Friday, April 22, 2011

Actraiser and Actraiser 2


The original Actraiser was one of the most experimental games at on the SNES. It's mixture of hack and slash platforming and god sim is to my knowledge totally unique and what maked the game so compelling. You play as the 'Master', a god like being that awakens to find the world he created in a mess due to Tanzra and his demon minions. It's quite obviously meant to be a fight between god and Satan but I'm sure Nintendos lawyers wouldn't have been too happy bringing out a game with such religious overtones at the time. Anyway the Master decides that the best course of action is to fly around in his sky fortress (represented as a building floating on a cloud) and sort things out by heading down to earth himself and delivering a swift arse kicking to the demons. Afterwards with the help of his bare arsed angel cohort he can set about bringing civilisation back to the people.

The game alternates between hack and slash platform sections and god sim. When the Master wants to liberate a new area he must first journey to earth and complete one of the platform sections and defeat its boss. Once the area is liberated you are tasked with bringing civilisation back to the region through the god sim section. You start with a small group of people and control an angel guiding these people on where to build next and waht to do. You are constantly harassed by demons in this section that can destroy buildings and set your work back. Thankfully your angel can fire arrows to keep these enemies at bay. You can command the people to build towards the lairs where these demons spawn and when the people get close enough they can close the lair to give you respite from demon attacks. The progress you make in these god sim sections feeds into the platforming. The greater your population the more health you will have in the platforming sections and can open up new platforming areas that need to be purged of demons. You will also gain the power to perform miracles for your people to aid them. The people will give you gifts that can be used in other areas to increase the population, for example wheat from one region can be used in a region with food shortages. A funny quirk of this section is that if you want to maximise the amount of health you get you have to be a bit of a cruel bastard. As the civilisation level increases older areas that can only support a small population need to be destroyed and rebuilt. The way to do this is to use destructive miracles like lightning to destroy the area and kill the people in it. Funnily enough the people don't seem to mind!

Actraiser is a strange game that is far greater than the sum of it's parts. The hack and slash platforming sections are fairly bland. They're not necessarily bad but if it the god sim sections were left out the game would be entirely forgettable. The god sim isn't all that complex and wouldn't be giving Sim City a run for it's money. The game is ok looking for the early SNES game that it is and the only real standout is the wonderful soundtrack by the legendary Yuzo Koshiro. However when everything is taken together as a whole the final product is fantastic. The pairing of an action platform game with a slow paced and measured genre like the god sim really shouldn't work but in this case it really does. The way the god sim sections feed into the rest of the game by opening up new areas and levelling you up for the platforming levels adds an extra layer of compulsion. It's one of the most entertaining games on the SNES and a unique experience. As for the sequel.... read on.

Actraiser  2

 Actraiser 2 should have been spectacular. As a sequel to one of the best loved Super Nintendo games all that was needed was to polish up the gameplay and add some refinements and we would have another classic on our hands. Unfortunately Quintet managed to fuck this game up royally. They've managed this by taking away the one thing that made the first game so unique, the god sim sections. The game is now just a series of hack and slash platforming levels. Now if these sections were any good we would be dealing with a disappointing sequel. However these sections have been lumbered with some of the worst controls in any videogame and leaves us with just a bad game.

The plot is pretty much along the same lines of the first game. Tanzra's back with his demon buddies and causing trouble and it's up to you to sort him out. Well it's something like that, the plot is pretty weak. Despite there being no god sim parts to the game you can still fly around in the sky fortress and choose the order of the levels you want to tackle. Don't expect the non linear progression of something like Megaman since tackling levels in a different order does not give you any benefits like extra abilities and there's no levelling up. Your choice of levels is also always confined to a very small selection.

Once you have choosen your level the problems of the game start to manifest. The Master now has a set of wings which gives him even more movement abilities. If you double jump you will go into a glide and can use your wings to slow your descent. You can also do a dive bomb attack from a glide for extra damage. Magic is also handled differently in this game. Instead of choosing magic before the level and having it assigned to one button, magic is now cast by holding down the attack button until it is charged and depending on the direction you press or what state of a dive/glide you are in a different magic will be cast. The new movement options should give you extra mobility over the quite rigid controls of the first game but in reality they make things worse. Want to double jump to that ledge? You'll double jump go into an automatic glide and end up gliding away from the safety of the ledge and more than likely into trouble. It takes a while to learn to press up after a double jump to control your jump and even at the end of the game I was making mistakes where an unwanted glide would send me careening into danger. It doesn't help that the level design demands you make some ridiculously difficult platforming manoeuvres. The magic system doesn't help at all and the way it is set up means you will often perform the wrong type of magic in the heat of battle which can really mess up your chances of beating the level.

Level design is really unfair as well. Enemy placement is set up to annoy the player and catch them off gaurd with no way to avoid damage without knowing beforehand where the enemy will appear. The best way to tackle most levels is to inch along and take out the enemies as they appear. Even then some enemies have a habit of spawning on top of the playing giving no time to react without taking damage. Enemies take a silly amount of damage before they go down leading to some really monotonous areas. Checkpointing is all over the place. Some levels will expect you to go through a grueling gauntlet of a level trying to save health before facing a sub boss. Once the sub boss is defeated it's a sort easy walk to the boss who is a breeze due to the short easy section preceding them. One sub boss in particular is the most challenging boss in the game. I wouldn't mind fighing him once but after his appearance he appears in practically every level there after and usually with a grueling long level to survive before facing him. I was sick of seeing him before the end of the game. I could go on and on about the poor level design but I don't want to bore you. Don't expect an easy ride, the first level is a baptism of fire that will put most people off the game. Funnily enough the last boss is a total push over.

Officially this sub-boss is known as 'Werebeast'
I just call him 'Cunt'

It's a real shame that Quintet couldn't follow up the original game with a true sequel and gave us this piss poor excuse. Even Yuzo Koshiro seemed to not care and phoned in an uncharacteristically poor soundtrack for the game. Credit where credit is due, the game is stunning looking with some of the best looking 2D art of any SNES game and lots of Mode 7 trickery. It's a shame it's wasted on such a poor game.