Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer

Dead Pixels: Actraiser

(where Michael deconstructs discontinued franchises, and puts forth ideas concerning hypothetical sequels. note: I am aware that ActRaiser 2 already exists, but it is poopy and I don’t consider it a true sequel.) Overview

I remember taking a look at ActRaiser while browsing through a Blockbuster back in the mid-90s and not really having any clue exactly what time of game it was. My 10 year old powers of deduction weren’t particularly strong to begin with, and I certainly had no idea what the game’s box art meant when it described a state-of-the-art “simulation mode”. My hesitation and uncertainty with the game had to be pushed  aside though; my mother was getting impatient with my indecisiveness, and my top two rental choices (EarthBound and Chrono Trigger) were nowhere to be found. Hurriedly, I grabbed the game cartridge and my mum kindly rented it for the 3-day weekend special. Upon our return home my brothers and I gathered around the old Super Nintendo, popped the cartridge in and began to play. Getting started was easy enough: We took turns navigating our sword-wielding statue through the first side-scrolling level, climbing trees, and slashing at little goblins before penultimately taking down an evil horseman. The assumption throughout this part of the adventure was that the “simulation” that the game’s box art had mentioned was simply simulated violence. But then (very much unexpected for us) the game flipped to a top down view, and we found ourselves controlling a town-building angel. Naturally, this was a bit of a shock for us! It was very uncommon for a game to shift genres so drastically back in the early 90s, so our little pre-teen brains were ill-equipped to deal with it. We wasted a lot of time flying around, shooting arrows, and generally NOT completing the main society building objective. We eventually managed to get a good grasp on the game’s mechanics, but I don’t think any of us truly appreciated the uniqueness and depth of the game until we were much older. ActRaiser offered a unprecedented mix of action and simulation elements, and even created a fair bit of synergy between the two. Not to say the game didn’t have its faults… but it certainly brought a lot of neat ideas to the table.

What To Keep

Hybrid Gameplay More specifically: the mixing of the simulation and action genres. ActRaiser 2 discarded the simulation elements of the game – and although it offers a pretty solid game experience – it lacks the variety and quirkiness that made the original so endearing. Hybrid gameplay is hardly the novel concept it once was. Most modern games pick and choose from any number of genres, and it is getting rarer and rarer for games to be truly singular in their design. Fallout 3 is one of the most obvious examples of this blurring, combining RPG, shooter, strategy and action elements into one cohesive package.

Although the mixing of 2d platformer and simulation is a bit of an odd combination (maybe even a unique one), it certainly would fit into the multi-genre trend that seems to permeate the gaming industry. Gameplay Synergy Building on the previous point, ActRaiser did an excellent job of creating synergy between the game modes. The better you do in the world building parts of the game, the more powerful your avatar is in the action portions. Defeating bosses in the side-scrolling portions opens up new areas for your to explore in the simulation portions. This creates a feeling that you are progressing in both modes simultaneously, regardless of which one you are actually playing at the time. The linking between game modes is even done well from a narrative perspective. In both game modes you control an avatar of The Master – an animated statue during the action portions and an angel in the simulation sections. Whether you are cutting a swath through waves of demons or directing the building of roads, the core game-play directive remains the same: an extension of your being carries out your bidding on the surface world.

What To Drop

Destructive Progression One of my few major gripes with ActRaiser is a mechanic that many players don’t even realize exists. In many circumstances throughout the game it becomes advantageous to destroy your own city so that it may be built up stronger than it was before. This always bugged me for two major reasons:

  1. From a narrative perspective, you turn from a “friendly, helpful god” to a “vengeful, killing god” to facilitate your town’s growth. It never felt right to massacre the townspeople you’ve spent the entire game protecting, and for them to accept it without question.
  2. This destruction was counter-intuitive for the player, which led to many players never discovering it in the first place. Who would have thought that in order to progress you needed to destroy the cities you spent so much time building?

Super Low Difficulty I’m not going to get in too much depth about this, but ActRaiser is a pretty easy game. Any major challenges the player is likely to encounter are usually cause by impatience or a failure to grasp certain elements of gameplay (a somewhat common problem during the simulation sections). This problem could be remedied by adding additional challenges to the sim portions of the game, or increasing the depth and complexity of the platforming levels.

What To Fix

Religious Theming For those of you who are not in the know, the original text of ActRaiser referred to the protagonist as God and the big evil guy as Satan. The names were changed to “The Master” and “Tanzra” in an attempt to cover up the game’s obvious Christian monotheistic themes. This was ultimately a fruitless attempt, as key game mechanics such as temples, angels and miracles revealed the game’s religious subtext quite clearly.

I don’t have any personal objections against playing a Christian themed game, but I do feel that it hurts the game’s marketability and appeal. Many publishers would be very wary about distributing a game containing obvious Christian undertones, so a different approach would have to be considered.

In this particular situation, it may be wise to simply move away from the established religion of Christianity and create a completely new pantheon for the sequel. Fleshing out new religions and gods would detach the game from real world church affiliations, and grant the opportunity for the designers to further develop the game’s setting and lore. Other games have undertaken this sort of task before with great success (the Breath of Fire series comes to mind), and I have no doubt it could be done well for an ActRaiser sequel. Magic The magic system in ActRaiser is a bit too simple, consisting of only four spells that are activated from a fairly limited supply of magic power. Although the spells have some neat effects – including a protective aura and a screen clearing wave of light –  the lack of variety really makes the spell system feel stagnant and tacked on. This issue is exacerbated the relatively simplistic combat system, which I will get into more detail later on.

The addition of a few new spells would greatly increase variety of gameplay, giving the player more strategies and options in combat. Decreasing the overall power of the spells would also be useful, as they tend to absolutely brutalize most of the bosses found in the game. I think a good point of comparison would be another SNES classic, Soul Blazer. Soul Blazer shows how a melee focused character can utilize a reasonably sized spell repertoire in a way that supports his combat style. Miracles Much like the magic system, ActRaiser’s miracles are a great concept with limited variety and versatility. You really only get to use five abilities throughout the game, and although some of them are pretty neat (lightning, earthquakes), their usefulness is very limited. It would be a great idea to give God, for lack of a better phrase, some more godlike powers. Let him raise mountains, shatter forests, flood the coasts and churn the land according to his whim! A whole new level of depth could be added to the simulation sections of the game by creating mechanics for “creative landscaping”, allowing players to shape the world as they see fit. Combat Mechanics Although a pretty solid platformer when it came out, ActRaiser has not aged particularly well. Combat is astoundingly simplistic by current standards, with a woefully straightforward “run, slash and jump” mentality that permeates every level.

Instilling some basic combat maneuvers would make the side-scrolling portions of the game much more dynamic. Tumbling and blocking are the first things that come to mind, but the sky is really the limit as far as enhancements go. We could take a lesson from the newer Castlevania games and incorporate a bevy of new weapons and skills, or look further back to classics such as TMNT IV: Turtles in Time where special moves are incorporated through the use of simple button combinations. A few more combat options would go a long way to increasing the game’s overall enjoyment level.

Final Thoughts

If you haven’t played ActRaiser before, I really do recommend giving it a try. It is not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly introduces a lot of interesting concepts (especially for a SNES game). Although the chances of a sequel being developed are slim to none, the game does seem like it would transition well onto modern hardware. Imagine playing a true Actraiser sequel on the Wii! Players could utilize the Wiimote as a mouse during the simulation portions, then flip it sideways for a more traditional controller during action portions. It seems like a natural fit to me! Do any of you folks out on the interweb have thoughts about this game? If so, let me know how fair you think my assessment is and tell me about any changes you would make to the game yourself!

1 Comment

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  • Too bad they never called Diablo for the Playstation a christian game because it is. The main character is like Jesus, does a ressurrection on his or or friend and defeats Beelzebub.

By Michael
Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer