Actraiser (SNES) Review

The Short


Pros

– Awesome hybrid of a God/City Sim with an action platformer

– Music is amazing

– Graphics for the platforming segments are quite pretty

– Getting better towns levels your avatar, making you even cooler in the platforming segments

– Battery saves your game

– Like the box says, “Create order from chaos!” That totally happens. Sort of.

Cons

– City/God Sim segments seem under fleshed out

– Platforming segments have a really weird difficulty curve and controls are a bit clunky

– Shooting star magic negates half the game (ie IT’S TOO GOOD)

– Really deserved an amazing sequel, got stupid Actraiser 2 instead

 

Before Grumpy Cat, there was Grumpy Tree.

The Long

Enix really knocked it out of the park with the SNES. While their relationship with the NES will probably be best remembered by the Dragon Warrior games, on the SNES Enix was just like “Aw, screw it, let’s make games with RPG elements in every genre ever.” And they did. And it was rad. 

A common theme across these games was restoration, one that permeated the Actraiser games, their later Soul Blazer/Illusion of Gaia/Terrawhatever that game is called games. Of them all, Actraiser came first, in what we would now call “launch window.” In Japan it came out about a month after the Super Famicom hit, and in the US it was the holiday season following the SNES’s release. So this is a really early SNES game is what I’m saying.

And guess what? For being a near launch-title, it’s one of the best games on the system, mashing genre’s together like some deranged Jamba Juice employee does with fruit.

This review has already gotten off the wall, so I’d better just get on with it.

And you wonder why your real estate market crashed. YOU NAMED YOUR TOWN ‘”BLOODPOOL.”

 

Actraiser puts you in the role of God. As in the literal, capital “G” “God,” in a battle against Satan himself. That is, this happens if you are playing the Japanese version. In the US you’re just the “Master” and the final boss is “Tanzra,” but it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here.

As God/Master, you live in a flying cloud city and help your citizens of this magical world expand their cities, purge monsters from the world, and just generally expand into rampant overpopulation. It’s pretty great.

How do you do this, you ask? Well, since you are the literal God, who in this game is sort of an incorporeal twinkling star thing with a baby cherub sidekick, you posses a badass warrior avatar to go murder monsters for you, because you are God and you can’t be bothered. Every platforming segment starts and ends with God breathing life into this awesome stone statue (or unbreathing, at the end) and then kicking butt. I dunno why, but that’s rad.

God’s deadliest foe: angry floating faces. Also, is that one a cat?

 

The game follows a fairly simple pattern:

– Go to new area

– Warp down as God/Avatar/Master/Whatever and kill the boss monster so your people can populate

– Help the people expand the city, purge other monster lairs, and get some “plot”

– Usually by doing this another big beastie has appeared, so then you go back down again and kill this guy too.

– Move to the next city. Repeat 5-6 times (I can’t be bothered to look it up) and you win the game. Yay!

Despite it appearing formulaic, the game is anything but. Each city provides new challenges and problems that you, as the Master, have to help your subjects deal with. As divinity you have the power to use the elements of nature to kick butt: Lightning to blast bushes to push city expansion (or kill baddies), Wind to blow…windmills, Rain to put out fires, Earthquake to destroy everything or change the shape of the world itself, or…actually I think that’s it. Maybe there’s some fire move that melts ice, I don’t remember.

Most of the time spent over the city you’re your chubby cherubic minion, who floats around and can down baddies with his extremely weak crossbow. Killing enemies is a temporary thing to get them to stop harassing your cities (and some enemies get genuinely difficult), but the real goal is to clear a path to direct your villagers to get to the monster “lairs” (read: spawn points) and seal them (read: kill the spawns). While they do this they automatically expand, gain in population, and find you items that they offer up to you as a devotion of their fealty and faith.

And sometimes they’re sad and whiny.

 

There are usually two main villagers in each city who act as spokespeople for your followers (I guess these guys are like prophets or something?), but mostly you just see them as tiny dots. You have minimal influence over what they build where, though you can guide the city’s expansion directions (as in, point them towards monster lairs) as well as provide some bonuses as you find more items (music makes them happy, grain makes them expand/get more population faster, etc.).

What is worth noting is that, despite these guys being tiny little pixels on the map, some of the stories they tell are genuinely touching. One devout follower risks his life to help other villagers and is on the brink of death. Knowing you can’t restore his life (or just afraid to ask for that), he instead asks that you shed your tears on him (read: summon rain on him) before he dies. He then passes away, and the next time the village prays there’s only one person. It’s actually kind of sad!

My favorite village is where the people go off and worship some other deity instead of you, so that the temple is abandoned. So you obviously have to go down and kick this false god’s butt, which brings the people back to you (after you Earthquake their entire city to show them who is boss. Or maybe I just do that).

Point is that these small stories aren’t melodramatic or overwrought, but they’re still oddly compelling. You really get to feeling for your little cities and you want to help the people expand. Or you’re a douche and lightning their houses; hey, you decided what kind of god you are.

And the Lord said unto them, “Addith some sick drops,” and thus Dubstep was born.

The platforming segments range from easy to absolutely unfairly difficult. Each city has two stages as mentioned above, one that cleans the city and prepares it for habitation, and one at the end of the “plot arc” where you have to free the city of evil once and for all. As you expand your cities, the villagers give you gifts that improve you (such as magic or more MP to use magic in the platforming segments), and the higher your overall population, the more experience you as god/master/whatever get and your health increases. So you want your cities to be as awesome as possible before you go killin’.

The problem here is the platforming is a bit clunky at first, and takes some getting used to. Your jumping feels a bit like gravity likes you too much, and your sword-swings have a rather long recovery time after stabbing (unless you are duck stabbing) and stabbing in the air can be tricky to time. They also designed a bunch of jumps that can only be made if you are exactly on the edge, which is frustrating when the game is throwing a trillion projectiles at you.

The bosses are also hard…for a while. Eventually, in like the third city, you get the Shooting Star magic. This magic is absurdly overpowered and murders most bosses in just a few casts, littering the screen with damage. It kind of breaks the game, to be honest, though it doesn’t make the stages before the bosses any easier.

A nice touch, though, is that if you lose all your lives and fail it isn’t a game over, you just get punched back to the Sky Palace with your health and magic restored to try again. In fact, I don’t think there is a Game Over screen in this entire game. Which makes sense, as you are God. Not like you’re gonna die or anything (unless you’re in Xenogears I guess).

“What if two swallows carried it together?”

The graphics are outstanding, especially for an early SNES game. Enemies are rarely pallet swapped, most stages having a unique blend of mythological creatures for you to bash up. Bosses are especially gorgeous, as are the vibrant backgrounds that really use the power of the SNES to do some awesome things. Panning down to your city shows some Mode-7 goodness, and the whole game has an artistic theme to it that I really enjoy.

But on top of that is the amazing music. The game starts with a punch to the face with the best song in the game (Fillmore’s stage), but the music when you are helping your cities expand and in other stages is great too. Some of the sound effects are a bit weak (your guy’s “HWAA!” sound and “UUH!” sound is weird, and is recycled in Enix’s Soul Blazer game), but it doesn’t detract. I also like that EVERYTHING EXPLODES WHEN YOU KILL IT. AS IT SHOULD BE.

My only gripe with Actraiser is it’s a bit short and all the elements, while amazing that they work together, could have been fleshed out more to make it an even better game. This is the kind of game you play and think, “That was amazing, but holy cow…the sequel’s gonna rock my socks off!”

Unfortunately, Actraiser 2 ditched the whole city-sim portion (aka the glue that held this game together) for a straight platformer, and a really hard one at that, which is unfortunate. As such, Actraiser hasn’t seen any future installments, which is a damned shame. Hey, Enix! I have an idea! Actraiser reboot on next-gen systems! Make the action levels like Dark/Demon’s Souls and expand the city-building to be more robust! Oh my gosh, that would be the greatest thing ever!

Regardless, as a “launch window” game, Actraiser really blew it away. It’s a bit short (if you are good at platforming and get Shooting Star you can beat the game in something like 3-5 hours) and it’s elements come off as a tad clunky, but that doesn’t matter. It’s an exceptionally cool idea and executed well enough to be fun (and super addicting; I had a hard time quitting to write this review) and is a must for people who like games that hybridize genres. Or like games in general. Just play it, already.

The game I believe is out on the Wii’s Virtual Console for like $10, but carts are pretty cheap too (usually around $20-25). This is an essential SNES game. Go get it, play it, love it. And skip the sequel.

Four out of five stars. 

Bubbles. God’s chosen mode of transportation since 10,000,000,000,000 BC

Author: Nathan Major

Spirit Shark: Hammerhead. Retro game collector, true ginger, and SNES fanatic. Goal in life is to become Karnov from the NES game Karnov.

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