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Actraiser 2

For its time the original Actraiser was phenomenal.  As a near launch title there wasn’t much to compare it to and the game was so different from everything else that its flaws were easy to overlook.  As time passed and better action games were released the side scrolling stages just did not hold up anymore.  Actraiser 2 in my opinion was released to fix that but in the process Quintet lost sight of what made the first game so great.

Actraiser 2 was released at the tail end of 1993.  The sequel finds the demon Tanzra resurrected by 13 of his followers who represent the 7 sins and severe conditions that afflict mankind.  The first thing you’ll notice is that the simulation mode is completely removed.  Hell even the box art trumpets that fact.  Why Quintet did so will remain a mystery as it was the first game’s most praised feature.  In its absence we are left with a good action game that could have been so much more were it not for the cumbersome controls.

The only purpose the over world serves now is to move from one region to the next and complete the levels within.  Clicking on a town will give some back story about the people and the troubles they face and with the exception of completing the levels near them that is the extent of your interaction with them.  Once a demon is defeated sometimes a region might change a little but that’s it.  You can completely ignore each town and will miss absolutely nothing.  Right then and there it would be easy to dismiss the game.  The city building portions of the original were the best parts of the game and the fact that they didn’t use this as an opportunity to expand on what they established is absurd.  This leaves the action portions to carry the game.  Does it succeed?

In the first game your tools were limited to just an ordinary attack and a limited supply of magic.   This sequel expands on that in numerous ways.  The first is that you now have wings.  With these you can glide and perform a variety of flying attacks that are more powerful than a standard slash.  You can also attack in almost any direction now.  Additionally you have a shield that can block most projectiles from the front or above.  Finally rather than selecting a spell before hand you have all of them from the start; the situation in which you use it determines the spell.  By and large you now aren’t forced into situations where you absolutely have to take damage to proceed because of bad game design.  All of these tools are needed as the game is viciously hard and not always in a good way.

The levels themselves have been designed so that you can use your wings to glide around from platform to platform.  These sections are a sight to behold and I’m not ashamed to admit I had a blast taking screenshots in certain areas because of this.  Each level is about the same length as the original with some comprising multiple segments.

I guarantee you’ll be looking for any excuse to do this on every level.

The problems stem from a few factors.  There are far too many bottomless pits or instant death spikes in every level, no doubt put there to hinder you from flying over every obstacle in your path.  This wouldn’t ordinarily be an issue but the margin for error for the jumps is absolutely zero.  Many times you’ll have to stand at the bare edge of a platform before making a jump or you’ll fail. It ‘s an ongoing problem in the game, one that should have been noticed and fixed.

It also highlights another problem, the cumbersome controls.  To glide you jump twice, but when you come to a surface you still glide forward a little before your wings bring you to a stop.  This is infuriating at times when you need to make precision jumps over large gaps.  A third button press will cause you to immediately drop.  This alleviates some of the headache but even I sometimes forget and do it at the worst possible moment.  It can be confusing as to how to activate a particular spell and in the heat of combat you don’t really have a lot of time to experiment.  Finally a lot of the enemies take far too many hits and they gang up on you in record time.

Visually the game is utterly phenomenal.  From a purely artistic standpoint this is one of the top SNES games.  You are taken to a diverse array of locales, from a battlefield between two countries to an underwater city on the back of a giant turtle, each one more breathtaking than the last.

Seriously the game is breathtaking.  Literally every level is a visual spectacle.

The animation of the master is also incredible; the animation of his wings in particular is magical in motion.  All of the bosses are large and imposing and pose a major challenge.  Quintet really flexed their command over the hardware on this game and really showed what 3 years of progress can achieve.  The soundtrack holds its own against the graphics.  A wide assortment of instruments are used to create the symphonic score of the game and I feel it outdoes the music in the original quite handily.  A good portion of the sound effects are lifted from the original; you can make the case that they were aiming for consistency in installments but they could have pushed the envelope like they did the graphics.

I classify the game as a missed opportunity for a number of reasons.  If they could have tightened up the controls than as a pure action game it would have stood shoulder to shoulder with the SNES finest.  Had they kept the sim elements it would have pushed the game over the edge into classic territory.  Still even with these faults the game is outstanding and worth going along for the ride.

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What we have here is a perfect example of the launch effect. Many companies make it a point to have a game ready for the launch of a new system, sometimes stooping as low as porting an old game just to have something there. The theory is that the early adopters are the hardcore who will buy almost anything to show off their new console. And it pretty much works. New franchises are a prime example of this, one which Enix of America was keen to take advantage of with this beauty.

My first exposure to Actraiser came via the August 1991 issue of Nintendo Power.  This issue was given to me by a friend and was my first time actually seeing SNES screenshots.  I read that issue so many times the cover is completely torn off. The Super Mario World blowout was awesome enough, but the feature on Actraiser really stood out to me.  A God sim mixed with an action platformer? The idea seems ludicrous but developer Quintet does an excellent job blending the two to make the sum greater than the whole.

After a brief story synopsis you are thrust into your first action stage. The world is broken up into 6 regions, each featuring 2 action levels at the beginning and end.  Truthfully the side scrolling stages are the games weaker area. There’s nothing wrong with them per se it’s just that as a whole they are a bit bland. Your offense consists of attack, jump, and magic which  is selected before descending into the world. Most stages are a straight left to right jaunt but the later levels offer branching paths to break things up.

The graphics are a mixed bag, at times both spectacular and underwhelming at the same time.  A lot of the backgrounds are beautifully drawn but there are long stretches set against flat environments which frankly reminds me of a TG-16 game. The bosses were impressive for the time considering we were accustomed to 8-bit sprites for so many years and sport some interesting designs and easily discernible attack patterns.  These areas aren’t really hard and once you acquire a certain magic spell even the boss fights become trivial.  The action levels I feel mostly serve as a framework for each region; they start and end each and your score impacts the simulation portions.

The soundtrack is absolutely outstanding and is even more impressive than the graphics. During the 16-bit generation composer Yuzo Koshiro was a force to be reckoned with on all 3 consoles of that era and Actraiser is a sheer delight right from the title screen. The SNES sound chip is given a thorough work out pumping out the symphonic tunes; the clarity and quality of the music was unrivaled up to that point.  While some of the instruments used are tinny and low quality (the horns especially) the compositions are timeless.

The sim portions of the game are where Actraiser really shines. Here you control an angel like avatar as you protect and nurture the population of each country. You begin with 2 followers who will advise you of what the people need, any troubles that may arise, and when certain events occur.  You are provided with a large assortment of spells that command nature to change the landscape and create a suitable environment to help the population grow.

Every region has monster lairs which produce different monsters that go after specific targets. These lairs are the main targets for where you’ll grow your cities, as the people destroy them when instructed, saving you the trouble of killing all 100+ plus monsters inside each individually. The game can become very visceral in the larger zones as you’ll have to choose a direction for growth while also making sure monsters don’t kidnap villagers or destroy their homes and crops. The people will give you offerings as time elapses, some you can use to benefit yourself but most of them are for the side scrolling stages. There’s even a devious element to the game in that as the civilization level rises, the people learn to build better homes. To max out the population, you can destroy all of the old homes and then rebuild since the better housing can hold more people in each building.  Also each country will establish its own distinct look.

Housing starts simple, in this case tents.  Once your civilization level rises, they’ll build houses instead.     Causing an earthquake takes out the tents and leaves only the houses.  After a little urban renewal, now all of the buildings are replaced by houses.  Plus the people now grow wheat fields to feed more people per capita.

Your progress can be observed at any point by going back to the Sky Palace and zooming out; the over world map shows each town exactly as it was built, down to the burnt out buildings.  I could go on and on about the sim aspect of the game.  Each region has a particular climate which dictates which powers you’ll use to clear a path or promote growth.  I also like the steady progression of enemies that you fight from one country to the next.  The simple bats and blue demons soon escalates to red demons and skulls, who if left alone too long will cause an earthquake that will decimate your towns.

The progress made in these segments directly impacts the action areas. Your magic spells are found by the people and given as offerings and your level and hp increases as the overall population hits certain milestones.  To prevent camping until you’ve maxed out each zone a disaster will strike each town that can only be alleviated by an item indigenous to another area.  Using offerings from one section to cure another gives the entire world a sense of “unity” for lack of a better word.
If I were to grade both parts of Actraiser separately, the sim parts would be a 9 but the side scrolling levels a 7 making the overall game an 8. The sim parts still shine but time has revealed the flaw in the game’s other half. But it still remains a game that is worth anyone’s time.

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