Actraiser and I became acquainted rather abruptly. I remember as a kid hearing about the game, and maybe spotting a screen shot in a Nintendo Power, but I never spent any time playing it. Like Call of Duty to a World of Warcraft player, or Sonic to a Mario fan, it’s one of those things you hear about and know is popular but never got around to experiencing. Before beginning my task to take down the mountain of SNES games, I had been involved in a bit of a back and forth challenge with friends regarding classic games. This was when I had a brief thirty minute encounter with Actraiser. My initial reaction was that it was a bit too difficult and the handling wasn’t my cup of tea. Only a few months later it dawns on me that Actraiser would again be coming down my pipeline as I tackle the SNES challenge. I braced myself for the worst, but turned out actually enjoying it. Like A.S.P Air Strike Patrol, judging the game on just a quick play through wasn’t enough.
The first thing that bears repeating is that I am terrible when it comes to lore or a story line. Unless it’s particularly important, as is sometimes the case with RPG’s, I usually disregard paying much attention to it. I know this is terrible, but I’d prefer it if the gameplay itself told the story. I don’t want to read a wall of text to know why I’m killing person X for item Y. In Actraiser you start off talking to an angel in a sky palace, and from just the first interaction you get a basic sense you’re a deity. Enter a name and now I’m in control of a living statue doing some classic platforming. OK, I’ll admit I’m lost already, but the actions started and I’m ready to whack away with my giant sword.
Swinging this sword is your only form of main attack, although you’ll be able to choose an additional magic ability later on. The attacking is pretty generic and standard, however I couldn’t get over the positioning. While jumping or squatting you continue holding the sword perpendicular to the ground. I suppose this was meant to make him seem regimented but it looked more like he had a metal rod for a spine. This made each jump feel strained and rigid. It’s hard to imagine why the developers went this route as animating the upper body couldn’t have been a herculean task. You start with a relatively decent amount of health which lets you make a few mistakes as you first get your bearings. After you get through this initial platforming tutorial, you’re introduced to the other aspect of the game.
The cupid clone is back and now you begin the city building portion of the game. Throughout the game you’ll be bouncing back and forth between building/managing the cities and the platforming sections you started on. As the angel, you’ll build roads and help the city grow while shooting down monsters. You only move in the cardinal directions, so sometimes trying to take out a monster can be surprisingly frustrating. In the beginning creatures are relatively tame, but as you progress, they actively avoid your attempts to kill them and terrorize your populace. These monsters are coming from summoning circles, and building roads to them will invoke a cult ritual where the citizens banish the spawn point. The idea is to spread out as much as you can to increase your population and rid the area of the spawning creatures. You also have magical abilities to control the weather that will help remove trees to expand, or help crops grow. Over time the buildings in your city will get more modern allowing for a larger population, but if you are not growing fast enough you can use your magic to raze an area and try again. This part of the game is fairly simple and I originally stressed far too much on trying to build an optimal city. If you simply expand as much as you can, you’ll reach the population goals you’re aiming for. Though a neat mechanic, towards the end I felt it overstayed its welcome. There isn’t really any chance of losing during this and it started feeling a lot like book keeping. You’ll go from city to city helping civilization regain its faith, but mostly just waiting for your population to increase and getting back to platforming.
The reason you spend your time city building is because as you reach your population goals, the health of your statue man increases for the platforming. This adds really nice cohesion between the two different sections of the game that otherwise would have felt disjoint. With your buffed health you progress through each platforming section until reaching an end boss. The platforming sections have beautiful, detailed, backgrounds that show the time and effort put into making it a unique experience for each level. Along the way there are little pedestals containing life, which can really be a life saver at points. The bosses each have their own gimmick, but given just a little bit of time, you could find a way to cheese them. Some were obvious, and some I never figured out. There is one wheel boss with a piggish face that will forever confuse me as to how it could be done flawless. That isn’t to say taking damage was a huge issue. Most of the time you had plenty of health and it actually wasn’t a big deal just to take a hit and gun it through a section. This seemed to be a preferred strategy for the speed running videos I found online, which are always worth a look before beginning a game.
Finally, once you have conquered all the end bosses you reach the ultimate task. The final boss comes at the end of a boss rush of previously faced bosses. I have really mixed feelings about this. On the plus side, it requires actually learning these boss fights rather than merely spamming his attack. You don’t have enough health and lives to survive the entire onslaught and you must do it all in one go. The other pro is there is definitely a sense of challenge and strategy. There is something about knowing you need a certain amount of health to beat a boss (curse you pig wheel of death) and strategically learning to perfect a strategy on one boss to save health for another you’re less comfortable with. On the other hand, it’s a bit lazy to just send the same bosses back at me. Throughout the whole game, each platforming section was unique, and then at the end they start recycling content. It also breaks the conditioning you had throughout the game that you could take hits and still be fine. You go from being fairly carefree to nitpicking each individual health point and hit taken. I guess the end should differ a bit from the rest to signify the end, but this was a bit too jarring for my taste. The final boss looks like an arthritic beetle and isn’t any more complicated than the ones you’ve been fighting all along. If you managed to get to that point, you’ll have the tools to beat it.
Overall the game is definitely worth picking up. It’s pleasing to the eyes and I enjoyed working my way through the platforming levels. Though the handling was fairly solid, mobility felt rigid and a handful of times I felt jumping was cumbersome. The city building section could be removed in my opinion, though this may just be hindsight after it got stale. You’ll definitely feel accomplished when you get through it and replay is definitely there. However, I think I’d be much more likely to revisit this game if I didn’t feel like the population growth of the cities was in real time.