Every new system relies heavily on its early catalog to help determine how successful its infancy period is. And with titles like Super Mario World, F-Zero, Gradius III, Super Castlevania IV and Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, the SNES was legitimized. Of course, one can’t talk about the earliest Super Nintendo games without extolling the virtues of one, ActRaiser. Released in North America a whopping 26 years ago, ActRaiser is one of the most beloved early SNES classics of all time. Hell, remove ‘early’ — it’s one of the most memorable SNES hits, period. What makes ActRaiser so great? Well, for starters, developer Quintet was able to accomplish a rather rare feat. Quintet managed to masterfully straddle two genres, blending into an immersive and seamless action adventure for the ages. And that’s just scratching the surface. With the help of Retro Gamer Magazine, let’s delve a little deeper below the surface…
BUT FIRST, A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE
January 30, 2006. It was a quiet and idyllic Monday night, just two weeks into my Super Nintendo resurgence. On that fateful night I stopped by the Hollywood Video still lingering in my childhood hometown, hopeful to add more games to my ever growing collection. Any nostalgic memories would be but a bonus.
I ended up buying six games that fine evening. Hollywood Video used to have a Game Crazy hub inside where they sold games from all generations. The SNES selection back in early 2006 was still a bit of a goldmine. Game Crazy did a special buy 2 get 1 free deal for their retro games. I still remember feeling so excited when I spotted ActRaiser on the glass shelf. I actually never played it back in the day so for me this was one of those “redemption” games. My SNES resurrection was a second chance to finally play all those great SNES games I missed out on as a child for one reason or another.
AN ACT OF LOVE
Hey now, ActRaiser 2 wasn’t THAT bad, but we’ll get to that later. Many games have attempted to balance multiple genres, but few did it better than ActRaiser.
Hovering over the world like the sexy beast that you are, the people down below look to you for their every need: slaying monsters that have invaded their land, building up towns and generally being a source that they can place their faith in. Just remember, with great power comes great responsibility.
Volatile demons of all sizes and shapes come out of the woodwork to thwart your cause. I’ll always be a sucker for tree-based monsters.
Thanks for the helping hand, sucker! Ah, look at that first boss. The Centaur Knight is such a nostalgic sight for anyone who was a Super Nintendo gamer back in the day. I have an extremely soft spot for giant boss sprites and Mr. Centaur definitely left a lasting impression.
Simulation has never been my favorite genre but I quite enjoyed it in ActRaiser. It’s not overly complicated and it adds to the storyline of the game rather well.
Construct the town to prosper and thrive. Be ready to protect it against hostile invaders, at all costs!
Fillmore ain’t done with you yet! A hulking Minotaurus greets you at level’s end. Golden Axe would be proud.
Quintet did such a terrific job with the visuals that you could easily confuse this for a Capcom or Konami title. Bloodpool is arguably the best looking stage of the entire game. I love how atmospheric it looks! It’s particularly perfect to play on a dark and cold late afternoon in November.
Action bit, simulation. Rinse and repeat. Somehow, it never gets boring. The crimson red lake of Bloodpool is such a cool sight. Naturally, it’s been poisoned by monsters and it’s up to you to save the day.
Another memorable moment, a full moon hangs overhead ominously as our hero treks across to enter the horrors that lie deep within this castle…
Initially, this appears to be a run-of-the-mill battle with a wizard warlock. That is, until he reveals his true form! ActRaiser simply captures one’s imagination.
Kasandora is a scorching desert filled with some incredible music. Composed by Yuzo Koshiro, it’s to no one’s surprise. It sounds almost Star Wars-esque. Hell, the first boss of this world is named Dagoba which is similar to Dagobah (a planet in the Star Wars universe that Yoda called home in his final years).
Digging the Egyptian motif and mummies.
Deranged scorpions litter your path. Eradicate them quickly and it will help take the sting out of things. A massive Pharaoh head guards the end of the level.
Things start off in a mountain area with foul rock-throwing trolls. It isn’t long before you catch a lift. The seemingly incessant cloud scrolling here was mind-blowing for 1991 standards.
Inside this cavern you’ll battle terrible winged beasts and a Manda-like serpent.
Protect the people of Aitos at all costs. Back to the hack and slash action, players find themselves buried deep inside a fiery cavern of death and misery.
Samurai spirits [Shodown? -Ed.] attack relentlessly. A demonic fire wheel is your reward at the end of this level.
Marahna is a humid jungle guarded by a terrible plant beast with plenty of tentacles. The Japanese approve.
Disaster strikes! Tend to the issues properly ASAP.
Beware the grim reaper, who would love nothing more than to claim your soul. Kalia shoots lightning blasts but isn’t as tough as it looks.
Northwall is a frozen and frigid country. It’s also one of the hardest stages in the game. Watch out for blue ogres and expect a lot of slipping and sliding around.
Annoying bugger! Your platforming skills and patience will be put to the test.
Bubbles assist you to the top. Hey, didn’t I see that boss in Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts? Hmmm.
Death Heim is no joke. Prepare for a nasty boss gauntlet. It’s only after beating these six bosses that you are deemed worthy to fight Tanzra.
Tanzra’s final form has a whopping 40 health bars! Good Lord. I always got a kick out of bosses with health that stretches across the entire screen. It never fails to bring back that nostalgic feeling of dread and anxiety as the battle begins!
TWICE AS NICE… OR NOT
ActRaiser 2 was released two years later in November 1993. It’s generally crapped upon, but there is a small camp of folks who believe it’s a bit underrated. But that’s a story (or review) for another time. Few SNES games are as polarizing as ActRaiser 2. It’s a bit ironic given how much the original is universally lionized.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
ActRaiser has earned its overwhelmingly positive reputation for good reason. There are so many unoriginal games out there — only a select few are truly unique and stand out from the pack. ActRaiser is one of those games. EGM gave it scores of 9, 9, 9 and 9. Super Play rated it 90%. Critics and fans alike ate it up. It’s widely beloved in retro gaming circles and certainly no respectable Top 100 SNES list is complete without it.
The action stages are admittedly fairly basic; there’s nothing fancy about them but they hit a very sweet spot for me. There’s a late ’80s-early ’90s action arcade game vibe to the platforming that really works. ActRaiser is of such high quality that I’d still think very highly of it even if it only consisted of the side-scrolling hack and slash bits. But it’s definitely the skillful blending of platforming and simulation that make it truly one of the all-time greats. Town building is simple enough for a sim novice such as myself to get into. The sim parts do well to make me feel that much more connected to the villagers. I always get a kick out of helping the little guys. F’rinstance, resolving the inner conflicts plaguing the people of Bloodpool by playing a special song courtesy of Kasandora stands out as a highlight. See? ActRaiser is proof that music is a unique art form and therapeutic! This masterful alternating between genres is a magical mix that Quintet absolutely crushed out of the park.
Speaking of music, Yuzo Koshiro is at the top of his game here. The soundtrack is absolutely thumping and sounds like it could be something out of a Star Wars film. The boss theme in particular is suitably dramatic and foreboding. It’s some of the best on the SNES. Graphically, ActRaiser is a beautiful looking game. Although the hero’s animation is a bit stiff, I love the various locales and the overall aesthetic of the game. Colors are bright, bold and well defined. There’s not much fault I can find with this game except that it’s way too short for its own good. Just when I feel I am sinking my teeth into the game, it’s over. The action levels are especially short and rather easy (note: the Japanese version is much harder). The action sequences aren’t mind-blowing or anything, but they’re very fun and satisfying (while they last). I love the variety of magic spells at my disposal — it diversifies the action by not being a straight hack and slash affair. I also love being able to repel enemy projectiles with a well-timed sword swing. Little details like that make me a very happy gamer. If for whatever reason you still haven’t played ActRaiser yet… what are you waiting for? It’s easy to see why this is considered one of the all-time SNES greats.