want to use at once. The longer you hold down the button, the more magic potions you use and the more powerful your spell. In addition, some of the character special attacks are arguably improved, such as Tyris Flare's sword swinging somersault that can hit opponents standing on either side (jump + attack button simultaneously).
Despite these innovations, however, the original Golden Axe is still a better game. Still, this sequel is fun to play from time to time, and should definitely not be overlooked if you're a fan of the first.