To start this retrospective off, I pose a question: What video game companies are notable for creating some of the best games on the Super Nintendo? Nintendo, Konami, Capcom and Square/Enix will probably be the most common answers as a large portion of these companies 16-bit work are considered timeless classics by the gaming masses. While other companies are also known for creating great SNES games, these are usually one-off endeavors. Examples of this include Human Entertainment’s S.O.S: The Human Escape, Athena’s BioMetal, Beam Software’s Shadow, along many others. This makes Quintet’s achievements even more incredible as not only did they create a slew of great SNES games of consistently great quality, they created ActRaiser: A bastion of game design that merges a well told story with a fun dual gameplay system (just like Bastion!). In short: Quintet could be considered the Monolith Soft of the SNES era. Most of their games weren’t released in the United States, they were constantly finding new ways to innovate the medium even if no-one else cared and out of all the games Quintet ever made, ActRaiser would be their Xenoblade.
The story of ActRaiser follows a god-like being called “The Master” who has recently been defeated by “The Evil One,” also known as Tanzra and his six lieutenants. After returning to his sky palace wounded, he goes into a deep sleep only to wake up to find that all of his powers have gone because no-one believes in him anymore. This plot them goes hand in hand with the gameplay as you are required to explore the various regions of the world to convince people of your presence.
The gameplay is rather genius in a sense, as most of the game takes place in a Sim City-esque environment where you use your god like abilities to help the dying towns to become as prosperous as they were during your domain. During these sections there will be magic circles that spawn various kinds of demons to demolish the towns. This is where your angelic helper comes into play as he can fight the invading demons with his bow and arrow. As your town flourishes, you will get prayers from the people concerning their lives. This can come in the form of offerings which add abilities to the action stages (which will be explained later), power ups to your fairy ally who can get upgrades to his bow that are useful in the later stages and most importantly, the discovery of demon inhabited lands.
This is where the second part of the gameplay comes in. When the demon infestations are found, your divine spirit inhabits a warrior which then turns the game into what could only be described as a side-scrolling hack and slash action game (think of Super Castlevania IV but with a sword). These parts happen twice in any given area, one to seal off the area to stop the demons from arriving and another to kill the general that dominates that region.
This duality of Sim City meets Castlevania is the reason why ActRaiser works so well. It is likely that in most actions action games that when played for a good amount of time, a sense of tedium is likely to overcome the player, and the same can be said for the Sim City mechanic. ActRaiser realises this and divides the gameplay into equal portions to destroy any conceived notions of monotony (This is also a great way to ease the player into the game as Sim City aficionado’s will find the action sequences to be fair and action game connoisseurs won’t find the omniscient segments to be all that tedious). If ActRaiser wasn’t the first game to use this “gameplay duality” mechanic then it was at least the first to use it well. Quite a lot of popular games owe their dues to ActRaiser for this reason, most famously being Shadow of the Colossus which interspersed travelling a large plain to get to a boss and the boss fights themselves to make sure that nothing gets too linear.
From a purely technical standpoint, ActRaiser is no pushover. In the visuals department, each stage has its own unique motif (Kasandora is a desert city that is frequently the target of sandstorms, Aitos is near an active volcano which requires you to build the town quickly before the volcano goes off while sealing the demons). These video game level archetypes create a familiarity during the action stages (being coupled with good level designs helps) as well as influencing the Sim City stages to further iterate the marriage of the two styles of gameplay. Of course no-one can talk about the visuals of ActRaiser without talking about the spiralling descent into the enemy’s lair in what is possibly the best use of Mode 7 in a video game ever. The musical score is also excellent with Yuzo Koshiro continuing to provide some of the most memorable melodies in the 16-bit generation (Birth of the People remains my favourite overworld theme to any game ever).
ActRaiser got a sequel in the form of ActRaiser 2 which put the primary focus on action. While it was an above average action game, the monotony put it in the legions of games that the original ActRaiser tried to distinguish itself from. Quintet dissolved during the end of the 16-bit era, so ActRaiser 3 is unlikely however ActRaiser will forever remain a testament to one of the greatest companies during the fourth console war.