ActRaiser is a strange beast. Released in North America in November of 1991 for the newly christened Super Nintendo Entertainment System, ActRaiser marks the beginning of a series of underappreciated but still great games made by Quintet and published under the Enix banner, before they moved on to make the equally forgotten Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma.
So what makes ActRaiser stick out in my mind so much? At first glance, the game looks like a myriad of other sidescrollers from the time, with hack and slashy action platforming reminiscent of the Castlevanias of the day. But ActRaiser is a peculiar fusion: after the jumpy-slashy business is done, you have to engage in what is essentially a proto Black & White style god simulation. So what is the game, then? It’s an action platforming hack and slash god simulation. Yep.
In ActRaiser the player is cast in the role of the Master, a godlike being who interacts with the world in a number of ways: in the action sections, you descend from heaven to possess statues in your form in order to kill powerful demons, while in the top-down simulation portions, you control a cupid-like angel avatar who is able to direct villagers, manipulate the world’s environment, and fight off demons with arrows. The whole crux of the game revolves around something that is an ever-present theme in Quintet’s games: the restoration or creation of a new world, from myth into reality.
And ActRaiser is heavily grounded in myth. The whole experience exudes a kind of Greek legend atmosphere, from your Cupid avatar to the archetypal Minotaurs and Chimeras you fight in the action stages to the clothing and behavior of your loyal subjects. There’s some Egyptian stuff mixed in there as well, as well as various other mythos’ emblematic monsters and entities, but the primary trappings of the game are Greek, and it causes the game to take on all of the great aspects of a creation myth in the making.
But the most striking thing to me about ActRaiser is the way in which the two drastically different aspects of the gameplay manage to merge without feeling jarring or sudden when the transition takes place. In a way, the simulation levels are framed by the action sequences while still encompassing them. Every section of simulation is both preceded and ended by an action sequence involving first killing enough monsters to enable settlement, followed by fighting a powerful monster to enable the new civilization to move forward in peace. But all of this is still just the means to the end of establishing a civilization and getting it up and running so that you can move on to the next part of the world and get to work on it.
That kind of merging of objectives makes the points where you go down and do the dirty work yourself feel like an organic part of the process, not just a different game awkwardly stapled onto the first one. The central objective of world creation/restoration is always kept front and center, so whether you’re in the simulation screen or in the action stages the game never feels like it’s giving you whiplash from the sudden gameplay transitions. It’s a somewhat herculean task when you consider how few modern games manage to blend drastically different gameplay styles without losing something along the way.
It’s too bad, then, that ActRaiser flies somewhat under the radar these days. The series did get a sequel, ActRaiser II, but that sequel was somewhat less ambitious and dropped the simulation element entirely in order to focus wholly on the action segments. Quintet went on to produce the excellent Soul Blazer trilogy, which I’ll be discussing more closely in tomorrow’s Theme Party, but sadly the developer seems to have faded into nothingness not long after.
Still, ActRaiser is a deeply interesting footnote in gaming history. Very rarely since has a game managed (or even tried) to merge two severely different genres in such a seamless way, and the mythical creation tone that ActRaiser shares with the Soul Blazer trilogy seems to have fallen by the wayside for the most part as well. Still, the game exists today on the Wii’s Virtual Console, and is definitely worth a look if you want to play a very enjoyable slice of gaming’s mostly forgotten history. It’s unlikely we’re ever going to get another ActRaiser, so we may as well enjoy what we’ve got.
CONCEPT ART PICK: The freaking Japanese box art. I miss 90’s game box art. Also pictured: that damn chimera.
SONG PICK: Birth of the People. It’s a nice atmospheric tune that has a fantasy fable feel to it.
ActRaiser can be bought from the Wii’s Virtual Console. It costs 800 Wii points.