I love it when game developers think creatively.
For example; how the heck would a developer have pitched the concept of a platformer/city building crossbreed game to a publisher? Not only that, but when the devteam has only one game under their belt previously? AND, to release it as one of the first games on a new Nintendo console?
I can't imagine how that would have gone, but Quintet's devteam lead must have ironclad balls to present it, get it greenlit, and then lead his team to actually pull the damn thing off! And well! Like, REALLY well!
Actraiser is a great classic game in almost every respect. It has elements brought from other tried-and-true genre's, does their own twist on them, and then mashes them together in a way that makes great coherent sense. An Actraiser game without the platforming stages, or without the city-building stages, just wouldn't be an Actraiser. It'd be..... Raiser. (or a crappy sequel. BA-ZING!)
Hm... (note to self: Raiser is actually kind of a cool potential game or band title)
There's a few other games that have tried to mix genre's together, but I can't think of any that really pull it off as well as Actraiser did. The first one to come to my mind is Brutal Legend, which had third-person hack'n slash core gameplay elements, with the occasional interspersings of Real-Time Strategy and Driving, all thrown into a heavy metal sandbox game. While I enjoyed all of Brutal Legend, it does seem to have a bit of a mixed reception on the internet.
Still; you can't say Doublefine, or even Quintet, weren't trying their damndest to liven up the industry a tad. Even if a game isn't that great, I'm liable to like and respect it if it's at least trying to be imaginative and/or different. (Which may be why I seem to like so much of what Doublefine makes...) Perhaps that's why I like the classic retro games of old so much; there weren't so many boundaries then. (like with Tim Schafer's early games)
....I think I should focus on the game at hand, though.
When playing through Actraiser with the lens of someone with today's standards, a lot of the elements that compose the game seem a bit dated. For example! The sprites sometimes seem a bit simplistic. They're fairly large sprites, yes, but they don't have too many frames to their animations, and their attack patterns aren't very complex. The backgrounds are well drawn, but they sometimes seem to use only a few colours at a time. Though, to make up for that, there's a great range of colour variance between the stages. For instance; the main colour scheme of the first stage seems to be light brown and green, since it's a forest type area. The next stage has a lot of dark purple and light brown, since there's a poisonous pool below the stage and you have to jump between planks of wood. One of the later areas has a great prominence of light blue and white, since it's in a frozen over winter area.
The colour variance seems to work well on a subconcious level. You're playing the role of a god reviving a world overrun completely by demons and monsters. And you're literally reviving a WORLD. The difference in locales with the colours and designs brings about a great feeling of going around a whole planet, doing your righteous work where it's needed.
What helps brings this feeling across is, by far, the part of the game that has aged the best: The music. A sweeping orchestral score accompanies you through all your tasks, each song fitting the mood of the level perfectly. None of the songs get old. They range from grand bombastic battle music, to some great minimal pieces, to more relaxed and contemplative songs. For a soundtrack that has to compete with the grand actions of a god delivering divine wrath upon a horde of demons and rebuilding an empire from the ashes, it more than follows in the footsteps of your acts; it oft exceeds them, bringing about emotions and drive in your cause that no amount of pure gameplay could have. In fact, in a special soundtrack they made, where the songs of Actraiser are performed by a live orchestra, the sound brought about by such is simply awe-inspiring. It easily competes with any symphony made by professional orchestral composers.
I think one part of what helps make Actraiser's variety come together so well is that it kinda seems like it was made as a tech demo. Think about it! It was one of the first games to come out for it, there's use of Mode 7 that serves little purpose other than to look pretty (though swooping in towards a nest of baddies before every mission with a rising crescendo certainly befits the mood of the game), has some large and impressive looking sprites, and music that can still contend itself with much of the music made later in the SNES's years. It's a game made to be as impressive as possible.
And thank the Master that it ended up being an amazing game alongside that. It's a rightful classic that can stand on its own right in most any sense.