Back when the Super Nintendo launched in Japan — where it was of course known as the Super Famicom — it was accompanied by some truly remarkable titles. As a young (and loyal) Sega Mega Drive owner at the time, for me personally it was torture to see the likes of Pilotwings, F-Zero and Super Mario World all receive rave reviews from the various magazines which were around at the time. It was abundantly clear that despite my intense affection for Sega's amazing arcade-focused output, I simply couldn't resist jumping into bed with its rival to experience these groundbreaking titles.
While Nintendo's 16-bit powerhouse hit the market with a selection of highly playable releases, one game caught my attention like no other, thanks in no small part to the fact that it was given extensive coverage in the popular UK publication Mean Machines upon its launch in Japan. Quintet's ActRaiser was simply unlike any other game I had experienced; while it combined two famous genres — the world-building setup made famous by Populous and the traditional 2D action platformer — the final package was simply stunning. It felt like a revolutionary concept at the time, fusing these two totally dissimilar styles into one cohesive and amazingly entertaining whole.
Not speaking any Japanese, I was forced to wait until the North American edition of the game was released, at which point I promptly purchased a rather flimsy converter cartridge and booted it up on my PAL Super Nintendo console. The hours I had spent pouring over reviews and previews of the Japanese version hadn't diminished my desire to witness the game first-hand; from the opening notes of Yuzo Koshiro's iconic soundtrack to the titanic battle at the game's conclusion, ActRaiser impressed me in a way that no other SNES title managed to do at the time. Even today, it holds a special place in my heart; all too often developers try to mix up different game styles to create something fresh and unique, but here it didn't feel contrived or forced — in ActRaiser, it made perfect sense that before you could cultivate the land and allow your people to prosper, you had to clear away the evil forces which had taken over. The two game modes complimented one another — and the narrative — perfectly.
ActRaiser's impeccable presentation is all the more remarkable when you consider its status as a launch title. Developer Quintet — which would go on to create the equally brilliant Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia/Time and Terranigma — had, in my mind at least, captured lightning in a bottle. ActRaiser 2 was sadly stripped of the world-building feature and as a result ended up as a gorgeous but ultimately shallow action title, and while similar themes of destruction and rebirth would be explored in Quintet's aforementioned "Heaven and Earth" RPG trilogy, for me they never hit that sweet spot in the same way that ActRaiser did. It was — and arguably still is — a totally unique venture.
Today, ActRaiser has been largely forgotten by all but the most seasoned of gaming veterans. A poor mobile phone port (which removed the Populous-style sections) was released to almost complete apathy in 2004, and the title arrived on the Wii Virtual Console three years later, but the property — along with Quintet itself — has remained dormant for years. With the status of its creator currently unknown (no official word has ever been issued, but Quintet appears to have disbanded around 2002) and with publisher Enix now part of the Square Enix stable, the chances of another ActRaiser seem rather unlikely — which is a shame, because the title was arguably ahead of its time and would be ripe for remaking with today's technology.
The best we can hope for is a Virtual Console release on the Wii U, but what I'd really like to see is a full-blown re-imagining with the original developers involved. The world-building sections could be controlled using the touchscreen of either the 3DS or Wii U, while the action sequences could be produced in full 3D — or, to keep things truly authentic — in 2D with enough opulent, high-resolution artwork to make George Kamitani blush.
Looking back through the history of gaming, it's clear that many retro titles are remembered fondly for their technical impact or the sheer addictiveness of their gameplay. Personally speaking, ActRaiser sticks in my memory as a game which tried something totally original and succeeded. Ironically, when the two game styles are viewed separately from one another, it's less impressive — the platforming sections are good rather than great, and the "God" portion of the game is a lot more simplistic than Populous — but the combined package is more than the sum of its parts.
Screenshots kindly supplied by Hardcore Gaming 101.