Tuesday, 16 October 2012


System(s): Super Nintendo, Wii Virtual Console, Mobile

Genre: Action RPG

Developer: Quintet

Publisher: Enix

Release Dates:
Japan - December 1990
North America - November 1992
Europe - March 1993

ActRaiser is an Action RPG released in 1990, developed by Quintet and published by Enix.  One of a number of games that took some time being released outside Japan, ActRaiser is definitely not a game that relies on a single genre to direct it’s gameplay. Even calling it an 'Action RPG' doesn't really explain adequately what the game is about. What makes ActRaiser unique is in the way it takes two completely separate gameplay styles and manages to weld them together with surprisingly positive results. On the one hand, there are platforming levels pitting players against a variety of monsters and culminating in epic boss fights. On the other, Sim City or Populous inspired strategy sections.

To this day, I’m not entirely sure what the game means by an “act”, or how one might go about "raising" one. But the odd title certainly didn’t stop the game from being a minor hit upon release. Things didn’t stop in 1990, however; it received a sequel in 1993, the imaginatively titled ActRaiser 2 (unfortunately shedding the strategy elements), the original was re-released in a watered down, three-level port for mobile phones in 2004 and in it’s entirety for the Wii’s Virtual Console in 2007. Furthermore, Quintet carried on many of the themes from the game to their later games, Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma.

ActRaiser doesn’t really provide you with a whole lot of context at the beginning. You begin the game awoken by an angel who informs you that, during your lengthy slumber, the demon Tanzra’s minions have taken over the earth. It’s up to you to saunter on down there from your palace and shoo the monsters away to make the land habitable again. Why the silly flunky didn’t wake you up earlier, before the demons wiped out humanity, always puzzled me, but I digress. You are able to move a large cloud containing your 'sky palace' over the land you want to interact with.

This sets up the platforming sections of the game. During these sections, there is a stereotypical theme, such as dark forests, swamp, desert etc. These levels are initially not that tricky, but steadily get tougher at a reasonable pace. There are a variety of traps to overcome, not just monsters, and at times they are quite creative and keep you on your toes. Combat is simple, you do slashes, jump slashes, and crouch slashes. That’s mostly all there is to hand-to-hand fighting in this game. Unfortunately, when you jump you do have to be careful, as unlike most platformers there is very little mid-air control, at least in the longer jumps. Short jumps are not an issue, but jumping large distances locks you into one direction. Although you can work around it, it can be frustrating knowing you are hurtling to your death through several frames of animation and can do very little to stop it.

Some enemies are tougher and will take multiple hits, requiring you to think about other ways to dispatch them than simply stand in front and hack away. In addition, every so often you will find magic powers which you can choose before battle, along with scrolls which increase the number of times you can use your spells. You can only take a single spell into a level with you, but that increases the strategic element, as some are better suited for particular bosses or situations, and they are fairly overpowered against normal enemies. There are some creative spells in the mix, like a white light that exits your body and moves across the screen, destroying everything in it’s path. Or the shooting stars that rain death on the enemy. Although nicely designed, the platforming feels more like a means to an end. In addition, the controls can occasionally feel stickier than half melted toffee, as there seems to be a slight delay in movement.

Bosses in AcRaiser often take the shape of mythical creatures, such as the Manticore or Minotaur .While I wouldn’t say the designs were quite on a par with Super Castlevania IV‘s bosses, they are creative. Some of them, like the giant pharaoh head or the wheel of fortune monster, are a bit strange and funky and were probably designed from scratch. Other fights, like the sorcerer who turns into a werewolf mid-fight bring a little extra strategy (and more of an awesome factor) to boss fights beyond the laborious tactic of jumping out of range and then spamming the attack button. Overall, a mixed bag design-wise, but the mechanics of defeating them are interesting and challenging.

After the boss is defeated, the game changes to a city building mode. The objective here is to seal the monster lairs dotted around by directing the citizens to build houses in that area. In the meantime, you can control your cupid-like angel follower on the map, killing enemies that want to hinder your land’s growth. This is easy enough to begin with, but by the time you get to later lands, you will screaming at the TV, getting bombarded with enemies with increasingly high HP from all corners of the land. Suffice to say, there is just enough challenge in these sections to keep things from getting stale. Much of this is because your angel, rather than dying, is momentarily unable to shoot arrows when his life is drained, which will only return the next time your population increases.

You will also have to use powers such as earthquakes, rain, lightening etc. to remove obstacles to continue progress, or in some instances, further the story. As you would expect, this uses spell power, which you also regain through population growth. Sealing monster lairs sometimes results in your worshippers discovering items, which will aid you in killing the monsters. Eventually, the sophistication of the people will increase and they will change from straw huts to wooden houses, and eventually stone buildings. These differ based on region, so you might as an example get farms and houses in most regions, but mountainous Aitos will instead get windmills or ranches, and the desert region Kasandora will get tents. As the population and civilisation level increases, so does your own level. This not only increases your HP in the platforming and strategy sections, it also allows to progress to new lands. This ensures you don’t try to rush ahead too early.

But that’s not all. Certain scripted events occur, many of which require your intervention to solve, such as creating an earthquake to bring a far off island to the mainland and allow building there. Others will only be solved by using items or skills learned in other lands. One early example of this is the people of Bloodpool learning bridge building from their neighbours in Fillmore. This invokes a sense that the people across the continent are dynamic communities which learn from one another. Random events like these mix things up and keep you on your toes. Eventually, though, you will destroy all the monster lairs and will have stockpiled some magic scrolls or obtained new types of magic. When all lairs are destroyed, an event occurs that slows or stops further population growth and reveals more monsters, marshalled by a more powerful foe that requires your intervention again. This will lead to another platforming section and the second boss of the stage. You can go back after and increase population to maximum so you improve your HP. but beyond a final scripted event, there is usually little else to go back for after all monsters are gone.

All in all, ActRaiser does a good job of setting up scenarios for the platforming sections, and they are seamlessly integrated with the story. In fact, some people might enjoy the strategy sections so much that they put off killing all monsters, like I did. But sooner or later, your population growth will stagnate and you will need to move on. When all lands are freed, you will face a gruelling challenge, a boss gauntlet, culminating in a final battle. This seems to be a regular feature of Quintet's games, as I recall something similar in Illusion of Time. This gauntlet is enormously frustrating at times, as dying puts you back to the start again and you can't heal between fights. The final boss in particular can be intimidating, with a health bar that takes up the entire length of the screen. That said, this is by no means a bad thing despite the frustration. In a way, it’s the absolutely perfect, epic final battle, and one that players will remember. The challenge the boss run provides gives a real sense of accomplishment. You could probably finish the game in 12 hours at most, a decent length for a game like this.

ActRaiser is fairly impressive visually considering it was released in 1991. The monster design is excellent, and although there are some sprites that are re-used, this is very minimal compared with how this was handled further back in the 8-bit era. The backgrounds in particular are a highlight,:marshy bogs, vast deserts and arctic wastelands are nicely rendered. Scrolling around the map is aided by mode 7, which was cutting edge at the time, and one of the SNES’s big hardware features. The music is catchy while observing towns, although there could have been more than two scores. Moody or sombre music sometimes plays during some of the platforming sections, and at other times the score can be more frantic, giving plenty of variety. If you can get your hands on the orchestrated version of the soundtrack, I would recommend it, as it is some of the best music for an action game on the SNES. Some of the music sounds like it could have been composed by John Williams for Star Wars. The highlight, undoubtedly, is the boss music, which is suitably epic for the kind of action the game produces. This makes up for the poor sound effects - some sounds have an odd, tinny echo to them.

The SNES and Wii versions, as you would expect, are identical. Which is unfortunate; many of the names and objects found in the Japanese version were removed due to Nintendo of America and Europe’s strong stance against religious symbolism. It would have been interesting to be able to see what was changed in 1991, as Nintendo have somewhat relaxed their stance since then. Version wise though, the real differences are in the mobile version. In order to make the game translate into a handheld game better, they removed the strategy sections and just used three platform levels from the SNES version. Unfortunately, this also removes much of the charm from the game. The mobile version just feels too stripped down, although you can appreciate what they were going for. You can also choose to play the game in ‘Action mode’ in the SNES and Wii versions if you just want some hack n’ slash, which can be unlocked by completing story mode.

ActRaiser was very much a game that showcased very early on what the SNES was capable of. The sprites look good and the music is very impressive. The soundtrack is outstanding. But more importantly, it took a risk merging two gameplay styles into a single game seamlessly in an era where such things were rare. This makes ActRaiser stand out, and it’s gameplay is compelling. It’s too bad that the developers saw fit to remove the strategy for the sequel, as without it’s city building, the original ActRaiser at least would be merely a decent platformer with well-designed bosses as opposed to a great game with plenty of variety.

+ Great variety of gameplay
+ Fantastic music
+ Each land has a personality of its own
+ Final battle is intense, challenging and a perfect way to end the game
+ Levels are well designed

- Poor sound effects
- Strategy is much more compelling than the platforming
- Controls feel a bit stiff

Overall Score

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