GameSpite Journal 10 | ActRaiser

ActRaiser | Dev.: Quintet | Pub: Enix | Genre: Action Simulation RPG | Release: Nov. 1991

ActRaiser is one of these games I harbor an almost unconditional love for. In a way, I think it’s an almost perfect game. Of course, under objective consideration, the first title developed by the small, talented team of Quintet does have its fair share of flaws, problems and niggles. Still, in its genre, it’s perfect -- the reason for that, of course, is that it’s probably more or less the only game in its genre.

In the first wave of releases for the SNES, there could have hardly been a better showcase for the system’s technical features than Quintet’s ActRaiser. From the first second, ActRaiser made clear that it’s special. The logo zooms and warps into view, accompanied by orchestral tunes not heard before in a videogame. When you start playing, your first action is to move your sky-palace around the world map, zooming in an out at your leasure. Then, when finally starting the first stage, you’re treated to another impressive Mode 7 effect and finally a beautiful side-scrolling stage with huge, chunky sprites and a massive centaur boss at the end. Still, despite all this technical showing off, ActRaiser is fondly remembered until today for it’s masterful combination of two completely different styles of play.

You see, ActRaiser is not simply all about some burly man slicing up pixellated monsters with a broadsword; it is also about creating, about populating an empty world and helping the people overcome their hardships. After beating the first boss, no mean feat by itself, you didn’t simply advance to the next stage. Instead, you left the body of the aforementioned burly warrior and controlled a chubby little angel, armed with a bow and arrows. You watch the newly liberated lands from above and the first two humans ask for your guidance in building a prosperous town. Your job: Tell your people in which direction to build their town, defend them from monsters and help them along with a few miracles along the way. You know, the usual stuff—make it rain to wash away a desert, send sunshine to dry a swamp or conjure some lightning to burn away pesky bushes.

The beauty in ActRaiser is the way these two elements are connected. Both share mostly the same interface, the same sound effects. Doing well in the so-called sim scenes is very helpful in the later, often tough-as-nails platforming stages and the even harder boss fights. Your divine character gains levels not by fighting monsters, but by populating the world. Every time, a certain population mark is reached, your life meter increases. Just as useful are the various forms of magic found along the way -- new spells are found by checking out peculiar places on the world map like using a well-placed lighting bolt on a suspicous rock and every now and then, your people find magic scrolls used to increase the times you can cast these spells in the platform sections.

With this solid and original gameplay foundation, ActRaiser is already a really good game, but to other factors conspired back then to make it even more than that. First, there is the writing. ActRaiser is not a particularly text-heavy title, but it does have a couple of really memorable moments, the most powerful of these certainly being the mortally wounded villager standing in front of his temple. You have the choice of granting him a last wish by making it rain and soothing his pain with what he thinks of as the tears of god.

Then, there is of course the music which was nothing short of amazing and remains so to this day. After some pretty rocking tunes in the first stage, composer Yuzo Koshiro settled for a fascinating mixture of european chamber music in the building portions and some very John Williams-inspired compositions for the action stages. Some pieces seem to be carbon copies of Williams’ score for the first Star Wars movie. Needless to say, that nobody heard comparable music in a videogame before and I’m not shy to admit, that hearing the beautiful “Offering” perfomed live by the FILMharmonic Orchestra of Prague a couple of years ago brought one or two tears to my eyes.

Koshiro himself struggled at first, as he said in an interview conducted at the occassion of the aformentioned perfomance: “ActRaiser was my first work on the SNES and it was quite a challenge. The new hardware was really complicated and hard to work with at first. But after hearing the music of Super Mario World?, I had a first idea what the system was really capable of. That gave me the courage to try composing some real orchestral music.”

Interesting enough, ActRaisers’ Soundtrack also influenced other composers and their work: No less than Nobuo Uematsu himself was impressed with Koshiro’s ActRaiser score: At the same occasion as Koshiro, he said: “When ActRaiser was released, I was almost done with the score to Final Fantasy IV?. But when I heard Yuzo Koshiro’s music, I became aware of the orchestral quality and ditched my completed work for Final Fantasy IV. I exchanged all the samples I had used at that point for fuller, more powerful samples. I didn’t, however, change the compositions themselves.” That should give you an idea of the quality of ActRaiser’s soundtrack. If you don’t believe me, track down a copy of the short and rare, but incredibly beautiful ActRaiser: Symphonic Suite album -- you’ll thank me afterwards.

Of course, there are some aspects where ActRaiser shows its age today. The interface is a bit on the clunky side, using far more button presses than necessary to select a miracle to perform. The platform sequences may feature huge sprites and detailed backgrounds, but the gameplay itself is less dynamic than later 16-bit adventures and has more in common with many late 8-bit titles. The game’s balance also has its share of problems. If you burn through all your magic and still lose against a boss enemy, you will be returned to the last checkpoint, but your magic pool will be spent, and the fight will be much harder if you don’t restart the whole challenging stage. We can almost be thankful publisher Enix made the game a little easier for the Western release while keeping the Japanese difficulty as the Western hard mode.

Despite the aforementioned little flaws, ActRaiser is a game one really should have experienced at least once. Where other developers preferred to play it safe on 16-bit, Quintet went all-out and delivered a true epic that not only scored with great audio-visual presentation, but also with innovative gameplay and a thoughtful story. While ActRaiser sportet a so-so sequel and stands as the basis for Quintet’s great SNES trilogy (Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, Terranigma), it still stands brillantly on its own. Just give it a try on the Virtual Console -- hardly will eight bucks be better spent.

By Thomas Nickel? | Nov. 16, 2011 | Previous: Final Fantasy II? | Next: Super Castlevania IV