Our Editor-in-Chief has a big video game collection consisting of retro and modern games. This is the third installment of his Collection Chronicles as he reviews games he’s completed from his video game library. This time he takes a look at the Super Famicom/SNES classic, ActRaiser! Enjoy!
When you hear of a game based on joining world building simulation, with action platforming stages that was developed, as a exclusive for the 16-bit era Super Nintendo, I would expect skepticism on whether you would want to play such an amalgamation during that generation. Even in today’s souped up graphics and processing power houses and discs that can hold gigabits of information, developers still struggle with taking two game play mechanics and putting them together in a cohesive and fun game. In the 16-bit era, with lesser machines and working with much less space on cartridges, you would think this would be an endeavor that wasn’t worth the risk. Separately, both types of games had system and genre defining entries. Super Metroid and Super Castlevania IV are two of the best action platformers on the system and wrote the script on how you do a successful action platformer on the system. Sim City was a classic and a SNES launch title and showed that city building simulations had a place on a home console, leading to the game’s sequel, Sim City 2000, and Peter Molyneux’s first god simulator, Populous, but combining the two had never been done.
Enter the Quintet developed ActRaiser.
Before you can talk about ActRaiser, you have to talk about the pedigree of Quintet. The company was made up of the creators of the popular Nihon Falcom RPG franchise, Ys. Director and president Tomoyoshi Miyazaki, who served as scenario writer for the first three Ys installments, and Masaya Hashimoto, the main director, designer, and programmer for the Ys series. They also brought along Yuzo Koshiro, composer for the Ys series and classic soundtracks such as Streets of Rage and Revenge of Shinobi and was once called “arguably the greatest game music composer of the 16-bit age” by Nintendo Power. Quintet went on to produce some of the best games on the SNES with Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia in the West along with the Japanese exclusive, and some would say the best from the developer, Terranigma. The three games would become known as the “Soul Blazer Trilogy” even though they were just loosely connected. Each became a true classic during the 16-bit era and are still highly regarded today.
In short, these guys knew just a little bit about this whole video game developing business.
Like I stated above, trying to combine these two genres, even for a successful veteran team of developers, can be daunting. Miyazaki, in a 1993 interview, talked about the process of how ActRaiser was developed and admitted it was a “bit unreasonable” due to the cartridge limitations there were working with:
“This was Quintet’s debut work. Actually, our plan was to do an RPG for our maiden project. We were about 70% complete with it, when the sentiment emerged among us that “Hey, if we’re going to develop for the Super Famicom, we’ve got to do something really SUPER!”
So we made a big u-turn in our development, and Actraiser was the result. The RPG we abandoned was meant to depict the entire life cycle of a planet, and when I think about it more level-headedly now, I can see that it was a bit unreasonable for a 4M cart.”
– Tomoyoshi Miyazaki/Director & President of Quintet (Source: shmuplations.com)
To even attempt this game, again, would take a group of crazy people, but to stop development on a game that was nearly complete takes it to a whole new level of nuttiness. Quintet, much like a lot of Japanese developers, tend to stay silent and not talk too much about their work. To find an interview that gave some really good insight on the development of ActRaiser was a pleasant surprise. This is really the only interview I could find with anyone from Quintet. Big thanks to Shmuplations for finding and sharing some great video game history.
The premise of ActRaiser is as straight forward as it gets: You are the kind god that decides it’s time to rid the world of the evil creatures that are destroying civilization. You are the Master and you are fighting an antagonist that is very similar to the devil. In Japan, they actually used God and Satan as the names for the characters. Quintet changed the North American release because of the strict publishing rules that Nintendo of America had in terms of heavy religious overtones not being permitted in their games due to the West’s sensitivity on the subject. The adjustment didn’t stop any person with common sense realizing the Christian based allegory.
You have two types of gameplay: an overhead simulation and action platformer. You play as an angel during the simulation parts and a statue of a knight like hero that is animated by The Master during the action/platforming chapters.
The Angel goes about creating roads, houses, and uses weather to create miracles to help advance civilization. You also have to fight off the evil enemies that fly around the world by shooting them with arrows and once you defeat all the enemies in a region you can seal up the source of the monsters. Once each region is cleared, civilization in that area can now build a more advanced society by adding bridges, ports, etc.
The Knight is basic action platforming as you fight enemies with a sword and your magical abilities. It is reminiscent of a how Super Castlevania IV plays in terms of stage design and combat. Each region gives you two platforming stages, one when you enter the land for the first time and the other after you have cleared the land of the aforementioned flying enemies. Each town you are rebuilding has a boss that once defeated frees the town of all the bad mojo terrorizing it. Each boss is based on other world religions deity such as Greek and Hindu for example. The boss sprites are great and each have a great design. Two that really stand out is the Artic Wyvern and the final boss Tanzra. Both are big and menacing are look great. Especially the Wyvern looks like a blend of a neon white light and ice sickles.
ActRaiser doesn’t try and implement too much and that is what makes the combo work so well. They take the basic world simulation tools (changing terrain, building bridges, weather, etc.) and add some small shooting mechanics to defeat roaming enemies with the creator’s angel avatar, and that is it. The controls are good as they feel tight and responsive for both the over world and the action platforming. I never had the feeling that I was fighting the controls and in this era of gaming this is really all you can ask for. The menus are easy to navigate in the world building simulation. The shooting you use to defeat enemies in the world map is really the only complaint here. It’s not terrible by any stretch, but you have to be almost perfect to hit the enemy ghouls. This doesn’t make the game tedious or unenjoyable, but compared to the way Quintet developed the action and simulation parts it is the weakest part of the game.
The score of the game is pure brilliance. I thought Return of Shinobi was fantastic, but Koshiro was operating at another level with this soundtrack. Every track brought to life the kindness of the creator as you went about bettering each part of the world. The opening theme is sweeping and heroic and sets the stage beautifully for the game. Koshiro’s use of heavenly cathedral organs and orchestral horns all dripping in 16-bit paint is nothing short of astounding. Koshiro really shows his range with this soundtrack and how he can construct a soundtrack to help tell the story the game is trying to get across. He goes from Revenge of Shinobi and its synth drenched city scapes full of ninjas to a more traditional medieval world with knights and monsters doing battle for the fate of the world without as much as a hiccup. If you were looking for a 16-bit soundtrack that is equivalent to Lord of the Rings level, ActRaiser is it. This soundtrack is often used to exhibit how good the sound chip was in the SNES as Koshiro used every bit of it to create true masterpiece.
ActRaiser pushed the SNES to the limits without giving any hint to the player that it was doing it. I’m sure it has some of the SNES slowdown, but I can’t recall in time in the game where it caused a problem. It worked extremely well for a game that even the developer said was a fool’s errand in retrospect. We talk about pushing the boundaries of the hardware and ActRaiser did just that with a cherry on top.
And the craziest part of this? ActRaiser came out less then a month after the Super Famicom released in Japan.
The game was basically a launch title which makes what they achieved in terms of development down right jaw dropping. This isn’t Naughty Dog releasing the Last of Us at the end of the hardware’s lifespan where they know all the ins and outs to get tip top performance out of the hardware. That isn’t a knock against Naughty Dog’s PS3 classic, it’s just the truth. In comparison, what Naughty Dog did with the first Uncharted would be close to the equivalent to what Quintet did with SNES minus the perk of being a first party developer for the system which, I would assume, was a huge benefit. Sure Quintet had seasoned and successful veterans of the video game industry spearheading the studio, but new hardware is just that, new. The mysteries of how to make the best game possible for it was still locked away at this point. They were barely scratching the surface of what the hardware was capable of doing. In short, it’s amazing what they did with so little time with the SNES.
Bringing together two genres that have nothing to do with each other into to a competent playable game would be a feat by itself, but to make it nothing short of fantastic is a completely different accomplishment. And this does not have the brush of nostalgia painting it with colors of yesteryear’s memories. I played this game for the first time just 5 years ago and it did more then just “hold up.” It was a unique and fun experience and one of the best games I’ve played in some time whether it be modern or retro. And it’s influence on the medium in terms of trying to combine genres into a fun and deep experience is undeniable.
If you haven’t already guessed, I think ActRaiser is an SNES and video game classic that is still a fun and impressive game even today. It’s mixture of world building simulation and solid action/platforming makes for a game that stands the test of console generations.