When it came out, the original Actraiser was something of a revelation. A weird game that blended the platforming style of games like Castlevania (rich in detail and with chunky sprites that certainly evoked the recently released Super Castlevania IV) along side a city building sim (not as complex as SimCity but certainly in the same genre). On paper this concept is ridiculous, but in motion that game was amazing.
Fans of that title obviously were hopeful for a sequel, and developer Quintet (who made the first game for Enix) was tapped to create a follow up. The only restriction this time around, from Enix, was to remove the city-building portions of the game. That's a strange ask because the sim-building parts were what gave the game its magic. Without the city building half of the game -- a part of the game that not only changed up the game play but also acted as a kind of leveling system to improve your God-hero as he guided his people -- Actraiser would have just been yet another generic platformer.
It's a point well proven by Actraiser 2 as this sequel is just another generic platformer. While that portion of the game is good, mind you -- Quintet did know how to craft well-designed game -- it's not anything special, doubly-so when you come to this game after playing the first one. All the magic, all the weird fun and sense of discovery that the simulation game added to the overall package, is missing here. We now just have a basic hero going from level to level, killing hordes of enemies until the credits roll.
If you haven't played the first game in the two-part series, Actraiser 2 probably won't seem bad at all. When first loaded you'll be treated to a very handsome game indeed. The visuals are lush, an improvement over the first game with more detail and more layer effects added in to make this one of the prettiest SNES games, for sure. The game sounds a lot like the original, has the same basic feel of the platforming sections of the original, and (for the action half of that game) feels like a proper, even improved, version of the first game.
In a passing way the game even resembles the basic structure of the previous title. You, the God monitoring your world, look down at the world map from your floating sky palace. You angelic guide tells you about a place (the town of Dilligence first before shift you to the demon infested land nearby) and then guide you on where you have to go and what places you have to battle through to free a region. You'll then get warped down (just like in the original game) teleporting into a statue of the God in that region so you can battle through the 2D side-scroller and kill the demons of the land.
That's all well and good, and if you just compared screenshots between the games maybe you wouldn't notice anything. But after you cleared a region you run up against the big change: save dilligence and you just move on. There's nothing to break up the grind of the levels, just the angel talking at you for a couple of screens of text and then its on to the next level to fight another horde of demons. And then you do this, again and again, for a couple of hours (unless you're really good at the game).
Now, if fairness, the first game could be played this way, too. If you finished the original game once you unlocked Professional Mode which was all the stages, made more difficult, strung together without the simulation aspects. But that was meant to be a bonus and not the whole game. When played like that, back-to-back-to-back, the action aspects of the game get kind of tedious. The original game was balanced in such a way that, by cutting between action and simulation you had a refresh between. Each mode fed the other, giving the player a cooldown so they could be prepared. While the two modes might have seemed weird when you first played the game, they really accented each other perfectly.
There are improvements to this game to make the action more interesting. The God-hero now has wings he can use to perform not only a double-jump but then a quick third jump into a glide, all to help add more platforming challenges to the game. He also now comes equipped with a shield that can block most projectiles, and can swing his sword in a standard slash, at an upward angle, and do a diving sword thrust. This all makes the hero feel more substantial, yes, and adds more to the platforming.
And yet, still, something is missing. Without the simulation aspects what we have is a sword swinging, bare-chested barbarian. Yes, he's lithe and maneuverable (even if he does sluggishly walk the whole time), and we have plenty of other games like that already (Altered Beast, Rygar, and Karnov, just to name a few). Most of those games did their action loop better, and certainly had even more varied challenges to add to the proceedings. They added something to their package while what Actraiser 2 removed all that made the previous title special.
It's easy to see, then, why there wasn't an Actraiser 3; by demanding that the simulation aspects be removed from the game, Enix crippled the sequel, turning it into a game no one really cared about. Actraiser 2 is a fine, if generic, game, but when you compare it to the first title it's like night and day. Fans were turned off, sinking the series. Even now it's hard to get into Actraiser 2 when there's the far superior first game to play instead.
Similarities to Castlevania Games
Where the platforming of the first Actraiser mirrored the Castlevania series (as noted, especially Super Castlevania IV), so too does Actraiser 2. Most of the new abilities that the God-hero gets, like his shield and the ability to sword-swing in multiple directions, are abilities that Simon Belmont had at one time or another in his long career. Only the double-jump and flight are new additions for the repertoire, and those would eventually get copied, in their own way, by the Metroidvania titles to come later.
There's also one subtle relation between the two: the first Actraiser was a game that really pushed what the new (for the time) technology of the SNES could accomplish. All the Mode 7 zooms, along side the double-style game play, made for a package that really felt like it could only exist in the early part of the SNES's run, just like Super Castlevania IV and all it's weird graphic flourishes, rotating stages, and other Mode 7 trickery. By the time of the next games for each series on the SNES, Actraiser 2 and Castlevania Dracula X, all the fun, odd flourishes had been stripped out. Both series went for a more sedate style, and arguably neither of these later games were able to rise to the level of what came directly before.