Given the option to become God, how would you treat the people you lorded over?
Would you be a loving God, caring of his subjects and meeting their needs? Would you be a ruthless, cold-hearted God, building the civilization to its holding point only to smite it down? Or, would you be an efficient God, making sacrifices necessary to maximize both your own power and the world itself?
Long before Kratos was ripping serpents in half and calling himself a “god,” a small 1990 action simulator from Quintet called ActRaiser put you in the shoes of the big guy. Not just any benevolent deity, but the God of Abraham who more than 2/3rds of the world worships. Many American gamers missed this important story point because of how much video games dodged the subject of religion in the early 1990s, but God was renamed “The Master” and his nemesis Satan was renamed “Tanzra.”
Although, God in ActRaiser isn’t especially good at his job. The game has him awakening after a millennium of sleep, and his world has been vastly depopulated by Satan. Apparently, Armageddon occurred, and the forces of good ended up losing, forcing God to recover his strength and wait to strike back at the right time. Of course in ActRaiser, the time is now.
Using his little naked cherub friend, God sets out to restore the six kingdoms and bring peace back to the land. Doing so will create more loyal subjects to pray and have faith in him, granting God the power to exact his revenge on the Dark Lord.
ActRaiser is the first game in the fabled “Quintet Quintology,” a series of five loosely related SNES games from one of the original Enix subsidiaries, Quintet. All five games revolve around gods and the reconstruction of devastated worlds, and ActRaiser remains the most original of the bunch.
Combining two worlds.
Sometimes, the very first year of a new console’s lifetime can turn out to be the most exciting. The new processing powers give developers a lot of leg room to try new ideas and push the boundaries of gaming. While most launch titles turn out to be flops because of this “see what sticks” tactic, the ones that succeed are remembered for a long time as revolutionary.
ActRaiser is one of these early boundary pushing games released in August of 1991, three months after the Super Nintendo hit America. The newly acquired 16-bit power gave Quintet the opportunity to get a little experimental and combine two established genres in ways that were never possible on the NES. Even today, action and strategy rarely go hand in hand, and while ActRaiser doesn’t do either either of these exceptionally well, it’s the balance that brings it all together and makes it a classic.
Oe one hand, ActRaiser is a fairly standard action platformer. God will take possession of an ancient statue of his likeness once the kingdom’s dungeons are uncovered, and he will use this physical form to launch an assault against the forces that plague the land. After cutting various demons and monsters, a tough boss from mythological times, like a centaur or manticore, awaits at the end of every level. In total, every kingdom has two dungeons, and there is a final dungeon as well, bringing the big count to thirteen.
It’s a typical “complete the stage, beat the boss” formula with most of the effort obviously being put into the level designs. Attacking with the sword is pretty basic, but there’s more fun to be had with the magic attacks as they gain strength throughout the game. The main star of each level is the impressive boss fights, which are challenging and require a higher level of pattern memorization to defeat.
The core of ActRaiser‘s gameplay occurs in a kind of stripped down SimCity style simulation game. The chubby cherub sidekick takes to Earth and shows the recovering civilizations how to thrive while God’s job is to manipulate the elements to clear the land for construction progress. Use lightning to destroy trees, earthquakes to bring down mountains. Each region also has its own individual dramatic storyline unfolding down on ground level, and to win the people’s loyalty, God will have to undertake their specific requests and order his cherub to rescue lost children or cure plagues.
Separately, these two branches of the game would feel like incomplete products, but ActRaiser is a perfect example of the sum being larger that its two parts. The action stages and the simulation mode constantly work in tandem to make the other stronger. As the population and number of loyal faithful followers grows, God’s health points increase for battle. Pushing cities into dark forests or mountain caves uncovers hidden magic spells or items that grant him more uses of magic in battle.
When fighting in the action stages, God can uncover items that will increase his angel friend’s arrow power, allowing him to quickly take down the lecherous demon’s who kidnap human. Quintet also times these action stages perfectly to break up the tedium of shallow simulation.
Eventually, more drastic choices must be made by God as to how to maximize his potential and improve the world at the same time. Sharing technologies like bridge building between the kingdoms greatly improve God’s battle stats when his people are able to cross rivers and build even more, but there comes a time when the world’s population growth stagnates. Outdated huts don’t hold as many people as newer improved houses. Destroying them with lighting and killing the inhabitants creates more space for the larger complexes to be built, creating more power for God in the long run, but it also costs loyalty points and angers the people in the short run. It’s an early example of gaming morality before the concept of choice became a mainstay for games.
Being a horrible murderous God gets him nowhere, but there are times when he just might have to get rough with his people. Later in the game, it’s discovered that a loyal priest is actually concealing a town offering that will expand God’s life meter. The cherub informs God of this, and if God wants the item, the only message strong enough to pry it from the priest is a bolt of lightning on the church itself. The priest will hand it over in fear but hold a grudge against God for taking his prized possession.
These are all choices that ultimately boil down to how powerful God will be once he finally charges Satan’s gates. An unprepared God without the prayers of thousands of followers will have a much harder time than an efficient fully powered God.
The voice of a heavenly choir.
Enough can’t be said about this game’s music. The game’s composer, Yuzo Koshiro, is highly regarded for blending a wide variety of genres into his compositions on the Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis, and ActRaiser is often considered to be his best work. What makes it even more impressive is that many sound designers were still getting used to the idea of 16-bit music, and Koshiro was able to create his masterwork on brand new technology and rock the ears of gamers who were only used to 8-bit chip tunes from the NES or awkward blares from the Genesis.
The opening level is often regarded as a high point on the SNES, an impressive feat considering the Super Nintendo was a console where developers took the idea of an opening level seriously. Below is a sample from the opening stage called Fillmore.
The second kingdom, known as Bloodpool in regards to the huge lake of blood found smack in the middle of the map, also has great music in its action stages.
Yuzo Koshiro has kind of fallen out of style in video games and has focused more on his music career in other areas, but he still pops up every now and again. Most recently, he worked with Atlus on the first three Etrian Odyssey games for the DS, and he was even tapped by Nintendo to rework all their nostalgic tunes for Super Smash Bros. Brawl on the Wii and contributed a few songs in Kid Icarus: Uprising for the Nintendo 3DS.
The 16-bit graphics get the job done. Early Super Nintendo games were a fresh look after years of 8-bit explosions and cute mascots, and many still hold up today. ActRaiser‘s character animations don’t flow so well, matching the stiff jumping and sword attacks, but the parallax scrolling backgrounds and various environments are top notch, again taking full advantage of the new technology.
So, why does ActRaiser still resonate with so many gamers? I think because it was an obvious passion project that tried a lot of new things. Quintet had an image in mind before getting started, and their ability to make it happen carried their themes and ideas over into four other games. Everything in ActRaiser just works on its own level, and nothing really falls out of place and drags the experience down.
More importantly though, it was an eye opener for a lot of gamers who were stuck in an 8-bit world of side-scrolling action platforming. ActRaiser opened a lot of doors for many developers and proved to be an amazing launching point for one of gaming’s most exciting ages, the glorious 16-bit era.