I have had a passing familiarity with some of the games I’ve written about here in these articles: I had picked up a controller and fiddled with Metroid before I sat down to play it in earnest; I had actually made it a fair way into Ocarina of Time before I went back and decided I needed to finish it to understand it better.
ActRaiser is different. This one I went into blind.
Well, maybe blind is a bit of an exaggeration. I knew that the game was divided into platforming sections and “simulation” sections, and a friend had once (aptly) described it as “Wizards and Warriors meets Populous,” but no one had told me how delightfully and expertly the two different modes of play were intertwined. It’s simple, it’s elegant, it’s compelling.
So here’s the deal, in case you’re as in the dark about ActRaiser as I was: You play the role of a god who, with the help of a tiny cherub secretary (who I’m going to pretend is Pit from Kid Icarus), frees the land from monsters (by slicing them in half with your sword) and then helps primitive civilizations to spread and settle a given region (by giving them marching orders while fending off monsters).
The dirty secret to ActRaiser is that, taken separately, neither of these modes of play are particularly special. Don’t get me wrong, they’re fun to play–the platforming has tight controls and cutting enemies to shreds with your sword feels real good! You will have a good time doing it.
All I’m suggesting is that these platforming sections aren’t Castlevania. They’re not Mega Man. They’re not even Ghouls and Ghosts, really (and thank goodness for that). They’re good! They’re just not genre-defining.
Likewise, the “simulation” sections aren’t exactly SimCity. They’re not even Populous, actually–all you’re doing is telling your little worshipers where to build so they can go stamp out the monster nests and occasionally using your phenomenal cosmic powers to bring your little dudes some favorable weather.
You should probably use your cherubic side-kick to make sure they don’t get carried off by giant bats, but hey–they’re villagers. Give ’em a little time, and they’ll make more of themselves. ActRaiser is actually quite forgiving: if you fail a given level, it’s not game over. You’re just taken back to your menu screen, where Pit tells you “it’s okay, dude, that level was pretty hard. Why don’t you give it another go?”
So if both sections of the game aren’t unique or compelling on their own, what makes ActRaiser special? The answer, of course, is the way that these two sections play off each other.
Like many 8-bit and 16-bit games, ActRaiser gives you a score for your platforming sections. With every bad guy you kill, with every power up you collect, you get another couple hundred points. You’ll also get a bonus at the end of every level for how many lives you have left in your inventory. Here’s the difference between ActRaiser and just about every other game that has this same mechanic, however: in ActRaiser, your score actually matters. I know, right? Weird!
Think about it: When was the last time you actually cared about your score in Sonic the Hedgehog? Sure, you’ll get an extra guy every 50000 points, but you’re not about to go out of your way to try and bust some extra baddies just to work toward that incentive. And, of course, you shouldn’t–the primary draw of Sonic is speed. So why does Sonic give you a score at all?
In ActRaiser, your score directly influences the potential population of the region you’re about to cultivate. The higher your score, the higher the population can be. This is exceedingly important, because the total population of your world is the number that functions as “experience” for your sword-wielding avatar. In other words, how well you do at platforming directly affects how well you can do at the “simulation,” and vice versa. If you don’t take the time to expand your towns to cover every possible inch of the map, you’ll never level up, and the later levels of the game will be impossible to conquer.
ActRaiser is perhaps the only game that I can think of whose level cap is set by the player’s performance. If you max out your score in the platforming levels, I think you can reach a global population of 6000 and go into the final confrontation at level 20. That wasn’t my experience playing it–I had all my towns at their “max” population going into the final battle, but I was just shy of level 17.
This simple loop created by the game is absurdly compelling. I definitely took the time to linger in levels, slashing monsters until I got my score as high as I dared before going into the boss area–a real gamble, considering the game’s difficulty curve: if you do well in the beginning and level up throughout, the game starts out challenging and becomes slightly easier as you progress; if you’re reckless, it can turn brutally difficult on you. Nevertheless, the incentive to get a high score so that I could reach a high level made me excited–it creates tension in the player that’s a whole lot of fun!
The aesthetics and “story” aren’t particularly engaging, but the game makes it blissfully easy to turn the message display speed all the way up and breeze through the dialogue and menus. And perhaps one of the great things to recommend ActRaiser is its length: Longer than your usual platformer but shorter than a proper RPG, the game is manageable and doesn’t drag.
Should you go back and play ActRaiser? Yes, emphatically yes. It’s not very long, it’s a reasonable difficulty, and it’s really fun. It’s not the most complex game you’ll ever play, but there’s strength in its simplicity, and its character progression system is a hook that makes it very compelling. You can get it in the Wii’s Virtual Console real easily, though short of emulation or finding a real authentic SNES copy in the wild, that’s about the only place it’s available at the moment.
Alright, I’ll level with you: Tetris Attack doesn’t appear near the top of many “Best Games of All Time” list.
I know, right? I was surprised, too. But here’s the thing: look at just about ANY list of that nature, and you’re bound to notice something. Something about Tetris. How about this? Or this? Or THIS? (Yeah, that last link is ugly, but it goes to prove my point.)
Tetris is widely considered to be among the top five games of all time. Sometimes it’s given the top spot. This almost certainly has to do with the fact that the authors of these lists usually take into account both a game’s continued playability and its influence on the medium when choosing rankings. Tetris, being both the progenitor of the puzzle genre and the single most ported game in the medium (It’s true! Look it up!), rightfully scores high in both of these areas. It has cemented its place as a classic for all time.
I’ve played Tetris, though. Who needs a review of Tetris? You don’t need to tell me whether or not you should go back and play Tetris: You already have. We all have. It was bundled with the Game Boy I got for Christmas when I was six years old. Technically, it was the first game I owned.
Tetris Attack isn’t Tetris, though. Tetris Attack has about as much to do with Tetris as Bejeweled has to do with being a real jeweler.
Alright, maybe that’s a little disingenuous. They’re both puzzle games. They both involve making rectangles disappear. They both rely on a growing sense of panic and urgency to drive the player mad as their speed increases. But it turns out that Tetris Attack is just a title that Nintendo slapped on the game because they know no red-blooded American was going to buy something called “Panel de Pon.”
There’s something about puzzle games, though, as a genre: because they’re not shackled to expectations of narrative or graphical fidelity, they rely entirely on the gameplay and the feel of the game to engage the player. While pretty colors and happy sounds can definitely enhance an experience (and here I tip my hat to Peggle, that irrepressible nugget of charm), the reason we as gamers approach these titles is for the mechanics. Part of the reason that Tetris feels so timeless is that the mechanics haven’t aged.
Tetris Attack has exceptionally good mechanics. Yes, the aim of the game is to match three like-colored shapes, and yes, that’s pretty simple. But Tetris Attack abandons the frequent puzzle trope of having things fall from the sky–instead, the tiles rise from beneath your stacks, and you are tasked with unloading the pile before it reaches the top of the screen.
Oh, big deal, you say. Things rising instead of falling. Like that changes anything.
Well, actually, it kind of does. The player’s need to anticipate what piece is coming next is a staple of the puzzle genre, and games like Tetris, Columns, Dr. Mario, Puyo Puyo, and heck, even Yoshi’s Cookie create tension by dividing the player’s attention between the field of play and the little window that tells them the future.
Other puzzle games, like Puzzle Quest and Bejeweled, remove the tension of timing altogether and allow the player to concentrate on a static field of objects to manipulate.
Tetris Attack is the best of both worlds: there is a constant (oftentimes nerve-wracking) pressure to keep making moves, to flip tiles around, to do something oh god OH GOD–but because the tiles are always coming up from the bottom of the screen, line by line, you can always focus your attention on where you’re playing. When you rack up combos, the rising tide of tiles halts for a few precious seconds as you take in the screen, sometimes staring through the colors altogether, trying to find the next move you can make before your brief reprieve is over.
Tetris Attack occasionally feels like Bejeweled with a timer, but at the higher speeds and difficulties it requires a zen-like focus and the same sort of reflexes that make the original Tetris so exciting. The last level of the single-player “campaign” (if you can call it such a thing) took me so many tries that I was nearly ready to give up, but when I finally succeeded it was in such a state of absolute concentration and awareness that upon the completion of the level, I realized that I had been holding my breath.
So: Should you go back and find a copy of Tetris Attack to play? If you have more than a passing interest in puzzle games, I’d have to say yes. Tetris Attack is definitely one of the best I’ve played, and it has a distinct feel that is worth experiencing.
You have a couple of different options: It’s a delight to play in its original SNES incarnation (provided you have nothing against the cast of Yoshi’s Island), especially against a skilled opponent. This is the version I played, and I enjoyed it thoroughly… though it might be hard to get a hold of! Apparently there was an N64 version of the game, reskinned to feature everyone’s favorite pocket monsters, titled Pokemon Puzzle League. I’ve still never put more than forty-five minutes into anything with the Pokemon name on it (gives me a chance to write about it here!), but Wikipedia tells me that the N64’s processing power makes the gameplay go down even smoother. Pokemon Puzzle League is up on the Wii’s Virtual Console if you’re willing to plunk some money down on it. Maybe you’re a fan of the Pokemans! This could be right up your alleyway, so to speak.
Something tells me, though, that your best bet might be Planet Puzzle League for DS or the somewhat truncated Puzzle League Express (available in the DSiWare shop). Puzzle games fare really well on handheld devices (there’s a reason the original Tetris was a pack-in for the Game Boy), and I could see myself losing some serious hours to a Panel de Pon port if I could carry it with me. If Nintendo didn’t have such a monolithic philosophy and was willing to release a cheap port of Panel de Pon to the smartphone market, it could make approximately a bajillion dollars. Playing versus mode over bluetooth? Sign me up.
Ah well. We can dream. If you’ll excuse me, I think I might go play just one more round…