Late to the Party: ActRaiser (1990)

  • Title: ActRaiser
  • Original Platform: Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)
  • Original Release Date(s): December 16, 1990 (JP) / November 1991 (NA) / March 18, 1993 (EU)

ActRaiser is an early SNES title developed by Quintet and published worldwide by Enix between 1990 and 1993. It served as a showpiece for the hardware’s impressively varied musical palette and Nintendo’s much-touted Mode 7 “3D” graphics, which were actually a trick of perspective that only suggested depth by rapidly changing the size of two-dimensional sprites. The game was celebrated for its combination of two radically different gameplay systems, but a 1993 sequel failed to duplicate its success and no further series entries were produced. ActRaiser has not been officially re-released since being made available on the now-shuttered Wii Virtual Console service in 2007.

The first-person landing cutscenes are simultaneously fun and vertigo-inducing. Source: NintendoComplete

While I own a copy for the Wii, I first played the game in December 2020 on my SNES Classic miniature console. ActRaiser scales surprisingly well to a 4K television and remains one of the best-looking early SNES games. Even the Mode 7 effects, which are displayed when the player character’s sky base zooms into a region of the world map, look as good as similar flourishes being used in Final Fantasy games several years later. Ys composer Yuzo Koshiro’s characteristically uptempo soundtrack is a highlight.

The story is simultaneously audacious and silly. I was amused to play God in a very literal sense, as a diminutive Cupid-like angel addressed me when I booted up the game. The world – a barren natural landscape almost entirely devoid of human life – has been plunged into its monster-filled state by Satan (named Tanzra in the English translation to avoid direct religious connotations during a deeply conservative era for Nintendo). The only way to defeat Satan is by nurturing the development of human kingdoms, which in turn grow God’s power by worshipping Him.

Side-scrolling backgrounds and characters remind me of late-’70s heavy metal cover art. Source: NintendoComplete

This articulates through two distinct gameplay systems: side-scrolling stages in which the player controls a literally statuesque humanoid warrior, and overhead city-building stages in which the player encourages urbanization and protects a slowly expanding village population via an angel avatar. The former feel very similar to contemporary Castlevania games from the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), making full use of the SNES’ memory to depict beautifully-rendered monsters drawn from world mythology. The side-scrolling sections’ difficulty is simultaneously easier than Castlevania, as enemies hit less hard and the player has more control over his or her character’s jump arc, and harder due to its less forgiving checkpoint system; the player is often forced to start over at the beginning of a challenging platforming gauntlet even after losing their life to a boss. At least game overs don’t plunge the player back to the starting menu.

The small yellow line in the lower-left of this image indicates that the player has prioritized that area for construction. Source: NintendoComplete

Overhead city-building sections are less successful, as they have no direct home console analogue from which they might adopt familiar mechanics. The player’s avatar can’t directly tell villagers where to build, but instead must delineate the general route of city expansion. A near-infinite supply of demons buzzing around overhead, which will damage the city if left unchecked, are visually uninspired and hard to hit; defending the city is a tedious task in early stages and a maddening one in later stages. The most engaging mechanic here is using storms, earthquakes, winds and so forth to dramatically alter the natural landscape (without regard for the local ecosystem, naturally) and make it more fit for human habitation. ActRaiser posits a profoundly human-centered cosmology.

Unfortunately, its lush presentation and novel dual-gameplay systems are undermined by poor tutorialization, localization, and feedback. It was nearly impossible to tell how I was intended to interact with the world during the game’s early hours due to the paucity of prompts from my small angel guide. What text exists is often rather garbled – the dialogue that greets the player any time citizens wish to offer up a gift is especially difficult to parse – so the player is liable to bumble along without any way to tell if their actions are working. Even when visual language is used to indicate that settlements are growing restless without the player bringing some technology or resource from a new overhead stage to its predecessor, feedback to player actions is minimal and sluggish. It’s often hard to identify whether poor planning or the presence of predatory demons is stifling growth.

I could never figure out who was asking what on this screen. I suspect it should have been translated “would you like another offering?” Source: NintendoComplete

My overall experience with ActRaiser, following several hours of play that led me to finally give up roughly halfway through the game, is mixed. I enjoyed the presentation, and Koshiro’s consistently excellent soundtrack made me eager to hear the next song each time I entered a new side-scrolling section. Gameplay, on the other hand, was underwhelming when not actively irritating. Pulpy enemy designs during the action set-pieces were hard to enjoy when I was constantly beleaguered by imprecise controls and unforgiving platforming gauntlets, while I never grew confident that I fully comprehended what I was doing during city-simulation sections. If muddling through its early hours was such a chore, it’s hard to imagine that later, tougher stages would have been more enjoyable. I respect Quintet’s ambition, but can’t say I appreciate ActRaiser as anything more than a curiosity at a distance of thirty years.