ActRaiser 1990 Quintet/Enix SNES, Mobile, Wii Virtual Console
One of the earlier 3rd party games to come out for the Super Famicom -- ActRaiser -- was developed by then-unproven game developer Quintet for Enix Corporation. It was released in Japan in 1990 and come out in the US in late 1991. “ActRaiser” still remains of the oddest and most non-indicative titles for a video game ever. What does it mean to “raise an act”? What!?
In ActRaiser, you control a deity known only as "The Master" who hath awaken from a long slumber. In the past, The Master ruled over all the land, but His people lost their faith, which weakened His power. In that time, Tanzra the Dark Lord has taken over the land and swayed away His people. And now, you have to reclaim it. In a fun showcase of Nintendo’s censorship policies of the time, in the Japanese version, the Master is explicitly the Juedo-Christian God and Tanzra is explicitly Satan.
What always made ActRaiser stand out compared to almost any other game is that it progressed in two modes: Act Mode which was a 2D action game in the tradition of Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden and Sim Mode which was essentially a slightly trimmed down, more linear and overall more simplified Sim City. You jump, you slash, you duck. It's simple, but righteous. Completing Action segments opened up new Sim segments and completing certain tasks in the Sim segments improved your character's performance and opened up new Act segments. ActRaiser is a wheel that spins itself.
Having a game be composed of two different genres seems like it would be disorienting, but somehow the game designers found a way to make them complement each other: being a sword-swinging crusader compels you to open up more Sim stages; building your society properly levels you up; giving you more stamina and magic spells. Your Civilization Level also affects what stages you're able to access. If a certain Action or Sim stage is giving you too much trouble, you can try another one, provided that your society is where it needs to be.
Compliant: One issue that's become more apparent in my recent playthroughs of ActRaiser, is how darn obnoxious the knockback from hits can be. It can be downright bad at times, and occasionally make it so that your health doesn't matter.
The graphics and music were much more regal-looking and sounding than I had heard in a game before. Yuzo Koshiro's music flat-out sounded like a synthesized orchestra was emitting brassy goodness from your SNES to your ears. It was vastly different from his more house/dance party/techno music style that he would be known for.
ActRaiser was a modest success. It got favorable reviews, it sold well enough to convince Quintet to make a sequel but was not exactly a hit. It was featured in quite a few episodes of the Nickelodeon game show Nick Arcade. Funnily enough, I tended to not see those episodes when Nick Arcade played on TV. Quintet would later revisit the religious motifs and reuse several sound effects in Soul Blazer, another game they made for Enix. And ya know, "Soul Blazer" sounds an awful lot like "ActRaiser". Come on, say it with me! "Act-Raiser!" "Sooooul-Blazer!"
What I know is that at the time, there was never anything quite like ActRaiser. Part strategy game, part action game, it's a full-on classic and a game I'm always willing to recommend. It was always been one of my favorites.
ActRaiser 2: Crusade to Silence 1992 Quintet/Enix SNES
I feel a bit more lukewarm towards the sequel-- ActRaiser 2: Crusade to Silence (Simply just ActRaiser 2 in North America and Europe). This sequel, was actually a prequel, showing The Master's previous battle with Tanzra. Seeing as how the original ActRaiser was set in Biblical days, that makes ActRaiser 2's scenario the olden days of old! With the revelation of Tanzra being one of The Master's most faithful servants who becomes disillusioned with Him and leads a rebellion to oppose Him, this game's premise borrows heavily from John Milton's classic Paradise Lost.
In the past, when He was stronger, before the people lost their faith, The Master had wings. ActRaiser 2's big new game mechanic is flight. While neat in theory, I never felt this function panned out as fluid and gracefully as the gamemakers intended. I find myself fighting with the flight commands. The Master can also now slash in multiple directions but I feel so apathetic to this new game mechanic. Combine this with the evident slowdown, the physics overall don't feel as tight as ActRaiser 1.
Much to my dismay, the Sim Mode was completely excised. With no concerns of building your civilization to build your character, ActRaiser 2 is a more straightforward action game than it's predecessor. You can still progress the stages in a nonlinear fashion, but the dynamics are lost. What gave ActRaiser 1 its unique identity is gone. Without your identity, what are you?
ActRaiser 2 is much harder than the first game as well. Some of it is because of tough situations, some of it is because of aggravating jumps. The first level where you start off TORMENTED me for years until I finally beat the damn thing. Yeesh. Some stages are hellish, but some of the boss fights aren't too difficult.
Generally speaking, ActRaiser 2 has a somewhat maligned reputation. I think it's a very average action game that happens to be very difficult. Sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for the wrong ones. I would only recommend playing it or tracking it down if you want a challenge. It didn't sell very well and was never reprinted or re-released in any format.
ActRaiser made a big impression on me as a child and I would only appreciate it more as I got older. With the merger of Square, Enix, and several other companies, Square-Enix has been the intellectual property holder of the ActRaiser series since 2003. Aside from an obscure cell phone port and a Wii Virtual Console release of the first game, the series has been as dormant as The Master Himself. Me? I'll keep on prayin' for another ActRaiser release!