In Which There’s a New God In Town
The world of video games is one replete with mashups and things that are like other things. More than any medium genre is determined by its relativistic qualities to certain other entries and properties. Thus we have an artistic landscape dominated by games described with incongruous portmanteaus and other titles amended with the word like (welcome to the world of Metroidvanias and Roguelikes). Such a jumble of genre and gameplay can lead to many fascinating avenues of interaction and player experience. Pulling together disparate elements in the pursuit of the elusive peanut butter/chocolate combination.
Such mixing and matching reveals itself in the odd and delightful Super Nintendo game ActRaiser. The 1990 release from developer Quintet strives for the great peanut butter chocolate line by slamming together seemingly antithetical genres: the action/adventure platformer and town sim/god game. It’s a beguiling blend of different development goals that has left a mark on many who have played it. And for good reason, ActRaiser is a lush experience that makes it’s genre combination feel integral rather than slapdash.
ActRaiser is pretty evenly cleaved between its two parts. For the opening and closing of each chapter of the game, the player is tasked with clearing out some monsters from deserted lands to help reestablish vibrant communities of worshipers for the all powerful god (or The Master). Once the beasties have been busted a town can grow. Here the player takes a top down view and directs the citizenry to build, farm, and pray to the almighty.
Each segment on there own aren’t particularly noteworthy. The platforming is incredibly stiff, with the character stumbling into lumbering arcs and slowed by a cumbersome sword that remains the only direct weapon on hand. The sim sections aren’t actually that simmy. The player doesn’t have to gather resources or find blueprints to construct needed buildings. Only direct the populous to uninhabited lands, watch them grow, shoot some monsters, and solve minor contextual puzzles.
Together, though, the flow creates a unique sense of progression and growth. While the platforming feels flat and uncertain, it’s bolstered by the sim sections granting the player the ability to upgrade the character. So as the populations of the cities grow, the more powerful one is during the monster slaying quests. This ties the two aspects of the game directly together, and encourages people to actually focus beyond the bare essentials of the sim or action segments. If you really want to push through on the later stages you need to make sure everyone is healthy and happy. Success in one arena means success in both aspects of the game.
This twinning structure allows what should be two dichotomous to meld, making the experience much more elegant. These aren’t mechanics that are simply standing next to each other in the same package, but ones that build into a wholly unique experience.
Presentation is another bolster to the aspects of the game that might seem overly simple or a touch rote. Platforming is presented with gorgeous chunky sprites with active animations. Each boss encounter looks and sounds amazing, so despite some clunky design there is reward in seeing what awaits at the end of each level. The sim sections take full advantage of the SNES’s unique Mode 7 graphics, allowing the player to glide around the world map before twirling down to the ground. And while such effects are certainly dated, the charms of 90’s computing remains, watching designers replicate the grandiose and exciting with whatever ability they had.
Kudos must also be paid to composer Yuzo Koshiro, whose score for ActRaiser is a standout. Combining the frenetic action themes popular in the 16-bit heyday to more baroque pieces to accompany town building. The motifs and carefully considered loops give everything a sense of progress, whether it be by sword or built by hand.
The last presentational flourish that makes ActRaiser more than an intriguing thought experiment is how it backgrounds its religious elements. Certainly the game is no replacement for a theology course, but the way it engages with Abrahamic religions is more nuanced than one would expect from the typical 16-bit actioner.
Because of Nintendo’s strict content guid lines, games couldn’t have explicit references to Christian themes. So what were literally God and Satan in the Japanese release have been transmogrified to Master and Tanzra. But no level of euphemism can fully eradicate the layers of whats obvious. You build cities and help the population with famines and plagues by bringing the rains, lightening, and sun. You save a father from having to sacrifice his son to protect the town he lives in, and you turn apostates back into believers.
Most intriguingly is the conclusion of the game. After all demons have been banished your people begin to lose faith in you, no longer praying and worshipping, and the Master is forgotten in contentment. It’s melancholic, but not seen as evil, just the course of nature. You float on, coming and going on whatever whims of faith will take you.
Such rumination is surprising after the boss rush gauntlet of the final act, but it all feels part and parcel of a game that wants to tie so many different elements into one cohesive unit. ActRaiser is imperfect in parts, stodgy, simple, and now old fashioned, but its structure and themes are still as unique as when the game first came out.
Is it Weird, Overlooked, or Wonderful.
Undeniably ActRaiser is weird and wonderful, employing a form that is still mostly unique today. The overlooked aspect is debatable, as it ranks highly on top games of the SNES era, but its easy to forget for the longest time it was mostly unavailable in legal formats. Even to this day the original cart and Wii port are the only legitimate sources of purchase, so I think overlooked qualifies.
Odds and Ends
- ActRaiser has a sequel that learns all the wrong lessons from the original by stripping out all sim elements and leaving behind only a brutal, if pretty, platformer.
- Quintet stands as one the unheralded greats of the SNES era, producer such cult favorites like Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, and Terrignma.
As always, twitter, letterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).
Next Week: I’m still sorting it out, trying to get more engagement to be sure I want to continue.
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