For Americans who discovered anime in the early '90s -- say, after Akira, but before Evangelion -- the pre-import-boom days of exploring Japanese cartoons meant searching almost blindly for quality amidst shelves laden with cookie-cutter mediocrity.
In other words, anime in the '90s was a lot like anime in the '10s, except with two major differences. First, animation budgets were often insanely lavish thanks to the extravagance made possible by Japan's economic bubble throughout the '80s, so even if they were crap in terms of content those old videos at least looked stunning. And secondly, no one had ever heard of a "moeblob" back then, so the overall aesthetic was different. Fewer school girls, fewer meandering Azumanga Daioh knockoffs, more parity to western film genres. Sure, anime featured just as much borderline-tasteless exploitation of women back then, but the exploited women tended to be older and a lot less meek than they are now.
While that brand of boilerplate anime -- both tame and racy -- made it way to the U.S. in dribs and drabs alongside better-known works like Bubblegum Crisis and Tenchi Muyo (usually by way of ridiculously expensive video tapes that cluttered the "Japanimation" section in the dim back corner of the sleazier class of local video rental shop), it wasn't so common in games. You can't swing a dead nekomimi in a Japanese retro gaming shop without knocking over a few shelves of insipid anime-esque games from the '80s and '90s. And plenty of them feature adventuresome ladies in dangerous states of undress, boldly defying all manner of unsavory ends with sword or gun in hand. In America, not so much.
But at least we have Nihon Telenet's Valis games. Nowhere will you find a more perfect example of this particular niche of anime aesthetics than in the Valis games, many of which made their way to the U.S. courtesy of Telenet's long-vanished Renovation label. While they're not great games, in that sense they're actually kind of perfect: Utterly faithful renditions of the workmanlike anime and manga that inspired them. And while (like Clash at Demonhead) they tended to reach America wearing airbrushed Boris Vallejo-like Western-friendly cover art, inside they resembled 100% schlocky anime through and through, just like their original Japanese versions.
Case in point: 1989's Valis II. While the game appeared on several platforms in Japan, only the TurboGrafx CD version came West. Thankfully, it was a glorious rendition of the game. Crammed with slightly-animated cutscenes and the amateur-hour voice acting that characterized action anime dubs in the '90s, Valis II's story cutscenes had a running time nearly as long as the game's six brief, straightforward stages took to complete. Its connection to Japanese cartoons was as hard to hide as its generally mundane quality.
Not to say Valis II was a bad game; rather, it was aggressively average. It was your typical run-and-slash melee action game, a descendent of countless arcade titles like Rastan, Dragon Buster, and Magic Sword. And, much like Magic Sword, as protagonist Yuko grew in power she gained the ability to fling energy beams from her blade, progressively turning the adventure more toward the likes of Contra.
Alas, Valis II lacked the creative inspiration of Contra; its levels mostly consisted of flat ground containing a steady stream of monsters who would scroll into view as Yuko ran. While the adventure's later stages took on a somewhat more adventurous design, with moderate amounts of platform-hopping and even the need to switch scroll directions from time to time, its level design never managed to achieve anything more than "average," and its stiff controls and boss set pieces didn't help matters any. Its stages were like a journey through 8-bit visual design clichés: The quest took Yuko from city streets to otherworldly caverns to sci-fi techno-palaces to the inevitable bio-horror.
But despite offering fairly rote material, Valis II managed to win over a small but devoted American fanbase for being, well, uncommon. Even though Valis II represented a fairly uninspired slice of Japanese console game design, its aesthetics set it apart in the West, where such games rarely appeared. It was gloriously, unapologetically patterned after those exotic (and occasionally very graphic) cartoons that sometimes showed up late at night on cable or in the dustier corners of a video store. They were basically D-movie fare, animated equivalents of bottom-tier Hollywood Star Wars try-hards, but they were nothing at all like Disney or Saturday morning American cartoons, and Valis had the same intriguing luridness about it. Valis II brought Japanese animation into video game form in a time when Americans rarely saw such things. Add to that some of the most elaborate video game cutscenes ever seen to that point -- far lengthier and more detailed than Ninja Gaiden's! -- and some hard-rocking CD-based tunes, and it's easy to see the appeal of Valis II. Especially to the sort of tuned-in gamer who would have owned a TurboGrafx CD.
And despite being generally insipid, there were definitely little flashes of quality throughout the game. Yuko herself underwent several changes over the course of the adventure; while she began as a schoolgirl who stumbled into a mysterious power (a few years before Sailor Moon rendered such things a cliché), she soon geared up with increasingly complex forms of armor. Admittedly, they were all battle bikinis, but they provided fairly respectable protective coverage so far as such things go. Additionally, the power-up system offered a satisfying sense of player progression, and there were just enough differences between the stages to keep them from feeling totally homogenous. While Valis didn't set the world on fire with innovation, there was enough competent design behind its novel-for-us anime appeal to sustain interest in the game.
Later Valis games would build on the hints of depth and quality seen here, rewarding intrigued fans with welcome improvements. Much later Valis games, unfortunately, would take a turn for the crass; the Valis X games revived the franchise as an unflinchingly pornographic adventure series, taking the "sketchy VHS anime corner" spirit of the early '90s to its logical and graphic extreme. But tragic as the final video game indignities inflicted on poor Yuko turned out to be, it did at least make the flawed-but-decent older games like Valis II seem far better in hindsight. Like they always say: better generic than degenerate.
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