Dissecting the Valis-like

Following @PasokonDeacon ‘s suggestion and @exodus ’ original question (from the Japanese PC game thread, I quickly realize I should link to), I ask you: what is a Valis-like? For me personally, it‘s a really interesting question because Valis was different things in different places. For example, you have Syd of Valis and Valis X: two games fans of the series don’t want to remember, albeit for very different reasons. That leaves two-ish versions of the game to deal with. On the one hand, you have the 16-bit action games, which follow the Castlevania/Ninja Gaiden school of methodical action platformers. Here, Valis stands out for its interesting set pieces and maybe its cinematics, but doesn't possess much else in the way of substance.

But of course, the console _Valis_ games were always abbreviated versions of the PC-88 original, which I see as caught between action platformers and _Xanadu_-esque action RPGs. _Xanadu_, for those who don't know, is a game I will always quietly contend was far more influential than many are willing to give it credit for. Look at all the NES action RPGs that took after it: _Zelda II_, _Battle for Olympus_, _Legacy of the Wizard_, _Rambo_, _Faxandu_ (obviously), _Ys III_ (I am _very_ surprised to learn), **_Wonder Boy_**...oh, and the NES version of _Valis_. Anyway, back to the PC-88 version, I skimmed a video just to be safe, and the game looks somewhat ambitious compared to _Xanadu_. Mechanically speaking, there's a greater effort to take the formula further with a semi-persistent world and action-oriented elements. I'm not sure how it would compare to contemporary games in the _Xanadu_ genre (which absolutely had to exist if _Valis_ was already a thing), though.

So to me, the Valis games are the PC Engine releases, though the SNES Valis IV gets honorable mention.

I say this because the PC Engine is where the game really came to prominence and became popular - it's the only platform with all four main-series games on it after all. So what are the qualities of a Valis game?

  • -

    short-range projectiles. Every Valis game gives Yuuko a sword, but the sword shoots projectiles. The projectiles don't usually go the full length of the screen, making your strikes more tactical and less flailing.

  • -

    attack resource management. This can be in the form of attacks, ala Valis III, where your sword takes a while to recharge (this can be powered up). Basically you've got a gauge that fills. At the top it's strongest, and your projectile will go the furthest. But it immediately depletes when you hit the attack button, so if you attack again right away, your attack will be weak. With other characters, your projectile will take a long time to return, or be really short, or etc.

  • -

    magic management. Valis characters can usually carry one magic type at a time. Sometimes they can give it more charges with powerups, sometimes it's single use in a rotation, but one way or another, magic is something you have to collect and manage. Different characters do different magic attacks.

  • -

    female protagonist. This is a given, but a lady with a skirt or dress is pretty much necessary.

  • -

    the slide. I've written about this elsewhere, but the slide was a central mechanic to valis before things like double jumps really took off (valis got that later). There were pits you could only clear by sliding, and obstacles you could only clear with a slide. Platforming was build somewhat around the slide, which I think is important. The slide also does damage at a certain point, which is interesting.

  • -

    vertical level design. the slide is your best tool, so vertical level design makes you work to use it. Not every Valis level has a vertical component, but many do. There's a lot of ascending in this series.

  • -

    big shoulderpads, big story. The story is always epic and the shoulderpads/guards just get bigger with every game. When she gets the super armor she's got four shoulder guards. why not!!

  • -

    character switching. This is only really in later valis games, and I don't think it's necessary to be a valis game (1 and 2 don't have it), but much was made of it back in the day so it's worth mentioning.


  • then there's a bunch of vague vibe stuff, like running on rooftops, cool music, modulated VO for enemies, etc.

    I wrote about this on gamasutra but I particularly like looking at Valis IV vs Super Valis IV. Here's what I wrote at the time.

    --
    Super Valis IV is the final action game in the (not very) popular Valis series. The series as a whole generally stars girls with swords, running on rooftops and through castles and cities, swinging weapons and jumping through platforms to defeat a host of evildoers from beyond. Super Valis IV is the Super Nintendo port of the original Valis IV for PC Engine. And a lot of people hate it.

    I had foolishly believed what the few reviews on the internet said - this game was too short, and it was a pale imitation of the original. So I waited until this year to play this game for the first time, and I found they were very wrong, at least about it being bad. Sure, it loses most of the cutscenes, and a couple levels are dropped, but it's incredibly interesting to me as a remix of an existing game, like a chopped and screwed version of a popular tune.

    Where Valis IV had three characters you could switch between on the fly, Super Valis IV streamlines to one. Super ditches the slide move for a dash, and the double jump (which you had to switch characters to access) for a dashing jump. To accommodate this, all the levels were completely redesigned to be more horizontal than vertical, and to place secrets behind horizontal leaps of faith, rather than vertical drops.

    The port also completely revamps the magic and attack systems. Where the original used a cooldown-based magic system and an attack that could be powered up to reach far across the screen, the port shortens the attack, while magic now comes from a host of limited-use collectible items. You can store five magic types at a time, and can select between them to use magic whenever you like, so long as you keep an eye on your inventory.

    On top of this, the music has been completely redone, and right from the title screen takes a darker tone, even though the original is technically the darker game, with crucified women and severed limbs all over the place. And it plays extremely well. Everything they try to do works. So what if it has fewer levels that have all been remixed? It is a very interesting lesson in game design - how do you take a completed game and make a new version that actually plays differently, using many of the same assets? Modders would figure this out later, but this is an excellent early example.

    --

    Something I missed in this writeup is that - to continue the speed-oriented nature of this "remix," you can always see the boss's health meter on the bottom of the screen. It fills up more the longer you take! So if you speedrun your way there, the boss will take fewer hits to kill. That's pretty neat!

    Well, hopefully that gets at some of it.

    I think short projectiles and consumable magic are two of the big ones, but Valis tried a lot of things at once, so it's kind of a grab bag. It sits somewhere between a castlevania and a mega man x and a contra, but set in a totally different world than any of those. It's cool I think! I would like to own that franchise some day.

    Just an extra note - I‘d say the console versions, pc engine especially, weren’t necessarily stripped down versions of the PC-88 originals. Valis II did a graphical facelift and a simplification of gameplay, but Valis 1 for PCE was actually the last Valis game made for the platform, and was more like a remaster of the original, with better graphics, sound, control, etc. And after Valis II, PC Engine was the primary console.

    I need to see if Valis is on my Romset-Of-Alexandria Xbox and play it, this sounds very interesting

    @exodus#1367 Small correction: the double jump appears in Valis as early as the first game on PCs, or at least the FM77AV port of Mugen Senshi Valis. It's less than polished, like pretty much everything from that game, but it exists and is crucial to navigating the ridiculously open-ended, monster-infested stages.

    I ought to play more from this series before pitching in on the thread's concept, but the historic hows and whys of it are rather clear. Valis was Wolf Team's way of making a flashy, cinematic action game that wouldn't suffer from the problems Final Zone faced. Switching from a jerky and laggy top-down arcade shooter to a more manageable side-scrolling action platformer made a big difference. PC-88 players would have recognized Valis' infusion of Thexder-esque action and level memorization with more Xanadu-like exploration and stat-heavy mechanics. It must have done a lot better than Final Zone for Valis to get sequels much quicker than the other IP.

    And the idea of magical-girl action platforming had and still holds a lot of pull. The success of similar premises like Minky Momo and Leda: Fantastic Adventure of Yoko (wow, just like Yuko from Valis! :^) ) makes you wonder why the former only got a game much later while the latter received nothing. I suppose Valis had perhaps eliminated a window for any Leda game to succeed in the same space.

    Interesting! So they started with the double jump and evolved to the slide. that's odd, but neat.

    I think there's a bit less level memorization in valis than in some other games, but I also don't know the PC versions so well! I should probably play them. Uh, what's the good way to do that in modern times!?

    I do wonder why this "genre" never kept evolving... or maybe it evolved into something else entirely. Oh, I forgot makeruna makendo, that's a pretty valis-y game.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGOOdUn03MM

    Disclaimer, I haven't played the PC games, but the series really seems to have only developed a personality on the PCE anyway.

    Most of Telenet's output seems to value style over substance, and I think the Valis games especially fall into this category. Telenet was pretty good at art and [ROMpler music](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1ISy4ZY-28) but the actual gameplay is pretty shoddy and derivative. You see this a lot with PCE CD games, my best guess why is that more computer publishers were making games on the system compared to the Genesis/SNES so coming from a platform that could only do still frames well, they latched on to the system's cutscene abilities.

    I think a representative Valis game needs:
    -Long, poorly voiced anime cutscenes
    -Melodramatic plot
    -Castlevania style gameplay
    -Bizarre idiosyncrasies like [Yuko's love of pudding](http://infochunk.com/files/pudding.png)

    Hmm, I guess that‘s a matter of opinion - I skip most of the valis cutscenes and have played the games dozens of times. they’re stilted and weird, and it's true that the music and vibe carries you through a lot of it, but I legitimately enjoy playing them.

    I wouldn't say the cutscenes are voiced worse than their contemporaries at least. poorly recorded, though, for sure.
    https://youtu.be/PN5lxNR2awg?t=1560

    @ndiddy#1418 Disclaimer noted. I think you‘ll find Valis II on Japanese PCs fairly playable and similar to its PC Engine successors in style and general quality. The Valis style’s core elements existed as of the very first game, though Telenet's success with the series shows in greater budgets/ambitions later on.

    Let's also be careful to distinguish between core Telenet and Wolf Team, the latter of which developed many of the publisher's most ambitious/experimental works. They even split off for a while, with some Telenet/Wolf Team staff staying on either end or choosing to do freelance work (the difference between house musician Shinobu Ogawa and wandering composer Nobuhito Koise, for example). Many core Telenet games are less ambitious but more polished than some of what Wolf Team did, the corollary being that Wolf Team could _sometimes_ pair their creative highs with a solid base.

    There are some surprisingly fluid action/platformer games for Japanese PCs which didn't rely on cinematics, too, even if limited in number. A studio adjacent to Telenet in some ways, Glodia, did some innovative PC-88 action games (Lyrane and Testament) before moving on to high-performance JRPGs like Zavas and Emerald Dragon.

    Anyway, before I get even more off-track, I'll say that we're lacking in proper Valis-like action platformers today, outside of some small under-the-radar stuff. A big problem lies in pairing the janky pulp anime aesthetic (which works best when avoiding modern-day otaku pitfalls--you know the ones) with attainable budgets. What Valis and its like did back then on J-PCs and consoles was higher budget than it needed to be, and scaling that to what's possible today isn't practical for actually getting such games made.

    In terms of the semi modern day, I keep thinking about this thread in relation to Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day. How it has SOME of the Valis elements, but that so many years on, no one would make as methodical an anime action game. It would have to be more over the top and maximalist to pair with anime aesthetics today. Valis is so aesthetically tied to both 80s game play and 80s anime aesthetics. Even indies working in the same play space like Bloodstainted Curse of the Moon or The Messenger are more call backs to the games that Valis sits in between (Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden respectively).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XOHxYd3TEM

    >

    I do wonder why this “genre” never kept evolving… or maybe it evolved into something else entirely. Oh, I forgot makeruna makendo, that’s a pretty valis-y game.

    I'm pretty sure this got released in America as _Kendo Rage_. It's a game I've wanted to look at for a while, mostly because of American attitudes toward anime at the time and how well _Kendo Rage_ testifies (or appears to testify) to them.

    >

    I had foolishly believed what the few reviews on the internet said - this game was too short, and it was a pale imitation of the original.

    I'm reminded of _Dracula X_, another action platformer that gets compared (disparagingly) to a PC Engine CD original it's supposedly modeled after despite firmly being its own thing. Assuming these aren't modern opinions people are projecting into the past as historical fact (this happens so much in retro game discourse!), it says a lot about the politics of taste in video game culture at the time that CD-add ons were this effective at setting people's tastes.

    >

    And the idea of magical-girl action platforming had and still holds a lot of pull.

    Yea, that attests to the _Valis_ ethos as well. Every idea that defines the _Valis_ series, from the action platforming to Yuko's barbarian-esque action girl design to the isekai fantasy conceit (with a little action taking place in Tokyo for good measure for good measure), has incredibly firm precedent in the media trends of the day. In fact, I suspect those trends' popularity is why they figure so heavily into the _Valis_ games. I also suspect that the _Valis_ franchise never really took off is because it didn't elaborate on those premises that much or commit itself to them too strongly.

    Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day has a bit of it, but it winds up being more of a runner, which I think winds up taking over the category in a way?

    Dracula X I do get why people make the comparison - the first stage is very similar to the PC Engine original. It branches from there and becomes more of its own more linear thing, but I think they did themselves a disservice by not making the game more different looking from the outset.

    I do find it interesting that most ports/remixes/etc of PC Engine games onto other more powerful consoles look way worse than the originals. Probably because a lot of those games were lower-tier to begin with (like Valis) but it's interesting to see when it happens with a game like Drac X. Interestingly I think Valis IV is one of the better looking Valis games because they made a lot of new background elements!

    (Oh and yes, makeruna makendo came out in the US as Kendo Rage. I used to see it all the time in game shops and think "this game looks lame" looking at the cover and stuff, while going home to play Valis and thinking I wished more games looked and played like that. If only I had ever read game magazines!)

    I was so excited for this thread/discussion, then life went wild and I‘m just now catching up on here. That being said, I’ve finally got time again, so I can finally dive in and talk about this.

    The list of elements that compose a Valis-like are really fascinating - there‘s definitely enough specific things to wind up with a really distinct feel, but there’s still a huge amount of opportunity for elaboration and variation on those themes. I‘ve only played a bit of the Valis titles on Genesis, and even they aren’t entirely in this genre. It seems like this is a niche category that has died out, which is weird, since magical girls are still popular and rad, and this kind of gameplay sounds really fun.

    I wonder how these games stacked up in a sales sense, especially compared to similar titles from the time. I imagine even with that data it would be hard to determine if better sales drove changes in design and the death of this niche, or just changing design sensibilities.

    Yeah, I‘m not sure - I reckon sales must have been good enough for Valis specifically that the series went on for quite a while across multiple platforms. But maybe eventually it tanked and soured everyone on the idea? I’d love to make one eventually, that‘s for sure. I feel like there’s room graphically for a strider 2-like, with high res pixel art and low poly 3D backgrounds:

    https://youtu.be/P_fNwHLZ5h4?t=299

    The big character would work even better in a 16:9 format probably.
    We discussed this on the podcast too, though it was mostly me reiterating this thread!

    I always enjoy a good 2d sprites on 3d levels game.

    I forgot how robust the movement options were in strider 2. You can just climb all over the place.

    >

    @exodus#1456 but it’s interesting to see when it happens with a game like Drac X.

    It might have been an accident but I’d argue Konami rarely put its best staff on the Super Famicom once they shared their efforts evenly among all three competitors. Rocket Knight Adventures was better than Sparkster. Dracula X was better than Dracula XX. Buster's Hidden Treasure was better than Buster Busts Loose. Your mileage may vary on Contra and TMNT, but Hard Corps and Hyperstone Heist happened way later than the SFC games anyway. Only Tokimeki Memorial got an amazing SFC port, all things considered, although the PCE version was still better.

    Obviously the Goemon and sports teams were very talented but they almost never crossed over with other platforms.

    We’d need someone like @gdri to chime in on where the staff went but it’s possible the talent from the early SFC teams got diluted into more teams as more platforms came into Konami’s consideration?

    @chazumaru#1667 Konami was somewhat late to start supporting the PCE CD and Mega Drive, but even post-1993, the SFC was still receiving far more games from Konami than other systems, at least until the PS became their main focus.

    The MD got great stuff like Rocket Knight and Hard Corps and Bloodlines which helped compensate for years of neglect from Konami, but in addition to Goemon games the SFC was still getting boatloads of Parodius and Twinbee games on top of that. Of course those did come to a Sega platform eventually, once their focus quickly shifted from the MD to the Saturn.

    Oh I am not insinuating that Konami was neglecting the SFC or prioritizing the other consoles on purpose, but rather that licenses which had titles released on different platforms arguably had the better game on another platform than the SFC, and that it might be due to how and where veteran staff was reallocated in order to lead the growing number of teams. That being said, pure conjecture!

    What I'm getting from this thread is that the only concrete pre-requisite for being a “Valis-like” is the name Valis.

    That prompts a question from me - are there any non-Valis games that are definitely Valis-likes?