ActRaiser was released for the SNES in 1991 several months after the console's launch, and stood out for being the first console game to merge a Sim City style God game with a traditional action side-scroller. In this game, you take the reigns of "The Master", an omnipotent over-being that re-emerges after a deep sleep to find that an arch-evil known as Tanzra has taken over the gameworld and polluted it and its people with evil. your job as The Master is to travel to each of the six lands, defeat the evil lieutenants overseeing said land, and help the people rebuild. This is where the two gameplay styles kick in.
Most of the game you'll spend in the sim game sections of the world. This entails you playing as a cherub-like angel guiding the people in each town expand their resources, all the while protecting them from lesser creatures that stand to kill your followers. You do this by simply pointing to spots on the map in which directions you want to expand you towns. Alot of the strategy involves getting your town expanded in key areas, such as portals that the people can shut down and slow the frequency of creature attacks. As for said creatures, you use a bow and arrow to shoot the baddies as they appear. As your towns expand, you level up and gain health and strength. Occasionally you use special elemental powers like rain, sun, and lightning (just to name a few) to clear out certain spots pointed out by your followers. Usually this either continues the flow of the game, or just uncovers trinkets you can use in the sim section. In terms of sim games, its really baby's first sim. Its very simple point and click, most of the expanding happens automatically, and the hardest thing about it is keeping up with trying to keep your people from being killed by the monsters. In retrospect though, I really liked it. Keep in mind that at that point in time, the only real mainstream simulation game out on the market was the original SimCity for the PC (which was released to the SNES only several months prior). Resource management, aside from a few table-top RPG simulators, was new enough on the PC let alone for the more mainstreamed consoles. So having a game mechanic this simple offered a much easier way for said style to penetrate the market. I myself normally find games like this bring and tedious, and even I was invested in seeing my towns grow. It really makes you feel like a true God, at least in the context of the game. But sooner or later you need to get your feet dirty, and thats where the second gameplay type comes in.
Several points in the game, you are required to actually drop down to the human world and fight the evil head-on. It is here that the game changed to a traditional hack and slash side-scroller. You must navigate your way through the harsh environments and enemies to reach the end bosses of each area. Usually you face two, both in different encounters (once when you first reach said area in order to flush out the greater evil of the land, and a second time when you lands' population has reached a peak). Gameplay is fun, but challenging. I normally fancy myself a skilled gamer, and i found myself running out of extra lives. the controls are tight, but tight in that "old school" way. Platforming and combat give you no leeway in terms of distance. Basically you better know exactly how far you need to jump and how far you need to swing your sword, because missing those points will cost you. the boss battles themselves are even worse, relying on precise pattern memorization and pixel-perfect placement. It's hard, but oh-so satisfying when you finally beat a level boss. And the less said about how brutal the final level of the game is, the better. Fun fact: the Us version is actually substantially easier than the overseas versions. You actually can unlock the overseas difficulty when you beat the game.
The one key standout that many who have played the game point out is the musical score. From the orchestral opening at the start screen, you can tell this score was professional composed. The Super Nintendo has always been the preferred console in terms of music over the more synth-sounding Sega Genesis, and ActRaiser was one of the first games to take advantage of that and bring a true symphonic soundtrack. From the pipe melodies of the over-world screen to the horn-heavy fight music of the side-scroller levels, you can hear the individual instruments doing their part. It really set the tone for later games like Final Fantasy 2 and 3 and the later Legend of Zelda games. Graphically the game looks good, though this game really isn't here to stress its looks. It gets the job done like alot of games of its time.
All in all, I cant recommend this game enough. This is a game that begs to be adapted to the modern consoles. In terms of hidden gems and cult classics, this is the definition of them all. Right now the game is out on the Nintendo virtual console shop, but if you can get an actual copy of this game, its well worth the investment. This game may not have the name recognition of Mario or Final Fantasy in terms of SNES games, but time has put this in the well deserved pantheon of SNES classics.