Good video games will give us god complexes. One of gaming’s greatest strengths compared with other entertainment mediums is that it is immersive. We feel like we ARE the hero and that we control the outcome of the story with our choices, as opposed to movies and books where you are just a spectator along for the ride. Actraiser takes this concept literally, allowing you to play as a god returning to earth to help his people defeat a great and menacing evil. Of course this being a launch era SNES game, Nintendo of America, always skittish on religious matters, chose to do a little editing. So ‘God’ is ‘The Master’, and Satan is ‘Tanzra’. Yet despite Nintendo’s meddling, Actraiser stands tall as one of the most important SNES games ever released.
The story begins with your character awakening from a long sleep. Long ago, the people began to lose faith in The Master, causing his power to weaken and giving Tanzra the opportunity to strike. Wounded, The Master returns to heaven and falls into a deep sleep. Back on earth things become worse as Tanzra gives control of the land to six powerful demons. Awakening, it is up to you to set things right by defeating the demons and guiding your people in rebuilding civilization. The story definitely cribs from religious and mythological works and succeeds in using these principals to explore the concept of faith, not just to the people who believe but to the deity who derives their power from it.
ActRaiser actually has two sides to its gameplay, the first being incredibly fun side-scrolling action sequences where the Master makes the land inhabitable by slaying demons. It is in these raids that you’ll get a detailed look at this world Quintet has crafted. Lush forests and dense jungles. Ancient pyramids and gothic castles. Just about every locale that you can think of has a segment, giving the world an extraordinary amount of scope and variety. Look no further than the first action level; beaming down into a dangerous forest full of possessed trees, you soldier through only to do battle with a deadly Centaur! With twelve separate stages all offering a wide assortment of action, it is hard to complain! It also helps that a system of simple attacks and powerful magic spells makes this a much more accessible game than some of the tougher action offerings … ActRaiser is a game that anyone can pick up and play.
After clearing out the monsters, it’s time to rebuild civilization! It is here that you’ll first come into contact with the simulation aspect of the gameplay, and although it may seem complicated at first, it’s actually pretty simple. You control your angel helper as he attempts to help your people build a town. You do this by clearing wilderness with lightning and wind, zapping monsters with arrows, and showing the people where to build. The fun part here is that occasionally your people will pray and make offerings to you, and it is in these small encounters that you realize just how much thought the developers put into this game’s story. You will encounter tales of hope, family, greed, and lust for power. In one instance, a village elder will ask for a way to calm his people, who are on the brink of war. After you help another area build they will give their music as an offering, which you can then share with the elder to avoid a conflict. The depth here is much more than you would expect from a game like this.
Also note that how well you aid your people in rebuilding their towns directly affects how powerful you are in the action sequences. The Master’s power comes from the people, so the more people believe in him, the more health and magic spells will be at his disposal. It adds a nice touch of complexity onto an already solid game, allowing people seeking a challenge to build bare bones societies and people who need a little help on the harder areas to build large City-States. This is a great gameplay decision, ensuring anyone can finish it yet offering a challenge to those who seek it.
In the end the only thing left to do is defeat Tanzra in a cosmic battle to the finish. This final fight against evil comes in the form of a boss rush that pits you against incarnations of the six big bads, with Tanzra himself at the end. These boss battles play quite different from one another, sporting a stellar design based on the culture of the area that they come from. So it’s a Dragon from the Norse area, a Werewolf from an European style area, and a Minotaur from a place styled after the Mediterranean. See what I mean when I say this game is influenced by various mythologies? And even when you are done, there is a new game mode to try out that cuts out the sim elements and just throws you into the action on an even harder difficulty!
Graphically the game has aged like fine wine. The world is vibrant and colorful, and the diverse areas all have their own look and feel. Spell effects look impressive and there are Mode 7 moments galore, the most notorious of which involve the skydive to the surface from heaven. For an early SNES effort they are solid. The soundtrack is in a league of it’s own, able to stand tall with Square and Konami’s best as some of the greatest scores on the system. We shouldn’t be surprised, as it was Yuzo Koshiro (the man behind the excellent Streets of Rage and Shinobi soundtracks) who arranged and composed the music.
All in all, Actraiser is more than the sum of its parts, which is an amazing feat considering how both segments are of great quality. Considering it was released in 1991, it is telling just how well this game stands up compared to similar efforts such as Altered Beast on the rival Sega Genesis system. The action is intense, the sim elements are thought provoking, and everything just comes together like the delicious combination of peanut butter and chocolate. Note that this is the first of Quintet’s SNES masterworks, but it will certainly not be the last. It is a true game of biblical proportions.
5 Out Of 5 Stars
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