When Sega and Ace Games revealed their action-simulation hybrid SolSeraph last week, it immediately drew comparisons to Quintet's 1990 SNES title, ActRaiser. The comparisons aren't meant to be dismissive or scornful, though. In fact, there's a certain elation behind them.
Despite its status as a beloved classic, ActRaiser's rarely been imitated, duplicated, or even referenced. Even its own 1993 sequel tread a much different path. Spiritual successors to respected retro titles are typically announced with considerable fanfare and come into being after years of development. (Koji Igarashi's Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is the most recent example.) The reveal trailer for SolSeraph, by contrast, dropped to Earth out of nowhere. The finished game is coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC in less than two weeks. No fuss, no muss.
Hopefully SolSeraph will be good. I don't think my heart can take waiting decades for an ActRaiser successor or sequel only to have it be unplayable. The trailer seems to have the basics down, though. You play as an angelic warrior who must make a wild, monster-dominated land safe for humans to live on and prosper. That means dividing your time between traditional side-scrolling stages and simulation sequences where you take an active role in humanity's growth. It's a weird mix, but as ActRaiser itself proves, it's a compelling one when done correctly. When you fight well, the humans in your care thrive. When they thrive, you grow and become stronger. It's a fulfilling symbiotic relationship, and one of the main reasons people still remember ActRaiser fondly nearly three decades since its launch.
It can take a little while to warm up to ActRaiser, admittedly. I remember renting it blind from the video store as a kid, observing the goofy-looking player character sprite, and thinking "Oh man, I just wasted a rental, didn't I?" My dismay wasn't helped by the game's heavy, inelegant controls. Thankfully, it didn't take me long to notice ActRaiser's backgrounds and boss sprites were—and still are—wonderful. Its soundtrack, composed by industry veteran Yuzo Koshiro, likewise makes you pick up your ears every time you enter a new level. Maybe not immediately, but before too long you say to yourself, "Holy cow, this game sounds incredible." Usually it's around the point you enter Bloodpool and let its heroic theme power your monster-killing rampage against the moonlit crimson waters that give Bloodpool its name.
The ActRaiser soundtrack's ability to pump you up speaks to how well the game's parts all work together. Outside of Koshiro's soundtrack, little about the game can stand on its own. Its side-scrolling action-platforming sequences are good, but a mere "good" isn't enough on a console that has Mega Man X, Castlevania 4, and Super Mario World. Its simulation interludes are interesting by themselves, but certainly a far cry from Sim City's depths and options. ActRaiser is such a successful adventure because Quintet designed the game as a wheel, and you hold the spokes together as The Master.
ActRaiser doesn't simply beam you down to clear out hostile territory so that your subjects can move in before you bounce to the next area. You also have to keep watch on the sparse population and protect it from overhead monster attacks so civilization gets a chance to take root. Gradually, the humans scratching a meek living from the land become builders, musicians, ranchers, and explorers. The items they invent and find help other settlements survive and grow, too. For example, one population might come to a standstill after being stricken by a plague, forcing you to move on and make another patch of land safe from monsters. Then you raise that settlement until its population learns how to cultivate the herbs that grow wild in the region. Medicine in hand, you can return to the plague village and restore it to health.
Much of ActRaiser's town-building is hands-off, but you're rewarded if you take the effort to intervene. If you leave your townspeople to their devices, they won't reach their full potential. You can help them along by instructing them to grow wheat instead of corn and ensuring they build roads to every corner of the settlement. You can even call up a natural disaster and rip apart their old houses to make way for new, bigger ones as soon as they learn how to build with bricks instead of straw.
Yeah, smiting worshippers is a little Old Testament-y, but it's a vital move if you want your thralls to max out their population. The more babies they make, the more hit points you gain (chalk it up to the Miracle of Creation). Higher populations also have a better chance of finding the magic scrolls you need to pull off ActRaiser's powerful boss-killing spells. Long story short, your worshippers need you, but you're not much without your worshippers' unquestioning devotion, either.
It's an interesting theological take for a '90s video game, even if the North American version of ActRaiser erases all mention of God (that's you!) and the Devil from its text. Most religious studies aimed at kids speak of God's infinite love for us, but Sunday School doesn't always try to explain what God gets out of loving us. (Unless, again, you want to delve into the Old Testament "I'm a jealous God" song and dance.)
ActRaiser doesn't just explain the relationship to us; it demonstrates the mutually beneficial partnership several times over through the eyes of God. It's pretty heavy stuff for a first-gen SNES game, but it was just the start of Quintet using its games to talk about humanity's relationship with the divine, the planet, and the cycle of life and death. Frankly, after playing through Illusion of Gaia's subplots about slavery and colonialism, ActRaiser's "Guess what, you're God now" mechanic feels comparatively light-hearted.
I'm glad Ace Games is taking another chance on ActRaiser's unusual gameplay formula with SolSeraph. I really hope the game also manages to capture how satisfying ActRaiser's God-worshipper symbiosis is. It's the reason I still come back to ActRaiser from time to time, and with any luck, I'll have good reason to revisit SolSeraph years from now, too.
Header art from The Cover Project