As one of the many fine titles to herald the success of Nintendo's new technical powerhouse, ActRaiser had a little something for everyone: Fast action for the brawny, strategic simulation for the brainy, incredible aesthetics for the artsy, and good challenge for the gutsy. Although every element stands well enough on their own, it's the impressive fashion in which all aspects mesh together that make for one hell of a title. Speaking of Hell, the plot involves Satan rising up onto the real world and causing all sorts of bad shit everywhere with his six generals. You, as the one, the only, the almighty lord God, take manifest as a mighty human and singlehandedly battle Satan's numerous forces. Now how's that for divine wrath, eh?
Naturally, Nintendo of America's anti-controversy stance caused them to alter the context so they wouldn't have Bibles thrown at them by easily offended Fundamentalists who would disapprove of God being depicted in such a violent light. Thus, God was changed to "The Master" (which still sounds pretty damn cool in its own right) and Satan became "Tanzra" (which I have nothing for on the premises of etymological origin) for the American release. Despite this cover-up, it's still pretty danged obvious that this is an adventure of biblical proportions. You start the game off in your divine palace being advised by your loyal cherub servant about the carnage going on in the mortal world. After entering your own name, he calls you by (insert moniker here) and you are given several options from your prestigious throne.
You are able to move your entire palace around above the clouds and look down on the poor unfortunate souls on the world beneath you. Oh, did I mention that your palace is nestled on top of a floating cloud? Only God is deserving of the ultimate in mobile home quality. The world upon which you look is comprised of six major lands, all of which are unique in some fashion. You control the palace above the overhead map, where you are given commands to enter levels, check your status, change the message speed, save your game's progress with convenient battery backup, and so forth.
Now while the game's base plot of good vs. evil is linear as can be, the story manages to become fleshed out through the individual tales of each land and how Satan's forces have blighted their once-peaceful fields.
Fillmore: A fair land with lush forests, gentle climates, and an evil subterranean cavern from which bad dreams emanate.
Bloodpool: A marshland fittingly named after the ominous crimson lake resting in the southwest portion of the town.
Kasandora: An arid desert area responsible for beautiful music and a deadly plague ripped right from the pages of the Bible.
Aitos: A rocky town nestled in the mountains containing a volcano that threatens to come alive again thanks to heinous demons.
Marahna: A remote tropical island where unscrupulous forces of a perverse religion attempt to usurp your lofty position.
Northwall: A snow-covered town built around a massive tree, which becomes infested with pests much greater than termites.
Your job is to go around to all six of these areas and eradicate the evil festering within. How it works on paper is to go into the land of your choosing and vanquish some monsters so that the land becomes livable. You then watch over the people to see how they handle things until an even greater evil makes itself known. Once you kick the butt of said evil, the land is forevermore clear of badness and you can move on to liberating the next area from Satan's clutches. Although you can technically roam around the world map over to any area, you can only enter Fillmore at the very beginning. You have to gain levels in order to access other areas, and how that is done is in the simulation portion which shall be soon discussed.
After entering your name in the very beginning (and your cherub servant addresses you as "Sir Michael" or whatever, which gives you an awesome sense of empowerment), it's time to descend down to land. Oh boy, WHAT a descent it is. Every time you enter a stage in ActRaiser, you fall down from your palace, spiraling around and around (exhibiting the famous Mode 7 rotation that the SNES is known for) until you reach terra firma and the screen goes black. It's all done to this awesome musical crescendo that really has to be seen and heard rather than described. That one single moment sums up how well the graphics and music are designed in this title. Keeping in mind that this is a first-year SNES title, the aesthetics certainly hold up well to the test of time.
The visuals make it clear that no two areas are the same, and the game runs a fine gamut of locales from forests and deserts to rocky waterfalls and unholy temples. While perhaps not quite as taxing on the Super Nintendo's limits as Super Castlevania IV, the technical power of the machine is put to good use in the landscape. The designs of the enemies fit well into the overall mythological setup of the world, with some looking fearsome, others fierce, and yet others still just damned ugly. They are animated well for the time, but fluidity is hardly what's most impressive about the visuals. What stands out to me is how solemn and dark everything appears, just what you would expect from a world overrun by the arch-patron of all darkness.
However, in a rare instance, the music is just as memorable as the graphics, if not even more so. Yuzo Koshiro, perhaps best known for his work on Revenge of Shinobi, various Falcom games, and the Streets of Rage trilogy, composed this game's score. The music seems to derive some influence from the legendary John Williams, and one piece in particular sounds as if it was ripped right out of the opening of Star Wars. It all sounds fantastic and appropriate enough for each area's mood, and the boss themes in particular stand out as dramatic pieces meant to energize and motivate you to defend yourself against the impending evil. The orchestral arrangement CD is breathtaking, although it's quite rare and expensive to obtain a physical copy.
A fine presentation helps to augment the gameplay, which is what truly makes ActRaiser stand above most other games of its time. It's not so much that there's anything in the game that stands out as being super-awesome, but rather the fact that two entirely different styles of play that have almost nothing to do with each other work to demolish the notion of monotony. All six areas of the game are structured as thus: When you first come to the land, it is infested with monsters. Taking control of God who manifests himself in the statue of a great warrior, you go through a side-scrolling action sequence to slay the beasts. This makes the land inhabitable, and at this point, you switch to an overhead simulation-style of play where you control God's cherub servant. The objective is to direct the people with the twofold purpose of bringing life to the land and learning to kick monster ass themselves. Finally, after the people become self-reliant, an incredible evil appears to shake everyone's courage, and God drops in again to begin a second action sequence, likely more difficult than the first.
The battle scenes play out in typical action-platformer fashion akin to Castlevania or Rastan. With your holy blade, you slash at all antagonists and leap over all perils in the stage. God moves at a brisk pace and has good range with his sword, not to mention an ever-expanding lifebar (more on that later). He swings the blade in a top-down arc while standing or jumping and a straighter slice while crouching. There are four magical spells found at certain points in the simulation portion of the game that can be used in the action scenes, all of which make God invincible and do big damage to all enemies and bosses. The Magical Fire toasts enemies on either side with fireballs, the Magical Stardust rains down explosive stars from above, the Magical Aura causes four flashing balls (insert obligatory bawdy remark here) to spiral out from your position, and the Magical Light summons two shining columns to wipe off all enemies. It's arguable that the Magical Stardust, which is found fairly early in the game, does the most damage out of them all. Since magic is limited, this is not too much of a balance issue, but it makes me wonder why the Stardust is not found nearer to the game's end.
Regardless, there is a fair deal of challenge within each level, though not so much as to completely overwhelm the action veteran. Platforming starts to get tricky around Aitos, but it's nothing much harder than the many tricky jumps from the Mega Man series. There's a good variety of enemies to fight, some of which can be real pests but not to the level of those damn eagles from Ninja Gaiden. The bosses look fierce and all provide good challenges, particularly Marahna's first boss, the Rafflasher. This arboreal abomination was actually more difficult in the Japanese version, where it's unquestionably harder than the final boss. The Japanese version is in fact harder overall with more traps and stronger enemy forces strewn about the stages. Regardless, the American version of the game is not a gentle walk, but it's nothing vicious to the point of utter frustration.
Between both of the action sequences is a simulation segment where God's angelic servant takes watch over the people of the newly-inhabited land. These segments play out somewhat like a simplified "god game" in the vein of Populous or Civilization. The goal in every land is to lead the people into growing strong and prosperous enough to fare on their own, and there are several commands at your disposal to accomplish this. You start out with two humans who attend the shrine and directly communicate with you to let you know about what's going on with the town. Through means that Nintendo of America refuses to exhibit, the people grow in number. By using the Building Direction command and mapping out the next few steps of direction, people will move in the path you command and erect homes after a bit of time passes. They start out as meager mud huts but eventually develop into fine houses and large mansions. Other uses are made out of the people's resources, such as ranches for livestock and crop fields, the latter of which are particularly instrumental in increasing population. The action of building occurs when an hourglass at the top of the screen turns over.
However, people cannot exactly develop their lives peacefully while all these nasty demons lurk around to terrorize the townsfolk. Four monster lairs are placed into every land which continue to spawn bastards from the depths of the underworld. The amount of monsters per lair is not unlimited, but the number might as well be infinite for how long it takes to drain them. In order to progress to the second action stage, you have to lead the people to these lairs so they may banish the monsters' mark from the soil. While the people work to expel evil, your angel servant defends them from the terrors. Taking a moment to examine this little fella, I'll overlook the obvious immaturity that can be waxed upon with the angel's flagrant nudity and say that this guy is actually a badass. He fires off arrows to keep all monsters at bay, and not only does he never run out of ammo, but he never truly runs out of health either. If he collides with a monster, he'll take damage, but if he runs out, he does not die. He will only be unable to attack until the hourglass turns and he regains life. However, you will still be able to perform all other actions which shall be detailed after an examination of the bestiary. There are four different varieties of monsters who fly around and make life miserable for the mortals.
Napper Bat: These weaklings only take a single hit, but they can be hard to shoot sometimes, especially from a horizontal direction. They break into houses and steal the people inside, whisking them off-screen. A minor nuisance, as there is no large penalty for losing a few people, and you can save them by shooting the bat before he disappears.
Blue Dragon: Taking three hits and flying in obnoxious diagonal patterns, dragons are more threatening than bats. They hover over houses and outright wreck them with a bolt of lightning. Expect this to happen somewhat frequently and take the loss. Though you may be God, you are sometimes powerless to keep every life sustained.
Red Devil: These guys move about at a leisurely pace and take four hits to kill. It doesn't help that they have small frames that make them hard to hit. Furthermore, they cause massive raises in temperature that dry up all crop fields in the land, stifling population growth until the fields are refurbished. Needless to say, waste these things before they do that.
Skull Head: These things are nightmares. They may be big targets, but they take eight (!) hits and do this annoying thing where they lethargically float about until they decide to randomly rush you at warp speed, and they do a lot of damage. The worst thing is their ability to summon earthquakes, obliterating everything that your people have worked for. This is rare, but it does happen, and it will happen if you don't set these bastards as your top priority to destroy.
Naturally, it's not so simple to help the people blast the demons back to hell. There are several obstructions in each game that can only be cleared through divine intervention in the form of five "miracles." Utilizing some magic points, you are able to utilize natural elements to clear the way for the humans. They are all useful at some point or another in the game, but the most commonly-utilized one is Lightning, where 10 points create a lightning bolt that toasts everything in the area. While it's best to clear up trees and rocks, it can also kill enemies and, unfortunately, homes if there are any nearby. 20 points go towards Rain, which restore dried crops and clear up desert terrain, a requirement to clear Kasandora. The Sun dries up marshland and melts snow for thirty points, a must to get through Bloodpool and Northwall. Wind costs a hefty 80 points, but it blows all enemies off of the map and is necessary to maintain power in Aitos. The most powerful of all is the Earthquake, which requires a massive 160 points and obliterates EVERY house in the entire area. It is, however, mandatory to shake things up in Marahna, and the destruction of houses causes the people to reconstruct them as larger buildings that are resistant to any natural disasters.
The two shrine keepers contact you on a fairly common basis, though not so much to the point of annoyance. They actually have important things to say that direct you in the right direction and even give you items every now and again. Items for use in simulation scenes increase the strength of your angel's arrow, obliterate all demons flying on the screen, or turn corn crops into wheat to increase population. There are also several unique items that are necessary to solve problems in the six lands and progress further. Your performance in the simulation scenes directly affects action scenes, as gaining more people raises your level, which summarily increases your lifebar and makes you able to enter more areas in the game. There are also items that increase your stock of lives and magic, and the aforementioned magic spells for use in action are found in oftentimes out-of-the-way locales. It is in your best interest to try anything and everything, leaving no stone unturned or unstruck by lightning. The simulation scenes are simple for anyone to understand and reasonably fast-paced, but if you're the hardcore type that can't wait to get to the fight, there is a Professional mode that treats the game as a straight-on actioner, going through all thirteen stages without taking a breather. It's unlocked after beating the game once and pressing down while "continue" is highlighted in the title screen.
ActRaiser is truly like nothing else with its ability to captivate gung-ho AND methodical gamers. Even if an action gamer shuns sims for the most part, the simulation bits are not so complex and tedious so as to entirely turn off this demographic. Conversely, the simulation gamer who prefers not to vex their mind with sidescrolling gameplay will not find the game's action sequences too difficult to accomplish. ActRaiser meets a nice balance between the two genres to make it accessible for anyone and everyone. Wrapping it up in the motif of God vs. Satan makes this a must-play for any gamer to ever exist.
In addition to the original SNES release (which is also one of the few Square-Enix releases on the Wii Virtual Console), ActRaiser was ported to mobile phones in 2004. It's just the action sequences, with terrible controls, no music, and completely nerfed level design that removes all of the platforming. The graphics are relatively intact, but that's about the only positive thing you can say about it. In 2007, the real deal was made available on the Wii Virtual Console.
The highly-anticipated sequel to ActRaiser appeared at first glance to deliver a fantastic combination of familiar elements and new designs. What it turned out to be was a considerable departure from the style of the first in more ways than one, and not often for the better. It's not to say that this is a bad game, and I frankly perceive it to be a mistreated beast. However, it is what Return of the Jedi is to Empire Strikes Back: A sequel that is fine in its own right, but misses much of the magic that made its predecessor so mirthful.
The story is essentially the same as the original, where God/The Master fights against Satan/Tanzra and his army of underworld minions. His main generals each take on one of the Seven Deadly Sins, with each sin playing off of the faults of towns across the land and causing royal chaos. It is unknown whether this setting is placed before or after the first game, or even if it takes place in an alternate universe. All that needs to be known is God once kicked Satan's ass long ago, but his power grew and he's challenging the lord again to some bullshit at the expense of the mortal plane of existence.
I will not deny that this is an inferior sequel, as it is made apparent quite early when you see "Password" right on the main menu. Passwords are often regarded by the gaming community as tedious and inferior compared to battery backup, save for the occasional use of skipping ahead levels that have yet to be played. However, since the first game had a battery save system, the use of passwords in ActRaiser 2 instantly sets it a step back from its predecessor. It may just be nitpicking, but a game that still runs on passwords in 1993 waves a warning flag that stands out to me. However, there are at least a couple of neat secret passwords that allow you to fight the versions of Satan featured in the opening cinematic or from the original ActRaiser.
The lack of saving predicts that this sequel is not as good the original, though it is impossible to tell so at first glance. When you first step into the game, you are presented with the familiar structure of a world map beneath a floating palace. An angel informs you of the situation below (i.e., a world of shit) and you are allowed to survey the countryside at your whim. There are six areas accessible on the overhead map, and unlike the first title, you can go to any of them in whatever order you wish. When you engage in a stage, an angel with a blade asks if you are ready to take human manifest and kick some holy ass. There are also towns that provide information relevant to the plot, if you focus on that sort of thing. If you attempt to check on any piece of land that isn't important, you will be given a password (grrrr) for the current situation.
So, here's the bad news: the simulation scenes are completely gone, with nothing to replace them. Yes, that which made the first game a unique blend of action and simulation totally obliterates the latter to give us merely an action title, and not a particularly outstanding one at that. This is a straight-on reflex-dependent title with nothing to offer for those outside of the truly patient and hardcore, a severe change of design which has alienated gamers who were attracted to the innovation of the original.
That's not to say that they didn't put some effort into it. Visually, the game makes good use of its graphical capabilities. As before, the awesome Mode 7 drop down into the turmoil is liable to extract a puddle of bile from queasy gamers. The environments are significantly more diverse from the first game, ranging from living graveyards to sunken temples, and most interesting of all, the inner mind of a sleeping king. The enemies and bosses are well-designed and animated, given high amounts of detail, shading, and colorization without looking too gaudy or goofy in most cases. In particular, the bosses are fluidly animated and impressive to watch in action.
Yuzo Koshiro returns to compose the soundtrack, and the audio quality is noticeably improved from the first game. The sound is more refined and seems to evoke the sense of an orchestra weaving dramatic compositions. However, the actual tracks themselves are not quite as memorable as the outright awesome music from the first game. Personally, the boss themes do not sound as edgy as they did from the original, but they do the job well enough. For the most part, the style generally seems to be concentrated more upon ambience than fervor; whereas I prefer the latter, others may find the relaxed pace of ActRaiser 2's sound more enjoyable.
The aesthetics of the game are great, no two ways about it. However, when I get down to what truly matters, it's time for some criticisms. The gameplay takes some steps forward and an almost equal amount back, if not more so the latter. The pace of action has changed significantly from the first game, and not all for the better. When you first touch down and move God around, you will notice that his speed has altered from a determined run to a lethargic step, moving at least 1.5 times as slow as he did in the first game. His look has differed significantly from the first game, now sporting a normal flesh tone as opposed to the inexplicable jaundice-colored skin from the first game.
Wearing fairly less than before and showing off a mighty physique, God now has wings that aren't just for cosmetic purposes. By pressing the jump button in midair, you perform a glide with the wings that flies you through space and brings you down to the ground with an annoying skid during which you can do nothing. However, pressing down in mid-flight causes you do take a fast dive with no skid, and holding up causes you to slowly float down and carefully land. The flight mechanics can be somewhat frustrating to control, but it does somewhat accelerate the slow pace of God's gait. There are a few points in stages where you have to land on platforms from afar, and if you don't hold Up to stop your dive, you'll skid right off the edge and into an abyss. This is more a fault of poor design than a legitimately penalizing mechanic in my opinion.
Armed with a sword as before, you now have a shield to carry and defend against enemy assault. Instead of a top-down swing that can hit most enemies low to the ground, the attack while standing is now a straight side swing. You can also hold up to slash diagonally above, but it's a bit more of a pain to hit enemies with a reduced hitbox. You will have to do more crouching than in the original ActRaiser to hit enemies low to the ground, yet the jump slash is top-down like old times. Other midair attacks include the ability to slash straight while gliding forward, holding down and attacking during a jump to perform a downward thrust, and a flying crash during a downward dive that does double the damage of all other attacks. It can be a bit hard to pull this last attack off consistently; an unfortunate mechanic, as even the smaller enemies can take multiple hits on higher difficulties.
As for your shield, it can repel all projectiles, but the hit detection is frustrating due to the shield's small size. It's not so bad when you can just stand or crouch to defend fireballs hurtling towards you from the side, but the problem is apparent when holding up to block falling projectiles. Raising your shield above your head does not guarantee protection from anything that does not hit the non-shielded portion of your body. I'm probably nitpicking again, and it may have made the game too easy to have a large shield that covers you all of the time, but I feel the shield can be a dicey prospect upon which to rely. I would suggest just dodging things like stalactites and drops of bat guano, but I can't even recommend that because of your slower move speed.
In addition to an arguably gimped God, the enemies attack with greater fervor than in the first game. They take more hits, they come in greater numbers, and their attack patterns are far more obnoxious than ever before. These reaper bastards from a dungeon-style level are especially notable, attacking as the cheetah strikes a slow buffalo (i.e., you). To quickly kill stronger enemies, you have several magic attacks at your disposal that can be performed by holding the Y button and releasing as you glow red. The type of attack depends on what position you are in as you release; standing delivers a flamethrower attack, looking up launches spherical bombs, crouching brings a shield of earth energy around you, jumping summons four diagonal electric sparks, gliding shoots out a large projectile that splits into smaller ones on impact, floating causes a lightning bolt to blast from above, and diving downward surrounds you with a fiery phoenix. While powerful, you only get so few to use, and they are best saved for the level bosses, most of which are real bitches to fight. The one that wracks me with the most pain is the volcano boss, where the screen perpetually scrolls upward on infinite disconnected platforms while the bastard flies around blasting fire everywhere. The structure of the stages range from reasonable to infuriating, with the latter case prominent in Industen, the stage closest to your starting point and allegedly one of the easier levels. I beg to differ on the premise that an awkward jump from the hole of a giant tree towards a platform that requires some of that damned gliding to reach is one of the harder obstacles I can recall.
I have attempted to make this review as fair as possible, but it's hard not to be disappointed with the end result. Still, taking it at its basest value, what we have here is a straight action title that, if nothing else, stands alone as a challenge that badgers the edge of utter frustration. I and many were disappointed with the drastic direction taken in altering the gameplay to appeal only to hardcore action gamers. I cannot entirely shun this maligned sequel, as it does offer appealing visuals, keen enemy design, and fine sound quality. As a gamer whose preferences tilt towards the action-platformer genre, this game fares pretty well. However, it is a letdown as a successor to one of the flagship games for the Super Nintendo. They could have had creative license to somehow improve upon the simulation sequences, but simply removing them was a large step backward and the primary reason why ActRaiser 2 is unquestionably an inferior sequel.
An approximate year after the release of ActRaiser, Enix and Quintet produced Soul Blazer, an action-RPG with an overhead perspective for the SNES and the first game in Quintet's "Heaven and Earth Trilogy". Given its perspective of action, one may call it a Zelda ripoff, but that assessment would not do it proper justice. As both games share the same development team, there have been some elements transferred from ActRaiser over to Soul Blazer. For one thing, the basic plotlines of both games are similar, where you play as a deistic force fighting against demons from the deepest reaches of Hell. In Soulbalzer, instead of playing as God, you guide Blazer, a servant of the almighty force Gaia (who is known as "The Master" outside of Japan, though it's debatable as to whether or not Gaia is the same as God from ActRaiser). You are tasked with restoring the world from the destruction caused by Dark Gaia (also known as "Deathtoll") by clearing six areas, an all-too familiar structure of level hierarchy. The instruments used for the music sound identical to ActRaiser, and the town music is almost a ripoff of the music from AR's simulation sequences. Some sound effects even transfer over directly, such as the "UGCH" vocal of your character when he gets hit and the "VRWURH" when an item gets picked up, among other things. The graphical styles are also alike with the biggest connection being the usage of the exact same lifebar in both games.
It's possible that Soul Blazer could have been intended as a direct sequel to ActRaiser before taking on the identity of its own series to include two more games. Illusion of Gaia, the second Heaven and Earth title, shares a few sound effects and a somewhat similar graphical style to ActRaiser 2. They have less in common than the first two games, but at the least the lifebar is the exact same style again. One cannot help but wonder how an ActRaiser 3 would look alongside Terranigma, but this sadly remains a theoretical sentiment.