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Hall of Classics: Actraiser

It's strange to think that console gaming has been going on for over 30 years. Video Gaming is a fast-moving industry with a fickle audience. Yesterday's stunning breakthrough is today's badly-aged bargain cart, as well as tomorrow's nostalgia trip. In Game Head's new feature, Hall of Classics, we'll be looking at games that went through all three stages. What made them great for their time, why were they replaced, why are they memorable now? The first entry in HoC is Enix's 1990 platformer/God-game, Actraiser. If there's one thing that made the Super Nintendo Entertainment System an excellent console, it was the role playing games. SNES's main competition, the Sega Genesis, never really caught up in that category. There were so many RPG's on the Super Nintendo that it became the foundation of many of the genre's modern-day cliches. Amid the mass of formulaic adventures with predictable characters and uninspired mechanics, a few really innovative titles came out. Actraiser was one of them. Its unique multi-genre gameplay and ambitious concept have landed it on a slew of Top 10 lists, deservedly. The premise of Actraiser is that a world of helpless humans is beset upon by monsters and demons. The player takes control of The Master, a sort combination hero/deity whose job is to protect the people and guide them to civilization. This takes place in two parts. First are the action platforming sections of the game. For each town there are two platforming stages with some good but otherwise run-of-the-mill hack and slash. Presumably, The Master inhabits a special statue and becomes a magical warrior. With a big sword and few magic spells, you take the hero through some fairly well-designed levels fighting an army of otherworldly creatures until you reach the level's boss fight. None of this is terribly challenging, but it's fun enough to break up the rest of the game. Most of your time in Actraiser is spent building up the towns. Using a simple, intuitive interface, the Master's cherub helper directs the town's population in such duties as building, farming, and attacking monster dens. You also get a host of miracles that can alter the landscape pretty dramatically. Sunshine can melt snow and dry up marshes, lightning can clear away rocks, and earthquakes can shift the entire continent to open up new areas. While your little human followers are civilizing, they inevitably get into some kind of trouble. Sometimes they start worshiping an entity from the opposing team, other times they get sick but don't have any medicine. In a nice design choice, most of these problems can't be solved without interacting with the people of another town. By requiring the management of several towns at once, the game acquires a depth that otherwise wouldn't be there. It's certainly satisfying to see your once monster-tormented towns grow into prosperous cities. Still to this day, no other game has given players the ability to turn a desert into lush farm land. Of course, Actraiser hasn't seen an update and its concepts haven't been successfully applied elsewhere. There was a sequel, but it was nothing but another action platformer. By dropping the city building part of the game, Enix took the heart right out of what should have been one of the best franchises in gaming. There have been God-games since Actraiser and even a few that attempted genre mixing, though none that captured the same balance and fun. Peter Molyneux's Black and White series comes the closest, even if it is more than a little clunky. Without a doubt, if there's one game that would benefit from a modern console reimagining, Actraiser is it. For now, we'll have to settle for ever rarer carts and virtual console emulation to enjoy one of the best games to come out on the Super Nintendo.