Actraiser, a god game for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, is considered one of video gaming's all-time classics. Unfortunately, it can also be considered an example of one of the all-time classic blunders in video games; combining a mediocre game with a really excellent one in the hope that it will turn out to be the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, combining aspects like this results in an average instead. Even so, Actraiser is probably the most unique and innovative game in the genre, of course following Populus, the game that started it all.
Actraiser is a combination of side-scrolling platformer and god game. The platform portion is what really brings the game down. Inconsistent collision detection and a tendency to be able to hit things behind you accidentally, but not be able to hit the things in front of you intentionally combine to provide a high level of exasperation. Every platform segment had me wondering how long it was going to take to get through it so I could get back to the fun part of the game. You can see other excellent examples of this in NES classics Blaster Master and, to a lesser extent, Guardian Legend, though none of those games have any gameplay style in common with Actraiser, and only one in common with each other.
The interesting part of the game, of course, is playing god. You are the "Master" of the land, who floats around the sky in the "Sky Palace", a floating island/fortress that serves as your home base. You can travel around the land in it, in order to cleanse the land of monsters so that your minions (humans) can flourish. The land is divided up into six towns; In the order I followed, they are Fillmore, Bloodpool, Kasandora, Aitos, Northwall, and Marahna. Clearing them all of monsters causes the mountain of Death Heim to rise from the ocean, and providing you with the final challenge of winning the game. Each land has different characteristics, requiring you to perform slightly different tasks to clear them. In general, however, the idea is the same; direct your people to build the city, stretching it out until they can attack the monster lairs and seal them. This must be done even if you kill every monster in the lair. As your people expand the town, they occasionally find assorted items, which are either helpful or mandatory for the completion of your quest. Until the monster lairs are closed (or depleted of monsters, wihch usually takes rather longer) they continue to respawn as quickly as they are killed, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Some will carry off your people, while others set fire to buildings or wither crops. One of them, a large skull that takes eight shots to kill, apparently even causes earthquakes if left alone for long periods of time.
Your view inside the Sky Palace involves a serene view of a moving cloudscape behind a few pillars, marred only by the menu and your cutesy little angel who hovers in the middle of the screen. Across the top are listed your location, the angel's life meter, the local and global population, and your spell points, used to produce miracles. Electing to "Observe the People" (a menu option) transports you down to the land to look around. You are then represented by the cute little angel, who does your bidding. Through him, you can call down five miracles. Lightning destroys bushes, rocks, and palm trees, as well as your people's fields and homes if you feel like being a vengeful god. Rain restores dried-up crop land, and washes away sand. Sunlight will dry up marshlands, and melt snow, each of which are found in only one town. Wind blows away all the enemies on the map, though of course they respawn rapidly enough. Finally, there is the Earthquake, which not only levels everything your poor followers have built, but also can change the shape of a continent - in just one town. This is a necessary part of passing one level.
Before you can observe anyone, however, you must first "Fight Monsters". This takes you to the platformer. When you play the platformer, you inhabit a statue that functions as an avatar, and you carry a sword. As the game goes on you acquire three magic spells which can be used during this part of the game. First, you gain Magical Fire, which throws a couple of fireballs each to your left and right. Magical Stardust is next, and it showers your enemies with stars. Finally there is Magical Light, which "consumes" monsters with a "ray of light from the Sky Palace". This sounds a lot like a big laser cannon on the Sky Palace to me - an idea somewhat reminiscent of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light. These powers also make you immune to damage for a very brief period of time while you use them, which is handy when fighting a boss.
Throughout the game, you also acquire magic points, which allow you to use these spells. They are not plentiful, and you end up only being allowed six of them by the end of the game. As you gain more followers, you also go up in levels of experience, which alows you more spell points (for the god game) and more hit points, which apply both to your statue/avatar in the platformer, and to your representative angel in the god game. Most attacks only do one point of damage, although both games allow you to occupy the same space as an enemy, and in both games you are briefy stunned as well as being pushed around when you take damage, a combination which lends itself to your taking multiple consecutive hits from the same enemy. The angel's hit points regenerate over time without any action from you, but your avatar must pick up apples (or half apples) which restore either all, or about five hit points, respectively. Items are occasionally cached in blue pillars which you break open for their contents. Besides apples, there are also score bonuses, and an addition to your weapon that allows you to throw cresent moons of power, which lasts (as far as I can tell) to the end of the level.
Game graphics are good if not inspired. The top-down god-mode scenes are pretty boring, but the graphics for the platformer are smooth and polished, even if the animation is not. Some of the backgrounds move and warp, making good use of the advanced graphics hardware in the Super NES. The music also takes advantage of the hardware, providing polyphonic ambience in the form of choral-style tunes. While the SNES was not as fast as the Sega Genesis (in terms of CPU power) it more than made up for it in additional custom hardware. The game even uses (abuses?) the rotation engine by spinning the world in circles as you close in to enter the platformer mode and kill monsters, and the cloudscape outside the sky palace uses a six-level parallax scrolling technique.
Ultimately, it would have been a better decision to add more depth to the top-down portion of the game, and eliminate the platformer altogether, perhaps spinning it off into a separate title entirely. Barring that, putting some more effort into the platform game might have helped considerably. The game feels utterly inconsistent, and somewhat contrived. Besides that, there are tons of far superior platformers out there that make one wonder why you would even bother with this part of the game. If what you want is a platformer that doesn't involve shooting, Magic Sword is available for SNES, and it not only also involves swinging a sword, but can be played with a friend. You could also get Ninja Gaiden Trilogy and probably enjoy that considerably more as well.
Actraiser is followed up by Actraiser 2, a sequel that picks up where its story leaves off. It seems to be much the same game, but with a less enjoyable interface in the sky palace, and a wider scope.