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SummaryA dull simulation game and an okayish platformer tie neatly together for a surprisingly entertaining experience.
The GoodThe thematic material of Actraiser is a big factor in its success. You play the "Master," a deity of some sort embellished with a lot of Judeo-Christian trappings. Playing "god" always has at least some sort of charm for most gamers (:-P), but here it's also used as a vehicle for a fun action platforming aspect in addition to the rote simulation gameplay. Not content to just alter the landscape or blast baddies with lightning from on high, here God comes down in the form of a warrior to lay out some divine judgments in the form of gratuitous sword-based smitings. That's fun. :-)
Each aspect in isolation is fairly mundane, however. The simulation part of the game is simple. You have many of the standard Populous tools at your disposal to alter the landscape, guide development, etc., you also have a little cherub to guide around, shooting arrows and the like at monsters that regularly appear at marked (and occasionally hidden) spawn points.
Standard god-game rules apply in the overhead view strategic or sim mode of the game--you oversee your population of worshippers, help them grow, guide their development, and protect them from danger, foes, and other obstacles. The essential strategic aim of this portion is to find and seal all the monster spawning locations. As you do this however, Actraiser does introduce its unique components--with each new sealed monster lair, a scripted event comes into play that takes on more unique character. Your followers may have lost a child in the desert, may have a problem with their crops, may mention a strange pyramid off in the distance, may have become ill with the plague, etc. These incidents are tied to each specific area and form a sort of plot in addition to the standard God-game strategy aspect. This addition is nicely diverting, if not very in-depth. The plot twists are fairly cliche and expected, but they also connect you to the little sprites running around their houses on the screen in a significant way. Another nice addition are the unique overworld monsters and their attacks. A red demon can fry up your crops, a giant bat can abduct a Defender-esque chain of citizens from their domicile, and a big scary skull does, well, what you'd expect a big scary skull to do. :-)
To even begin with the simulation mode, however, you have to battle your way through a monster-filled platformer level. :-) This is where the game truly shines. The monsters and the player have well-drawn, colorful sprites, the bosses look appropriately large and hideous, and the controls are just shy of spot-on. The sound and music design are beyond excellent for the epoch, considering this was a very early game for the SNES Along with Super Castlevania IV, this is really a standard-setter for the platform. Special moves are present in the form of "magic" attacks, maximized by your followers uncovering power-ups for you in the sim mode, but most of the time you won't need any of the special attacks to win. This is, however, a nice tie-in to the sim aspect of the game, and does make exploring with your followers more worthwhile.
Tied together, these less-than-perfect games work excellently. Just when you get sick of moving your bare-assed little cherubic avatar around, mindlessly shooting endless monsters with little arrows and listening to your followers whine incessantly, you get back to the visceral action of a sword-brandishing platformer! Conversely, once you're sick of hurling the controller around after falling into pit after pit in Northwall during the platform aspect, you get back to the nice, relatively friendly world of the simulation. With the two being nicely tied together by scripted events in the simulation segments, there isn't a jarring break and the game is still allowed to nicely change gears on you. It keeps the tedium at a minimum.
The BadThe tedium is -absolutely- still there, however. Particularly in the sim aspect. Shooting the same monsters again and again as they infinitely respawn is a chore. Removing arbitrary geographic obstacles again and again to open up development is not exactly a demanding task--more like virtual housekeeping. Once you've got the idea of sealing all monster lairs as the goal, a lot of the mystery and fun of the sim aspect disappears as the player is just thinking "where is the lair, and what's in my way?" This leads to a lot of disinterest and feelings of inevitability in the more routine aspects of the God-game, which is definitely something to be avoided in any game of this type. The "puzzles" in the game are extremely simplistic and require little to no creatively to solve.
As for the platformer, while it's generally a very tight and entertaining game in its own right, the actual play mechanics and level design (apart from the art) are not top notch. Lots of enemies and obstacles do not provide an elegant and strategic plan of attack--mostly you just hack and slash, dodge projectiles, and jump over pits. Not too innovative for the time of release by any means. Your strategic options for platform combat are more limited than in Metriod, and that's a shame. There are few surprises other than in the visuals, and odds are if it's moving, you can just swing your sword at it until it dies.