Well unless you’re Phoebe Cates in Gremlins, for whom the festive notion of chestnuts roasting on an open fire has an altogether darker meaning. But for the majority of us, Christmas is the most fun a kid can have, and the excitement begins three or four days before the day itself, building to a crescendo on Christmas Eve when thoughts of what might be under the tree makes sleep as hard to achieve as a sub 12 second lap on Mario Circuit 1.
In the build up to Christmas 1993 I’d been as subtle as a foghorn in a library about what I really, really, really hoped Santa would bring: a SNES. Damn, those lush grey curves and the promise of Street Fighter 2 in my house was too much for my young mind to take and it was boggled. Deciding a SNES is what I wanted more than anything else in the world, I set about Operation SNES accordingly. The chief tactic being to leave a magazine advert for the desired console in the one place I knew my dad would be a captive audience: the family bathroom, specifically next to the porcelain throne where the male Cookes would regularly do some of their best, and most prolonged, thinking.
Imagine the excitement on my little ginger face then on Christmas Day when the last, suspiciously console-sized box plucked from under the tree was handed to me! But what’s that? A smaller box? It must be a game cartridge! Oh, my giddy aunt, what treat did my p-unit deem worthy of my Christmas play time?! I tore off the paper, looked at the box, and mouthed the game’s title silently. Act…raiser. Huh?
“The lad in the shop said it was very good” my mum said with all the confidence of one of Kim Jong Un’s lackeys telling the Great Leader his morning toast is burnt. Bemused by the game’s strange name I cautiously fired up the SNES… and was immediately intrigued by the triumphant horns and ActRaiser logo rippling into view. Maybe the lad in the shop was on to something. Back then my only experience of games loading had been of a few Amstrad CPC464 tapes a-bleeping and a-blurping. This hypnotic load screen was truly a brave new world.
With fresh anticipation I started a new game and suddenly I found myself in what appeared to be heaven, being asked by a little cherub to create a name for myself. Still reeling from the majestic intro I came up with the super creative ‘Ben’, completely ignoring the then default tendency to be juvenile. The same could not be said a few years later when co-creating a team of female celebrities called ‘Babes XI’ on Sensible World of Soccer and selecting an all-pink kit because somehow this made the players look naked… So, yeah, teenage boys will sexualise pretty much anything. I think Pamela Anderson was very good up front for Babes, fnar and, indeed, fnar.
Sir Ben! The game called me Sir Ben! Okay, this is already great, I thought to myself. Later the game would tell me for perhaps the first and only time in my life that I was diligent and hard-working. Bless you, ActRaiser. Within moments of naming my avatar I was descending from Cloudworld or heaven (the Japanese was a little more explicit about the religious undertones) via the magic of mode 7, plunging into the dark depths of some sort of Hell Gate and a side-scrolling 2D hack ‘n slash world. It is worth noting here that, even now, ActRaiser’s soundtrack, composed by the brilliant Yuzo Koshiro, is absolutely bloody fantastic. I’ll wait here while you pop to YouTube and fire up one of the game’s compilations.
You back? Right, so coupled with this 16-bit audio masterpiece was the aforementioned hacking and slashing through woodland filled with nefarious beasts until, oooh change of tempo, you tackle the first boss. By now I was giddier than a tumbler on a merry-go-round. The opening of ActRaiser is a tour de force in how to capture the hearts of gamers and I can’t recall too many other games that have left me so compelled to continue within such a short space of time.
Yet ActRaiser had another trick up its sleeve beyond just very enjoyable hacking and slashing. Polish off the first boss and suddenly the town of Fillmore becomes your playground as the game switches to being a God sim, and your new quest is to guide a formerly down-on-its-luck civilisation to prosperity. You do this by rebuilding the plucky peoples’ homes and forging a path to the monster lairs dotted around the reclaimed land. Once these lairs are sealed, better structures can be built and your burgeoning civilisation can develop further, in turn increasing your hit points and SP, which is used to meter our miracles. A win win for everyone involved, well, except the monsters of course, but they deserve it for being so monstrous. They should have thought through their career path a little more.
The pairing of side-scrolling action and a town-building simulation is one rarely bettered in real life, let alone videogames. Reese’s peanut butter Oreos might come close to achieving the same level of shouldn’t-work-but-does harmony but kudos to Enix for rolling the dice and welding too very different game genres into something so beautifully right. As the game continues, more lands unlock and your population grows. Each land contains two side-scrolling levels, each one a warped nightmare of increasing difficulty, with inventive platforming and decidedly vicious bosses. Eventually, once all lands are rid of beasts and all levels are conquered, you move to Death Heim for the final confrontation with Tanzra, the game’s uber-villain. Although between you, him and a battle for the ages apparently set in space for some reason, lie all the previously vanquished end level bosses, back with increased speed to dish out even more damage. I’m not going to lie, I never defeated Tanzra, and he remains my Moby Dick. Or just a dick.
ActRaiser sold around 620,000 copies worldwide, which is about a 10th of what it deserved but did at least lead to a sequel. The follow-up, despite being a solid game, did away with the God sim aspects of the original. Without the sim mode, the sequel lacks a degree of charm. It is Wayne’s World 2 to Wayne’s World; enjoyable but missing something that made the first iteration so enjoyable. At least the downturn was not as dramatic as the drop in quality from Caddyshack to Caddyshack 2 or Grease to Grease 2 (the makers missed a trick by not just naming that particular sequel ‘Greasier’).
Happily ActRaiser was given a new lease of life in recent years on Nintendo’s virtual console. In these times of HD polishes and nostalgic reboots I’d like to think someone, somewhere shares the same affection for the original and is primed to release a souped-up version. It is said that we shouldn’t look back because we’re not going that way, but sometimes a glance over a shoulder can remind of us great moments and bring them back to the fore. If there was a videogame Hall of Excellence that we could all visit and play until our hearts are content, ActRaiser would sit in a pristine SNES atop a velvet cushion, ready to woo with its many, many charms.
So the lad in the shop was right, ActRaiser was, and still is, very good. In fact, he may have undersold it. ActRaiser is superb, an all-time classic and one that will remain a personal favourite, nestled comfortably alongside other treasures such as Resident Evil 4, Fallout 3, Red Dead Redemption, SWOS and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Were it not for the lad in the shop, my love affair with videogames might never have happened, so to him, whoever this knight in a (probably) polyester shirt is, I say thank-you. To the rest of you, seek out ActRaiser and discover the joys that enraptured a thirteen year-old many moons ago and still continue to offer delights to this day.