Published by Enix (1991)
Released on SNES
Alright, friends. Let’s keep the censorship chat short: Nintendo didn’t want religious references in their games. Games like Final Fantasy took their crosses out, and ActRaiser changed God and Satan over toe The Master and Tanzra. And from the lofty perch of 2018, turbo nerds like me roll our eyes at the paper thin changes implemented by the localization team to make this game safe for our innocent Christian eyes*.
And 2018 seemed like a fine time to finally pick this gem out of my collection and finally give it a proper run through. It’s one of Z-Trigger co-host Brandon Harris’ favorite SNES titles, a game I watched him blitz one night back when we were in college, and yet, I’d never taken the time to properly play through it. I’ve played it only through the opening level, and once the sim aspect picked up, kind of shut it off, and put it back on the shelf, certain that I wouldn’t stick with it until the end.
It was a fine Saturday afternoon when I wanted to do one thing alone; I wanted to finish another game. I’ve burned through far more of my backlog this year than I’d original intended, and with the final weeks of 2018 drawing to a close and 2019 bearing a far more rewarding challenge that I can’t fudge my way through using a walkthrough on GameFaqs (parenting is going to be the best kind of scary), it seems like a fine time to just barrel through as many games as I possibly can over the next few weeks. So, pairing the aforementioned GameFaqs walkthroughs and the resources at HLTB, I found that the Enix’s unique blend of light godgame simulation and action roleplaying would make for a relaxing Saturday afternoon adventure.
ActRaiser is the first game developed by the legendary Quartet studio, a team founded by the scenario writer for the first three Y’s games, Tomoyoshi Miyazaki. Quintet are largely known for the spectacular Soul Blazer trilogy, which was comprised by Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia (Coming soon to Backlog Burning), and Terranigma, a game that never made to the US through the proper channels, but enjoys gray market success in numerous lovely reproduction cartridges. While these games are quite different from Quintet’s first effort, I couldn’t go forward without mentioning them. They’re all classics in their own right, oft overlooked in the discussion of great SNES games.
Discussing the gameplay of ActRaiser is difficult from the outset as there are few games that cross as many genres. ActRaiser opens with a side scrolling action sequence after an orb of white light possesses a statue of a knight. The knight cuts through various monsters and even does some platforming, collecting power ups and extra lives. The score collected tallies up, and then the game completely changes.
Overlooking the world as a cherubic incarnation of The Master (IE, God), players then guide the people who inhabit the world as they develop their cities, and seal the monster’s lairs that are spewing demons, dragons, and massive golden skulls out into the air. The Master has to strike these foes down with a bow and arrow, lest these beasts murder his worshippers. This mode crosses SimCity Lite city management with a top down shoot-em-up. When the lair’s are all sealed, it’s time to get back into the body of the knight and take on the evil that haunts the people each country. After bringing peace back to all six nations, it’s time to fight Satan…err…Tanzra.
On paper, this game sounds demanding. Simulation games are usually open ended behemoths that can devour entire weeks without a win state being achieved. Platforming action games of the era can often be the kind of controller smashing infuriating that funded InterAct and MadCatz in their early days. ActRaiser achieves a fine balance where the player is not doing either mode for an extended period of time. Each simulation stage acts as a light series of puzzles, which can provide power ups and magic spells to be used in the action stages. Thorough exploration in the action stages gives the Master can empower the player to tackle the bosses with relative ease. The platforming, while it has aged (as any 27 year old game does), is fair, balanced, and doesn’t require a great deal of effort to pick up on the patterns of most of the games foes. The bosses, while fair, can require a few rounds to pick up on a good route with which to fight them. The Manticore battle in Bloodpool, for example, cost me about ten lives (easily replenished after the check point in the level) before I found a route that saw me besting the beast without falling into the hole in the middle of the stage. The only glaring flaw in the game is that the finale is a boss rush through the six bosses faced throughout the game with a two part battle with the nefarious and bizarre Tanzra. I don’t know what kind of Satan the developers thought Christians are worried about, but I’ve never envisioned this thing. Design of the final boss aside, I just have a major problem with boss rush finales. I’d much rather have had an inspired final dungeon to crawl through before blasting the devil with my magic sword.
2018 has seen me take a long look at how I am experiencing video games. As the market trends towards live service economies and online experiences even more than they have in the past, I find myself drifting away from the games that the majority of the market are playing. Sure, there are some exclusions; I’ve got copies of Kingdom Hearts 3 and Resident Evil 2 Remake paid up and ready to be mostly ignored in January. But as gaming becomes increasingly homogenized with less of a focus on narrative, I can see myself reeling into the comforts of retro gaming. I’ve already spent more gaming time in the past this year than in the past, and I’ve finally beaten some classics that were embarrassingly left unfinished on previous attempts. The ambition, the chances taken on classics like ActRaiser is why gaming was more interesting in a time when the technology wasn’t there to do all of the incredible things that have become so common place now. Massive worlds were interesting enough ten years ago, but now they’re exhausting because it’s the norm. It’s expected. It’s a boon and a curse.
And yet, I saved an entire world and saw it’s population grow in accordance with my score in an action platformer before killing the devil last Saturday, and it’s now a standout gaming experience in my book. And it only took me seven hours. The debate over game length is for a different day, but for now, I’d like for you to find a way to take a ride with Quintet through the first world they ever put on a cartridge. I think you’ll find that there’s something special here that hasn’t been followed in almost thirty years.
And we should ignore the fact that the sequel was knocked back to a straight action game. Because that’s mostly disappointing.