The Greatest Games I Have Ever Played: Actraiser

I am not an expert.  I do not claim to be the best.  I am just a regular guy that has loved playing video games for close to thirty years now, and I have played more of them, on more systems, than everyone I know.  Some of them have been fun, some boring, some weird, some funny, some scary.  The ones that keep me coming back for more, though, are the ones we will talk about here.  These are The Greatest Games I Have Ever Played.  Today, I will look at ActRaiser.

This cover gives nothing away

This cover gives nothing away

The Landscape

Nintendo dominated the home video game world for most of the 1980s.  My friends and I didn’t go to each other’s houses to play video games, we went to play Nintendo.  Sure, Sega had the Master System.  Atari had the 2600 and later the 7800.  I even had a cousin who had Colecovision.  None of that mattered.  Nintendo had the marketing, they had the graphics and, most importantly, they had the games.  Donkey Kong, Mario, Zelda, Punch-Out and the rest were what drove the bus in ‘80s 8-bit era.

Accordingly, Other companies pushed to break out of their low rent 8-bit neighborhoods as soon as possible.  Hudson Soft and NEC joined forces to release the ill-fated (although having solid games, it sold less than 3 million units stateside) TurboGrafx-16 in August of 1989[1].  Sega released their Genesis console the same month, and the 16-bit era was launched.

Genesis quickly dominated the new market.  NES continued to sell games, but hardware sales slowed dramatically in the face of the much better looking competition.  Nintendo seemed content to allow their established base continue to float their company with cartridge sales.  New 8-bit games continued to hit stores.

Meanwhile, “Nintendo” stopped being shorthand for all video games.  Genesis had impressive graphics, impressive sound, more buttons on the controller, and good games.  Those of us stuck with just NES started to congregate at homes where our friends had a Genesis.  When Golden Axe, an arcade hit, came home, we were hooked.

Naturally, Nintendo couldn’t rest on their laurels.  Word started coming about the new Nintendo system, sure to make the other guys look like overmatched patsies against the heavyweight champ.  Then more word came… and then more word.  The system was nowhere to be found.  Nintendo was losing the 16-bit war without firing a shot.

Except they weren’t.  In August of 1991, the Super Nintendo Entertainment system finally hit stores.  My friends and I lined up in Rose’s, Wal-Mart, and every other retailer imaginable to play the demo systems they had set up.  It was incredible.  Super Mario World became the first killer app in the console wars years before the term was invented.  We HAD to play it.  It was unbelievable.

Also unbelievable was Nintendo’s launch lineup.  Five games was all they were offering (Nintendo would repeat this error… stay tuned).  F-Zero and Pilotwings were cool, and Gradius 3 and SimCity were even classics,  but really?  2 years after the other guys, and five freaking games?  Yeah, Mario was transcendently awesome, but $200 and $60-$70 a piece for hardly any other games?  Pass.

Nintendo wasn’t blind to this weakness.  Within months, a slew of classic games had been released and the SNES began to pick up market steam.  In November of 1991, publisher Enix released a game called ActRaiser that would help add to the momentum.     Eventually selling 600,000 units worldwide (a much bigger number then than now), ActRaiser was a commercial success that the critics loved as well[2].  The game showcased the graphical prowess of the new system well, and really showed off the aural capabilities of the technology[3].  The game itself was a never before (or since, to my knowledge) seen fusion of the classic action/platformer with the civilization building “god game” genre.  The first time I, or any of my friends, played it we were hooked.  The RPG elements blended with the classic action and the SimCity-esque town building was a perfectly balanced blend that kept us roped in.

The Game

As I sat down to play ActRaiser again, I was curious if the game could possibly be as engrossing as I remembered.  I knew I played through it within the last six or seven years and had enjoyed it then, but even in that time technology and expectations have grown so much I wasn’t sure it would still hold up.  The news turned out to be good.

The first thing I did, of course, was check the saved game.  “Continue,” I told the game.  Holy cow, a save right at the end boss stage, Death Heim!  Sweet!  As I chose to “fight monsters,” I chuckled to myself at the dated Mode 7[4] effects that brought me into the volcano in the sea.  “I got this,” I thought.

Wrong.  This is hard!  I was getting my ass kicked!  To get to the last boss, you must defeat all six previous stage bosses in sequence.  You have three lives in the game, and some magic.  When you die, you come back with full health, but your magic stays at the level you depleted it to.  I made it to the sixth boss, a very cool ice dragon, before succumbing.

The second time around went much better.  The fifth boss, a pinkish floating Hindu deity type, proved to be very difficult again, securing my eternal hatred with perfectly timed (for it) spiked platform drops.  The third time wasn’t the charm; I got worse, and on the fourth try succumbed to the damned Hindu guy again.  Enough of this nonsense, I obviously needed practice and it was time to start at the beginning.

The storyline of the game, on the whole, is basic.  You are playing as God[5], called The Master.  Your people have deserted you due to the influence of the demon Tanzra.  You need to get down there, kick some demon ass, regain your following and restore the natural order.  In the action stages you manifest as a sword wielding badass, and in the town building stages the Cherub that explains everything to you will help guide the populace.

Before you can build a following in an area (there are six), you must come down from your sky palace and cleanse the land of monsters.  This is kicked off with a Mode 7 descent into a circle of stones, then begins the action stage.  These are generally pretty straightforward, and all end with a boss.  There are two action stages per area, with the six “second boss” characters being the “main boss” types.

I had no trouble with the first stage.  I was a little puzzled by the extra life (1up) I found.  Could I possibly need that in a game with saves and whatnot?  Apparently I could – I died about 30 seconds after I got it.  The Centaur mini-boss at the end got me.

Shot me with lightning. Source: gamesradar.com

Shot me with lightning. Source: gamesradar.com

After the first action stage, you begin to build your town.  Initially there are two worshippers in your temple.  You tell them which direction to build in and off they go.  They frequently interrupt the stage with requests, treasure finds and whatnot and sometimes do so with annoying frequency.  If you have never played before, though, they are very helpful.  There first request is for you to use lightning to clear bushes and rocks out of the way so they can use all of the land.

Oh, didn’t I mention?  You are GOD.  You can use all manner of natural phenomena to influence events.  In addition to lightning, you can cause rain, sunshine, wind and earthquakes.  All factor into the plot/gameplay at some point.  Don’t get too excited, though – you aren’t a high enough level to use them all yet!  Good things come to those who wait.

While your townspeople are building up their civilization, they are continuously hectored by monsters generating from craftily named “monster lairs.”  In the first town there are only giant bats and little blue dragons, but later areas add annoying red demons and preposterously powerful floating skulls.  When directing your people in which direction to build, you must send them to the monster lairs.  When their civilization level increases, they can seal them off and end the flood of monsters.  Each area has several lairs.

The townspeople aren’t the only ones capable of stopping the monsters, of course – your little Cherub friend is flying around with a bow and arrows.  You can shoot the monsters down, and sometimes the townspeople will give you offerings that will help with the monster killing.  The Master’s lightning will also kill monsters in the affected area, and the wind blows all monsters off of the map.

The leveling system in ActRaiser is deeper than it first appears.  As your population increases, so does your level.  Each town will tell you its own population, and the game provides a readout of total population at all times during the building phase.  Each town’s maximum population, however, is limited by the score you achieved during the action sequences of that area.  Thus the interaction between the action and civilization building stages is more co-dependent than is immediately evident.

Eventually the townspeople are able, under your capable direction, to seal off all the monster lairs.  Immediately afterward you get a call back to the temple, telling you that you need to go kick butt in another action stage.  In the first area, you must uncover said action stage by blasting a large rock with lightning, revealing a hole in the earth beneath it.  At this point, if you directed the townspeople efficiently, you can sit back and let them continue to build population towards a level up before heading off to fight more monsters.  This leads to some mild unintentional humor later, but for now helps you add some hit points before heading off to rid Fillmore of demons.

There is nothing particularly remarkable in the second Fillmore stage.  It is fun, but fairly easy.  The boss, a green Minotaur in a red banana hammock, is far easier than his Death Heim form.  It is tough to dodge his attacks and still land your own, but a straight war of attrition will see you victorious in short order.  Immediately after clearing the stage, the people of Fillmore thank you for your benevolence and find your first combat magic, a fairly useless fireball spell.

The second area is called Bloodpool.  This first action stage requires a lot of “platforming,” that is, jumping around to avoid a falling death.  The stage is played out over a sickly looking purple lake, and the boss is a Manticore that jumps around on six different wooden platforms.  Manticore is possibly the easiest boss in the game.  You can stand in one spot, dodge his fireballs easily and get in a few consequence free whacks every time he gets near you.

Once you are in the town building phase, you see where Bloodpool gets its name – a massive reddish/purplish lake on the west side of the area.  In this area you have to use your lightning to clear bushes and your sunlight to dry up swamps in order for your people to have habitable land.  You must also teach them the bridge building technique previously pioneered in Fillmore so they can get to all of the newly arable land.  The fine folks of Bloodpool will eventually grow wheat to supplant their corn, and that gift can in turn be shared with later towns.

Source: strategywiki

Source: strategywiki

There is also a new monster in the building portion of Bloodpool.  The red devil is a pain in the tukhus.  It is the smallest monster, it takes 4 shots to kill, and it dries up your cropland.  It will eventually turn out that they are responsible for the putrid look of Bloodpool’s eponymous lake through poison.  When you seal their lair the lake returns to the same blue shade as the rest of the water.

Bloodpool is also the first area to give you side tasks that have little to do with building up the town or killing the monsters.  The village child Teddy runs away from home, and you find him and bring him bread from his parents.  He is the one who figures out why the lake is poisoned and later is chosen to be sacrificed to the head demon of the area to save the rest of the town.  When the area is completed, the people are in mourning for his sacrifice and ask you for a way to ease their grief.

Stage two of Bloodpool is in a castle on the shores of the (no longer) poisoned lake.  The stage has a nice medieval feel to it, very Germanic.  The boss is a Wizard who teleports around to stone platforms and uses two spells to attack.  First, he shoots out three purple balls in a spread formation, than causes three successive lightning strikes beneath him.  When you get his life halfway down, though, he changes to a werewolf.  Focus on not getting hit at all during the wizard form, because the werewolf deals out damage in a hurry.  Like the Minotaur, a war of attrition is the way to get through here and you won’t win if you didn’t do a bang up job against the first form.

One more note about Bloodpool.  The combat spell Magical Stardust is found here.  It doesn’t seem very useful in the second stage here, but proves in subsequent levels to be far and away the best of the eventually four spells you learn.  It is a little odd to find such a potent ability so early in the game, and in fact unbalances the gameplay a little.  All subsequent bosses (strangely not the wizard/wolfman) can be defeated easily by repeated castings of the spell and nothing else.  This strategy, however, will leave you woefully unprepared for Death Heim.

The third area is a massive desert called Kassandora.  The first stage in Kassandora is a sandy, rocky wasteland with enemies like mobile cacti set at the bottom of sandslides.  There is also a lengthy section of birdman hives seemingly made of adobe where a fall is deadly, and the birdmen are timing their swoops to knock you off course in your jumping.  The antlion boss is easy.  Since stage one bosses aren’t in Death Heim, just Magical Stardust him into oblivion.

In the overworld, the Master’s rains will turn the sand into lush land for the villagers.  The same monsters previously encountered inhabit the area, there are no waterways to cross, and the monster lairs are in pretty straightforward locations.  They are hidden by the sand, though, and only appear when you send the rain to that portion of the map.  Calling the rain on every square of the desert map does get a little tedious, and I am confident a modern game would have a feature to make this happen in sequence automatically as magic became available.  It does serve a purpose, as the second stage isn’t revealed until you rain on the correct square.  A mysterious pyramid awaits there.

There are several odd tasks in Kassandora.  A man wanders into the desert, and you must direct the townspeople to him.  They invent music to mourn him, which they give to you as an offering.  You bring the music back to Bloodpool, and their grief is lifted (meaning they can build again, giving you more population and thus a level up).  After you beat the second stage, the people are afflicted with the plague and will not expand further until you bring them an herb from a later level.  If you followed all that, you will notice that Kassandora is the first area that sends you back to the old areas to advance, and will also need to be returned to later.  The herb to cure the plague isn’t found until the fifth area, Maranha.

The pyramid of Kassandora is my favorite level in the game.  With giant scarabs on the walls, sword wielding Horus look-alikes for enemies and a ton of other Egyptian themes touches, it is the most culturally representative level for its mythic final boss.  The boss is a giant pharaoh head that will most likely make you think “King Tut.”  It floats around and tries to land on you, then shoots out balls of light that do damage.  The light balls turn into mini-pharaoh heads that shoot arrows when they hit the wall.  While Magical Stardust will slay the pharaoh pretty fast, it is better to practice fighting him without it.  He is easy to get past with little to no damage and it is crucial that you do so in Death Heim.

Aitos is the name of the third area.  A large volcano dominates the landscape here, and you can see as you fly toward it that the land to the north is covered in snow and ice.  The first stage in Aitos is remarkable mostly for a sequence in which the Master is carried across a wide chasm in a basket carried by two birds.  The birds have very little regard for the Master’s safety, flying you in to thrown weapons, fireballs, enemies and every other thing.  There are a lot of unavoidable hits in the action stages, but this sequence could be the worst offender.  It’s a good thing life replenishing apples and peaches are fairly common.  The boss of this stage is a long green dragon that flies around in a pattern.  His room is basically a few rocks jutting out of the side of a waterfall and if he knocks you off, you die.  Luckily, right before you go in you get a flame sword which makes your sword shoot out blue arcs of damaging energy.[6]

At any rate, Aitos needs more of the same in the overworld.  There are areas to be blasted by lightning, areas to be rained on and areas to shine sun on.  You will notice the villagers building windmills.  Eventually you will use your wind to restart them when they stop.  Your other side task involves bathing a dieing villager in your tears (rain), which yields you another magic point for action stages.  The last new overworld monster is encountered here too, and you won’t like it.  A large golden skull floats around and occasionally causes earthquakes that level huge portions of your town.  It takes eight shots to kill and has a nasty habit of suddenly charging at you.  Fortunately there is only one nest of these pests in Aitos.

After sealing off the last monster lair your villagers tell you that the volcano is erupting.  You would be a crappy deity if you hadn’t noticed this as massive fireballs are spewing out all over the place.[7]  Naturally, you must descend into the volcano to clear out the second nest of monsters in Aitos.  As you would no doubt expect, the enemies in the volcano are fire themed.  You traverse deadly pools of lava and descend to the lair of the boss, who is the only second stage boss not obviously pulled from some mythology.  It is a wheel with four spokes and a giant face in the middle.  There are points of fire all around the wheel and on all the spokes.  The wheel rolls around and bounces up and down and occasionally flies to the center of the lair to release energy balls across the room.  Magical Stardust kills it very fast.

From Aitos, you can see the Northwall region but should head south instead to the tropical island of Maranha.  The first stage in Maranha is jungle/plant themed.  There are no falling deaths in this stage, as the bottom of the stage is a murky, swampy looking waterway that comes to the Master’s waist.  The boss is a plant thing with one raised platform in front of it and a small blue vulnerable spot the perfect height to attack from the platform.  It sends out creeping tendrils and shoots energy balls at you, so it’s tough to stay on your tiny perch and fight.  Magical Stardust proves mostly useless as well, making this one of the tougher boss fights in the game.

In the overworld, you are again heavily reliant on lightning to clear away jungle.  There is another island to the north, and using earthquake will cause a land bridge to link the two islands.  Coincidentally, it will also level all of the primitive structures your townspeople built in the initial portion of the area and rebuild them as better houses, a trick you must use in every area to reach maximum population.  This area produces the herb I mentioned to cure the plague in Kassandora and a compass.  The compass you take back to Fillmore, and you get an extra life for every action stage.[8]

Eventually clearing the jungle will reveal an ancient temple, and you will lose your worshippers to the new temple.  Obviously, you need to go in and put boot to ass.  The temple has a lot of Hindu overtones but bizzarely features a legion of out-of-place pink clad grim reapers for enemies.  The boss fits, though.  It is the pink Krishna/Vishnu/Kali floating hybrid that kept killing me in my initial foray into Death Heim.  Luckily, this version is not as difficult as the timing of the floating platforms (you’ve got to ride them to attack it, they have spikes and so does the ceiling) is much easier in this fight.

With Maranha in the rearview, there is only one area left, and it is very tough.  Northwall is a frozen wasteland and the action stages both reflect that.  Stage one is a long slog through an ice cave with lots of enemies positioned so they can hit you but you can’t hit them.  I found myself getting to all the healing items barely ahead of death in this one.  The boss is a welcome reprieve.  It is a weird legless flying merman dragonfly thing with an easy pattern and extreme vulnerability to Magical Stardust.

The buildup stage in Northwall has less side tasks and more “holy shit where did all these monsters come from!”  There are multiple skull and red devil lairs, plus some dragons thrown in.  You have to send the sun to each square on the map to melt the ice, and you have to bring the fleece the people in Aitos developed to the hardy Northwallers.  I found myself using up all of my monster killing offerings from the previous towns here, after not having used them at all previously.[9]  Eventually the villagers ask you to clear out the monsters in the giant snow covered tree, and you can head to the final action stage.

Just like it sounds, Northwall stage two has you leaping around frozen tree branches trying to find the way to the top.  The stage is insanely difficult, with tons of unavoidable damage and enemies that require strange movements to be able to hit.  There are also false paths and tricks to make you repeat sections, all adding up to a much more treacherous path than the previous levels prepare you for.  I died more times on this stage than all the others put together, and not by a little.  When you finally make it to the top, you are rewarded with the sight of a massive ice dragon attempting to rain death on you from above.  It’s not that hard but I needed Magical Stardust to get by him, as I had only two hit points left in my last life when I won.  The level has two 1 ups in it, and I still needed basically two full tries to get through.

Magical Stardust is key against this guy. Source: rpggamer.com

Magical Stardust is key against this guy. Source: rpggamer.com

After clearing Northwall, the only thing left to do before heading to Death Heim is loitering around your villages to max out population.  I was disappointed here, as the save on the cartridge at the beginning had 24 hit points (the max) and I was 36 population shy of the level necessary to achieve that mark.  Apparently I was better on the action stages the last time I played this game.  23 would have to be enough.

Heading to Death Heim, I felt pretty confident that going in with four lives instead of three would make the difference.  I had come pretty close before and was ready to do this!

After dispatching the first six bosses in short order (the practice really did help), I got to Tanzra on my second life.  The first form of Tanzra is a disembodied blue head.  It alternates between being substantial and not.  When it is not, it cannot take damage while it rains mostly ineffectual blue fireballs at you.  When it is, you are fortunate to have the energy beams coming from your sword again as you can stand in a perfect spot to avoid his energy balls while whaling away.  This form is pretty easy, and you should not get hit more than two or three times.

When the first form is defeated, you fight the true Tanzra.  He becomes a skeletal monstrosity with golden horns, a second face for a shoulder and sharp looking claws.  This form has three attacks and is only vulnerable during one of them.  First it shoots 3 sets of paired fireballs, one high and one low, that shoot vertically when they reach you.  Then it opens its claw, exposing its vulnerable blue core that emits a beam of energy.  Finally it releases three pairs of starfish looking things that dart around the screen until you destroy them.  I died in my first encounter (and had to fight both forms again) but came through victorious on the rematch.  The ending sequence is several minutes long and reflects on the different towns, giving the angel ample opportunity for snark and judgement.

Does it hold up?

Now the million dollar question:  was it worth it?  Absolutely.  This game holds up remarkably well in spite of some of the flaws I have noted.  The graphics are a little plain compared to later SNES carts but still nice looking.  The music still sounds great.  Most importantly, the fun factor is still very high.  The game has been ranked in numerous “top X videogames” articles, including EGM’s top 200 of all time and Nintendo Power’s top 100 for the SNES.  IGN.com gave the game a 7.5/10 when they reviewed it nearly six years ago, and the websites users have rated it 8.7/10 with nearly 250 reviews.  If you know what you’re doing, the game will not take more than six hours.  Best of all, it is readily available.

As mentioned, I played mine on a SNES in cartridge form.  To go that route, you can hit up eBay.  As of this writing there is an unopened copy with a “buy it now” price of $299.95 but, for the less hardcore can be had used from $21.00 to $49.99 depending on condition.  The game is also available on the Wii Virtual Console for 800 points (about eight bucks).  There is even a cell phone adaptation, but by all accounts it is a gutted version not worth the time.

If you didn’t already, now you know.  ActRaiser is a fairly unique hybrid game packed with big fun.  Even though it is over 20 years old, it is still being enjoyed by gamers the world over today.  And that makes it, truly, one of The Greatest Video Games I Have Ever Played.

[1] All release dates in this and future columns for U.S.  Also, all games played on original hardware unless otherwise noted.

[2] Electronic Gaming Monthly, the most well regarded multi-platform video game mag of the time, gave ActRaiser a 9/10.

[3] A symphonic recording of the soundtrack, used, is listed on eBay for $79.95 as of this writing.

[4] If you are too young to remember or didn’t notice the marketing the first time around, Mode 7 is a graphical trick built in to the SNES hardware that allowed for scaling (seeming to move toward or away from the screen) and rotating of backgrounds.  This allowed for effects in games that mimic 3-D.  Sega countered Nintendo’s marketing of Mode 7 by touting their “blast processing,” which wasn’t really a thing.  In ActRaiser, the Mode 7 is used to show you descending in a spiral toward the action stages.

[5] Literally in the overseas versions, Nintendo of America wouldn’t let that through their censors so you are just “The Master.”  The original name for the last boss was Satan.

[6] Wait a second, I am GOD.  Why do I need a special item for my sword to do this?

[7] During which, the villagers keep building.  I laughed out loud at this.

[8] Wait, what?  That would have been tremendously useful when I went to Death Heim at the beginning of this column!  What idiot missed that!  Oh, it was me?  Never mind then.  I almost didn’t figure it out this time either, not getting it until after I beat Northwall.

[9] The offerings to help in the overworld are bombs that clear the screen of enemies and an arrow power up for the angel that gives you 4x damage.

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About mickoneverything

Father of three, mad kitchen scientist and grillmaster. Loves NY sports, good fiction, terrible but entertaining fiction, freedom, personal responsibility.
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