One Hit Wonders of Game Design – Actraiser

Role-playing survival game is willing to take risks

In the 90s, there was a lot of experimenting with game genres in the industry, with some of my favorite games featuring multiple system gameplay. Where the game is made up of several different game systems combined into a new genre. Titles like Star Control 2 and X-Com are some of the most famous examples of this design.

Today’s game is one of the first games designed exclusively for the consoles to feature this kind of design. Thinking about it, I can’t believe it took me this long to talk about this game, especially after writing about Hinterlanda few posts ago.

Actraiser was an action/citybuilder developed by Quintet. The plot was that you played as a God who discovers that the world it created is now full of monsters and demons, and civilization has crumbled. Your job is to take back the land and help civilization develop again.

Actraiser’s gameplay was split between two sections: overseeing the towns and fighting the enemies. Each level began the same way; with the player going through a 2d side scrolling section to defeat one of the demons in charge. After the player beats the stage, they enter the overseeing mode. Here, the player controls a cherub who fights airborne monsters while building roads to help civilization flourish. When the # of people settled reached certain thresholds, the player would get a health boost.

Lairs on the over world map would spawn enemies for the cherub to fight. This forced the player to focus on both rebuilding the area and dealing with the enemies before they hurt the townsfolk. If the player can build the town up near the lairs, the people would destroy them making the section easier for the player.

The other purpose of building your settlement was to find the location of the 2nd dungeon to wipe out the remaining demon and completely pacify the area. As the town spreads out, they try to clean up the land, which in turn can unearth the dungeon. After the player beats the second dungeon, the land is considered clear and the player can move on to the next one.

There isn’t a lot for me to nitpick or talk about in Actraiser. The reason is that not only was this an early generation SNES title, but it was also the first of its kind on a console. The gameplay never evolved any further than what you did in the first world. The only exception is the difficulty that gradually goes up with new enemies and bosses.

Sadly Actraiser seemed to suffer from the “black sheep sequel curse” of Zelda, Castlevania and Metroid. The second Actraiser removed all the city building gameplay for more action segments and it felt less inspired then the original.

However Actraiser’s dual system of city management and action would become the building blocks for games like  Hinterland and A Valley Without Wind. Still, I haven’t seen a game that really combined the two systems fully into one unique game.

Most games focus on one of the systems and left the other one to be largely bare bones. The closest I’ve seen a game come would be Dark Cloud 2 for the PS2, and how it combined building each town with unlocking areas in the dungeon.

I know that I end every post about this type of gameplay the same way and I’m going to say it again. Combining ARPG gameplay with city-building is still my dream game and maybe someday I’ll have a chance to make it.