Actraiser was one of the first Super Nintendo games I played and probably what really sold me on a SNES. I have fond memories of pouring over its spread in issue 27 of Nintendo Power repeatedly. I was focused on the city building aspect and how cool it sounded. Super Mario World is fantastic and one of my favorite games of all time. But the gameplay and especially the soundtrack of Actraiser were special and unlike any other title I had played before. Equal parts simulation and action platformer it excels at both and is one of the best games for the system.
At the start you are greeted with a symphonic theme that was uncharacteristic of video game music up to that point. Chip tunes were almost a de facto standard but with the advent of FM synth game music became more advanced. Composer Yuzo Koshiro really set the tone for what was to come with the orchestral arrangement here and it sounds fantastic. Much ado was made about the SNES’s sound chip and Actraiser proved it lived up to the hype.
The story is actually pretty interesting, not because of how it is presented but in its changes. You play the role of God, who has retreated to his Sky Palace after being defeated by Satan and his lieutenants who proceed to split the world six ways. Nintendo were still stringent in their anti-religious references in video games and so God is now the Master and Satan became Tanzra. It would be innocuous if not for the fact the Biblical implications are still apparent within the game.
Actraiser is a game of two halves and is paced differently than most traditional titles. Initially when moving the sky palace to a new area you must first eradicate the present evil to make the land hospitable. Then you can descend and build, listening to the people for tips on how to cultivate the land. Eventually the true evil plaguing the land will rear its head, prompting another action stage to free the people so you can move on. Although you can roam around the world map freely there are level requirements gating different areas and creating a clear path of progression.
The action portion of the game is very much along the lines of Castlevania. Your sword wielding avatar moves at a brisk pace and is quite agile. Your attacks have decent range and are supplemented with magic gained from the city portion of the game. The four spells range in effectiveness, with the Magical Stardust you receive early on being the odds on favorite. There’s a fair amount of platforming and while I made the Castlevania comparison it is far easier here due to the less restrictive controls. The level design is all around excellent with multiple paths to the end extremely creative end level bosses. I will say though that as much as I like simple compared to similar titles that came out around its release.
The city building is what has kept Actraiser in the hearts of most gamers. Once you assume your cupid avatar you must guide the people. This entails guiding where to build their cities and protecting them from the roving monsters. Each zone has a separate climate that requires the use of your “miracles” so that the people can prosper. These miracles take many forms such as lightning strikes to destroy rocks, heat to clear patches of the desert and even earthquakes to change the landscape. In the midst of this monster lairs spawn creatures that impede your progress. Your angel’s limited abilities make it challenging to manage the chaos without casualties. Ultimately the goal is to destroy all the lairs in the area so that you can progress.
On its face its deceptively simple but there is plenty of depth that feeds the game’s other half. Listening to the people will lead to hidden items on the map and also receiving offerings. As the population grows the civilization level will increase. Your people learn how to create new tools such as medicine or music you can bring to other countries. At first the crafted buildings are simple mud huts but as they prosper the buildings become more advanced and house more citizens. To truly maximize this you can become a vengeful God and tear down your cities to create a more…aesthetically pleasing town. The designers have created ways to keep you from lingering in one area too long by inflicting different maladies that stops all growth. The cure lies in another area, forcing you to move on.
The beauty of the sim aspect is that it feeds the action side. You gain experience as each town grows and level up, gaining more hit points and more magic. The more you help the people flourish the better the offerings you’ll receive. It isn’t necessary to populate every inch of the map but you will reap the benefits if you are so inclined. There are a decent number of items and you never know what they might uncover. Both aspects of the game feature just the right amount of depth so that if you are a fan of one the other isn’t as obtrusive. In fact it might even make you a fan!
Overall Actraiser presents a moderate challenge. Populating each area will in turn raise your stats in order to keep up with the later areas. Some of the later bosses can be tricky but have easily decipherable patterns to follow. There is one magic spell that is almost game breaking. Magical Stardust is severely overpowered and will take you through a good chunk of the game. But that will only go so far. Enix/Quintet did a good job of balancing the game for all skill levels.
Perhaps the one the area that Actraiser has aged the worst is its graphics. For an early SNES title it looked fine and a suitable step up over the NES offerings of the time. There’s a gratuitous amount of Mode 7 but most launch era Super Nintendo titles were guilty of this. Each country is visually distinct with a wide variety of settings. Whether it’s the tropical jungles of Marahna, the mountainous region of Aitos, or the snowy peaks of Northwall its all distinct. There’s a very dark tone to the proceedings that matches the story’s setup of the world being infected with evil. However it can be very inconsistent; Aitos Act 1 is a beautiful level set in a mountaintop with scrolling 5 layers deep. This is followed up by a journey in volcano that is simple and disappointing considering how awesome it should be on paper.
Most launch titles for any system don’t hold up under close scrutiny. Yet Actraiser is still great after all these decades. There are better action games for the system but when combined with its city building element there is nothing else like it, leaving it a compelling purchase.