ACTRAISER!!!['Parallax Memories' is a regular column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles Enix's 1990 Actraiser]

Actraiser can be broken up into action and simulation, and the name comes from what it does, not what it is. Using this column as an excellent excuse to purchase games that I have had interest in I picked it up on a whim at a used game store while visiting some friends in Louisiana. This was at least six months ago and between some major moving and job transitioning I put it on the back of a mental list of things to play.

While sitting around this weekend, attempting to come up with a game or item for this column I got a phone call from a friend who demanded I write about Actraiser (he also told me I'd probably get fired if I didn't mention how great the music is). After about an hour with the game I had decided that he had a pretty good idea here. Even though I had the box for the game, I was missing the manual. After the introduction where I'm told that "The Master" needs to clear the lands so that they are safe for the village I was presented with quite a few options and not a whole lot of instruction. I picked "fight monsters" and was asked if I was sure, then proceeded to get thrown into what struck me as fairly standard side-scrolling sword play.

actraiser1.gifAct

The game is divided up so that each time you get to a new area you have to defeat a boss. Defeating them will make the land habitable for people. Once the people have inhabited the land they will usually uncover some evil creature that will result in another boss fight. The side-scrolling levels entail a fairly standard fair of fantasy characters mixed with a bit of demonology. The settings for the levels range from exceptionally generic to very beautiful.

Each level is thematic to the regions of the world that the towns are located, ranging from forests to snow-covered mountains. For a game released in 1990 it's good, and at worst, on par with contemporary levels of design. It's too bad that this level of design has been so heavily copied and retread that now it just seems old hat.There are little things that keep it fresh even after all this time. One of the touches that I liked best is that when you land after a jump the sprite will crouch for a brief moment and can be used to quickly dodge an attack or make a low attack. It's unfortunate that the rest of the action isn't as inspired. Luckily, the other half of the game is comprised of a pseudo-SimCity with its own unique flair. The action sections are mostly there to break up the pace and keep things going at a very palatable rate.

actraiser2.jpgRaise

After defeating the initial boss the game opens each town up for the simulation half of the game (although it encompasses much more of your time than that action half). This is the section that got me thinking that I may not be able to play it without a manual after all. I was wrong, though; the menus (while entirely too simplistic) are well laid out and not used nearly as often as one with a knowledge of Sim games would expect. As "The Master" you pilot an angel who looks like Cupid while creating miracles and natural disasters to help the townspeople inhabit the area. The kinds of miracles you must perform range from city to city, and all are fairly simple tasks usually involving clearing grounds from obstructions.

The rest of the time, while the civilians are expanding the city, you mostly fly around in a free roaming shooter environment. Assorted enemies will come out of monster lairs and try to wreak havoc on the denizens of the current town and your job is to protect them with cupid's trusty bow and arrow. Unfortunately this aspect of the game is a bit top heavy. You do gain levels as the world's population increases, but when you start building a town you're at your weakest, and the enemies at their most copious. When you run out of health Cupid can no longer defend the cities with his arrows and you're left to just watch as they get destroyed. As the town expands the people will close up the monster lairs. Fewer enemies will appear until the town is cleared of them. This is the point where you will have to go back and defeat some new unearthed evil in side-scrolling sword play mode, and the circle is complete. Return to your flying fortress and you will do the same for all of the towns until the land is cleared of all evils and your tarnished name is cleared.

actraiser3.jpgActraising

I once heard that the platforming sections are what make Actraiser great, but those really can't stand on their own. I've read claims that the simulation mode is what makes the game special because the action half is so average. Neither is the case. It is the cohesion of both elements that really makes the game so special and why it's included on Gamespot's 2003 Greatest Games of All Time list. It's like Ying and Yang, Adam and Eve, Romeo and... OK, I'll stop the duality list. To say that either element on its own could stand alone is a bold and false statement. Enix tempted fate a few years later with Actraiser 2 and completely omitted the simulation half of the game. It misses the point of what made Actraiser, and ultimately leaves the player with the impression of an average game. While I may try to argue my taste in games, it will take someone with true blind devotion to argue that Actraiser would still be great in parts rather than the sum of its whole.

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter, an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]