Upon listening to the music to Actraiser, one has the impression that it sounds and feels very symphonic. The compositions themselves sparkle with classical leitmotifs very much in the style of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Bruckner, or Mahler, but it's the sampled "orchestra" driving them which really makes this score tick. Squeezing out the limits of the much-heralded Super Nintendo sound chip, Yuzo Koshiro manages to create a rich, vibrant synthesis that very closely resembles, but never quite sounds identical to, an actual orchestra. For a system that relied on cartridges for its games, this was a very impressive achievement indeed.
There is really no way to describe the score for Actraiser as anything but a masterpiece. The first track of the score, a rousing, heroic march introduced by the rich tones of the brass section, immediately displays its epic nature. This is followed by "Sky Palace", a slow, melancholy hymn reminiscent of Bach's "Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor", delivered on a heavy-sounding pipe organ.
When the action stages kick into gear, so too does the score, as Koshiro meshes the classical tones with an interesting techno tempo, as evidenced in "Filmoa". This track mixes another Bach-style composition with an impressive percussion beat. It's as if Bach's Brandenburg concertos have gone disco! While the remaining tracks don't exactly match this amazing mixture, they fall no short of excellence. "Blood Pool ~ Casandora" and "All Over the World" sizzle with energy and power, while "Aitos ~ Temple" begins ominously before moving to an understated but intense tempo. Quieter breaks include the minimalistic-sounding "Pyramid ~ Marana" and the warm yet romantic "North Wall". This latter track reminds me a lot of Holst's "Venus" movement from his Planets score.
The boss battle themes, which include "The Beast Appears", "Powerful Enemy", and "Satan", are some of the most furious, fast-paced, pounding action cues ever committed to a video game. Additionally three of the eighteen tracks on the album are classified as fanfares, with "Silence" being the standout among them.
For the simulation stages, Koshiro tones down the intensity and turns up the subtleness and warmth. "Birth of the People" is a Mozart-like concerto carried by the pizzicato plucks of strings and the mellow, almost heavenly tones of woodwinds. "Offering" is a beautiful, heartfelt hymn that displays Koshiro at his finest and the Super Nintendo sound chip at its most pleasing. The penultimate track "Peaceful World" depicts a triumphant yet restrained epilogue that conveys newfound harmony.
The score's final track begins sounding something along the lines of the 20th Century Fox fanfare before settling into a victorious march. Midway through, a brief reprise of "North Wall" can be heard just prior to a grand finale that culminates with four very satisfying notes.
Tracks loop two to three times and are amplified by a rich, studio-like reverb added primarily to give the tunes a more concert-like feel. Considering that much of Actraiser's score screams "classical", this is a nice bonus. Recently, perhaps due to the game being re-released on the Wii Virtual Console, the score has been made available again on a three-disc compilation from Five Records, "Yuzo Koshiro Best Collection Vol. 1". While this album includes a four-second track omitted from the original release ("Level Up", a brief harp glissando fanfare), the sound mix in this newer release omits the concert-like feel, resulting in a less full experience.
The publishing situation aside, there is no denying that Actraiser is an amazing early example of game music at its finest. Future game scores have become more elaborate, complex, and experimental, but it's remarkable how well Actraiser holds up to them to this day. As a cartridge-based score it is phenomenal. Finicky listeners may gripe at how dated the synthesis sounds at times, but on the whole this remains a soundtrack of excellence, exuding an epic classical style seldom matched.