Platformers were a dime a dozen back on the NES and SNES. There were so many of them that it was actually very difficult for any particular game to stand out regardless of level design / music / even gameplay. The market was saturated.
ActRaiser was able to stand out by incorporating a very strange but effective "city building" aspect into the game that occupied about 50% of the overall gameplay and was completely different than the various platforming levels that you would undertake. It was like having 2 games in one and while it probably sounded crazy when they were thinking of making it, it simply works.
The story behind this is that you are are a god known only as "The Master" who awakens to find that he has lost all of his powers because the population no longer believes in him. Because of this lack of faith (which of course, we find disturbing) the balance of good vs. evil has been upended and "The Evil One" or Tanzra - whatever, it was poorly translated from Japanese but it doesn't matter.
Upon your awakening you realize that Tanzra has divided the world into 6 kingdoms, each of which has an evil lieutenant ruling over it. Obviously, these 6 kingdoms get progressively harder like you would expenct in any game.
Much of the game is spent in a side-scrolling platformer that actually is the low point of the game. The controls are a bit stiff and combat becomes a bit monotonous after just a little while. They do have some creative level design in that you can't just "run and gun" and expect to get through the levels. A great deal of your strategy comes from learning the patterns of your enemies and behaving accordingly. You collect powerups as you go through the levels becoming stronger as time goes by.
After you clear a level, you go to what I consider to be the best part of the game where you have to build cities in order to convince the population to believe in you again.
With the assistance of your angel friend, you fly around eliminating flying enemies while protecting the already existing parts of the town. The objective is to listen to the people and build what it is that they need to expand. Along the way it is necessary to make your way to the spawning points of the monsters (seen on the right, above) and seal them. Once all of this is done that particular part of the map is now controlled by you as the people now believe in you again.
Then you move on the next section, which returns you to the side-scrolling action part of the game.
The maps for each of these levels were quite huge and trust me, there were plenty of opportunities for insta-death by falling from a platform. Thankfully, they had at this point eliminated that annoying aspect of many platformers that would make you involuntarily "jump" back if you were struck by an enemy bat or projectile. The levels also had many checkpoints so that you didn't have to do the entire level again once defeated by a boss.
The bosses were big and varied in their patterns, and only one of them was a "cheat" that you had what we referred to as a cheese attack that was all but unavoidable. The graphics were some of the best that existed at the time and this game was well recieved by the very few Americans that bothered to play it. This is before ENIX was the powerhouse they eventually became, so only 180,000 copies were sold in North America at all. A mere 40,000 were sold in Europe.
For most people, the jumping back and forth from city building to action was a nice break and not many games had that sort of diversity in the same title - and that is what made it so awesome. This game didn't have much replay value but it didn't really matter because it was fantastic enough the first time through. The game sold well enough that it spawned a sequel in 1993 called ActRaiser 2 which sold very poorly but this time it sold many more copies in North America than it did in Japan. After the poor sales no more of them were made, which made me sad.
You can play the ROM of this game for free by going here