Stalagmite's ActRaiser Review
Excellent level designs and high production quality.
Very easy bosses and some control quirks leads an otherwise easy game into having some cheap difficulty. The sim portion is just boring.
Developed by Quintet in 1990, Actraiser is one of the earliest examples of a hybrid game that works. A hybrid game is basically where you put two genres together, whether they're given their own segments (ie. Actraiser, Parasite Eve, Asura's Wrath) or fused together (ie. Deus Ex), and although it's been messed with quite a bit prior to this game's release, none of them quite got it like this one. I mean, a platformer with sim-like segments? Probably doesn't sound impressive by today's standards, especially with games that seamlessly fuse genres together like Deus Ex, but it was still impressive when it was one of the few to get it right at the time, and for all intents and purposes, it's certainly playable today. But "works" and "playable" doesn't necessarily make it a masterpiece. Actraiser is a game that had the potential to be a great game, but a few issues prevent it from even being a good game.
In Actraiser, you play as God (no, I'm not kidding), who has awakened from a long sleep following a great battle between him and the devil, Tanzra. During your sleep however, it seems that Tanzra has filled your world with monsters, so it's your job to get rid of the monsters and repopulate the world. The story itself isn't bad and the attempts at sidestories throughout the game are admirable, but it's not enough to drive the game. Perhaps I'm asking for the world from an early Super Nintendo game, but this sounds like the kind of game that'd benefit greatly from a story with more content, not to mention characters...
But thankfully, the gameplay of Actraiser is what keeps it moving. Like I said, it has two modes of play - platforming and sims. I'll start with the platforming or "Acts" as that's what you start the game doing. At its core, you're going from Point A to Point B, using your sword to defeat enemies while jumping from platform to platform. The platforming isn't as easy as you'd think since jumping is a bit tricky to get the hang of. You basically need to be doing running jumps and making sure you're going the right direction as you can't change direction in midair – in fact, trying to do so will simply slow down your forward momentum. Attacking also has a slight delay
The level designs are excellent. I mean, you wouldn't think that at first, because the first couple of levels you'll go through are pretty basic and don't offer much, but just go through the other continents, and you'll see some neat level designs with plenty of little details that take advantage of the game's simplistic nature. The full extent of a level involves jumping and killing enemies that go down in one or maybe three hits, so why not try to make the most of it, eh? Quintet sure did.
Each Act ends with a boss, and honestly? They're fairly unimpressive. I mean some are good, but the majority of them are easy, and not all that interesting to fight. They have simple patterns like jumping up and landing with a mighty axe slash or teleporting and firing magic attacks, but that's not the problem - the problem is that it takes little to no effort to figure out a way to exploit them for massive damage and maximum damaging efficiency since they stick to a singular pattern for the whole fight. That's just when you have the sword – when you have magic, it's so overpowered that you can just spam the magic button and win! The only way it's balanced out is that it's limited in use, but if you have great timing, it won't matter.
Then there are the sim segments, where you guide your civilization to build and expand. At first, you'll need to guide them to a monster lair so that they can seal it, but then it becomes a matter of filling each square inch of land with houses. While monsters are out, the little angel has to fire arrows it them to stop them from destroying civilization. Once the lairs are sealed, that unlocks the second Act, and once you beat the second Act, you're free to keep watching the civilization continue to develop in hopes of levelling yourself up. See, for every 100 or so people you create, you'll gain a level, which will increase your HP for the acts. While this is an interesting idea that awards you for your patience, I have to say, it can get awfully boring, as you just keep waiting and waiting until nothing more could be built. That is, if you are trying to maximise your level – it is possible to go through the game while doing the bare minimum, and I'd actually encourage this as you'll be able to find some challenge that way.
There is a bit of strategy to this mode if you're willing to go the distance to max out your level. You have the ability to pull off miracles, such as lightning, sun, rain, wind and earthquake. Initially, you just use lightning to clear obstacles, but at times, the people will stop and tell you to use other miracles to clear obstacles that lightning cannot – that, or to help the land prosper more. This is a great idea with baffling execution – you hardly ever use your miracles for anything beyond obstacle clearing, which could've made for an interesting puzzle game at the very least, but they blatantly tell you what to use, and from there, I just feel like I'm the servant instead of being god himself!
So it's not much in the gameplay department, but one thing that this game most certainly gets right is the production quality. The graphics are actually quite impressive. They were certainly a few steps up from other early Super Nintendo games such as Super Mario World and Gradius 3, showcasing some detailed and varied designs. Each level had its own feel. From the swamps of Bloodpool, to the volcanic landscapes of Aitos, and then to the snowy caves, mountains and tree of Northwall, each level has its own visual flavoring, with their own set of colors and distinct features. The animations are serviceable, save for your attacking animation, which is like 1 frame. I'd probably put this on par with most anime – it looks pretty in still shots, but the movement is either serviceable or bad.
The soundtrack is also very impressive. Each track has its own distinct feel that goes with the visuals of the level, or with what's happening. It all sounds great, too! What really sells it for me are the boss themes – all three of them are epic (certainly more epic than the bosses, that's for sure), feeling like each fight is an epic struggle between god and one of the devil's henchmen, getting closer and closer to the devil, and then you fight the devil himself, and the song makes it feel like an epic final struggle. That's the kind of ambience that gives a soundtrack more lasting power than one that's just fun to listen to, though that's not to discount how much fun this game's soundtrack is to listen to, because believe me, it is a great soundtrack to listen to casually as well, but it also adds feeling to the game. If I had any complaints, it would be that the sim theme gets annoying after a while, and how ironic, because it's meant to be a calm theme, too. It's all you hear for every time you play the sim mode. Every. Single. Continent's. Sim. Mode. It's a short loop, too, so... yeah. The sound effects are okay, nothing that stands out except for your attack sound. Constantly hearing the sound of somebody trying to get flem out of their throat is not something I want to hear every ten tedious seconds.
So yeah, that's Actraiser for you. It's a game that's often touted as a classic in retro circles and yet, I feel that it's merely above average at best. It's a game whose excellent graphics, soundtrack and level designs go to waste due to the fact that the gameplay itself is nothing really exciting or even good. It's got competence going for it, but with many, many excellent Super Nintendo games out there, I'd probably skip this one.
Gameplay - 6/10 - The Acts' levels are designed brilliantly. Too bad they end with mediocre bosses. The sim-like sections are initially entertaining, but end up boring, not to mention that these could've been pretty cool.
Controls – 3.5/5 – The jumping takes a bit of time to get used to, as does the delay in striking, but everything else works finely, and overall, the controls are pretty tight.
Story – 3/5 – The idea of being god was cool, as was requiring god to fix up the mess the devil left behind, but the execution...
Graphics – 4.5/5 – It looks rather nice, and definitely one of the best looking early Super Nintendo games. Some mediocre animation aside, it's great!
Sound – 4/5 – It has some “eh” quality sound effects, but the soundtrack is just fantastic... except for one song that just goes on and on and on. But the rest all sound great and even epic at times.
Overall – 6.5/10 – It has high production quality and great level designs, but otherwise, it's a fairly mediocre game.