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ActRaiser (SNES) artwork

ActRaiser (SNES) review

"While it doesn't take much reading between the lines for a person to at least grasp the fundamentals of this, Nintendo's censorship did take away some of the impact this sort of plot might have, leaving us with the sort of standard fantasy fare where you'd almost expect there to be a disclaimer in the credits stating that any resemblance to actual belief systems is purely coincidental. "

Once upon a time, I reviewed ActRaiser 2 and basically stated one of its weaknesses was that it eschewed ActRaiser's world-building simulation mode to become a mere action-slasher. Despite having great graphics, the sequel was one-dimensional and didn't maintain my interest due to a combination of questionable play control and often-excessive difficulty (oftentimes caused or at least enhanced by those control issues). After playing the original ActRaiser for the first time in nearly two decades, I feel compelled to publicly take back those comments. ActRaiser 2 still might not be good, but its lack of simulation levels is NOT a reason why.

To clarify: When I was growing up, ActRaiser was one of those titles it was impossible not to be excited about. When the Super Nintendo was about to be released, this was one of the games most hyped by Nintendo Power. I still can vividly recall seeing a picture of a knight fighting a massive centaur in a dark forest and thinking this game, by itself, was enough of a reason to buy Nintendo's new system. Adding to the appeal was the game's diversity. Not only were there action stages where you fought your way through the forces of evil, but also simulation stages where'd you'd build up humanity in those formerly monster-infested regions. Too good to be true?

Definitely, but I still had a good deal of fun when I first played the game. For an early 16-bit game, it looks good and the soundtrack is pretty excellent. There's a lot of diversity in the stages, as the centaur's forest leads to castles, a pyramid, a volcano, a swamp and a giant tree, among other places. While the town-building stages didn't really stick out in my mind, they were useful. Not only was your character's life meter based on how many people lived in your towns, but the residents also would occasionally present you with useful items that gave you more uses of magic spells in the action stages (as well as the occasional new spell). And you also had to fight off monsters in these places, too, so it wasn't like you were just sitting around trying to stave off sleep while waiting for new developments. It might not have been the greatest thing ever, but it was still a fun diversion.

And I'd still call it a reasonably fun diversion. It's just hard to play ActRaiser today without feeling like half the game is filler and the other half never really rises above the glass ceiling of "good, but not great". In fact, one could say that the most interesting aspect of this game was nearly butchered beyond recognition for us Americans, due to Nintendo's policies on religious stuff on these shores.

You control a deity of some sort known as "The Master" who, with the help of a little angel, restores six lands to glory before taking on a mysterious destructive being known as Tanzra. Originally, this was a "God vs. Satan" deal where you are a deity scourging all sorts of pagan stuff from the lands, while performing miracles to build up your people, so they make you strong enough to continue spreading your influence. The former religions you're toppling get represented in various ways. Fillmore, the first land you conquer, is ruled by a centaur and minotaur -- both staples of the ancient Greeks. The snowy land is where you'll find an action stage taking place in and around a giant tree, which harkens back to the Norse and their Yggdrasil. In one region, you actually get to fight a deity of another pantheon, as that being usurps your followers, forcing you to descend upon its temple for a "winner takes all" battle.

While it doesn't take much reading between the lines for a person to at least grasp the fundamentals of this, Nintendo's censorship did take away some of the impact this sort of plot might have, leaving us with the sort of standard fantasy fare where you'd almost expect there to be a disclaimer in the credits stating that any resemblance to actual belief systems is purely coincidental.

Each of the six lands that serve as the bulk of the game are handled in the same way. You enter the land to fight monsters in an action level. The completion of this makes that area fit for humans, so you then do all the sim stuff to build up the population before a new problem arises, forcing you to pick up your sword again to make the land permanently safe. The action stages tend to be fun, if generally short and linear. Your character is a bit clunky and can't do much of anything other than swing a sword, jump and fire off magic a few times, so shorter levels probably are a blessing, as the game really doesn't have the depth to sustain hours upon hours of this sort of action. The design might be simple, but the levels tend to look good and it works, so the only real complaint I'd have as far as these levels go would involve how the very last one is a boss rush where you get another shot at the final boss of each land before finally meeting Tanzra. I've never been a fan of this sort of laziness, so that was a fairly unsatisfactory way to conclude things.

Also unsatisfactory were the sim stages, which seemed to be designed solely to make the game last longer. There's no chance of failure in any of the six, with setbacks only serving to make it take a bit longer before you can unlock the land's second action level. You basically have to do two things in these places: use miracles to clear away obstacles to make the land inhabitable AND sent the townspeople out to seal monster lairs. Those monsters are the root of any setbacks you might suffer, as they'll repeatedly appear to harass you until their lair has been destroyed. The early game bats aren't real concerns as they fall to one arrow from your angel buddy (who you control in sim stages), but when you meet the durable skulls who aren't shy about unleashed settlement-destroying earthquakes, things will get tougher.

The early moments of these levels are pretty frenetic. You'll be using miracles like crazy to clear land, while also sending your people out to develop those cleared areas AND fighting off monsters so they don't kidnap people or burn down houses. As your people reach (and seal) the monster lairs, though, you'll face less and less opposition until you realize that you just have to develop a bunch of terrain squares to max out your population for the region. Victory is inevitable, as the angel cannot be killed. Sure, he has a life meter, but reducing it all the way just means that he can't fire arrows until new people are auto-generated to build more settlements (which restores a bit of life). All that means is that nothing will stop the monsters from doing bad stuff for a little while, which is a setback. The more of these you face, the longer you'll spend in sim mode.

Sadly, even if you have few (or no) setbacks, it'll still feel like you're spending an eternity here. The people constantly are communicating with you in order to ask favors, give offerings or simply describe their progress. Every time this happens, the angel says something along the lines of "This might be a surprise, but the people have something to say." Trust me, l'il buddy, after the 500th time someone wishes to discuss how they found a strange scroll, I am no longer surprised… There was promise in this set-up, but it wasn't really realized because victory is made a foregone conclusion. There are a couple instances where people in one land invent or discover something that benefits people elsewhere and there's a somewhat hidden magic spell which involves you waiting for people in one land to discover a secret item and then giving that item to people in another land, so they explore a nearby island. Those were nice ways to make your civilization-building in one land pay off down the road. I wish ActRaiser had done more of this, as it would have given these exercises more meaning if there were more hidden rewards for the player who really delved into them. Instead, the only reason you're really given to care about the sim mode is that your life bar for the action levels is determined by how large your cities have grown -- the more people you've raised, the more damage you can take.

ActRaiser was eye candy when it first came out and that may have blinded me to its failings to some degree. While I remember not thinking it was a game with a lot of replay value when I first played it, I still thought it was a really good title; but now, I can't say that. It's adequate and doesn't really do anything wrong, but I find it hard to recommend as anything more than a curiosity -- a mesh of different genres that could have been so much more.


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (October 26, 2012)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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zippdementia posted October 26, 2012:

Ah ha! I wondered when this would get reviewed by you, Rob (in fact I was thinking about it in the shower this morning—don't ask). I'd like to think I had a small part in inspiring this to happen. I'm pleased to see that we also agree on the game and have written fairly identical reviews (though I like how you handled the "kill all religion" aspect better).
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overdrive posted October 26, 2012:

You know, Zipp, your review probably made me delay playing through this game completely for a while. Because I'd done the centaur stage and the first sim level and was like "Man, this sim stuff can get kind of dull with it being an automatic win and all!" and then read your review where you made that a specific focal point. So I knew I'd have to wait a while, so your review wasn't fresh in my mind and I'd wind up unintentionally copying points.

It was hard to keep that point out of my mind though, as the only sim stage that's remotely challenging is the very last one, since Northwall has two skull lairs and you have to wait until the dullards have invented the bridge-building ability to get to the second of them.
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overdrive posted October 26, 2012:

Oh, also, I just re-read your review and I seemed to remember we had different feelings on the part involving Vishnu-dude. The way I looked at it (going from the text, particularly at the end when the angel is telling you little stories about each land) was that the people were lured from you to the other god by a stranger who made promises. The angel said at the end that people are known for taking the easy-seeming path at times, which led me to believe that deity was more of a "tempter" who would trick them into abandoning you due to believing he was on their side, but would then prey on them or somehow make their lives worse. Or at least watch as their civilization falls into ruin because he's not gonna take the same active interest in their growth.
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zippdementia posted October 27, 2012:

I think you kind've hit it on the head with the "false gods" thing. The American version makes it seem like a definite evil entity tricking people. But the original version was pretty much straight up "thou shalt not have false gods (AKA gods other than me)."

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