System: Super NES
|Since I've already spent an entire game review and Game of the Month discussing ActRaiser, there's not much more I can say that I haven't already. There are a few things I would like to address that I may not have gotten to or stressed in those articles.|
|Foremost would be that I cannot seriously recommend ActRaiser to anyone looking for a hardcore action challenge. The main game is pretty easy, especially with the ability to increase your life bar and the addition of magic spells that work like superbombs. There is a professional mode included that allows you to play only the action stages with increased difficulty. In that mode you have no continues and no magic. But even so, it's only about as hard to finish as Super Castlevania 4. I suppose then I should take this opportunity to justify my love for this quirky little game, and it's not really as hard to do as I may have thought.
You practically play the role of "God" in ActRaiser, as you clear the world of Tanzra's demons and lead your people on a quest to cultivate and populate the land for future civilizations. The game follows a basic three-act structure for each of its first six levels: Sidescrolling stage, simulation town scene, another sidescrolling stage.
To put it bluntly, it's the simulation scenes that sold me on ActRaiser. After reading so much about SimCity in Nintendo Power, I had a hard time picturing how a game like that could possibly be any fun. Even after playing it somewhat extensively, I still didn't get an answer to that question. I found SimCity to be too unstructured, too unfocused, too complicated and unplayable without using the million dollar code. It's hard to say if there's a right or wrong way to play it. ActRaiser's sim mode is much simpler, yet it forces you to meet particular goals or else you won't make any progress. For those willing to completely milk the sim scenes for all they're worth, you can discover extra lives, extra magic, and increase your life meter to make surviving the action scenes easier. Also in its favor are the many interesting little situations that pop up that have to be addressed. These problems are usually dealt with in one of two ways: using the forces of nature, which are handily at your disposal, or by finding an item in another town and giving it to the people who need it. In ActRaiser, your people aren't just invisible citizens, you'll see them building their houses, working it the fields, sailing their ships, and you'll even talk directly to them. It's very easy to find yourself getting completely caught up in what's going on.
ActRaiser's action stages are similar in style to the Castlevania series. A statue of the master comes to life, and you take control as he runs, jumps, and swings his sword through sidescrolling levels with beautiful hand-drawn graphics, great music, and a giant boss at the end. Some stages have multiple paths and many have hidden 1-Ups and other goodies for those willing to search every possible nook and cranny for them. Since ActRaiser is a retelling of the creation of earth, many of the environments are based on real places and their associated mythology. Fillmore, having a Minotaur Maze for Act 2, is most likely Greece. Kasandora, with its pyramids and desert settings, is ancient Egypt. Marahna takes us to the jungles of Cambodia, complete with Angkor Wat for its final battle. The Tengu and Oni-infested mountains and bamboo forests of Aitos give the game its equivalent of Japan, and Northwall is clearly Nordic country with its giant world tree that must certainly be Yggdrasil. The funny thing about this to me is that I didn't get most of the references when I first played this game because I didn't know what things like Angkor Wat, Tengu, and Yggdrasil were. I knew about the Greek and Egyptian references, but that was pretty much it. After learning what those things were, I was able to go back and appreciate them, as well as the game's atmosphere and story, even more.
ActRaiser's action scenes take really good advantage of the Super NES's graphics capabilites. Even though it was a launch title, it still stacks up against (and even surpasses) many games that came later. While the animation is a bit stiff, the backgrounds have surprisingly intricate detail. I've always loved the background of the Fillmore forest with its hundreds of trees obscuring the distance. There are fluctuating backgrounds (such as when you fight Tanzra and the Minotaur), and backgrounds of snow that endlessly swirl for an almost 3D effect (like during the Arctic Wyvern fight). Other favorite effects include the Anubis statues that eerily loom in the background of one of the pyramid rooms, the room in the volcano with the sizzling hot lava stalactites, and background of Bloodpool's full moon and clouds. The enemies and bosses are all very large and colorful. (For a complete catalogue of almost all of ActRaiser's sprites, see my ActRaiser Sprite Gallery.) The music score, by famous videogame composer Yuzo Koshiro, is also quite stunning. There are epic, symphonic pieces that are so rousing that you'll practically expect valkyries to fly over your head (indeed, the Master is sort of dressed like a Valkyrie). Much like with Star Fox, it evokes comparison to the work of movie composer John Williams, particularly his Star Wars scores. Other pieces, like the harp-strumming Northwall Act 1 theme, and the town simulation theme, are more melodic and relaxing.
One thing I find disappointing about ActRaiser is the final level. It's a "boss rehash" stage in which you take on all of the game's Act 2 bosses, one after the other, until you reach Tanzra, the final boss. I'm not too fond of boss rehashes to begin with, but I wouldn't have minded it so much if a legitimate action stage had led up to it. As it is, the final level, Death Heim, is just the boss fights. This, however, makes for the toughest part to survive on the Professional mode. It's practically impossible if you don't have a few extra lives in reserve, which is why I think it's a good thing to learn where all the 1-Ups are hidden in the stages and grab as many as you possibly can. (One pointless thing I like to do in this game just for kicks is to try to beat the Zeppelin Wolf boss before he actually turns into the werewolf. It is possible if you deal just the right amount of damage to him in two or three turns.)
The other thing that disappoints me is that ActRaiser never really got a worthy sequel. I would have loved to have a seen an ActRaiser game that combined the fun of the simulation scenes with much more challenging action scenes. ActRaiser 2 completely eschewed the simulation scenes. Although its levels were harder than those of ActRaiser, I still didn't like it anywhere near as much. The play control is awkward, the hero moves at a snail's pace, and enemies often materialize on top of you, which makes some parts frustrating because luck will determine if you can get through or not (especially in places like that dungeon level where enemies can appear on top of you as you're riding on moving platforms over pits and under spikes.) Even on the lowest difficulty setting, enemies often take far too many hits to kill, and the final level is (once again) a boss rehash stage. The graphics are good, and the animation was improved over the first ActRaiser, but the music is a step down (despite being done by the same composer.) The story pulls a "Star Fox 64" in that it's not consistent with the original game's story, and in fact, seems a "retcon" or "retelling". As far as I can tell, it appears to be a "what if" scenario: What would have happened had the Master won the battle with Tanzra at the beginning of ActRaiser's story, and thus never had to retreat to the Sky Palace as Tanzra destroyed human civilization. I really hate it when sequels try to retcon the original story, especially when the sequel is an inferior product.
Well, I think I've covered just about everything I ever possibly could for ActRaiser. If you're still hungry for more information, check out these links:
ActRaiser Review - My complete, original review of this game, written in the old outdated category format, so the quality of the writing isn't going to be on par with my newer stuff.
Game of the Month - This was my special "Game of the Month" feature for ActRaiser. Contains links to related external websites.
ActRaiser Sprite Gallery - A gallery I put together of all the enemy, boss, and icon sprites in the game, plus some other bonuses like background elements and simulation scene sprites.
The next section below contains MP3s of the game's best music, composed by Yuzo Koshiro:
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