ActRaiser Review

ActRaiser's mix of action and civilization building is unique, but it's the masterful art direction and music composition that will win you over.

ActRaiser was one of the first games to hit store shelves following the launch of the SNES in North America and also one of the first games to really show off what the system could do. The juxtaposition of side-scrolling action levels and top-down city building portions was innovative at the time. The graphics demonstrated the system's ability to push rich 16-bit colors, multilayered backgrounds, and large bosses, while Yuzo Koshiro's emotionally evocative musical score raised the standards of what people would later come to expect from video game soundtracks. Now that ActRaiser is available for the Wii's Virtual Console, it's remarkable to see that 16 years of time has hardly dulled the game's ability to delight the senses and to hold a player's attention from start to finish.

Action levels culminate in a battle against a large guardian monster.
Action levels culminate in a battle against a large guardian monster.

In ActRaiser, you play the role of a god that has to rid the world of monsters and guide the development of human civilization. Each of the game's six lands consists of two action levels and a simulation portion. The action levels are side-scrolling stages reminiscent of those found in such games as Castlevania or Ghosts N' Goblins, where you jump between platforms, hack away at monsters with your sword, and ultimately face off against one of the devil's guardians. Defeating the first guardian in an area allows you to construct a temple and give life to a couple of followers. You will then guide these followers in the top-down simulation view, which is akin to a relaxed rendition of Sim City. For example, you'll direct the people on where to build or cause natural disasters to clear away rocks and trees to give them more land to cultivate. Other that that, you'll sit back as they build their homes and make babies. You'll also spend a fair amount of time moving your cherubic angel character around and shooting cupid arrows at monsters until the people seal up any surrounding monster lairs. After they do so, you can tackle the remaining guardian in the land's second action stage. Your survival in the action levels is somewhat dependent on your success in the simulation portions because you gain additional health points and magic scrolls with each population increase.

Taken together, the action and simulation portions really complement each other. In addition to the items they bring you, the people in the simulation view will often approach you with stories about artifacts they've found or strange events that are happening. You can choose to do nothing and see how things play out, you can perform a miracle, or you can bring back an item from another land to change the outcome. The variations in population size and character sentiment that result from your actions make building the world seem like a malleable process. The tearjerker stories also give you motivation for going through the action levels and explain some of the things you'll see in them.

On the other side of the coin, the action levels provide the visual punch that the simulation portions lack. With that said, the character animation merely gets the job done. For example, monsters aren't knocked back when you attack them, while your own character only has a single jump and a couple of attack animations. However, everything else about the graphics is top-notch, both in terms of art style and technical aspects. The various forests, temples, deserts, or icy wastelands are colorful and lush. The multilayered backdrops frequently employ scrolling effects that bring the gigantic waterfalls and thick cloud cover in the background to life. The bosses are a menagerie of armored goliaths, sphinxes, dragons, or other mythical creatures that get bigger and bigger with each land you visit.

In the sim levels, you use natural disasters to help your people cultivate the land.
In the sim levels, you use natural disasters to help your people cultivate the land.

Throughout the whole quest, your ears will delight to a dozen different pieces of beautifully synthesized music composed by Yuzo Koshiro. Although Koshiro is mainly known for his work on the Streets of Rage series, his ActRaiser soundtrack is arguably his best work and one of the best video game soundtracks ever produced--period. His classically themed pieces run the gamut from soothing or dramatic to outright bombastic. You'll never forget the opening notes that lead up to the title screen, the haunting melody that accompanies a tragic death in the land of Kasandora, or the symphonic crescendo that continues to build for minutes after you beat the game until it concludes with a Star Wars-style climax. Some of the synthesized instruments will sound artificial to ears that have grown up in an era of CDs and iPods, but not so much that a few sharp notes will get in the way of enjoying an otherwise blissful soundtrack. The sheer variety of rich notes and melodies Koshiro was able to coax out of the system seems even more impressive now that we can look back to reflect upon how only a couple other games in the Super NES library possess soundtracks that rival ActRaiser with regard to symphonic bluster or durability.

Unless you're prejudiced against 2D games, ActRaiser will charm your socks off and keep you captivated for the entire five or six hours that it'll take you to finish it. That alone should more than justify spending 800 Wii points. But in all likelihood, you'll find yourself playing through the game multiple times just to reexperience its unique blend of gameplay styles and awesome soundtrack.

The Good

  • Action and sim portions complement each other
  • multilayered backgrounds and large bosses show what the Super Nintendo Entertainment System can do
  • soundtrack is beautifully orchestrated

The Bad

  • Action and sim portions are a little plain by themselves
  • character animation is stiff

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