I did not own a SNES back in the day, I’m ashamed to say. I was born a little too late and had no older siblings who could have been there to enjoy it, so my first console was the N64. Certainly that wasn’t bad, at least for a starry-eyed child who found solace and wonder in the bizarre landscapes of Super Mario 64, but today it means that any venturing I do into the 16-bit era is hugely different than it is for most. Every time it feels more like historical study, and not so much nostalgic dream trip.
But that’s not all bad. I’ve grown quite fond of the look and feel of SNES era games. It was 2D at near perfection, with developers taking advantage of the power and limits of the system alike to provide stunningly beautiful adventures. I knew that even before my friend decided to buy one for himself to play the collection of SNES games from his childhood that he had since forgotten about and lost. Much to his supreme delight, the cartridges were in some tupperware buried in his brother’s closet. Among the treasures recovered was Earthbound, which gave him shrieks of joy when we found it to be perfectly functional, Super Mario World, Aladdin, and of course, ActRaiser.
ActRaiser doesn’t hold quite a strong a legacy as other titles I’ve discussed. Halo, Tomb Raider, and Metal Gear Solid all do still exist and thrive today, in some form or another. But ActRaiser, a more experimental title from Square Soft back in its better days, was born and died on the SNES. It’s a shame, too, as it topped Screw Attack’s most wanted dead series return list, and there are quite a few people with fond memories of the title.
But it is, ultimately, left without much of a presence today. Sure, it was one of the most successful early blends of genres in existence, somehow allowing for side-scrolling Castlevania style action to compliment Sim City-ish town management, but do people still truly remember this game? In general, I think not. So this entry of The Retrospective will likely fall more into a niche audience. And that’s perfectly fine.
Playing ActRaiser briefly with my friends inspired me to seek out the game on the Wii’s Virtual Console and play it on my own. I would certainly love to own a physical copy of the game, but somehow the SNES has become the very last home Nintendo console I have yet to own. I even have a Super Famicom and still no SNES. It’ll come someday, but until then, I’ll just have to rely on the Wii’s fun little feature.
I think what drew me in so vividly at first was not only the aforementioned blend of genre elements, but more importantly how well those individual elements felt. The side-scrolling segments may not have had the very same smooth game feel found in more popular games using that as a central mechanic, but the movement, attacking, and dodging was better controlled than most.
In addition, while oftentimes the game left me without necessary direction to immediately figure out what I needed to do to solve the perilous townspeople’s many problems, this insured that I always felt satisfied with myself when I did find the elusive solutions, which varied from luring a child out of a cave with bread to constantly fighting off flying monsters and sealing their lairs. When the civilizations grow and thrive, I truly felt like an active participant in that success, which is, in my opinion, the mark of a fantastic god game.
However, not all was smooth sailing. The boss fights held an appropriate difficulty for its time, and each boss usually required the use of one-time-use special moves to get the job done. Unfortunately, the last boss is hidden behind a painful sequence forcing you to fight all the bosses up to that point in succession, without any recovery. I still haven’t beaten it. I am simply a too-unskilled peasant.
With all that said, ActRaiser saves a seat in my heart at the large roundtable of personal favorite games. Perhaps it doesn’t earn the higher honors gifted to the likes of Fallout 3 and Knights of the Old Republic, but it’s been given an invitation to the party nonetheless. I think that there’s something incredibly engaging about a game that truly contextualizes its action into something bigger. Imagine a SimCity that occasionally asks you, the god-mayor, to don a super hero suit and save the city you’ve just spent hours designing and maintaining from certain doom. Not only would those action affect your personal attachment to the conflict that you’re involved in, it would provide an intimate connection between you and your city. Not only did you design the city, you protected it from the sources of evil.
And that’s why ActRaiser succeeds on so many levels. Not only are the separate pieces fun on their own, but the action sequences have a deeper connotation. Your people depend on you to protect them. This isn’t just an isolated hero’s journey. Fail, and you can only assume that the people will suffer and die. Succeed, and you can know that when the people declare themselves to be self-sufficient and thank you for your tireless work, you accomplished something worth pursuing. Few games allow for personal connections to be forged through gameplay, and this is an example that designers deserve to introduce themselves to.