When I first heard that ActRaiser was being released for Nintendo’s Virtual Console, I rushed to slap down the plastic. ActRaiser was a game released by Enix (now Square Enix) for the Super NES back in 1990. It’s a strange breed of game, combining two completely different genres into one experience — a side-scrolling, hack ‘n’ slash action mode, and a town-building simulation mode that resembles Populous or Sim City.

The game holds up well, 17 years later. ActRaiser is remembered in no small part for Yuzo Koshiro’s symphonic score (a fully-orchestrated version was made available on CD, but it’s a rare find), and the aural portion has lost none of its luster. Graphically the game looks slightly dated, but only because of its somewhat choppy animation. The art direction and use of color (lots of simultaneous contrast in the creature designs) still impress.

It’s hard to imagine any major publisher greenlighting a game today that combines two so totally different modes; and it has to be said that ActRaiser’s action mode isn’t the most compelling example of its genre. (Super Castlevania IV, released on the SNES a year later, showed how deep action games on the new system could be.) Control of the character is a bit labored, and there are really only three moves at the player’s disposal: slash, kneel and slash, and jump and slash. Still, the sequences are fun enough and provide a good excuse to listen to Koshiro’s compositions.

However, what finally sells these segments is that they actually have some meaning. In ActRaiser you are a deity working to restore a ruined world. To even have a chance at creating a peaceful civilization, you’re required to eliminate the monsters that plague the land. So as you slice your way through these creatures, you’re not just clearing a level; you’re cleansing the world. It’s remarkably satisfying from that perspective.

Still, it can be argued that the simulation, town-building mode is ActRaiser’s real backbone; and these portions continue to impress with their solid gameplay. The townspeople will build and (apparently) reproduce on their own, but they require your divine intervention to clear the land of obstacles, protect them from wandering monsters, and give them a little urban planning guidance. Occasionally some crisis will arise requiring particular attention. Some even require the player to transport the fruits or inventions of one village to another — a nice touch. While ActRaiser’s simulation segments are much more linear than, say, a game of SimCity, they keep the player constantly engaged.

Having played ActRaiser again on the Virtual Console, I can’t help but long for a sequel. However, it’d have to be a true sequel — not the action-only diversion ActRaiser 2. I’d love to see a current-day release with deeper action (perhaps borrowing heavily from God of War) and an even more intricate simulation mode. Clearing obstacles and transporting items between towns was a good start; what about making use of the town’s particular resources or the possibility of managing political relations between villages? Could towns declare war on each other? Would the player be forced to involve himself (via the action mode) in settling these conflicts? The dual-mode design makes for many interesting scenario possibilities. For now, though, I’ll just content myself with this strange and wonderful classic.

Shine on, little naked cherub. Shine on.

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May 31, 2007