Monday, May 25, 2009


Within the first year that the Super Nintendo (SNES) launched, it already had many great games to play. On of the most unique games that came out in these early years was Actraiser. In many ways this game does not only stand out as an early SNES game but also against games coming out today. Actraiser is part side-scroller, and part city building simulation, a merging of two genres that has not often been repeated.

Half Side-Scroller

I am going to discuss the side scrolling aspect of the game first since it is the weakest link in the series. These levels in the game are not bad by any stretch of the imagination but they are also nothing revolutionary. You play as a statue come to life (more on that later) and hack and slash your way through a level. The controls are a little stiff but it is hard to assume a big bulky knight in armor would be able to move fluidly. It is a mediocre side-scroller with nothing really catching the players attention gameplay wise. Actraiser 2 removed all the city building aspects of the game and only focused on the side scrolling. The sequel did not hold up well on its own without the extra touches that made the first game so great. However, using these action-oriented levels to break up the other parts of the game helps keep the player interested. Even though the levels do not stand on their own well, they provide a great compliment to the game.

The saving grace of the side scrolling sections of the game is the music. While the gameplay may be par the music is easily some of the best the Super Nintendo could produce. It was still early in software development for the SNES but the people at Quintet, the developers, really knew how to get the most out of the sound system. The music was fairly fast and had many layers. You could hear how each tune had its own unique place in the score and when stacked together they complimented each other making some truely unique music. Since the side scrolling aspect of the game was action oriented, the music needed to set the tone.

The music in Actraiser matched the action on the screen. The player may have just finished spending a great deal of time building a city and the music helps change the pace of the game.

Half Sim City

The part of the game that really caught people's attention was the city building aspect. After beating a platforming level and defeating the boss the land was now free to have people live there. You tell the people where to build their roads, buildings, crops, and you can change the weather. It is a simplified city building experience but it worked since the Super Nintendo controller is not as complex as a computer keyboard and mouse. The city building had to be streamlined to fit on the 6 buttons and directional pad. While building the city, monsters would fly overhead and attack. This kept the action constant even during the city building part of the game. However, the action here is much easier as you control an Angel that can shoot down any attackers. With the mix of city planning and fighting off flying monsters, the city building experience never gets stale, it is just complex enough to keep the player's mind busy but never overbearing and frustrating. There is a real sense of accomplishment when you see your city start off with a couple people and end as a large spanning metropolis. When you finish building multiple cities you can look overhead and see how the landscape of the world has changed because of you. In most games you go from level to level not seeing how you effected the world around you, in Actraiser you get the chance to make a difference.

A video of the city building aspect of Actraiser. You can see how battling monsters is manageable. The music also takes a drastic change in this part of the game. Rather than the frantic score in the platforming stages the music is a lot more mellow. 


*Note* I will be speaking a bit about religion in this post. Do not take my writings here as my particular views on religion. I am simply using the game's plot and story and trying to understand what the creators might have been saying.

In the game you play as "The Master" and his angel looking servant. It does not take a giant leap of thought to figure out "The Master" is God and the angel looking thing is an angel. This game was made in Japan where they do not have a problem playing around with Christain theology since it is not their faith. When brought over to America many Japanese games have most of the Christian symbols and plot referring to it removed. Nintendo was especially picky about this since they did not want to offend anyone. However, Actraiser, does a much worse job of hiding its roots. At no point have the Japanese been blasphamous with their depiction of Christianity, it is just that American companies would rather nothing being said about religion at all.

"The Master" is the hero of the game and he is fighting against the evil that has taken over the world. He does this by possessing a statue of a knight in order to fight evil. After defeating evil by beating a platforming level, "The Master" sends his servant to help protect the city and guide them. At key points of the game the people pray to you and it is your job to answer their prayers (for example they need the marsh to dry up so they pray for sunshine). One of the towns is tied to a lesson about one of the ten commandments, "You shall have no other gods before me." There is a false god that is leading the people astray and is even demanding sacrifices, it is your job to answer their prayers, help lead the people to the right path, and defeat the flase god.

The game ends once you solve all the worlds problems and bring everlasting peace. Since the people no longer need you and your presence is not felt anymore the churches eventually become empty. This can be seen as a commentary on how a lack of a direct presence in God can lead to apathy. Or, it could be saying that God cannot solve all our problems and asking him to do so would negate the purpose of having a God at all. It could also be implying that God has helped us in the past yet we choose to ignore him now. Anyway you take the ending, the designers were trying to get something across to the player on a more personal level.

The ending of Actraiser, a powerful and strange ending to a game. Rather than the hero being honoured and celebrated he is forgotten. 

Actraiser is a game that is not as well know as others and it never successfully spawned a franchise. But it deserves the attention that all the classic games get, and is a lot more powerful than most the games out there. It is one of the few "God" games that took the genre a step further by really making a point that you are "God" and what comes with those responsibilities.


  1. I love the social commentary on religion for this game. It seems that a lot of the old games had this great backstory which is usually some kind of social commentary or gameplay revolution. Do the games of today have any of that? I feel that games of today focus solely on graphics and there really is no innovation. Am I just being blinded by the popularity of games like Gears of War or Killzone?


  2. Yes and no.

    You may notice that I switch back and forth on the games I cover so half of my posts could be classified as "games of today." For example Halo (which I will cover somewhere down the line) has a bunch of religous symbology in it. And Braid, which I just wrote about, is not even a year old and it fullfills all of your criteria.

    The main issue is the easiest thing to sell is the graphics and the action. Its really hard to sell a game in a magazine ad or in a commercial and have it talk about the story or show the emotional quality to it. The quickest way to catch someones attention is showing how pretty the game looks (there are some games that break this rule as the Metal Gear Solid series relies 90% on its story and its trailers basically showed just story and almost no gameplay). Hopefully once you pick up a game it will conect further and that is the difference between a classic and a blockbuster.

    Yes games like Gears of war and Killzone are a lot of fun but really have no artistic merit. But there is a place for them as games that are just fun to kick back and enjoy (they still have really tight gameplay and the designers cared a lot aboput making a great experience still). And Gears of War (while not some deep experience) did revolutionize a lot with 3rd person controls (cover system making action games a bit more strategic and less run and gun) which has now influenced every game around it.