In Praise of Actraiser

If you ask me, Super Nintendo games are generally a good deal easier than Nintendo games are. The original Nintendo Entertainment System is rather notorious for having a library stuffed full of brutally difficult games, and for whatever reason, there aren’t nearly as many games on Super Nintendo that are on that same level, difficulty-wise. There are exceptions to this, of course. The Super Star Wars series is ludicrously difficult. So is Ogre Battle. And so is Actraiser.

Yesterday afternoon, I finally beat Actraiser after 20 years of trying to do so (off and on, of course.) Actraiser is both intimidating in its relative complexity and also just plain difficult. In Actraiser, you play as a vaguely benevolent being known as The Master, and you are endeavoring to save the world and its inhabitants from the demon Tanzra. (These names were changed from the original Japanese release. In Japan, the characters are known as ‘God’ and ‘Satan’, respectively, which makes much more sense. As you may know, in those days Nintendo of America had a scrunched asshole about anything they felt may cause controversy, including religious references in games.)

To do this, you fight monsters in platforming sections and build cities in a Sim City-esque simulation mode. The simulation mode scared me off for the longest time. What the heck are these commands? What do they do and why should I use any of them? What should I be doing, and what do I do if I screw up my whole city? (I’m not very good at Sim City.) But once you get the hang of it, there’s not much to it. You don’t actually decide what stuff goes where, you only instruct your followers to build in certain directions. The only things you need to be worried about are the growth of your town, and the occasional monster attacks. Once you understand how the simulation mode works, there is very little to be worried about in terms of screwing up those sections.

Which is good, because the platforming sections are way, way tougher. Actraiser is deliberate in the same way that the early Castlevania games are deliberate. Not only is the pace of play somewhat slow, you must learn to recognize enemy patterns, and you must learn how to successfully manipulate and exploit those patterns if you are to have a chance. You will not succeed at first. You will die a lot. The trick is, very few enemies operate according to a set script. Rather, their behavior is set within a range of possible actions, so you have to be able to anticipate the range of possible attacks that will be thrown at you, and counter accordingly. If you screw this up, promising runs through a level go very far south, very quickly.

During boss battles, this logic is taken to its extreme. Boss battles are the true centerpiece of Actraiser, and they are difficult for the same reasons that the rest of the game is difficult. In this sense, Actraiser is perhaps a predecessor to the Dark Souls series. All of the bosses have patterned attacks, and you can successfully exploit those patterns, but there’s no way of knowing which attack is going to be used at any given point. In addition, should you decide to guess the attack before it happens, and guess incorrectly, you’re going to end up in perfect position to get your shit wrecked. Therefore, while you must be anticipating what comes next at all times, you cannot over-anticipate. To do so is to court certain death. This is hard as all heck since you’ve just gotten through some very tough stretches of level, probably just barely, and since you want the boss to be as dead as possible as quickly as possible, it is very, very easy to panic. And panicking, of course, is the worst thing you could possibly do.

Should you make it through the game to the final level, you are rewarded with a boss rush. Those bosses that you just barely beat the first time through, and you’re not sure how, exactly? Now you have to face six of them in a row, followed by a two-phase final boss. Here is where Actraiser elevates itself to the realm of the great hard games. Once you get to the final level, the very thought of facing all of these bosses in a row seems impossible. Again, you barely squeaked out victories against them the first time. And indeed, once you start going through the boss rush, expect to die again and again and again. Slow but surely however, you will notice your skills start to improve. You figure out the patterns more precisely, and develop smarter tactics. Soon enough, you will find that you’re getting through multiple bosses, even some of the later bosses, without dying or taking much damage. The result is that while boss rush is brutally difficult and seems patently unfair at first, it makes you better at the game. It gives you the practice reps you need to understand how to take down the bosses, and once you get the hang of it, you feel invincible. Sticking with the game becomes is its own reward, as it does with the finest of the hard games.

Go play Actraiser. It’s kind of nuts and really difficult, but it’s totally worth it. End communication.

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