ActRaiser

ActRaiser

Introduction

The early nineties saw the launch of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). It would go on to become one of the most beloved gaming consoles in the medium’s history due to its extensive library of classic titles from the 2D era’s zenith. During this time, a game development company known as Quintet was founded. Key personnel of this new firm included Tomoyoshi Miyazaki and Masaya Hashimoto, who were veterans in the industry having worked on the first three installments of Nihon Falcom’s Ys series of action-RPGs as the scenario writer and director respectively. Thanks to these connections, Yuzo Koshiro, the man who had previously scored the soundtracks of those same games, lent his talents to scoring Quintet’s inaugural effort: ActRaiser. This game would become one of the first games available for the SNES, debuting mere months after the console’s release.

Analyzing the Experience

ActRaiser is something of an anomaly for its day in that the gameplay has two distinct faces, though as a whole, it could be considered an early action-RPG. After choosing a name, you learn that you’re an entity known as the Master. A powerful demon named Tanzra sealed your power away. With you predisposed, his army of monsters ravaged the world, making it unfit for human habitation. Now it’s up to you to rise from the ashes and bring peace to the land.

ActRaiser - Action Stage

The first style of gameplay is that of an action, hack-and-slash platformer. This game is a rare example of an RPG having a traditional scoring system, as you get points for slaying monsters, finding treasures, and at the end of the level as a bonus depending on how many lives you have and how much time is left on the clock upon completing it. You are given a certain amount of lives to complete a level, but other than having to restart the stage from the beginning, there is no true penalty for losing them all.

Actraiser - God Sim

Upon completing a level, humans begin to populate the land you reclaimed. It is at this point that ActRaiser becomes a town-building simulation game akin to the 1989 classic, SimCity. Despite Nintendo of America’s strict policies regarding religious censorship at the time, it quickly becomes apparent that you are God, and your goal is to terraform the land, making it more hospitable for your subjects. Among other things, this includes burning shrubbery, destroying boulders, and drying up swamp lands. Luckily, you also have the assistance of a faithful cherub who acts as your advisor. Though humans roam the land once more, demons lurk underground. You can have your cherub shoot at the enemies when they are terrorizing the countryside. Lead your followers correctly and they’ll seal the demons’ lairs for good, allowing their civilization to thrive.

These portions are where things get interesting, for your followers function as experience points. When you level up, you are given more health and SP, the latter of which is used to create the aforementioned miracles that help shape the landscape. Helping your followers with their problems will grant you rewards such as magic spells and extra lives to complete the side-scrolling sections with. Once all of the monster lairs have been sealed, you will have to complete another action stage. Clearing this second level will permanently rid the land of the demons’ influence. The combined number of points you accumulate in the two action stages help determine that area’s maximum population.

I’ve found that the best titles which feature more than one style of gameplay need to have synergy between them in order to provide a solid experience. I have no doubt this describes ActRaiser quite well as it is a game that successfully ties two very different genres into a single, harmonious package. I enjoyed making a civilization blossom and watching the Master become stronger when battling demons. At the beginning of the game, you’re fighting alone in a world without hope, and by the end, everyone is praying for your victory. It weaves an interesting story without bogging things down with walls of text.

My favorite aspect of ActRaiser is how integrated the player is with the Master. Because the scenes that take place in the Sky Palace are from a first-person perspective, the implication is that you and the Master are one in the same. This is reinforced by how in the action stages, the character you control isn’t the Master, but rather a statue they animated with their divine powers: an avatar.

That’s not to say this game is without its flaws, though. For one, the controls in the action stages take some time to get used to. I don’t think they’re outright bad, but at times, they feel a bit stiff compared to this game’s contemporaries, though I do appreciate how when you get hit by an enemy attack, you don’t get knocked back several feet. Even on narrow platforms, you usually don’t have to worry too much about falling off as long as you’re careful.

There’s also the issue of ActRaiser having been made in the era of video games when figuring things out was largely a task players had to accomplish with a combination of sheer persistence and a desire to exhaust every single possibility. In other words, it can be a little difficult to figure out how to get all of the power-ups from the simulations; a good chunk of them involve actions that aren’t even remotely hinted at in the game. Admittedly, it’s not too much of an issue because the game can be completed without them, but it makes me wonder how many people who played the game back in 1991 actually managed to get the Master to reach the highest level and find every hidden item.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Novel concept
  • Two styles blend together surprisingly well
  • Reasonably good translation for its time
  • Excellent music
  • Wonderful presentation
Cons:

  • Controls are a bit tricky
  • A little short
  • Getting some rewards requires unintuitive actions

ActRaiser is a beloved classic of the SNES library, and for the most part, this praise is well deserved. If you have never played or heard of this game, do yourself a favor and try it out at least once. Even when one considers that it’s a God game which predates Black & White by a whole decade, it’s remarkable how well it has held up over the years. Helping this perception is this game’s amazing soundtrack. When this game came out, people were used to 8-bit chiptunes or 16-bit synth in their video games. As a stark contrast, the music in ActRaiser sounds as though it is being performed by a live orchestra. Consequently, I think this game and its soundtrack helped foreshadow the public’s eventual acceptance of the medium as a viable means for one’s artistic expression.

Final Score: 7/10

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6 thoughts on “ActRaiser

    • With a bit of SimCity thrown in there for good measure. What’s really remarkable about it is how well these disparate elements meld together. It’s also easy to get; it has been available on the Virtual Console service for some time.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Ah, Actraiser. I spent a lot of time with this as a kid. I had an odd relationship with this back then, though. I really, really enjoyed the god game section. Didn’t have so much fun with the combat platforming sections. I don’t know why, but I just didn’t really like that genre back in the day. I had a friend who was just the opposite. We got to trade. Good times.

    I’ve liked both sections a lot more as I’ve matured. I think getting a better sense of spacing and reflexes helped me enjoy the combat platforming more. Every once in a while, I’ll pick it up again, and have myself a good ol’ time playing it through, right up until the dumb stupid boss rush at the end that I can never conquer, then back in the box it goes. Makes for a bit of a sad story. God comes down, goes around whoopin’ butt and saving the world, only to get sent back into stasis because His enemies figured out how to all fight him at the same time. Then evil reigns forever, or at least until the next time the cycle repeats itself.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s really cool how you got to divvy the work between you and your friend. Considering how there are two different styles of gameplay, this would be a perfect game to accomplish such a feat. Personally, what I liked about them is how they don’t overstay their welcome. That is, I thought the action sequences were fun to play through before I got bored of the simulation portions and vice versa. Plus, it’s nice that they don’t drag on any longer than necessary.

      I discovered this game when it was originally released on the Virtual Console in 2007 and I really enjoyed it. I get the feeling I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much as a kid; I probably wouldn’t have understood what to do. Then again, I’ve noticed I’ve played a few games where I was glad in hindsight that the first time I experienced them was after I matured – especially ones such as Live A Live, Planescape: Torment, and Undertale, all of which rely on the player being familiar with the conventions of an RPG to deliver unique experiences. Have you ever felt this way about certain games?

      If you ever get back into the game, I suggest reading a guide. There are ways to increase the number of lives you start out with in the action stages. Should you find them all, it makes the boss rush much easier because vanquishing each one results in a checkpoint. Funnily enough, I played through the game a few weeks ago to familiarize myself with the mechanics again, and when I landed the finishing blow on the final boss, I had only one tick of health remaining with zero lives left.

      Liked by 2 people

      • When I was a kid, I played a lot of games that way, with a few different friends. Rental games in particular, got a lot of that. Someone would pick up something new that a bunch of people would want to try out, but we’d all like different pieces of it, so we’d trade off sections. I got introduced to Earthbound like this, with my cousin enjoying walking around towns and talking to people but not the dungeons or the combat, and I’m the only person I’ve heard of who’s actually used the two-player function in Final Fantasy VI, because of it. A good way of staying social with what would normally be a one-player game.

        Deus Ex is one of those, that I’m glad I didn’t play it until after I grew up a bit. I felt I wouldn’t have been able to get into the story as much, wouldn’t have appreciated the moral ambiguity, and definitely wouldn’t have connected with the ending options the way I did if I didn’t hit the game at a very specific point in my life where I could relate to it a lot better. Final Fantasy 7 is another one that I didn’t pick up until I was a teen, plenty of years after it first came out, but I really don’t think I would have been able to follow along had I played it when it was new, or really appreciated the new plot-heavy direction they were taking.

        So there are ways to mitigate the boss rush? I remembered failing a lot and having to restart from the beginning of it, but that may have been because I was so short on lives by that point.

        Liked by 1 person

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