Friday, August 19, 2011

Of Import: Valis -- The Legend of A Fantasm Soldier (1992)

The Japanese PC Engine hosted several of Nihon Telenet's Valis games -- we've previously looked at Valis II, Valis III and Valis IV, and at last we come to, paradoxically, the final release on the platform: Valis (I): The Legend of a Fantasm Soldier.  This remake of the original MSX game arrived in 1992, published for the Super CD-ROM format by RIOT, and developed by Telenet Japan.  While Valis II and III made it to the US TurboGrafx-16, this one arrived after NEC had largely given up on the US market.  But as much of the onscreen text is in English, this isn't a difficult game for Western gamers to handle in its original form.

The gameplay necessarily takes a step backward here, leaving the multiple-character approach of the numerically "later" Valis games behind for a more linear run-jump-and-attack platform/action game.  But the extra memory afforded by the Super CD-ROM system card allows for significant visual improvements, with more frames of animation in the sprites and more variety in the backgrounds.  Even the status bar at the bottom of the screen makes heavy use of that burnished, horizontally-banded 16-bit look that became instantly popular when more than a handful of colors became available.

The series' trademark anime-style intermissions also benefit from more fluid animation, much better lip-sync and fewer pauses for loading.  As the game begins, we see Yuko waking up, getting dressed with a few briefly risque shots, and riding the subway to school, surrounded but fortunately un-harassed by all the dour-looking salarymen:

Eventually, a serious threat manifests as the skies darken, fellow warrior princess Reiko arrives and gives Yuko some cryptic advice (especially cryptic if, like me, you don't speak Japanese), and a demon sent by the warrior Rogles appears.

The Valis sword magically appears in Yuko's hands, destroying the creature.  And then the gameplay settles into its familiar pattern -- the first level takes place in an urban setting, suddenly invaded by strange, demonic foes as Yuko runs around in her schoolgirl's uniform:

 After destroying various enemies, she fights a boss in the subway after he gives her the usual overconfident verbal taunting in fully-voiced Japanese:

We also get the occasional full-screen image, as in this moment when Yuko, Warrior of Valis changes magically into her normal warrior outfit, which oddly appears to provide less actual protection than her school uniform:

And there are some nice special effects, most relying on simple color-cycling but often looking quite nice, like this rainstorm:

There are, of course, some less technically demanding special effects, like the way all of Yuko's outfits feature skirts that tend to fly upwards during jumps:

The difficulty is up to the Valis series' usual ridiculous standard, with the occasional cheap hit from an enemy that suddenly appears at the margins of the screen or arrives in tandem with a foe coming from the opposite direction, frequently leading to this image of Yuko's briefcase lying forlorn on the sidewalk, apparently a paean to the loss of her future productivity:

But it's not hard to convince oneself to hit CONTINUE, if only to see what graphical variety lies ahead, and what power-ups will turn up in tantalizingly dangerous and hard-to-reach spots:

The Valis series was never fantastic, but it has a dedicated body of fans and holds up well today -- its visual style remains attractive, and the CD-quality music is suitably energetic if not particularly memorable.  I've enjoyed each of these games, with breaks to keep a certain sameness at bay, and will always regard the series fondly as part of my introduction to the anime style, back when the TurboGrafx-16 was the new platform on the block.

These games were pretty popular, and remain so today, so they're not as inexpensive or easy to find as some PC Engine games.  But they're worth owning and playing, and this one might be available for purchase here.

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