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.
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.
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
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