The Virtual Console fears god
Actraiser for the Super Nintendo is most notable in the annals of history in that if you were to rank every SNES game in alphabetical order, it would appear ninth. However, unless you watched AHHH Real Monsters back when Nickelodeon mattered, then it would be the first notable SNES game on the list. Ergo, Actraiser is alphabetically the most significant 16-bit release of all time.
In this game, you play as God. Not the real Christian God of course, the last thing the developers at Enix wanted was for players to be blamed for every unjust war in history by the game’s virtual non-believers. No, you play as a fantasy god in a fantasy realm where demons are slapping around your human worshippers. There are six cities of civilians that need restoring, and like the travelling rock star you are, you go from town to town in your temple-shaped tour bus with your Cupid roadie.
So you’ll get your Mode 7-powered ass to a town, and your first order of business will be to curb stomp some demons. To do the stomping, you are manifested into an animated statue of a knight with questionable fashion sense in a series of sidescrolling levels. Your knight runs and jumps kind of slowly and ungracefully, and your main attack is not so much a sword slash as it is a sword flick. Most of your enemies are equally ill-equipped for combat, aside from some tough bosses ripped out of at least four or five different international mythologies. Actraiser could very well be the 16-bit God of War if it had fast action, a real story, violence, and was entertaining. The platforming levels aren’t terrible, but they’re not particularly thrilling either. And odds are that you’ve seen the same forms of enemies and tactics in several games older than Actraiser and many more that have been released since.
After you trounce the local demon, claimed his soul and wished you were playing Demon’s Souls, the civilians of the area muster enough confidence to rebuild their town. This is where the simulation element of Actraiser kicks in, though what is actually being “simulated” is as good a question as any. Anyone expecting a SimCity-level of depth and strategy will be sorely disappointed. In fact, anyone expecting strategy in general will be sorely disappointed. Generally, you point the direction in which your civilians rebuild their roads (namely, into a demon portal so that flying cupid demons stop respawning), all the while shooting down demon cupids using your angel cupid in what amounts to a very trivial top-down shooter. Any obstacle that gets in the way of your road building is quickly dealt with. Is a forest in the way? Slaughter the wildlife inhabiting it with a thunderstorm. Rocks in the way? Cast an earthquake and slaughter some of your own people along the way. All of these are done through a menu with no actual gameplay mechanic, notable consequence or tactical element.
So the whole simulation element feels more like a formality than a game. Sometimes, the villagers may fork over an item or two as a “sacrifice” (some very PG sacrifices of course. Think more along the lines of crops instead of a human heart.) But otherwise, there’s no connection between the platforming levels and the sim aspect. At least the former provided some semblance of action and excitement. Or at least something of note. I stopped playing the game near the end, when I was made to run through a gauntlet of all the boss fights before engaging the final boss. This marathon annoyed me, being that I was given a set number of lives and power-ups. At least Mega Man games were usually courteous enough to consider the Wily fight a checkpoint..
So I began to ponder. Why is this game so famous? Apparently, Actraiser’s greatest claim to fame is the music. That ever-mechanical series of beeps and hums gets translated into something resembling an orchestral score in this game. If you like your 16 bit music, and actually listen to it on the ride to work as opposed to Ryan Seacreast’s Top 40 Actual Singers, then you may get a dig out of Actraiser’s odd score. But I will say that Actraiser gave me an appreciation for Diddy Kong Racing and every game released thereafter. I’m referring to games where the music changes to reflect the ambiance of the situation, whether it’s “no one is around and the music is quiet” or “crazy guys attacking you and the music is hectic.” Actraiser, like most games of the era, lets its soundtrack remain static throughout the level, sometimes to odd results. The first level features some kind of frenetic “Holy Crap The World Is Ending ASAP” theme song that moves with more tempo and pace than my knight character is even capable of walking. There’s something to be said for a soundtrack matching the mood.
Who should get Actraiser? People that already liked Actraiser, of course. Nostalgia is about the one good reason to give this game another go. Most players trying to discover it for the first time will be confused as to what the big deal is. Many games featuring similar themes and ideas, whether as a simulation or action title, have done better, and Actraiser only proves that the two genres are better left separate.