Between Final Fight and SimCity, the Super Nintendo launch was all about putting you in the shoes of a local politician. But the makers of Dragon Warrior dreamed bigger, turning the average gamer into a god. And despite being a weird mix of Castlevania and Populous, ActRaiser proved to be one of the system's most intriguing games.
You play "The Master," a god-like being who is locked in an epic fight with Tanzra. Often referred to as "The Evil One," Tanzra has ripped apart the once-peaceful world and turned the townspeople against you. Now, after several hundred years in exile, The Master is back and ready to vanquish evil once and for all. But in order to defeat Tanzra, we'll need to convince the good-natured humans to work together and take back their world.
For much of the time, ActRaiser is a very traditional 2D side-scrolling action game in the mold of early Castlevania adventures. Players fight a wide assortment of monsters, navigate floating platforms and beat back large bosses, all in a fashion that resembles dozens of 8-bit action/adventure games.
But just before you write ActRaiser off as yet another Castlevania wannabe, the game seamlessly shifts into a completely different genre. Gone are the trappings of a side-scrolling action game, because they have all been replaced with an overhead SimCity-style god game.
That's right; a good chunk of ActRaiser involves players tending to the everyday lives of your worshippers. From thawing out frozen landscape to leveling forests so people can build houses, we're asked to help out in almost every way. We get to know these worshippers as they slowly rebuild their small towns and lives. We watch as they not only become independent, but also make important cultural advances like creating music and learning how to farm wheat.
Our mission to defeat Tanzra takes us to six different countries, each with their own hardships to overcome. We'll meet the friendly people in the tropical island of Marahna, the deserts of Kasandora, the icy peaks of Northwall and the swampy land of Bloodpool. Each of these countries have their own problems to solve, as well as two different Castlevania-like stages to complete.
Looking back at it now, it's disappointing how straight forward the action stages are. The character control is a little sluggish and the levels are over before you know it. Worse yet, the bosses aren't especially difficult. I breezed through the game right up to the final stage, a marathon of seven boss battles. Without warning, the game shifted from being too easy to a fight that is practically impossible.
The overhead simulation sections are also simplistic to a fault. I certainly love using my godly abilities to melt ice and transform the landscape, but it's a shame the game doesn't make better use of this gimmick. You only pull out the abilities to advance the story, something that feels like a huge missed opportunity. I wish I could have further explored the world and spent more time with my worshippers.
ActRaiser's presentation is strong, through the orchestrated music holds up better than the visuals. This is a first-generation Super NES game, so some of the graphics and animation look a little primitive by today's standard. The good news is that the levels are sharp, complete with tons of details and the independent scrolling backgrounds the 16-bit hardware could afford.
While not as deep and involving as it would have you believe, ActRaiser remains a solid action game. Unfortunately, the experience is marred by sluggish controls and a story that is far too brief. There's also a difficulty spike right at the end that will send many controllers flying. Problems aside, ActRaiser does an excellent job of telling a religious story while never being preachy.