Friday, January 7, 2011

Of Import: Valis IV (PC Engine)

This week, we follow up on a Japanese game series that gained a bit of a toehold in North America during the 16-bit era, but never really established itself as an enduring franchise here.  The Valis series featured the adventures of Yuko, a Japanese-schoolgirl-turned-mighty-warrior-in-short-skirt who starred in a series of action platformers created by Sin-Nihon Laser Soft and Telenet Japan.  Valis II and III were released on the TurboGrafx-CD in the US, complete with awkwardly-dubbed animated intermissions, and cartridge versions of Valis III were released for the Sega Genesis and Super NES.  But 1991's Valis IV only reached our shores as a hobbled Super NES version entitled Super Valis IV.  So I decided it was time to pick up a copy of the PC Engine Super CD and check it out for myself:

It's a pity this title never came out here, because even though it runs on the same memory-constrained 1.0 CD system card as the earlier PC Engine Valis games, and hence would have worked on the standard TurboGrafx-CD, Valis IV features a number of technical and gameplay improvements.  The backgrounds feature quite a bit of parallax scrolling, a technique the console wasn't really designed to handle, and the intermissions feature larger images with more animation and better artwork.

Fortunately, it's not difficult to play this as an import title -- Japanese language skills aren't essential, as all of the critical onscreen text is in English.  I couldn't fathom the storyline in any detail, of course, but the fully-voiced cutscenes are roughly self-explanatory; at least we can tell who the bad guys are, and how our heroines feel about the developing storyline.

Gameplay improvements over Valis II and III are also significant.  This time, Yuko is out of the picture, so her spiritual descendant Rena must join forces with other characters of varying abilities to fight the demon generals who seek... something, probably the overthrow of all that is good and proper, in the standard videogame tradition.  This means that the usual Valis gameplay -- run to the right, jumping and attacking with the Valis sword as necessary -- becomes something more sophisticated.  Well, sophisticated may be too strong a word, but it's at least as tactically interesting as Super Mario Bros. 2.  And the controls are much improved over the PC Engine version of Valis III -- we no longer have to reach for the controller's RUN button to slide under obstacles, as a more intuitive down/jump combination is implemented; the RUN button is used to switch between characters.

In the first level, we must alternate between Rena and her younger sister Amu.  Amu's attack is weaker but reaches farther, as she sends her faithful bird companion flying at enemies boomerang-style; she can also jump considerably higher than Rena, with a double-jump capability handy for crossing wide gaps and leaping over obstacles:

The Valis series is somewhat unusual in its genre, in that power-ups are an important part of the gameplay -- we start out with few hit points and a low-powered version of the fabled Sword of Valis, and must acquire icons along the way to beef up our character's abilities.  Ideally, we arrive at the end of each level a lot stronger than we started it, ready to face the boss. Some upgrades remain effective after we lose a life, but using a continue resets our powers to the baseline, and forces us back to the beginning of the current level, so it's important to stay healthy.  Fortunately the game saves coarse-grained progress to the PC Engine's backup memory, so we can continue at the beginning of the current level next time we play.

The first boss is a knight of the flamboyantly-armored sort typical of the series -- after he prematurely announces our impending defeat at some length, the fight is on.  We have to attack him, not his tiger steed, and if we stay focused and duck when the tiger runs at us, this guy is not hard to defeat:

The intermission finds an old friend from Valis III, Yuko's sister Valna, trussed up the old-fashioned way on a crucifix.  The image unfortunately calls to mind the 2005 Valis X series, which put a long-out-of-work Yuko and company into officially-licensed hentai territory, but her dignity is in no such danger here:

After our heroines escape near-certain death at the hands of the local demon leader, we are introduced to a new ally, Asfar, who clearly uses the same tailor as the bad guys:

We can now switch to this third character from the second level onwards.  Asfar is relatively slow and can't jump much at all, and he's taller than Rena and Amu, so he tends to take more damage from certain attacks.  But he has a ground-hugging flaming wolf head attack that's great for taking out ground-based enemies.

The action is classic 16-bit material -- straightforward platforming combat, with the occasional leap of faith required in situations like this where we can't quite see the next safe landing spot:


The graphics are really quite good, much improved over the earlier games in the series.  It appears that, given the standard PC Engine CD system's memory constraints, the designers opted for simpler, more repetitive background graphics within each stage, devoting more of the limited memory to colorful, well-animated sprites.  The music is, of course, CD Redbook quality; it's not always memorable, but it keeps the action moving along at a fair clip, and the voice acting is solid throughout, putting the unfortunate American dubs of Valis II and III to shame.

My affection for the Valis series is hard to justify -- the action is competent but unspectacular, and the intermission segments, while nicely executed, are pretty standard shoujo demon battle fantasy stuff.  I'd like to think it's not just the short skirts sported by the main characters; at any rate, I always enjoy spending a few hours in the Valis universe, and Valis IV is one of the best in the series.  It's another small indictment of NEC's TurboGrafx release strategy that Valis II made it across the water, while Valis IV languished in Japanese limbo.  The import game will run on an American TurboGrafx-CD system or TurboDuo, and is well worth seeking out.

Due to the series' popularity, the original Valis games are not always easy to come by, but they're not usually too expensive when they do turn up.  Interested readers might be able to find a copy for sale here or here:

Valis IV 4 PC-Engine CD

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