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ActRaiser (SNES) artwork

ActRaiser (SNES) review

"At a time when your simulation options were either Sim City or ActRaiser and games weren't exploring concepts such as existentialism and spirituality, the experience held up a lot better. In other words, ActRaiser's main selling point was how different it was at a time when gamers were eager to see something new. Had ActRaiser been just a great action game, it might not have stood out so much in 1990, but it would still be enjoyable now."

It's nice when you can start a review with a comparison. Saying a game is like Uncharted or Infamous instantly paints a picture in a reader's mind that you can then adjust and comment on. ActRaiser is a little tricky in this regard. ActRaiser is a hybrid of platformer and strategy games; you spend a little time fighting through Ghouls and Goblins-style platforming levels and a lot of time re-building the world in a Sim City- lite fashion. Tacked on to this is an attempt to be spiritual that would be developed and put to better use in Quintet's later Soul Blazer trilogy.

If you're sensing any resentment in that opening paragraph, that's because it's present. It's not always fun revisiting nostalgia. Here's what ActRaiser was: a memorable bastion of my childhood gaming experiences; a unique game that combined multiple genres with a somber feel and message quite unlike anything Mario or Zelda were offering. Taking advantage of the full capabilities of the Super NES, varied colour palettes and layered backgrounds brought to life an incredible diversity of locations. Perhaps the height of this detail was seen in fighting an Ice Dragon on top of the Yggdrasil World Tree while snow and ice spun crazily in the background.

And the music! The music is so engrained in my subconscious that hearing even the first few plunking notes of the baroque town theme will flood my brain with images of a cherub, his little butt-cheeks bared for all the world to see, floating around above a town, blasting away at monsters with his diminutive bow and arrow and highlighting the direction in which the townspeople should develop their city. This isn't just because I heard this music looped a hundred times while playing the slow simulation sections; the score is truly brilliant, to the point where it stands out, even amidst an era of legendary gaming music, for its ability to instantly capture the feel of a location. Even if you haven't played the game, you would be hard-pressed not to think of ancient temples and monsters creeping along darkened corridors when listening to the trombone and string combination that brings to life the Pyramid theme, or to keep imagery of snow and ice from your mind when a baritone morosely works its slow way through the North Wall theme, accompanied by the strumming of harp strings– each note a gentle tap of icicles dripping into an underground lake.

Alas, not all aspects of the game have aged so well. Here's what ActRaiser is today: a collection of brief action levels interrupted by irritating forays into extremely linear and slow-paced town building. These segments, which once seemed charming to me, now come off as simply boring. Each one begins with a town center, from which you can expand the city. Here's where any comparisons to Sim City fall apart. Do you build roads or develop a careful balance of commercial, industrial, and residential zones in ActRaiser? No. You highlight which square of the map you want your people to build on. Then you wait. And wait. Eventually a bunch of little people run out and build some houses. Then you wait some more. This is a game where you can get up and get a sandwich without fearing that you'll be missing something or hurting your town's progress.

I'm not faulting ActRaiser for being something other than Sim City. I am faulting it for not being anything at all. The simulation segments lack any kind of defining strategy that would make them feel like an actual game. While the maps may seem open at first glance, each level has a clear goal. You have to lead the villagers to big monster lairs placed around the map, at which point they are automatically sealed. You cannot clear a stage until you've sealed all the monster lairs and the lairs are placed so that, in order to reach them, you have to develop in practically every square you can. This makes it pointless and, in some cases impossible, to try and personalize your city's layout. It also makes it pointless to give much thought to what you're doing in these segments. Even the roaming monsters make little difference. The attacks they may launch against your city don't do much damage. They can't even really hurt your cherub. The worst they can do is remove his ability to fire arrows for a while, which just gives you an excuse to stop fighting them. With no point in fighting the monsters and no challenge in building the town, these sections truly are intermissions to the game.

ActRaiser makes two attempts to stave off monotony. First, you sometimes need to clear the way for your villagers by using a godly power; usually lightning, which burns down trees, boulders, and (in its most entertaining use) the dwellings of your denizens. Even here there's repetition, though. Clearing snow with sunlight is the same as clearing desert with rain and the same, yet again, as clearing trees with lightning. Unless you're burning down the houses of hapless citizens in retribution for imagined sins, there's not a whole lot of enjoyment or innovation to be had here. Especially when most of the powers are used at very specific times in very specific places, usually to uncover hidden items. Which brings us to the second attempt at invigoration. Every once in a while, your cherub will freeze mid-action and make the announcement that “I know it's unexpected, but the people have something to say!” Aside from becoming unintentionally hilarious after the fifth time in a row this occurs, these interludes serve mainly to announce when your villagers have found an item for you to use, usually ineffective magic powers for the action segments. It also is the time when the story, such as it is, is pushed forward.

ActRaiser doesn't have a plot so much as a series of vignettes in each town that provide a connection to your nameless populace. The idea of developing an entire species instead of a cast of characters is a cool concept and one that I genuinely appreciate. These little side stories provide an emotional insight into the struggles of an every-day human which is all the more interesting because it is being delivered to a human gamer. That's a fun little bit of philosophical judo that, at it's best, is a catalyst for a level of critical reflection rarely seen even in modern games. At it's worst, these scenes approximate what an all-knowing deity must feel when a bunch of tiny humans continually bother him as he's trying to save the world. What's that, citizens? You say you “baked bread?” I'm so proud.

Then there's the religious subtext. It's all over the place, really– I mean, you play as GOD– but there is one scene that has always stuck in my mind. You've hijacked this Malarian-infested swampland for your simulation-city-building purposes when Angkor Watt shows up. When discovered, the villagers start to pray to the old deities represented there until they begin to ignore you and your never-ending orders of continued growth entirely. So of course you do the only thing a reasonable god can do. You manifest inside the temple and raze it to the ground, after slaughtering the old god that resides there. A god that is very clearly an approximation of the Indian deity Vishnu.

As a child I knew shit-all about Vishnu (aside from the fact that he was trying to shove lightning up my ass) yet still this level made me feel a little uncomfortable. With the other stages, it had always been clear that the guys you were fighting were pretty bad dudes. They were threatening to eat all your villagers or pour lava on their homes (and thus take away the fun of you burning them down with lightning). Here, though, the transgression seemed less clear. If the people wanted to worship a many-armed foreign god, who was I to say them nay? The guy wasn't doing any clear harm except getting folks to build statues of him instead of me.

In any case, I ended up cutting him down. In the heat of battle, it was easy to forget the visual metaphors. Maybe that's just a sign of how decent the action sequences are compared to everything else in the game. I know I haven't talked about them much, but that's because they really are dominated in both length and focus by the disappointing simulation aspect. As far as action sequences go, they take place in a nice variety of levels but are very short and extremely straightforward. Your avatar isn't very good at dodging, so it pretty much becomes a game of hack-and-slash with a couple platforming sections. If it wasn't for the brilliant music setting the mood so well, they wouldn't be memorable. All the set pieces are there for a great action title, but it feels underdeveloped and far too easy. When I played it as a child, I didn't care about that, but as an adult I wish there was more here.

Gamer expectations have changed in the last 10 years. Evidence for this can be seen in the critical response to Spore. Spore took a bunch of different genres, including simulation, and shoved clipped versions of them into one game. It was the most criticized aspect of Spore and the only reason it still got alright reviews was because, at some point, things open up immensely and it becomes more sandbox than anything else. And Will Wright is good at the sandbox model. And he's Will Wright.

ActRaiser is essentially the same idea, but with the majority of the game being spent in the lackluster clipped simulation. At the time that it was first released, it made an impact on me because there weren't as many games to choose from as there are now. At a time when your simulation options were either Sim City or ActRaiser and games weren't exploring concepts such as existentialism and spirituality, the experience held up a lot better. Now that even Link is getting dangerously close to spouting philosophy and we have city-builders that can prepare you for a degree in architecture, it's difficult to recommend going back to the past. In other words, ActRaiser's main selling point was how different it was at a time when gamers were eager to see something new. Had ActRaiser been just a great action game, it might not have stood out so much in 1990, but it would still be enjoyable now.

I give credit to ActRaiser for what it was, but I also have to acknowledge what it is today.

Rating: 5/10

zippdementia's avatar
Community review by zippdementia (April 30, 2012)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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overdrive posted April 30, 2012:

I played ActRaiser in the mid 90s or so and loved it to where I was thinking about playing it again. I'm not so sure I want to now. Good review that really shows how a game can age poorly. You're right about the sim parts. Completely different than expected for an action game, but they were thread-bare as hell.
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zippdementia posted April 30, 2012:

In playing it again, the music still struck me as the strongest part. Most of my modern-day emotional stirring came from that part of the game. And the action isn't bad... but like I state in the review, it isn't stand-out enough to recommend it as great. And it is totally dominated by the lengthy simulation scenes. Threadbare is a word I could have used in the review, definitely.
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honestgamer posted April 30, 2012:

I haven't had many positive experiences with emulation, but ActRaiser was an exception. When I was attending college and living in the dorms (so... a long time ago, when my wife was still my girlfriend), I downloaded the game and played through it in one night using the default keyboard setup. It was awkward but I was addicted and cleared the whole game. The only other truly positive emulation experience that springs to mind is when I downloaded Paperboy for NES and beat the whole game without losing a single Paperboy (again controlling things with the keyboard).

I own both games now in cartridge form. ActRaiser is still a great game, as it always was, and the sim elements remain enjoyable without ever becoming a chore. The game doesn't hold up if you're expecting a hardcore experience, but ActRaiser was a great idea and I've said often that I wish the Quintet team could develop a new ActRaiser game using today's technology. It might help us all forget about ActRaiser 2.
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Masters posted April 30, 2012:

Nice review, Zipp. I remember ActRaiser for being a mostly easy, basic hack and slasher with amazing music and lame simulation/interruptions. Seems like you feel the same way. At least they learned from their lesson with ActRaiser 2, which was just super hard ass platforming and nothing more!
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zippdementia posted April 30, 2012:

Well, it looks like I just lost the Penguin contest ;)

Masters, I never got a chance to play Actraiser 2. It was much harder to find than the first one. I'd heard that it wasn't a great action title, either. Have you played it? What did you think of it?
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overdrive posted April 30, 2012:

AR2 isn't BAD, but if you're looking for anything more than really tough platforming, you won't find it. It is really pretty, though, so it's kinda worth playing through on emulation just to see it. I had fun writing descriptive paragraphs about levels. Just not so much with other aspects of the game.

Oh, and it's one of those where you HAVE to play on hard or something to see the true final boss and get a good ending. I finished it and thought things were pretty anti-climactic...and then saw that playing on a tougher level gives you the real end of the game.

Or to condense...the TRUE AR2 is Soul Blazer. Which shall remain forever praised by me.
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zippdementia posted April 30, 2012:

Yes. Soul Blazer really is. And that one still holds up for me. Maybe not as fun now that I've played it enough times to memorize all the lines of text. But still awesome.
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Masters posted May 01, 2012:

Rob's got it right. AR2 is pretty and really punishing, but not a great game by any stretch.

And yes, Soulblazer is the shit.
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zippdementia posted May 01, 2012:

I would be curious, Jason, to hear what still enthralls you about the simulation aspect of the game. I don't know if you read the full review yet or were just responding to my score, but I didn't make anything up in the review or exaggerate the linearity or lack of depth in the simulation segments. I also clearly point out that this opinion comes from a long-time fan of the game who has become aware of its defects as age struck the game hard.

Really, the simulation segments are just interludes with very little to do and very specific tasks which are completed with a couple button presses. All I can imagine is that you found the story-telling of these segments charming, which I could understand.

I'm not calling you out; but I am curious to hear your take on how those scenes held your attention.
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honestgamer posted May 01, 2012:

I liked the simplicity of the simulation mode, Zipp. It was a solid interface that worked well on consoles (no small feat) and it didn't require so much attention to detail as to be overly complex. I haven't yet read your review, except for a few paragraphs I skimmed. I'll be going over it later, of course, and I can comment on it at that time, as appropriate.
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Aggie posted May 01, 2012:

I think ActRaiser is the quintessential "sum of all its parts" game. I played it for the first time past 2000, so no nostalgia here. I could recognize that the action and simulation segments wouldn't be remarkable if either was on its own, but with everything combined, it works. It's the pacing that makes the game addictive. As soon as you begin to grow weary of one aspect of the gameplay, the other makes its appearance. It keeps the experience far fresher than in most games, and the simplicity of the sim parts make for a nice vegging out game. And call me crazy, but I find the tale of Teddy pretty moving.
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zippdementia posted May 01, 2012:

Thanks for clarifying, Jason. It sounds like we actually come at the game from the same angle and just walk away with different opinions. I'll be really curious to know what you think of the way I present the argument.
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yamishuryou posted May 01, 2012:

I see Actraiser as having been practice for Soul Blazer which was practice for Illusion of Gaia which was practice for Terranigma.

And it all culminates there, folks. Terranigma is truly an awesome game and it's a shame it was never released in the States.
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zippdementia posted May 01, 2012:

My thoughts exactly, though I cannot speak to Terranigma, as (like you say) it was never released in the states. And don't mention emulators. I'm on a Mac.
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yamishuryou posted May 01, 2012:

It has a far better translation than Illusion of Gaia.

But to be fair, most translations are better than IoG's. It may have been grammatically correct, but it was incredibly stilted.

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