There exists, mostly in the 16-bit era (though one could extend that all the way to the PS2 days), this particular aesthetic. It’s a look that’s a bit hard to explain, but I will try my best. I’ve referred to it as a “late-night” aesthetic. Dark graphics, music that goes ridiculously hard, some cool body horror shit, nice amounts of blood, at least a moderate amount of jank, that sort of thing. Like the video game equivalent of an exploitation film, or an angry queer zine. The Sega Mega Drive and the NEC PC-Engine were the absolute best at this (honorable mention to “Psycho Dream” on the Super Famicom), with lots of games that perfectly fit this mold of dirty, violent games that you play on a Saturday night, right before the midnight an*me block airs on TV. For some better examples, check out my post on pre-Sonic Genesis games.
Valis 2 is a game that almost matches this description perfectly. I’ll explain that “almost” later. This grungy looking action game starring a girl in a chainmail bikini, shooting and stabbing large monsters in this weird looking hellscape. It is extremely cool.
That’s pretty much it to Valis, really. At worst, it’s a competently made shooter. But that’s not what’s important; sometimes, there’s more to a game than solid mechanics and design. It’s style. It’s attitude. Valis 2 is loaded with these things. This has never been an especially deep series, mostly relying on its cutscenes and sex appeal to turn some heads.
I guess I should probably give some context here for the younger readers: Valis 2 was released in 1989. I did an extremely brief amount of research to see what else came out around this time. This game was released two months before the Sega Mega Drive, and around the same time as NES games like Duck Tales and Castlevania 3. At the very least, Valis should be recognized for being ahead of its time. I mean, this was a CD game released at a time when most PCs didn’t even have a CD drive. Animated sequences and music with actual instrumentation (or at least a really good synthesizer) long before it was the norm. Granted, these cutscenes were not full-screen, and were surrounded by this ugly green border, but they are animated, which is something games weren’t really doing at the time.
Even now, I’m still kind of blown away by the presentation. The first level throws you right into things: fighting a bunch of monsters in the middle of the city at night, while this extremely awesome, pumping tune plays in the background. Then after you defeat the first boss, you do a Magical Girl transformation into your battle bikini and continue to kick ass. It’s almost very cool.
Valis 2 is a great representation of this strange transitory time of the late 80s into the early 90s. This time where technological limitations eased up a little bit, allowing directors and artists to go hog wild with their ideas, putting all the blood and tits and swear words they want into these games. A time when developers wanted to aim for an older audience, or at least aim towards endlessly immature and easily entertained idiots like myself. Give me some cool, murky visuals and pumping music to kill things to.
I’ve been putting off the elephant in the room this whole time, so let me go off on this right now: I keep stressing the word almost. This is almost a great game. This is almost a great aesthetic. What keeps Valis 2, and the Valis series as a whole, from being as awesome as it could be is the sexualization of its women. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not some prude whose face will melt like a nazi from Indiana Jones if I so much as see half a boob; the fact that I have written multiple posts about pornography will attest to that. Normally, some hot girls in skimpy outfits killing things is right up my alley. You find a way to convert this concept into a liquid form and inject it into my veins, and it would be a stronger drug than heroin.
No, the problem with the sex appeal of Valis is that Yuko, the main character, is only sixteen years old. That’s fucking gross. I had assumed that she was at least eighteen, which isn’t much better (I don’t fuck with anyone under 21), but it’s also not much worse. According to the Valis fan wiki (because goddamn everything has a fan wiki these days), Yuko is sixteen throughout all of the games, except for Valis 4, the one game where she’s not a playable character. This means that not only is she sixteen in this game, running around in a battle bikini, but she’s sixteen in the PC-Engine remake of Valis 1, where you see her underwear every time she jumps. This also means that she was sixteen in Valis X, the fucking actual straight up porn game. The appeal of Valis is that the main character wears little clothing, but also the main character is a child. This might sound appealing if you’re a Libertarian or if you’re Hideki Naganuma, but not so much for the rest of us. Either have your j/o material be an adult, or go in the opposite direction with a non-sexual Magical Girl set up. You absolutely cannot have it both ways on this.
With that massive disappointment out of the way, it’s a fucking shame. It’s a shame because other than that, Valis 2 is really good! The worst you can say about it is that maybe the levels are a little too flat and monotonous. Luckily, this version of the game keeps the titillation to a minimum, so it’s a bit easier to put it out of your mind. I’m told that the computer versions of the game are significantly more risque in that regard. I say “I’m told” because I can’t get the X68000 version of the game to actually fucking work, so I’ll take that claim at face value. As it is, I do hate that Valis has that shadow over it that a lot of other games in this sub-genre I just made up manage to avoid. I wish I could like this game more.
I’m also taking the time to talk about the Sega Genesis port of the game. Somehow, someway, I played this as a child. I saw the cover at the video store, and knew that this was the game I wanted to rent for the weekend.
Valis SD, or Syd of Valis as it’s known over here, because the localizers didn’t give a fuck, is a cutesy reinterpretation of Valis 2. It also sucks really bad. It controls like shit, taking a single hit will cause you to fly all over the screen like a ping-pong ball, hit detection is a joke, and it does the Ninja Gaiden bull shit of having an enemy immediately meet you as soon as you make a precarious jump. Not a fun game by any stretch.
Of course, I was a kid, and didn’t know any better. I still liked it a lot, to the point of renting it multiple times. And I’m pretty sure I never made it past level 3 in any of my attempts. These days, I can finish it with almost no problem, but I’m not really enjoying myself when I do it. It is bad. The exact opposite to how fun the PC-Engine game is. At least the art style discourages the whole “please masturbate to these children” thing.
I really just want to shit-talk the localization, or lack thereof, because I can only say “this game is really fucking bad” so many times. I had mentioned being attracted to the game’s cover for whatever reason my child brain liked about it. As an adult, I’m only just now finding out that I was attracted to the cover of a completely different game.
This is actually the cover to a PC-Engine game called Sugoroku ’92 Nari Tore Nariagari Trendy. Yuko is now “Syd,” because nobody knew that “SD” meant “Super Deformed,” as in the art style the game used. Fun fact: because I was a stupid child, I didn’t know that “Syd” was an actual name, so I pronounced the title “Side” of Valis. In addition, a bunch of dialogue was left in Japanese. Whoever at Renovation, or Telenet, or whatever one of the six hundred different sub-labels that company had was in charge of translating this game gave up and went to bed pretty early on.
To its credit, Syd of Valis at least has the multiple costume/weapons inventory that the computer games allegedly have, giving it an iota of depth. And it has this fucking great looking turtle:
I guess in the end, Valis 2/Valis Syd SD are games I wish I liked more, but can’t. That’s either due to being gross, or being absolute dog shit to play, respectively. Valis 2 on the PC-Engine is still an important game, but maybe scrub your hands with soap and water after you’re done playing.