This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.
All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.
As technology improved throughout the late 80s and into the early 90s, it became possible to add a more cartoon-like element to video games, to make them look more like the shows we all grew up with. In the west, we equate that as being to Looney Tunes, Mickey Mouse, and the like, but in Japan – where most games came from in this era – that equaled what we call “anime”, their own style of animation that was largely foreign to the west. Even the cartoons from Japan that did come over were made into a largely American tradition without anyone realizing it (see: Speed Racer, Transformers). Where anime’s real effect could be felt was in video games, which were becoming much more cinematic than earlier titles. Ninja Gaiden started the trend, but a little known developer called Telenet brought over a series that exemplified anime’s unique style better than virtually any other: Valis.
The original Mugen Senshi Valisu – literally translated as Valis: The Fantasm Soldier – was about a girl named Aso Yuko, a normal high school girl who was taken to the land of Vecanti to save it from the evil wizard Rogels, and despite not being a willing combatant, was forced into armour (by “armour”, I basically mean an armoured bikini with a skirt), after which she willingly took up the legendary Valis sword and fought for the protection of the world, and eventually that of two other worlds as well. The Valis series, for being so niche, saw many sequels in America and was a prominent selling point for the TurboGrafx CD with its animated cutscenes. Even today, the Valis series is looked upon well enough by fans that there was an uproar when a company bought the license from the failing Telenet and made it into a hentai game featuring tentacle rape.
I wish I was making that last part up. (contains NWS images)
HOW WAS IT THEN: Valis was a decent looking game with some standard hack-and-slash gameplay. Yuko started off with just a sword, with the ability to pick up other projectile-style weapons via power-ups. As Yuko beat other bosses, she also had the ability to pick up “jewelys”, jewels that allowed her to use magic. Weapons ranged from spread shots to lasers, which turned the game into a weird hybrid of hack-and-slash, platformer, and side-scrolling shooting game. It’s a good thing there were projectiles, because collision detection with the sword itself was terrible, even for the era. Control was also a bit wonky; just pressing the C button let Yuko jump, but she had to hold up and jump to reach the really high areas.
While Valis was a standard game for its time, it was standard in both the good ways and the bad. Simply put, there were way too many cheap hits, even for the era. Some bosses have attacks that simply cannot be avoided, and once the game turned into a platformer where jumps had to be made, things got frustrating in a hurry due to Yuko’s slow movement speed and imprecise jumping. Another frustrating aspect was the weapon level-up system, in that a fully powered up weapon at level 3 went down to level 1 if a new weapon was grabbed, with the change being irreversible. Late in the game, this can be the difference between beating a boss and getting stuck.
There were some good parts to Valis. The game looked good, and the story, while bog-standard compared to some of the better anime of its time (which, again, were unknown to Americans who weren’t trading hardsubbed VHS tapes), was pretty decent by the gaming standards of the day, including a painful plot twist at the end of the game. Despite these goodies, Valis was nothing more than an average game in the early part of the Genesis’ lifespan.
HOW IS IT NOW: Reading the above, one would assume that Valis is virtually unplayable in 2012. This would be an understandable assumption, because it’s pretty spot on.
Yuko is virtually useless without her projectile weapons, but sometimes, even they’re not good enough. if Yuko dies for whatever reason, she gets knocked down to a Lv. 1 weapon with no magic. This is what I call Gradius Syndrome, where someone has to be powered up to the nines in order to be able to survive. This isn’t too big of a problem because Valis isn’t really difficult, except for a few boss battles, but it IS cheap, and with weaker weapons, fighting later enemies, who can take a lot of hits, becomes frustrating. At one point, I just used Yuko’s slide to get through a stage as fast as I possibly could.
I mentioned platforming above, and this is where the game is arguably at its worst. There are stages where Yuko gets knocked down to an area that requires a lot of effort to get out of if she gets knocked down there, which is frustrating because Yuko moves extremely slow and can’t speed up without leaving yourself vulnerable with the slide. Just walking from left to right isn’t even done properly, as Yuko is actually on the right side of the screen while the stage is moving so seeing enemies coming up can be hard. There’s simply no reason for this; it’s bad game design in 1991, and it’s definitely not worth anything in 2012.
What made Valis stand out in the 90s was its anime cutscenes and what could best be called fanservice, considering Yuko’s state of dress throughout the game. This kind of thing was risque in ’91 – a girl fighting in a skirt! How quaint! – but has been made passe in the era of “moe” and outright nudity; as proven by the last Valis game, subtlety is no longer en vogue. The cutscenes themselves, while being effective in telling the story, are skippable, but can’t be sped up, which is painful because the game scrolls text e x t r e m e l y s l o w l y, making watching the scenes a trial more than anything else. For those emulating, frameskip is your friend; for those who aren’t, grab a Snickers.
Ultimately, I think I might have reviewed the wrong version of Valis 1, as the TurboGrafix CD version is reportedly much better. Still, even when compared with other Genesis games, Valis doesn’t stand up. What was overrated in the early 90s falls apart when being shown to the proverbial mirror of truth of the modern era.