When the topic if SNES hidden gems comes up, one of the first I’ll bring up is Actraiser. Although this game terrified me as a little child when it first debuted, it grew on me over time and it darn-well deserves its place in the upper tiers of gaming along with Super Metroid and Link to the Past. Rather than just reviewing this as things were for its time period, I want to take a more modern approach to it. How does it hold up in hindsight to its generation?
The story of the game is fairly simplistic, where you play as the “Master”; a deity who was once defeated by demon named “Tanzra” and his forces of evil. Retreating to his sky palace, he fell into a deep sleep and lost much of his powers due to a lack of faith from the people. Upon awaking, he will need to kill Tanzra’s lieutenants and cultivate the land for his followers.
There are 6 areas you need to save and nurture before you can proceed to the final confrontation on Death Heim; named Fillmore, Bloodpool, Kasandora, Aitos, Marahna, and Northwall. As you expand the civilizations, you will also use an arrangement of miracles and items to help your people grow and survive. The Master can take over statues of his likeness in order to combat the monsters himself while a little angel helps with managing the people and your progress.
Actraiser features an interesting hybrid of action-platformer (called Act mode) and city building (called Sim mode). Each “Act” starts with a primary action level to clear enough land to start up the civilization. After some building in Sim mode, you’ll be required to complete the second act of that region to clear its major boss.
You’re thrown into the action portion first thing when you start a new game (after selecting a name and the ‘fight monsters’ while the sky palace is over Fillmore), giving temporary life to a statue with a sword. The first level doesn’t involve any pitfalls; but these will show up more frequently in following levels. Along your path to the boss, you’ll also encounter enemies that require proper timing to jump (or duck) in order to get into your attack range without taking damage yourself. You do have traditional health bars that can be restored with apples hidden inside item statues; however magic is more limited. Most bosses follow a specific pattern often requiring more of a patient back and forth motion to get a few hits in then avoiding their attacks.
Once the minor boss is defeated, you can then begin Sim mode; where you control the angel and fly around that section of the map. Your goal here is to direct the people toward the monster lairs so they can seal them permanently. Some Terrain will be unreachable until you clear obstacles with your miracles, which range from lightning, wind, sun’s heat, and earthquakes. As you build, the people will pray to you with requests they need fulfilled, or to offer you items you can use. Sometimes they can get a little annoying with multiple messages each requiring to hop back and forth between their message and the Sim screen; but setting message speed to fast mitigated that. The secondary goal of Sim mode is to maximize your population which has goals (globally) that raise your Master’s level (which in turn grant more HP). You gain magic uses from magic scrolls found by your populace; usually from little side quests they request from you. Also this is how you find different magic spells to use. (the star spell is by far the most useful)
The secondary Act modes are much like the first in most respects. Right before facing the final boss on Death Heim you will gauntlet fight all of the secondary bosses in order before facing Tanzra himself without any breaks; so be sure to maximize your population as much as possible beforehand!
Visually, the game still looks pretty darn good even after 20+ years. Mode 7 is used you spiral you into the locations where your Act mode takes place; even managing to upgrade the over-world to match exactly what you see in Sim mode. Speaking of Sim mode, they played pretty good detail such as building design, terrain, and even the little people that sometimes do things like play with dogs. The art shines more in Act mode though; where there is a lot of attention to monster design and background images. the platforms themselves can be a little bland at times but varied enough to match the scenes well. Each act segment is pretty uniquely themed to itself which is very welcome as a lot of games suffer from severe ‘sameness’ in their levels.
As a little anecdote, there is a scene during the boss-gauntlet at the endgame where the Master stands before statues of the demons. That scene is highly detailed with the dark evil demon faces; so much so that I was absolutely terrified of it at the age of 7. I couldn’t touch the game again until I was about 14 and managed to beat it and finding a special place in my heart for it.
Actraiser was released only 6 months after the SNES’s original release; and the music in this game set the bar real high for how much quality sound and emotional music the console could produce for future games of that generation. Yuzo Koshiro composed all the game’s music, and did a fantastic job. “Fillmore”, “Birth of a People”, “Sacrifices”, and “Northwall” were my favorite songs. In fact, you can purchase these songs online as they were sold as both OST’s and orchestrated versions as well.
one little audio issue I had was that each letter of text that appears is accompanied by a beeping sound. This gets grating and tiresome real fast. An easy fix for this is to just set the text speed to the fastest setting.
As for replay value, it’s pretty subjective in itself like many games. There aren’t branching endings and the such so it’s fairly linear and can be beaten in 3-6 hours for the average players. There is a ‘professional’ mode available that pretty much removes the Sim aspect of the game and leaves only the action portions set to its original Japanese difficulty. Ideally most would use this for speed-running or bragging rights I imagine.
All in all, If you’ve never given the game a try then I strongly urge anyone to do so. It’s a unique experience from that era worth getting a taste of.