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Lost Projects -- The "Valis" Retrospective


Well, this is the piece that I was most proud of to write for Video Game Trader, and hence, the one I was most disappointed to see vanish into the ether when the editorial focus changed.  It was supposed to be in a few issues ago in a special "video game heroines" issue, but that got changed at the last minute.  The editor said he really liked the piece, though.  It was bumped to run as a feature article in #19, but that was when the revamp hit.  Sonic The Hedgehog got the cover, and this article, as well as other reviews I wrote, went poof.

This is what I sent to the editor.  I was still awaiting any notes or fixes.  I'm not going to bother with the images that I included, since not all of them would have made it into the article anyway.

Since I originally wrote this, Valis X, which I allude to at the end, did in fact get ported onto Windows PC's in Japan, but the game hasn't gone any further than that.  Good thing.  Just learning of its existence was enough to destroy childhood memories, I don't need it to actually import.

As I sit in my dressing room, calmly sipping my ginger lemon tea, I glance at the clock on the wall and silently count down from three.  There's a knock on my door.  Usually, I just expect the knock, but today, I'm looking forward to it.  At least, I hope I can look forward to it.  You never know when these past acts might cancel at the last minute.  Bringing up lost success is never pleasant.

I call out for the knocker to come in.  It's the production assistant, headphones around his neck and clipboard in his hand.  I can tell from his smile that it's good news.  If the guest had cancelled, he would be scowling and getting our backup guest ready for the show.  I smiled, too.  The backup guests were the Dynamite Dux.  They were still bitter that Fate prevented them from getting a guest spot on Captain N -- The Game Master.  I didn't need to sit through that story again.

I was already in my jacket and set to go, just doing a quick tszuj on my tie as I went past the mirror.  Down the hall and getting to the sound stage, I see Yuko Asou, sporting a very nice pantsuit ensemble, in a makeup chair with people getting her ready.  The years had been kind to her, although there was a darkness under her eyes, a sadness, that the crew couldn't cover up.  Like all anime creations, she didn't require much to be ready for her close-up.  She got out of the chair and as she turned her head to the interview set, she saw me.

I extended a hand to her.  "Miss Asou, it is an honor to meet you."

She shook it.  Man, that girl had a grip!  Then again, wielding a mystical sword kind of gets you ready for that.  "Oh, I'll bet you say that to all the D-listers."

"Not at all," I said.  "Valis III was a real turning point in my video game experiences."

It was.  I was the happy owner of a Sega Genesis and looking for new games to play.  I was finally starting to notice design teams and such, and starting to associate them with what kind of potential bang for the buck they would provide (I learned early on to approach Sage's Creation and Technosoft with a lot of caution).    Renovation was known to me as a company that did solid work and great music in their games.  I knew there was a game series called Valis and chapters II and III were on the Turbo Grafx 16's CD peripheral.  III was out on the Genesis.  I decided to take a chance that I would be able to follow the story, assuming it was necessary.  After all, you go from left to right, and if it moves, kill it.  Don't need a lot of story for that.

But somehow, Valis III changed my expectations.  It was the first game I could think of where I was more interested in the story and what would happen to the characters next.  Getting to the next level wasn't to see what new challenges awaited, but to learn the fates of these characters.  Of course, picking up at the end of their saga didn't reassure me that they'd all survive.  It was enough that I could overlook the occasional Engrish dialog and the sometimes sloppy controls (not to mention the insane level ending boss battles that could be downright chaotic).  Video games had become a storytelling medium for me, and this was the game that showed me it could be done.

We take our places on the set, each in a low backed comfy chair with a coffee table between us.  I lay out my index cards in front of me on the table, but I know I won't have to look at them.  I already know all the questions I want to ask.

The director points to us, and we're on.  We look at the camera and give our best smiles to the viewers.  "Welcome back, and today, I have the privilege of interviewing Yuko Asou, the heroine from the Telenet's classic video game series Valis.  Miss Asou, it is great to have you here."

"Please, call me Yuko.  And I don't know if I would call it classic."

I could feel some of the production crew arching their eyebrows at this statement.  Most people don't want to seem ungrateful to their employers, especially the ones who gave them their big break.  But Telenet was history, destroyed by diminishing returns and a weakening design staff.  Yuko hadn't worked in decades, and when Telenet got her a gig, it was one she wouldn't have done if it weren't for the contractual obligation.  If saying these things got her blackballed from the field, she was perfectly fine with that.

I realize I'm walking a tightrope, that the wrong line of questioning or the wrong phrasing could send her stalking off the set and me doing bad standup and juggling oranges until a commercial break comes on.  I start with a softball, slow and over the plate.  "So, your series went from being on the MSX in 1986 to making some sort of appearance on all the major consoles of the time.  Were you surprised by the success?"

She tilts her head to the side and closes her eyes.  It's a genuine smile, the first I've seen on her face.  "Well, sort of.  I mean, when Osamu Nabeshima was coming up with me, I was hoping for bigger things to happen."  There's a little waver in her smile at this point, the sadness creeping up again.  Osamua Nabeshima is a longtime anime guy, who has been involved in numerous hits, including Mysterious Thief Saint Tail and Hamtaro.  There was also an assist from Tomokazu Tokoro, who has worked on not so family friendly stuff like Hellsing and Serial Experiments Lain.  Clearly, she would have loved her career to have continued like theirs did.  I mean, who wouldn't?

I move on quickly.  "What was it like when production started?"

"Well, it was a little embarrassing," she says with a blush.  "I mean, the idea was to combine anime sensibilities with gameplay.  So, I'm a schoolgirl on a hack and slash adventure.  'Congratulations, you're the Chosen One.  Here's a magic sword.  Go get 'em, sport!'  And they made me show my panties!  When I jumped, I was just hoping that no one would really notice."

I somehow keep my face straight.  Anyone who thinks gamers didn't notice doesn't know gamers very well.  I wondered briefly if that was why she was wearing the pantsuit instead of a skirt.

"I kind of forgot about that after a while," she continued.  "I mean, the story was kind of strange.  My friend is kidnapped by King Rogles' demons, I'm the savior of the realms, I meet my real mother...it was a little difficult to follow.  I thought for sure that The Fantasm Soldier would be the only game.  But I guess it did enough right.  Fans enjoyed it.  They wanted more."

"It's strange, given the heavy anime influence and vibe, that there was never a Valis anime series."

"Yeah, that was one of the things I was hoping for.  I mean, when I saw the commercial, I was so excited.  But it just never went any further.  At least Arle Nadja got some bits, not just a commercial for Puyo Pop.  Oh, why didn't I fall in with Compile?!?"

The little red choo choo was ready to jump the tracks.  I try to bring her back.  "Well, you have to admit, the themes such as the death of your friend, Reiko, were uncommon in those days."

"For video games, yes.  The technology was finally catching up to the ambitions of the creators.  They wanted better visuals, better sounds, better music, and to be able to tell stories.  Look at Metal Gear Solid.  Not much to the original, then the remake on the PlayStation sets the bar."

"Things seemed to be moving in that direction with Valis II."

She smiles again.  "Yeah, it was like they'd learned from what they did with the first game.  Megas takes over and realizes I have the power to destroy him, so he tries to get me first.  So I have to fight off Rogles' supporters and Magus' armies.  I felt for Magus.  He was kicked out just because he could have been a rightful ruler ahead of his younger brother, Rogles.  I also lost my real mother, but on the bright side, I found out I had a sister."

"I'll bet THAT was a fun Thanksgiving."

Another genuine smile, although the laugh seemed more for show.  "That was where my hopes for an anime really went into high gear.  I mean, when the game went to the CD-ROM for the PC Engine and Turbo Grafx 16, it was like, 'Wow!  It's going to be just like this!  Big story, dynamic visuals, a real musical score....'"

"Bad voice acting in the American translation...."

Another laugh, a good one this time.  "Yeah.  And people wonder why no one was taking games seriously as a storytelling medium.  You know, a little talent goes a long way."

"Still, that and Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective really showed the technology was moving in an exciting new direction.  The possibilities were endless!"

"Not really.  Most of the games were Dragon's Lair clones or just limited interaction, using the visuals to get players excited.  I mean, oversimplified gameplay combined with bad set-ups.  The novelty of seeing people instead of sprites also meant that you couldn't really control things, so you were basically watching a B movie while memorizing how to see the best ending instead of actually playing something."

"Hey!  I liked Night Trap!"

"Anyway," she says with a roll of her eyes, "it was better to stick with cinemas and keep the gameplay separate and enjoyable.  And it was working, too.  Valis II did well enough and the fan following grew enough to get III into production."

"Ah, yes," I smile.  III is truly my home turf.  "An invasion by forces whose own home dimension is about to vanish into oblivion."

"It really made the story interesting.  Glames has Leethus, sort of his own version of the Valis sword, and is preparing to lead his forces to seize a new home that won't be destroyed.  Glames may have been bloodthirsty, but his actions were actually understandable.  He wasn't just some mustache-twirling baddie.  There's also that I didn't necessarily have to be involved.  I hadn't done anything with the Valis sword in ages when Cham showed up to steal it.  She wanted it to avenge her father's death, and the Valis sword was the only thing strong enough to do it.  It unfolded well with it being revealed that the Valis sword had more power than had been seen so far."

I blush a little.

"I see you remember the new outfit," she smiles.

"Well, they did make sure we got a good look at the whole thing...."

She laughs again.  "I think the three characters also added from a gameplay standpoint.  If you preferred distance attacks, close quarters combat, or a happy medium, you could pick the appropriate character relatively early in the game.  You had the option to play to your strengths at any time, since you could switch on the fly."

"And that was that for you."

"Pretty much.  I was elevated from a guardian to a goddess.  I appeared in Valis IV to give the Valis sword to Lena, but it was her quest.  Pretty easy gig, that game.  I mean, not that much different as a Valis game, still a hot schoolgirl with a magic sword fighting all those enemies.  Although, I prefer the Japanese version.  The American version was pretty heavily edited.  Three playable characters down to one, and lots of animated sequences removed.  The new level didn't make up for all that."

I blink and clear my throat.  There's one more part of her history to cover, recent history, and she's been such a sport, I hate to bring it up.

I look at her.  She's looking right at me, straight into my eyes.  She's radiating calm, she's comfortable around me.  She quietly mouths, "Go ahead.  Ask."

With a cough, I say, "So...that brings us to the current games, Valis X, sometimes called Valis Cross.  I don't want to say, 'in the series,' because I don't think they are part of the series."

She nods her head and looks at her hands, folded in her lap.  "Yeah, lots of fans have that opinion.  It started running about the time of the series' twenty year anniversary.   Many happy returns."

"So, what exactly was Telenet thinking when they sold the rights to the Valis series to Eants?  I mean, they had to know they were going to make hentai games with the property."

"Well, they did publish the Eants-developed titles themselves, so I don't think they had a problem with it, unfortunately.  Retelling the four Valis games, but with me and the other girls in all kinds of sexual situations.  And the tentacles.  What is it with tentacles?!?"

"I don't know.  I think what surprised me most is that it was an official release by the company that made it.  I mean, people make flash games like this all the time, but that's just some guy doing it to do it.  This was the actual company that created you."

"Oh, yeah.  Telenet had been having problems for a long time.  I mean, they could do good games when they set their minds to it.  El Viento is a good example, and Wolfteam was doing good stuff.  But they also had some bad misfires.  Earnest Evans, for example.  And then there was Sol-Deace...."

"Sol-Feace."

"Whatever.  But with the Tales series being handled by Namco, Telenet fell back on just doing simple puzzlers and mah jongg games.  That usually means a game company is circling the drain.  Valis X was sort of their last ditch effort.  There was name recognition, and let's face it -- the girls and I are sexy."

"You must like it that the games were critical and fan failures."

"There has been a small but vocal interest in a new Valis game.  There are people like you, " and here she looked at me sympathetically from under her eyebrows, "that would love to see an update or new installment.  The technology is there to make a game that could truly live up to the potential of Valis.  And what do they make?"

"'Yuko Does Dallas.'"

"Yeah.  It's only available for cell phones, and there's no way it's coming out in America.  So there's at least one part of the world where I'm still a heroine, even a minor one, instead of...that."

From there, the interview was some general chitchat.  Yuko is doing okay, despite a manga series that started in 2008 which, thanks to nudity, is considered ecchi.  One of the perks of being a goddess is you don't have to worry about everyday expenses like food and utilities.  In many ways, the Valis series could have been truly great, especially given the success of series like Xena -- Warrior Princess.  But aside from some desperate flailing, the series, like its company, is over.

The camera goes off.  The interview is finished.  We stand up and shake hands again.  Without an audience to play to, that sad smile now permanently in place.  She says it was nice to be interviewed by me, and she heads for the exit, not even bothering to stop and get the stage makeup removed.  Her tired pace takes her longer than anyone I've seen.

I remember the opening cinemas from Valis III.  There's one while setting up the story that says, "Poor Yuko!"

You got that right.

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