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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (478)

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Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 3.5/5
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ActRaiser   Super Nintendo (SNES) 

Theology 101    4.5/5 stars

“ActRaiser” was the inaugural game released in 1991, during the SNES’ launch window, even earning a coveted spot of product placement on the back of the console’s box. The developer, Quintet, was a small Japanese studio that started up in 1989, produced a small handful of memorable and unique Enix-published SNES titles in the ‘90s, before backing the wrong horse – the Saturn – in the subsequent hardware Generation, and ultimately fading away into obscurity. While not officially declared ‘defunct’ nor officially a part of Enix, Quintet just stopped making games around the turn of the millennium, though their IP clearly did belong to Enix, as is has been subsumed into the hybrid abomination of Square-Enix, allowing them to release an “ActRaiser” remake in 2021.

After playing the remake, I felt like I really needed to take a fresh look at the original game, which I hadn’t replayed since around the time Quintet went *poof*. I found it exactly as I left it: A thoroughly excellent game, with a few rough edges, that was both unique and bold in its attempts at taking a dreary and prickly subject like Christian theology and making it into something fascinating.

“ActRaiser” was a launch SNES game. Developers hadn’t learned all of the tricks and shortcuts to squeezing the most out of that console, but “ActRaiser” still managed to impress with its gorgeous color pallet, large, well-animated sprites (during the sidescrolling Action segments), Mode-7 scaling, and the sheer quality of animation squeezed out of so few pixels (during the top-down Simulation segments). Enemy variety is impressive, with each ‘Act’ of the Action stages capped off with a huge, unique boss battle. Level design and aesthetics are top-notch as well, ably representing a wide array of locales and ruined architectures.

Audio in “ActRaiser” is likewise superb. The MIDI soundtrack is not only well-instrumented with the SNES’ kit, but excellently composed by the talented Yuzo Koshiro. On top of that, Quintet managed to squeeze everything they could out of the SNES’ sound chip regarding sound effects, many of which were reused throughout their games, creating an iconic and memorable aesthetic even outside of the soundtrack.

Technically, “ActRaiser” is what we expected of a console game back in the Golden Age. It’s polished, it just works, and the glitches and mistakes are minimal, relegated mostly to a handful of typos in the ending sequence’s dialog boxes.

“ActRaiser” is much like the anime series “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” in that it presents an outsider’s take on Christian mythology and theology, as both projects were made by entirely Japanese teams who, it is almost certain, were adherents to the Shinto ethnoreligion. As such, it’s a broad-brush interpretation of Western Religion as a whole, minus all the defensiveness and excessive ‘respect’ required of a Western developer working on a similar project. Indeed, we have not yet seen a game address theology in a similar way in the three entire decades since “ActRaiser” was published, outside of Quintet’s other games, that is.

“ActRaiser” is – from a theological perspective – an adaptation of Gnostic dualism, in which God and Satan are co-equal powers on opposite sides of the eternal struggle between good and even. Of course, in order to get this game localized in the West during the era of ‘Satanic Panic,’ when even Liberal idiots like Tipper Gore (wife of Vice President Al Gore) were clutching their pearls over the ‘occultism’ presented in Dungeons & Dragons, the names had to be changed to protect the children. Thus, ‘God’ became ‘The Master’ and ‘Satan’ became ‘The Demon Lord Tanzra’ (I have no idea what pile of Asian mythology that name came from).

At the beginning of the game, God awakens to the cherubic visage of his last Angel, who informs the Lord that he lost the final battle against evil and has been dormant for an unknown, but vast, period of time, during which Satan has overrun the entire world with his demonic followers, wiping out human civilization worldwide, and setting up fetid monster dens in the ruins of once-great civilizations. It is up to God to start dismantling the demonic presence on the Earth, one demonic lieutenant at a time.

Thus the game plays out across 6 formulaic chapters, in which a city-building Simulation segment of gameplay is sandwiched between two ‘Acts’ (hence the title – also a pun of ‘Act of God’), which play out as fairly traditional side-scrolling platformer stages, each culminating in a unique boss battle. There is little-to-no story content during the Acts, but the Sim segments are filled with little vignettes, during which God’s people come to the temple and pray about their problems. Our God is not an almighty God, however (see: getting spanked by Evil), and is more of an Old Testament, Bronze Age deity capable of manipulating the weather and dropping objects (often things found and offered up by one of the cities of the world) into the people’s midst to help them solve their own problems. Indeed, the main purpose of the Sim segments is to lead the people to the various monster lairs set up by Satan’s minions and performing a ritual to seal them, thus freeing all the human souls corrupted and trapped within to be reincarnated as good, faithful citizens.

The relationship between faith and the supernatural plays a central role in “ActRaiser’s” entire narrative structure, and lead to most of the game’s thought-provoking moments. God needs faith to grow more powerful, but can never directly intervene with people’s lives. Growing the population and guiding the people to become more self-confident and capable increases their faith, thus directly enabling God to battle more powerful demons. Indeed, with the way the Acts and Sim are completely separated, it’s almost like God – who possesses a graven image of himself as an armored, sword-wielding warrior – and the demonic foes he must destroy are part of a completely different world from the mortal humans – the Real and the Supernatural.

The story vignettes that play out across each chapter all receive a nice recap during the game’s ending sequence, in which they Angel let’s slip a few secrets he kept from God. Ultimately, the game’s theological footing holds firm, leading to a somewhat bittersweet conclusion that can still bring a tear to my eye after all these years.

Unlike the modern remake, which is excessively padded with wordy dialog, artificial quest structures, and time sinks, “ActRaiser” is a very short and streamlined game. I wasn’t even trying to rush, and managed to finish it this time in less than 5 hours. Of course, I did still remember most of the secrets, and I’m much better at optimizing gameplay than I was when I was 12, so take that for what you will.

“ActRaiser” is evenly divided into ‘Acts’ and ‘Sims.’ Acts are Action stages featuring side-scrolling gameplay, and somewhat stiff, clunky 2D Platforming highly reminiscent of Classic-style ‘Castlevania’ games. The player controls God, possessing a statue of an armored human warrior who has a very limited moveset: Walking side-to-side, jumping, crouching, and swinging his sword (which can also be done while jumping and/or crouching, providing a different animation and hitbox). Each Act allows the player a specific amount of tries – which can be increased by finding relics during the Sims – before requiring them to start again from the beginning of the Act. Acts also contain invisible checkpoints, which can be irritatingly far apart. God has two other stats besides 1-ups that actually matter: Health, which is represented by blue motes in a meter, each of which absorbs a single blow from an enemy before turning red; and Magic, which employs an archaic Vancian system, where God can cast a single chosen spell a number of times equal to the scrolls he has found, with permanent scrolls that refresh at the beginning of each Act found in the Sim segments and temporary scrolls occasionally hidden away in the Acts themselves.

In general, the Acts are not “ActRaiser’s” best feature. The controls tend to be stiff, and most boss fights have such aggravating patterns that the most practical way to deal with them is simply to face-tank everything and kill them before they kill you. Fortunately, while not particularly interesting as a platformer, the Acts also aren’t particularly difficult – at least, not until the boss rush at the very end – keeping the experience from ever becoming a chore.

The Simulation segments that happen between each pair of Acts, however, are the game’s killer feature. While God-Sims and City-Builders have been PC gaming subgenres for a very long time, it has never been a big genre on consoles, largely due to clunky controls, micromanagement, and other genre conventions that were codified very early on. “ActRaiser” manages to take the God-Sim subgenre and beat it into submission for console sensibilities.

The player must use God’s weather control powers to make the land more habitable for the people – with each region presenting different obstacles – while the omnipresent Angel flies around in a manner reminiscent of the world’s most laid-back SMHUP, killing the monsters emerging from their lairs before they can wreak havoc on the people’s buildings. The people – whom I always referred to as ‘Feebs’ – for their part, simply require a little nudge in a direction before they start flooding out of the temple and building houses, fields, etc. Guiding the people close to a monster lair causes them to perform a little ritual to seal it, with the overall civilization level of the region rising after sealing a specific number of lairs. Higher level civilizations build higher quality structures and houses that can hold more people, and in this game, population is everything, as population generates faith, which is like XP for God. Hitting population thresholds allows the player to level up, giving both the God statue controlled during Acts and the Angel controlled during Sims more hit points.

“ActRaiser” is an incredible, nearly-unique fusion of two wildly different genres into a single game. While there is a noticeable difference in quality and fun-factor between these disparate halves, the overall experience still holds up 30 years later. It’s take on theology and the Human Condition are just as thought provoking today as they were decades ago, making Quintet (and their localizers) a team that was way ahead of the narrative curve. It’s such a shame that the sequel, “ActRaiser 2,” which was commissioned specifically by Enix America tossed out everything that made the original special and ultimately killed off the IP.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 4.5/5
Simulation: 5/5
Action: 3/5
Overall (not an average): 4.5/5



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