Much in the way devoted theists worship their deity of choice, tonight I am writing a gospel in praise of The Master and his miracles in bringing peace and civilization to the world while slaying monsters and cranking some kickass tunes. Yes, I am testifying to the glory of Actraiser, a divine game in which you play God…a sword-weilding, demon-slaughtering, natural-disaster-causing God. And lo, it is good.
When the Super Famicom was still being previewed in the gaming magazines and we watched games like Super Mario Bros. 4 and Pilotwings slowly taking shape on their journey from prototype screenshots to the games they would eventually become, there was one title on the way from Enix that looked interesting, but was somewhat mysterious in its intent. Its strange title, “Actraiser,” sounded like kitbashed Engrish and was absolutely no help in determining just what kind of game Enix had in the cooker for us. All the mags could tell us was that there were action scenes mixed with some sort of strategic simulation, but we weren’t sure how it was going to gel together.
Reports eventually started coming in that Actraiser was definitely a release to watch. The music, especially, was being praised as revolutionary. The hype train was boarding, although most eyes were on Super Mario World to be the title to carry the SFX (as the Super Famicom was often referred to at the time) to greatness. Actraiser, though, felt like a dark horse that had caught my attention, and I was becoming very interested.
When the Super Famicom finally came out in late 1990 (some 10 months before the release of the SNES in America), a small video game rental shop here in my city had gotten one, along with several of the launch titles. I was one of the first customers to rent the SuFami, along with Super Mario World, F-Zero, and Actraiser. Mario and F-Zero were awesome and I loved them, but as much as I had been looking forward to Actraiser, I was not prepared for how hard that game would hit me right between the eyes. I had already determined that the SNES was a need-to-own piece of hardware, but for me, Actraiser put it over the top as the absolute winner of all video game consoles ever.
From the moment the game is turned on, it oozes grandiosity. The logo swirls into view as an orchestra swells into a heroically symphonic theme song. Epic films like Ben Hur or Clash of the Titans (the original, yo) are immediately brought to mind, and the game hasn’t even started yet.
I won’t get too involved in explaining the details of the game itself; it’s going on 30 years old, you should know what it is. You, the player, are The Master (or in the Japanese version, just God), and the world you rule over has been taken over by the demon Tanzra (again, I think it’s just Satan in the Japanese release). It’s a world-building simulation that requires you to clear monsters out of various areas of the world via sidescrolling hack-n-slash platforming action levels. Each new area starts with an action level, then the simulation stuff happens where you control your little cherub sidekick and shoot flying monsters, clear the land, accept gifts from your worshippers, and build up civilizations, and then the area ends with another action level before moving onto the next. An odd combination, but somehow it makes perfect sense.
Back to my initial impressions as a high school kid lucky enough to be playing the latest videogame from Japan: I was utterly blown away by Actraiser. Even though I couldn’t read much of it (I had started studying a bit of Japanese on my own, but I wasn’t too good at anything other than reading katakana), I figured out how the game worked. I never beat the game during the rental, but I did absorb as much of it as I could in the few days I had it at home.
The graphics were so great, especially in the action levels; I loved the way the forest background in the first level, Fillmore, fades into the sun, and the way the bloody water shimmers in the moonlight in Bloodpool, the second area. The player character, a warrior statue infused with your divine being, wears a cool purple and gold suit of armor and has wings on his helmet. Your sword swings in an arc not entirely unlike Strider Hiryu’s, and he makes a haunting, echoing, ethereal “HAH!” whenever he strikes.
The levels are varied, and hit all the videogame set tropes: a forest level, an underground level, a castle, a desert, a rainforest, an ice level, the usual. Except in this context, it actually makes sense to include them all, as you are exploring an entire world as you dispatch monsters and create habitable conditions for humans. So yes, the antlion does happen to belong in this particular game.
Then there’s the music. Yes, the hype was real, and as far as I’m concerned, it still is. Yuzo Koshiro was already a name to recognize after his work on Revenge of Shinobi, but Actraiser catapulted him into undisputed video game rockstar status. Even Nintendo wasn’t getting this kind of rich orchestration out of their own console; Koshiro seemed to be some sort of sorcerer. Actraiser’s soundtrack still holds up: to this day, it’s one the all-time great video game soundtracks. The opening level of Fillmore, especially, is easily one of my absolute favorite themes in any game, with its combination of symphonic melody and rock drums and slap bass.
And for an added layer of awesomesauce, they released an entire orchestral arranged CD of its music as well, titled Actraiser Symphonic Suite — a legitimate copy of which will cost you an arm and a leg and perhaps a left nut/ovary to obtain these days. Fortunately, I managed to download the tracks via Napster, back in the days before Lars Ulrich ruined it for everyone (I’m a devoted music purchaser, and I wasn’t using Napster to download mainstream music; I was using it to find obscure, out-of-print anime and videogame soundtracks — you know, like Actraiser Symphonic Suite). The arranged versions, while doing away with much of the rock element found in the video version, are still just as stunning and inspiring to listen to.
And in case the point that Actraiser’s soundtrack was a massive revolution in video game music hasn’t been driven home quite yet, I dare you to start down the rabbit hole of incredible cover versions found on YouTube! Here are just a few of my favorites:
And don’t get get me wrong, it’s not just the Fillmore theme — Actraiser’s music is staggering throughout. In fact, as much as I am of the opinion that the market for video game soundtracks on vinyl is getting a little overasturated, if there’s one game soundtrack that deserves a deluxe vinyl presentation, it’s f***ing Actraiser above all.
Moving on from the music: Realizing how special it was to have access to the Super Famicom and these amazing games, I had the wherewithal to think to videotape some footage of all of them as I played. I had the SF hooked up through the A/V composite inputs in my VCR, so it was a piece of cake to record video game footage, and I taped quite a bit of SMW, FZ, and Actraiser, and went back and watched the footage long after I had returned the console to the rental shop.
When the Super NES was finally released in August 1991, Super Mario World was the pack-in title, and I picked up F-Zero right away as well, but unfortunately, Actraiser was not a launch title in the US. I had to wait a few months until the US version was released, but I kept a close eye on when it was coming out. I still remember plunking down my $65 and rushing home to finally play my very own copy of this amazing game — and in English, too!
I had watched that footage of the Japanese version so much that I was surprised to see some changes they had made to the game — some of it was easier, and some of it was more difficult. They also changed the layout of some levels a bit, changed some graphics, and tweaked some enemies. As it turned out, the delay in releasing the game here in the States was the result of some fine-tuning (and a bit of mild censorship/editing so as not to offend easily-offendable religious-type Americans), and I really liked the way the game played when I got it.
So it went, and I played all the way through the adventure. All those different areas really did make it feel like an epic journey; I remember the final areas in Northwall seeming like you had traveled very, very far and were in a distant, dangerous land, but too far to turn back. And after the final, cosmic battle with Tanzra himself, the darkness lifts, and peace is returned to the world, and you do indeed feel like a god.
By the way, one last note relating to both the game’s ending and the music: When you finally defeat Tanzra and the atmosphere brightens, there’s a little descending melody that plays, and Koshiro clearly lifted it almost note-for-note from the original 1981 version of Clash of the Titans, when Perseus defeats the Kraken. Anybody else ever notice this? Check it out, it’s at the very beginning of the Actraiser video on the top from 0:03-0:08, and the CotT video underneath is cued up to the right spot, from 5:03-5:09:
It’s okay. It fits really well. I’ll forgive him. (Not to mention the 20th Century Fox theme that plays as the credits start…Koshiro was obviously going for an epic film vibe, and that he achieved.)
So if you haven’t played Actraiser, and a bunch of music hype isn’t selling you on the game, how does the game actually play? Well, the action scenes are pretty straightforward sidescrolling hack-n-slash platforming with a boss at the end of each level. They remind me a bit of the Valis games, but with better control. The simulation scenes are actually pretty fast-paced and fun, and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t care for simulation games. The world-building is simple to understand, and as your civilization level increases (there is a maximum level of 3 for each area), it’s kinda fun to cause natural disasters, wiping out the current population and then watching them rebuild even better than before (this is how you can max out your areas throughout the game). There’s even a bit of a shootemup element, as your cherub buddy has to take out all the flying monsters that threaten the villagers until they learn to seal the demons’ spawn points themselves. So essentially, as you guide your people to grow, they learn to take care of themselves. It’s rather satisfying and there’s almost always something to do, whether you’re shooting demons before they kidnap villagers, directing the people to build, or using your divine manipulations to clear the land. You can accept offerings and use them, and at times the people will ask for help with a special problem. A whole simulation section, between action levels, can usually be done and maxed out within 30 minutes. And the graphical detail carries into these areas, too: when you direct the villagers to do something, you’ll actually see these tiny little dudes go out and do it. When things are going well, you might see a wild horse running free in a field, or villagers dancing, or a boy playing outside with his dog.
I’ve played through Actraiser many times, including one memorable all-nighter when I played it from beginning to end in one sitting. I remember starting it late at night after getting home from work, thinking “eh, I’ll play a little Actraiser tonight,” and then finishing the game, with all my towns maxed out, at about 4:30 a.m. and just laughing to myself that I couldn’t stop playing.
An interesting feature is that once you finish the game, you unlock “Professional” mode, wherein you can just play the action levels in order, without the sim levels in between. In Professional mode, the enemies take twice as many hits to defeat (I don’t recall if they do more damage to you or not), making it a fairly challenging endeavor; again, I was such a hardcore fan that I could slam through professional mode and beat it without breaking a sweat. I believe I got my name in either Nintendo Power or EGM with the max score for clearing Professional mode, too! Not sure I could still do that these days, however.
So Actraiser settled in nicely in its spot as one of my all-time favorite videogames ever ever ever ever. My initial excitement at the announcement of a sequel was quickly dampered by Actraiser 2’s exclusion of simulation scenes, a redesigned main character who was super beefcakey and half-naked, and seemingly a complete loss of whatever magic made the original…well, magical. Actraiser 2, while once again visually and aurally stunning (again, the opening stage has utterly jaw-dropping music), plays more like a Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, with brutal difficulty, clunky control, a slower, more deliberate pace that feels more like a chore than an action game, and, I felt, overall less finesse and creativity than the original. It just seemed to miss the point entirely.
Over the years, many fans (myself included) wanted to see Actraiser return. I seem to remember in the late 1990s a rumor of a remake for Sega Saturn, but it never materialized. (Enix/Quintet did release a game called Solo Crisis on the Saturn in 1998, which was a world-building sim — no action scenes — with some spiritual ties to Actraiser; perhaps this is what the Actraiser remake ended up being, or perhaps early reports of this game were misunderstood to be an Actraiser remake — who knows?) Actraiser did resurface as an early mobile phone game in 2003, which is probably better left forgotten.
Interstingly enough, Super Meat Boy designer and programmer Tommy Refenes recently said in an interview with Waypoint that he’d love to tackle a new Actraiser game:
Someday soon, development on Super Meat Boy will—finally—be over by rewarding the fans who’ve stuck by the game (and Refenes) over many years. He’s already thinking about what comes next, including a hail mary so ridiculous I feel the need to pass it on.
“The hail mary is getting the rights or whatever to make Actraiser 3,” he said. “I have a story, I have gameplay plans and I want to take all of these things and ideas to Square Enix and go “With respect, I’m going to make this game and people will either call it ‘The Spiritual Successor to Actraiser’ or they will call it ‘Actraiser 3.’ I’d much prefer people to call it Actraiser 3.’ They will probably say no, but a boy can dream!”
The world could use some more Actraiser. Godspeed, Tommy Refenes.
Well, that could be interesting. Even if it ends up being “The Spiritual Successor to Actraiser,” I’ll definitely be on board.
But until Enix — now Square Enix — decides to revisit the scripture of The Master, we at least have one title that, for me anyway, sits atop an enormous heap of games as a glorious, untouchable favorite. I played through at least half of it while working on this article, and I’m still every bit as fond of it as I was in 1990.
Actraiser…I don’t care if the name makes no sense.