The charter of Jessen's "Middle School Gaming" is to provide an in-depth analysis of a specific game. It's not a review, it's a detailed account of the game's history, inspiration, production, and social impact. If there's a magnifying glass around, Jessen's the one holding it. Mainly so he can fry tiny insects.

Cerebral Games for Twitch Gamers
Part II

by Jessen
with contributions by Kadiffe Samuels

Focus On: Actraiser by Enix/Quintet for the Super Nintendo/Famicom

Released as a launch title in 1991, Actraiser was destined to be a surefire hit. It was developed by the RPG wizards Enix in collaboration with software developer Quintet, with music by Yuzo “Streets of Rage” Koshiro. Mr. Koshiro’s brilliant compositions and the Super Nintendo’s powerful sound chip belted out the hauntingly stellar soundtrack, while the dazzling backgrounds and huge, colorful sprites were a dramatic improvement over the pixelated, squat characters of NES games. All this topped off with a vivid storyline and fantastic gameplay have allowed Actraiser age gracefully, despite being released over eleven years ago.

Borrowing heavily from elements of mythology, the story of Actraiser begins extravagantly as a war between personifications of good and evil: the demon Tanzra and our protagonist, known simply as the Master. The two deities were engaged in a monumental struggle for power, climaxing in a battle where the Master was severely weakened and narrowly slain. Minions of the demon Tanzra overran the land until all followers of the Master were killed, their souls transformed into monsters. Meanwhile, the Master had sealed himself in his Sky Palace to recover from his wounds. Epochs later, an angel awakens the Master and fills him in on the poor state of affairs: his body had long perished, and his power, which depends on the faith of his people, had been greatly diminished.

This is where the player comes in: taking control of the Master, releasing the souls of his people by vanquishing monsters, guiding his people in building towns, and rekindling their faith in him. Gameplay consists of two modes: Action and Simulation. There are six separate areas, each with different geographies, climates, and obstacles that need to be overcome. The first step is to possess statues cast in the image of the Master, which the former, now-extinct civilization had conveniently scattered across the land. Despite the millennia, these statues are in very good repair, and don’t seem to suffer from much weather damage or bird poopie. Good news for the Master, not so good for Tanzra’s minions. Once the Master sends his spirit down to a statue, the Action stage commences in classic side-scrolling goodness. The key here is to defeat as many monsters as possible, thus “freeing” souls. (Actually, the more monsters killed, the more points scored, which means the Master levels up at a faster rate). After clearing out the lesser monsters and their boss, the Master creates people out of the freed souls to dwell in the land. The people cannot be left to fend for themselves for long, however, as flying enemies threaten to destroy their houses, burn their fields, cause massive earthquakes, or simply carry them away. The people must be directed where to build their homes and the Master has the task of clearing land for them with the various “miracles” (wind, rain, lightning, etc.) at your disposal. In the Simulation mode, time passes at the rate of about twenty years every thirty seconds, so a new batch of people are born, come of age, and build their houses within that time. Much like Sega Genesis strategy game Herzog Zwei, flying enemies attack in real-time on the screen, and these foes must be vanquished by shooting them repeatedly with the arrows before they have a chance to wreak havoc on the population below. Eventually, the people will gain the courage to seal off monster’s lairs, which will remove the flying monster threat for good.

In each Simulation Act, the people will face a monster which they cannot best on their own, and the Master is called on to destroy it. This can be considered the boss of the Act, who resides at the end of another side-scrolling Action stage. After vanquishing the monster, the Master is free to continue developing the current land or move on to the next area. Each new location will have its own set of natural obstacles, which makes for interesting gameplay: Bloodpool is covered in soggy, untenable marsh, Kasandora is an expansive desert in need of water and herbs, and Aitos is besieged by foul winds, freezing cold, and an active volcano.

The combination of real-time action, simulation elements, and side-scrolling action keep Actraiser fun and exciting to the very end. Although a bit linear, the story develops as you play: like any good simulation game, the player is drawn into the lives of the people in his or her charge, to the point of having concern for the people and their well-being. A few Easter eggs are thrown in for good measure: wise players should flood rivers, create earthquakes, and strike buildings with lightning, because you never know what special items will turn up.

Few games feature Actraiser’s dual-gameplay modes, and even fewer succeed in making it work. There is more than enough fast-paced gameplay in the Action sections to keep arcade gamers interested. As a treat, once the game is beaten, players get to play through a harder version of all the Action stages without the Simulation mode and without the benefit magic. While Actraiser is a bit on the easy side, and simple for a sim game, this ensures it keeps out of the realm of the esoteric PC sim and within easy reach of the casual gamer. A cult favorite, Actraiser gained a strong enough following to warrant a sequel, which was released in 1993. Unforgivably, the Simulation mode was removed, and action mode was made unreasonably difficult. While the Master’s statue was improved with a set of angelic wings, in Actraiser 2 he trudges along at a snail’s pace and wields a sword with pathetically short reach. Not even Yuzo Koshiro’s soundtrack could save this one from the bargain bin, and it was a great letdown after the first game. In all fairness, without comparison to its predecessor, Actraiser 2 is a decent action game with above-average music and stunning graphics. Interested players should give it a try on its own merits. Hopefully we will see a third installment now that Enix has merged with Square, and the RPG giant will warrant a budget that will allow the programmers to do justice to the excellence of the original Actraiser.

This concludes the second half of twitch games for action gamers; stay tuned next month for some more neo-classic gaming goodness!

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A new "Middle School Gaming" can befound here around the 17th of every month!

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Last updated: Wednesday, August 13, 2008 08:45 AM