I was so disappointed to discover the protagonist was a cute anime girl and not a constipated Roseanne, as promised by the box art.
Some games are like chicken and waffles: comfort food. Other games, though, are like the tub of ice cream you top with marshmallows, Twinkies, and chocolate syrup: an ungodly concoction that you eat in the darkness of the kitchen at 3 AM, with only the disapproving eyes of the dog staring out from the darkness, judging you silently. These guilty-pleasure games, while perhaps not as widely known or fondly remembered as others nonetheless are a key part to who we are as gamers: revealing our individual quirks, tastes, and gaming idiosyncrasies.
One of my favorite guilty pleasure games is Valis III. Released in 1991 for North America on the Sega Genesis, the game (which I played without having any knowledge of previous ones in the series) is an action-adventure semi-RPG. In a way it could be described as the missing link between the Dragons' Lair style Laser Disc games of the arcade and the modern video game: it is a combination of telling story through environment, old-school arcade sensibilities in regard to gameplay, and the lush visual, cinematic-focused storytelling of the Don Bluth games. While it is the third game in the series, a useful introductory movie sums up the series for new comers, a focus on providing a user-friendly experience and attention to narrative which was rather unique for games during its release.
Besides some neat environmental effects like the increasingly ominous twilight gloamings the farther one got into a level taking place in a realm existing partly in the physical world, partly in the meta-physical, the direction of the action sequences still hold up today: watching the main heroine Yuko plummet off a building towering into the clouds to reclaim her mystical blade, the Sword of Valis; fighting the first boss in the game atop a neon-soaked rooftop cityscape; Valis III was a stunning alternative to other games of the period which plopped the player-avatar in foreign worlds with little or no narrative purpose or logic. Why does one find oneself in a lava level, only to next find themselves in a winter wonderland? Speaking of narrative, Valis III was a definite departure of the wacky worlds of fire-breathing turtles of the Mushroom Kingdom that many gamers were familiar with, instead placing the heroine in the middle of a war of survival as her former foes, their homeworld on the verge of obliteration, invaded others for the simple act of survival. It raised a question about the role of a hero, and for those who had a history of the series certainly called into question why Yuko was raising her sword against those who were just seeking an escape from total destruction: video games at the time (and even in the modern era) basically summed up villains as "bad dudes doing evil because they are evil dudes", and while there certainly was some of that in the narrative of of previous games of the series (according to what I've read online about the narrative of previous installments), this very confrontation of that cliche created a (for the time) unique gameplay experience: when the bad guys aren't necessarily just bad guys anymore, how does one feel about getting to the fight with the Big Bad wondering how the bigger monster is?
But that wasn't the only way Valis III was unique in its' narrative. While most video games of the period came from Japan, and there were certainly elements which were products of Japanese culture found in video games, few games (especially the RPG) were framed in explicitly Japanese sensibilities: the rooftop cityscape of the first level is unabashedly modern day Tokyo, the game manual came with chibi-style character comics and gags, the cutscenes with their anime-style visuals and visual cues. A far cry from the medieval European tropes found in most RPGs from Dragon Quest to Final Fantasy.
From the game manual. Few games of the period openly embraced their status as cultural products of their country of origin like Valis III, even amongst RPGs.
The gameplay of Valis III was also unique for its era, and still uncommon for games today. Players could switch between anyone of the three heroines at their leisure, and find not just a re-skinned clone but a character with unique gameplay traits. Valis III was a game which offered both replayability and experimentation for the dedicated player, rewarding them with finding out the best character to use on a boss or level, or with finding ways to utilize their favorite character even though she might not be the "best' choice for that particular challenge. The levels were a strange, yet rewarding, combination of a side-scrolling action platformer and something akin to a side-scrolling 2D schump (one of the heroines, Valna, seems to even predate the doujin schump scene and games like the Touhou series, being as far as I know and from consulting others who know more on the scene than I, the first of these gameplay heroines).
An example of the introductory movie, the moral quandary faced by the heroines, and the anime visual style of the game.
Of course like in most entertainment fields, being creative and daring seemed to be why Valis III didn't sell so well. The series would have a few more installments before the rights were sold to a company which turned the franchise into hentai games. A rather ignorable "Game Over" for the leading ladies of Valis.
What are you favorite gaming guilty pleasures? Am I really the only person who played this game? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @CodeNameCrono
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