Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Give This Game a Shot: ActRaiser 2

at 3:28 PM
In Give This Game a Shot, we give a fair shake to games that have been overlooked due to commercial failure, more popular siblings, or straight-up non-release.

Hey look, I finally gave this occasional feature a description. I've been all about features and descriptions these past one days. 

SNES fans are born with a full working knowledge of Enix/Quintet classic ActRaiser, but for those still catching on, it's a weird combination of platformer, simulation game, and top-down shooter. The player starts in control of a "sky city" floating over a giant continent peppered with Tiny Towns (TM). Zooming in on one of these city-states switches the player to control of an angel equipped with 4-way bow. The angel is tasked with combating respawning foes while directing the progress of the city's technological and geographic growth. When the player has ushered the budding society into prosperity, he will be asked to (literally) conquer its demons, shifting the game to a standard '90s platformer. Contrived as it may be, I love ActRaiser; it has that special Quintet touch - the beautiful music, the haunting atmosphere, the grace switching between micro- and macro-stories, the abundance of Mode 7. The premise of playing as a heavenly entity freeing the world from demonic bondage is carried over to the second game, but the only gameplay mechanic that remains is the over-world map.
Observe ActRaiser's world map, sim/shooter, and platforming modes of gameplay
I'm tempted at this point to go on a long tangent about Quintet and their six SNES games. Temptation averted!

ActRaiser 2 is often dismissed for eliminating the god-sim elements that made the original stand out against the sea of platformers drowning the SNES. On paper, it sounds like a disappointing betrayal. In practice, ActRaiser 2 is as unique a game as its precursor, though for reasons less immediately obvious. Where ActRaiser relied on novelty to distinguish itself, 2 reaches for thematic depth and dense gameplay. It isn't a game about developing civilization and cultivating faith; rather it addresses the vices of society (in the form of the seven deadly sins) and the plights of developing cultures. The game spans multiple continents, from which the variously characterized people beseech God to rescue them from their downfall.
ActRaiser 2 eliminates the sim, skipping straight from world map to completely redesigned action stages
The Master (aka God aka the player) travels the over-world in his floating castle (Heaven) and descends upon troubled cities to hear of their suffering. The citizens will point to the most immediate threat to their happiness, which will lead to a preliminary action stage. After the people are thus liberated, they will plead the Master to destroy the manifested source of their oppression. For instance, when the Master visits Leon, he learns that its people are being heavily taxed, with offenders thrown into a cavernous jail. The Master sets out to free the prisoners, then returns to the city to find the townsfolk still suffering under the crushing taxation. He climbs to the golden palace east of the city and topples the mad king, who has been transfigured into a dragon by the demon Greed. In luxurious Temponia, the Master discovers that the demon Gluttony has consumed all the food and the people are dying of starvation and infighting. A trip to the nearby desert of Modero reveals that the souls of the deceased are being accumulated into a Legion-like beast with innumerable mouths. The Master frees these souls and then tracks the food-stealing ants to their nest, where he must defeat Gluttony's ant-queen to save the Temponians.

Note that the names of characters and locations directly reference their role in the story (some more obviously than others - "Modero", the desert where the souls of gluttons are punished, is clearly derived from "moderation", but you might have to look up "Leon"). I like this straight-up allegorical approach to storytelling. If anything, it's something we don't often see. I can't imagine anyone being bothered by the Christian mythological baseline any more than they are by the rampant use of Greek and Norse mythology in other fantasy games - this isn't Bible Adventures Jr. The art has a creepy Baroque/Divine Comedy feel; the monsters are exaggeratedly hideous, yet extravagant, bedecked in detailed appendages and clothing. The image of the Master draws from the opposite end of the artistic spectrum: his anatomically correct, chiseled and mostly naked figure calls to mind Greco-Roman Classicism and its ideals for man. This David-like appearance emphasizes the champion's role in ridding humanity of its imperfections. Better yet, the Master's earthly form is actually an awakened statue; we see at the beginning of each stage his stoic, solemn perfection even amidst the surrounding chaos.
If you don't think ol' Angry Cloud with Death would fit in on  your local medieval tapestry, you've been looking at different local medieval tapestries than I have.
Artistically and thematically the game is a step up from ActRaiser (and just about any other SNES game), but that's not the reason it remains largely unrevered by retro gamers. That would be a terrible reason to be unrevered. No, it's the platforming itself that draws such grief. ActRaiser's Master was the most basic possible platforming protag: he could duck, attack, and jump. 2 goes in the complete opposite direction - this Master is one of the most complex 16-bit characters this side of Cybernator. He can duck, jump, double jump, float, glide, and dive, and perform a unique sword AND magic attack in any of those states. The main complaint leveled at this complexity is that the character is unwieldy, as an unchecked double-jump quickly becomes a glide which causes a long skid on landing. This 'flaw' is simply an unwillingness of players to learn the controls - the level design knows how advantageous, and simultaneously dangerous, the glide can be, and will fuck players for trying to abuse it (a simple tap of the jump button cancels a glide). If an intro level like Industren isn't good enough to teach the cancel move (with its high, small platforms), maybe the player would be better pleased with Bubsy.

This Master is a tank - his lethargic pace is necessary to keep the player focused on eliminating enemies rather than evading them. He makes up for this lack of mobility with new offensive and defensive skills - his shield is impervious to almost any projectile when standing still or ducking, his sword can be swung high, low, or in between, and from the air he can perform powerful plunging and diving attacks. The previous  Master (ActRaiser) had a few screen-clearing magic spells (only one of which could be brought into each stage), but this one has six specialized moves, each deployed by charging/releasing a basic sword attack. The spell unleashed is determined by the Master's movement state: if he's standing still, he unleashes a forward flamethrower; if he's diving, he transforms into a fiery pheonix; if he's aiming upward, he lobs a tripartite grenade, so on. Magic points come sparingly, but a careful player should have at least five or six saved up for each boss battle, giving plenty of room for magical improvisation.

Even if the winged Master is more than a match for the platforming, the armies of demons guarding almost every inch of real estate provide the real challenge. Few rooms are clear of enemies, and those that are will make the player wary of trickery, as pits alone are not enough to stop this God. Standard enemies are largely level-specific and single-purpose (archers or bouncers or flying sentinels), ranging from tiny to half-screen-tall (some bosses are in fact as tall as the screen), kept fresh through their presentation environment. The level Stormrook, for instance, introduces a scutum-toting axe-tossing knight impervious to frontal assault. The player first encounters him is in a high-ceilinged hall, where a double-jump and glide attack will suffice to strike him from behind. The knight next appears atop a staircase, where the Master can stay low to avoid his attacks, but can't get over him. Here the player learns that a correctly timed upward or jumping attack can hit the knight while his shield is down. Later still, the player faces off against him in a flat corridor, which will probably be the first time they notice that he has high and low axe throws, and that they can use their own shield to get close, then duck-attack when he throws high. This type of stage-variance is what keeps players coming up with new strategies to approach the same basic-patterned enemies, and forms the substance of most modern 3D action games.

This idea certainly wasn't invented here, and goes back at least as far as Super Mario Bros., which pulled similar tricks by putting Hammer Bros. on flat ground, stairs, and elevated platforms. What ActRaiser 2 does well is combine it with a complex avatar who has multiple avenues of resolution to each conflict, with varying degrees of functionality and challenge to execution. Knowing how to survive isn't the same as surviving, and player state is determined on a continuous spectrum (life bar), reflecting their ongoing performance. Perfect execution can allow room for later mistakes, and early mistakes can be redeemed by later skill.

What ActRaiser 2 doesn't do well is balance difficulty. If the game had eschewed a rigid lives system (three deaths and you're back to the map screen), it could've paralleled Demon's Crest in terms of rewarding challenge. As is, it's, well, really fucking hard to beat. There are plenty of checkpoints throughout the levels, but strangely, NOT before bosses (with one or two exceptions). The pre-boss checkpoint is key to  accessibility in punishing games like this (see Mega Man), because it allows the player to get at least one clean, full-health run at their foe (assuming they have a spare life). Take away that checkpoint, and the entire space between the final checkpoint and the finish line becomes PART of the boss fight. This makes no sense and is extremely frustrating. A smart player will stockpile magic to use against these big bads, but that's far from a guaranteed win - lose a few lives, and you have to start the entire gauntlet from scratch. The relaxed stage-order (a slight variation on MM7: there are six 'starter' stages which can be played in any order, the completion of each unlocking a unique followup, i.e. you can play 1-1, 2-1, 3-1, etc. in any order, but you have to beat 1-1 to get to 1-2, 3-1 to get to 3-2, and so forth) alleviates this somewhat, but not enough to ensure that a casual player will see the ending. This is one of very few games where I endorse the usage of save states (I used them only to provide pre-boss checkpoints, which, with the existing infinite continues/passwords, made the game completely manageable).

And hey, unless you've got the original cartridge, there's no way to play that WON'T allow you to use save states. I highly recommend it - beyond a gorgeous audio/visual journey and engaging narrative, ActRaiser 2 provides a unique action-heavy precursor to latter-day swords and sorcery action.

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