I received an unexpected (but not unwelcome) care package from Retro-Bit the other day. It contained five of their recent retro reissues. Now, I don’t think I agreed to anything at any time, but they obviously know my weakness. If you put old game cartridges in front of me, I can’t help but play them, research them, turn them over, and tickle their underbelly. So, heck yeah, let’s give them a look.
We’re starting with Valis for the Sega Genesis. Originally released in 1991, it’s technically a remake of a 1986 game for MSX, PC-98, and Sharp X1 home computers. The series was created by Telenet Japan, which was a game publisher and developer that eventually went bust in 2007 after trying to pivot to hentai games. Their properties were reportedly bought up by Sunsoft, which might be why we’re seeing them resurface now.
Retro-Bit provided it to me as part of a trilogy of Valis Genesis games, and while I know a bit about the series, I haven’t played them yet. It was pretty hard not to get excited to try them out, given the rather lavish treatment Retro-bit gave them. They all come with traditional Genesis/Mega Drive hard cases with reversible inlays featuring both the Japanese and North American cover art. The cartridges are transparent with minimalistic labels that use metallic foil for the labels. If you look through the back of the cartridge, you can see the name of the game is stamped on the PCB. It’s pretty damned fancy, much more so than you’d see in a release from the Genesis’ heyday. I feel like I should be wearing gloves to handle them.
On the other hand, seeing such lavish attention on such a niche game is strange to me. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate whenever a boutique publisher so lovingly embraces even the smallest release. For that matter, the initial distribution through Limited Run Games is currently listed as sold out, so obviously, it accomplished what they set out to do.
Just, damn, I wish I could get some of my favorite games in collector’s editions like these. I would move mountains and eat unspeakable things to get a copy of Rocket Knight Adventures in such luxurious trappings.
Fighting evil by moonlight
Valis itself is the story of Yuko, a normal schoolgirl minding her own business. Apropos of nothing, monsters suddenly burst from the ground and accost her. A magical sword is flung at her, so suddenly, she’s a hero. Because that’s how it works. She winds up in another world, where she’s asked to save it from an enemy called Rogles.
There’s this wonderful bit of dialogue that happens after you complete the first mission. This magical lady named Valia tells Yuko what’s going on and how she needs her help. Yuko replies (and I’m heavily paraphrasing here), “That’s a dick move lady. This isn’t my problem.” Valia then just replies, “Quit arguing and just do it.” Then she puts Yuko in a short skirt and bikini top. It is absolutely ridiculous.
Valis is known more for its PC-Engine Super CD-ROM² versions. Part of the appeal, as I understand it, is their animated and fully-voiced cutscenes that were made possible by the expanded CD storage. However, Valis is not a Sega CD game. Those cutscenes are jammed on the cartridge, so they’ve been scaled back significantly in terms of animation. They’re also, understandably, not voiced. And holy heavenly fuck are they long and slow.
Shut up and listen
The first cutscene is nearly five minutes long, and all it involves is Yuko talking to a friend and getting attacked by monsters before suddenly sword. It’s both insubstantial and attention-span strainingly long. Then there’s another one after the first level, and it’s seven minutes long. At least that one lets you see Yuko in her ridiculous golden bra.
What really makes them painful is how long it takes for text to appear on screen. Dialogue just slowly creeps onto screen. You can’t speed it up, either, since pressing a button just outright skips the cutscene. There aren’t many of these cutscenes throughout Valis, but you still spend a disproportionate amount of its time watching it talk slowly to you.
Your goal is about as straightforward as you get. You need to get to the other side of a level, fight through bosses, and get the Phantasm Jewel at the end. Or, as Valis sometimes calls it, the Fantasm Juely. I know, the game is called Valis: The Fantasm Soldier, but someone got it wrong. Valia clearly calls them the Phantasm Jewels. I know this, because I watched the words very slowly appear on the screen.
Not quite good, not entirely kusoge
Valis is, unfortunately, not a great game. I wouldn’t go as far as describing it as kusoge (crap game), but it’s certainly not on the same level as other Genesis games being released in 1991. Yuko moves very slowly. She can slide, but there seems to be very little reason to do so. Many of the bosses can be defeated simply by hacking away at it. There’s very little challenge to completing the game. The only time I saw the game over screen was during one boss battle where your opponent can use an attack that isn’t technically an instant kill but is close enough to see its toe hairs.
It’s also bewilderingly short. All in, it took me just under an hour to see all of Valis. This includes watching every cutscene slowly unfold, letter by letter on the screen, as well as viewing the comparatively hasty credits roll.
However, I can’t say I didn’t get any enjoyment out of the experience. Valis is a game that really captures the era’s style of magical girl anime. For that matter, female protagonists were extremely rare in that time period in video games. It doesn’t really innovate with its approach in any way, and the story in the Sega Genesis version is poorly delivered, but it still manages to put forth its vibe.
Video game mortuary
Valis is a pretty forgettable start to the series on Genesis. From the sounds of it, the series never got really much better than middling, so my expectations are set pretty low for the next two Genesis titles in the trilogy. On the other hand, I’m already weirdly fascinated with the series, so I may need to keep an eye out for some of the other titles that aren’t in this set. You know, maybe I’m wrong, maybe this is kusoge and that’s why I’m so interested, but I don’t feel like mocking it. More than I already am, I mean.
If you’re interested in the Valis series, you don’t need a Genesis/Mega Drive and a copy of the game to try it out. There are two collections of the games on Switch, or you can buy them piecemeal if you’d prefer. I’m having trouble describing what, exactly, I find so fascinating about games like these. Let me try:
I like to check crawlspaces for corpses. Whenever there’s a series that has had the book closed on it, I want to be able to pull it out of wherever it was left to rot and really give it a good look over. See what went right and what went wrong. Who saw it last? Why didn’t anyone report when it went missing? What does that make me? A retro homicide detective? A video game mortician?