Friday, December 16, 2016

Brandish (SNES) Review

Received: December 25h, 2015 / Written: December 11th-16th, 2016
Year: 1994, 1995 | Developed and Published by: Koei
Licensed by: Nihon Falcom

Hello everyone, StarBoy91 here, passionate about video games, big retrophile, and fan of all things 16-bit; and what say we end 2016's StarBlog run with a bang=D

On October 1991 Nihon Falcom created an A-RPG by the name of Brandish for the NEC PC-9801 and FM Towns computers, which would eventually be followed up with an NEC treatment on the PC Engine CD-ROM² System on June 17th, 1994, culminating in a Super Famicom port handled by Koei that June 25th which would see an American release for the first time in NTSC SNES format on February 1995.  It did pretty good in native Japan, but in America... not so much.  =(  But why?  What turned (and is still turning) them away?

A long time ago there existed the kingdom of Berimya, with its tall tower that was quite magnificent that it symbolized world peace.  Many people were happy, but the greedy Berimyan monarch King Berebus (Gadobistall in Japan) wasn't content as he dreamt of ways to become stronger in power.  One day he caught wind that the answer he's been searching for lies atop the tower, wherein resides a dragon who's protected the kingdom which Berebus learns days later after a spy disguised as a priest brings back a book which revealed its secrets.  But that would not last.
At once the evil king commands his Imperial Army to storm the tower and seek the dragon; King Berebus' archbishop Baltus tried to stop them, but was sentenced to death for trying to get in the way of the king's wishes.  Once they reach the top of the tower they stumble upon a stone statue of a dragon that comes to life; Berebus orders the Berimyan protector to give him all the power or die.  The dragon, sensing the king's inner greed, replies that he will curse and turn him into a monster reflective of his evil heart; the dragon opened up its wings that began to emit a vibrant light and curled its long neck and body into a ball.  Not resisting the soldier's attempts to slay it, the dragon's full power was released in exchange for its life.
King Berebus, unable to control the power, transformed into a grotesque monster that reflected his contaminated heart.  He wasn't the only one that was punished, for the whole of Berimya began to crumble and disappear into the dark depths of the abyss.

A thousand years pass following this tragedy, in the desperate land of Bavalya which once was a nice and happy place until King Beryx devised a get rich quick scheme by placing bounties on criminals and collecting money by taxing said rewards.  Bavalya was now a wealthy place, made all the more uninhabitable by criminals who began to stalk each other rendering it a violent place that few dare to step foot to now.  One day arrived Varik (Ares Toraernos in Japan), a wandering and mysterious bounty hunting swordsman who's got a big price on his head, who overhears at a bar word of a large hole where people fell into and never came back from and apparently monsters popping out from it.  Intrigued, he decides to investigate the hole for himself.
As Varik climbs down the hole he's caught up by the sorceress Alexis (Dela Delon in Japan), who for five years has been trailing and following his tracks to exact revenge on him for the murder of her master Balkan (Balcan in Japan) which Varik had been falsely accused of.
Taking her chance, she begins to conjure a blast aimed at him,...
but misses as he evades it.  As she fires her second blast which flies down the hole an earthquake suddenly occurs and crumbles the ground beneath them, sending Varik and Alexis all the way down the big hole with little to no hope to get out.  Your quest to try to escape the depths the hole led to
(and try to evade a vengeful Alexis) has just begun.

Just got here, so it's time to take the long
route that leads outside
In the bird's eye viewed action-oriented RPG Brandish you take the controls of the bounty hunter Varik (as Ares was known in America) whose gameplay is rather involved and may take a bit to get used to, so please bear with me as I go over them in detail.  With the B button you can jump ahead by two steps (one if an enemy or edge or wall has stopped you), with the A button you can hold the shield in front of you by holding it and press it to swing a sword once you've equipped it, with the X button you can use the secondary item you have in stow once you've selected it from your inventory via Select button (or while in inventory mode press A as the hand is on the item you desire as an alternative), and with the Y button you can open doors and press switches on walls and pick up items (in inventory mode Y will dispose of the item you selected which can be picked up again if you wanted it back); and should you hold down either of the shoulder buttons as you press Y you'll be using a magnifying glass to look at your surroundings in front of you.

Prepare to face monsters galore
Since you never get a clear glimpse of Varik's face (and are refused the chance to know what his profile is like) you only see his back in-game; so how do the movement controls work exactly you might wonder?  You can move forwards and walk backwards, but once you make a clockwise or counterclockwise turn the whole playing field will change perspective as you will see what that side looks like from his point of view.  This element alone made American gamers nervous and apprehensive to play it as a result, and yeah, while admittedly it can be a bit disorienting at first on account of it being a top-down A-RPG (the only other RPGs at the time where you could face North, South, East, and West were the first-person ones of the turn-based variety) it does become second nature if you give it another hour or two.  Brandish is also one of those games where you can strafe by holding down either shoulder button as you move without having to change facing direction, provided your L/R Keys are set to Lateral (whereas Rotate will do the opposite of that) whenever you feel the need to maintain a constant perspective.

That wall's cracked... let's break it down and search
its secret corridors!  =D
With the Select button you can access the inventory which only allows up to twelve items to store but luckily for you there are a few Dimensional Boxes which will enable you to carry another twelve additional items for each ones you find and procure.  Monsters do not leave money behind as you defeat them but they do grant you experience points; the only way to get money outside of finding some inside chests is by selling items that you do not deem useful to you in shops you'll occasionally stumble upon (whether it be item shops, weapon shops, or magic shops) which may have stuff that will serve you greatly if you can afford them (you can even talk to them the first time you enter).

Ohhh nooo, Alexis!
Next to most items you carry are a number count, not only for sledgehammers and master keys, but also for most swords.  With each swing that your sword makes (regardless whether the monster took a hit or blocked it) your count will go down by one for which its usage can be augmented when you use a hardening potion which you'll sometimes find, but use up the whole sword and it'll break; you can still fight, but swords are more powerful than punches (swinging your sword many times will increase Varik's arm strength as you go along).  Another alternative to fight most monsters in your journey is with the diverse magic scrolls (preferably fire for long-range attacks), and with each particular number of enemies contacted by your magic Varik's knowledge will increase (plus, with each particular amount of times you sustain a monster's magic your magic endurance will increase gradually); be careful which monster you use the magic against (should you have enough MP to use) for some of them might reflect back at you, so get out of the way if that's the case.  Pressing Start will grant you access to the map of the current segment you're in which shows where you are at, your stat screen, the options, and you can save your progress in any one of two save files anywhere your heart desires (just like in Nihon Falcom's other A-RPG series Ys).

Spider-like monster battle
Brandish has received a lot of flak for its in-game visual structure compared to the cutscenes.  No, it's not the best-looking game out there, but the fact of the matter is that this is a Nihon Falcom RPG!  Do you honestly walk into a Nihon Falcom RPG and expect pure visual brilliance to come from it?  Of course not, you go in for the intuitive gameplay, great music, and engrossing story!  Personally I don't find the visuals to be that terrible as I find them to be nicely simplistic in their own way, plus there's a sense of design regarding each respective areas' layout that adds a sense of atmosphere.  It's also refreshing to play a Nintendo 16-bit A-RPG where each of the four different sides sometimes actually look different from each other depending where you are facing during some segments.

Always exciting to find a set of stairs
The Ruins segments look old and abandoned, the Tower segments have a blue-bricked pattern, the Dark Zones are aptly named with the darkly shaded walls and the fact that you can't immediately discern the ground from a hole, and the Fortress has got a grotesque and somewhat organic look and feel to it.  To be fair though, the visuals are derided by many on account that each main setting has several segments with the same floor and wall color and design so because of that this aspect gives off the vibe that it's visually lacking, but there is new scenery if you stick with it and finish each main setting.  Varik is designed and animates decently in-game, as does Alexis in the handful of moments that you see her; among the enemies you fight are imps, zombies, knight variants, bats, barebreasted Medusa creatures, creatures enshrouded in shadow (such as one that swims with frog legs through Dark Zone), manticore lions, winged grim reapers, and mimic chests to name a few, and it's cool to see them viewed and animated from four different angles (including legitimate treasure chests and at a couple points corpses) with the weapons being carried in their proper hands without resorting to the left-right spriteflip bullcrap (like the skeletons with swords and shield).  The bosses are decently designed as well (many of them are huge while one is about on-par with Varik's size), and I like that they flash in yellow any time they sustain damage.

Fighting electric jellyfish with fire
The best part of the game on a visual sense are the anime cutscenes during the introduction and ending sequences for they are beautifully colored and detailed, particularly the downfall of Berimya and Alexis confronting Varik which are visually striking (culminating in the two falling down the hole via this A-RPG's rare moment of Mode 7 scaling effects); and the file loading screen has got a well-designed Varik whose face is purposely shaded to maintain his face's anonymity.  =)  Every once in awhile you do see some anime designs (albeit as stills) like when you talk with a merchant inside their shop, Alexis in the few moments you stumble upon her, certain NPCs, and when you're done with a main area and moving on to the next one as an inbetween narrative sequence.  The ending anime cutscene is richly well-deserving as you finally made it outside after all this time, plus the anime stills of the moments leading up to the ending are very welcome.
The box unfortunately crops off the dragon's head at the top which you can see on the manual and the cart's sticker
Another thing of note is that the cover art is absolutely gorgeous.  Just look at the colors and the dynamic touches, wow!  =D  Really eye-catching stuff, one of the best covers for any game ever, Nintendo 16-bit or otherwise!

Thanks for the helpful tip  =)
The soundtrack to Brandish was composed by Falcom Sound Team JDK as well as Atsushi Shirakawa who's best known as Tenmon (Popful Mail, Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes II) and Mieko Ishikawa (MSX Legacy of the Wizard, Popful Mail), and while there's not a huge amount the music that is present works perfectly for the respective areas you're in as they manage to make these locales more atmospheric than they already are, and it's one of those things that make me press on.  =)  The Ruins theme is quiet-sounding at points but also imbues a sense of mystery and intrigue to it for the way it's composed makes listening to it enthrallingly entrancing.

Ooh, hole, jump over it
Things really get good once you reach the Tower segments where its theme is really catchy and makes you feel like you're progressing forward, the Cave theme is highly atmospheric and catchy, the Dark Zone theme is sinister-sounding, and the Fortress theme absolutely rocks.  The sound effects are decent (like when any of Varik's stats increase, when you use your fire scroll, and when you break down a wall), the two shop themes are nice (one purely atmospheric, the other bouncy and fun), and I love that each boss has their own themes composed specifically for them (including Berebus' theme when you face him in the end which is epic in its own right)--you'll never hear the same battle theme more than once--that pumps up the action.  Even Alexis has a theme dedicated to her.

Hell-lo, Judaism symbol
I only played the American version of Brandish, but I must bring this up as a music-lover: the introduction themes for both the Japanese and American versions are different.  Apparently from what I gathered: in the versions up to the Super Famicom edition in 1994 there was a case of "accidental copyright infringement" as the opening in those versions had notes that sounded very similar to Joaquín Rodrigo's 1939 Adagio movement of his well-known Concierto de Aranjuez, and when the public put two and two together due its widespread exposure this forced Nihon Falcom to change the opening theme for subsequent versions beginning with the NTSC SNES release to avoid a potential lawsuit (I think).

Beware of magic warps
Having listened to both the Japanese introduction theme and Adagio recently, there are similarities here and there (hell, even the Spanish-like instrumentation is the same) and as a song by itself the former is a good listen but in-game it probably would not have been as effective as the American introduction theme that was used here.  Admittedly sounding different than anything else in the game (due to it being done by a composer whose identity to this day remains a mystery, blame the lack of in-game credits for that), it combined with the opening visuals works sublimely as it is extravagantly haunting and successfully draws you into this world to the point where you want to explore it; sadly it never got used again in subsequent versions of Brandish, which is a shame because it's a really powerful opener.  =(

A three-way?  Where should I head to?
The essential goal of this A-RPG is to progress your way to the next areas, however you are going to have to be very careful and alert if you want to prolong your survival and make progress.  Exploring your surroundings is key to advancing forward in your journey, as you never know if you'll stumble upon a secret path (which the map reveals when you look at it)--there might be a dark spot which means the wall in question can be broken with a sledgehammer or there might be a magic wall you can walk through.  Checking the map often will serve you greatly throughout (the compass in the upper right corner lets you know which way you're facing), but another thing that will serve you well is the magnifying glass which is a total lifesaver in many a situation (especially during the Dark Zone that lets you know whether there's a hole in front of you or not).

Platforming, my favorite
Mainly there are master keys you'll find that will open certain locked doors and treasure chests, but occasionally there are special keys that are required which you have to find; sometimes you'll find them after defeating a group of the same monsters or a boss while other times you may have to do some backtracking.  Latter sounds too overwhelming for you?  Don't fret, for at any point in the game you can change the game's speed setting: there's the default speed which is normal, the low speed which reduces the game's speed, and the high speed to make the game go at a faster rate.  The normal speed is perfectly fine for the most part, but if there's a boss fight or tough monster coming that might seem too challenging it's okay to set it to low, but if you wish to rush if you've leveled up enough or want to backtrack faster the high speed setting is always there to select.  Good thing for choices, am I right?  =)

Oh no, I'm frozen!
Brandish also has its fair share of puzzles here and there which you have to solve in order to unlock doors without keyholes or make nearby shortcuts to certain parts of a segment suddenly appear; nearby are plaques which will tell or hint at you as to what you have to do and it's up to you to find the solution--some ways of doing it are by stepping on all separately placed switches, sometimes there are wall switches, and other times you have to press switches in a certain order (most of them are out in the open, but some involve using teleportation stars while others might require walking through a magic wall).  If you're dangerously low on health and have to heal yourself, that's easy: just hold down both shoulder buttons and that'll do the trick (partway or fully, plus your MP gradually refills itself) which you can do in most of the game, but be very careful that there are no nearby enemies when you do it otherwise you'll sustain twice as much damage than you do when you're not healing.  This should probably go without saying, but it's very vital that you save often: any time you find something useful, save; any time you reach a new segment or open a new door, save; any time you find new equipment, save; any time you defeat a boss, save; and especially when any one of Varik's stats have increased, save (if you have a Ring of Life on your main inventory you'll be revived fully).

"No, it is you who will pay for making me spend a long time
searching for the blue key-holding third Medusa who took
forever to find in the big maze with the parts that
magically turned me around, you giant arachnid witch!"  =|
When Brandish debuted in Japan twenty-five years ago it was deemed as a Nihon Falcom success that it ended up becoming a franchise (largely left in Japan).  On March 1993 the NEC PC-9801 was given the first sequel in Brandish 2: The Planet Buster which took place two years from where today's game left off (convenient); then in 1994 came the NEC PC-9801 exclusive follow-up Brandish 3: Spirit of Balcan which was the last sequel to incorporate the gameplay that defined the series up to this point and wrapped up the overarching narrative that began from the first title; in 1996 arrived the then NEC PC-9801 only Brandish VT which took on an isometric perspective and told a completely different story which was re-released for the Windows PC in 1998 as Brandish 4: Nemureru Kami no TouBrandish saw a remastered treatment with 1995's Brandish Renewal and got remade for the PlayStation Portable in March 2009 as Brandish: The Dark Revenant, the latter of which would not see a release in America and for the first time Europe until early 2015 as a digital PlayStation Network download.

Koei wasn't exactly a company known for crafting action-oriented games (at least not in the complete sense), being a more strategy-heavy kind of developing team as evidenced by their Daikoukai Jidai/Uncharted Waters and Winning Post series to name a couple, so the fact that they ported this A-RPG with Nihon Falcom's consent is a bit surprising but at the same time I applaud them for it because in my opinion they absolutely nailed it.  =)
Koei's involvement with Nihon Falcom fare on the Super Famicom would continue with the August 1995 port of Brandish 2: The Planet Buster (the second and final iteration of the series made available to play on a TV console) and end with them publishing the Expert edition of the Nihon Falcom-developed Ys V: Ushinawareta Suna no Miyako Kefin, Ys V Expert which came out about three months after the aforementioned Ys A-RPG's December 1995 release in March 1996 (incidentally, that month also saw the release of Brandish 2 Expert which included difficulty settings and a time attack).  Neither title officially left Japan.

The chameleon/bat Nintendo 64 throwback platformer
Yooka-Laylee is no longer coming to the Nintendo
Wii U, but the Nintendo Switch; sad face  ='(  I guess
that's what happens when I take out so many bats in
video games...
The reception for Brandish had been less than positive in American shores when it first came out and over the years has divided the people who played it.  Being compared to other, more high-profile SNES A-RPGs up to that point probably didn't help, but the prospect of changing viewing angles constantly in this vast and big top-down venture likely scared off casual gamers from touching it, and some people maybe did not know how to play it (or at least didn't fully grasp and understand the overall controls) to the point where they underwent the Fox and the Grapes Syndrome and gave up on it.  I can understand how people might feel that way as it's not a readily accessible kind of game, but if you stick with it and know how to use the controls wisely then the journey will be a very rewarding one.

If you think the ninjas are annoying here, just
wait until you play the sequel
I recall having heard of Brandish for the first time over a decade ago online, not knowing at the time that the Nintendo 16-bit A-RPG was a port and for the most part nary a nice thing had been said for it from American websites.  However, around 2008 I discovered a positive take by RVGFanatic (the same year I discovered his website if I recall correctly) which was such a good read and fascinated me so much that I honestly consider it my number one favorite review of his, even as he keeps creating new content.  Of course, I wouldn't get a chance to play Brandish until I asked for it last Christmas (among other games), and admittedly that day when I got it I was a bit lost that when I tried again the next week I discovered why: I didn't use the magnifying glass often (so that's on me).  But when I started getting into the habit of using the magnifying glass when warranted and stuck with it I had discovered something truly special in my playthrough.  =)  I got it in complete condition with the manual and box which made it even better; I loved how the back compared itself to Breath of Fire and Brain Lord, almost as if they were connected somehow,...
That and all three may or may not involve dragons serving as a pivotal part of the plot; and yes, I have mastered Breath of Fire and Brain Lord (both versions), thanks for asking  ;)

What about this even remotely screams "OK" for you?  =/
While the gameplay took a bit to get accustomed to I found it to be a lot of fun to play in the long run, and I loved this A-RPG's lingering sense of atmosphere as you perused the many depths of Bavalya (I'm a sucker for any 16-bit game that delivers an atmospheric touch), unsure if there was any chance to see the outside.  While visually it left a bit to be desired I didn't mind that much for it's the gameplay that matters most, and if you think Brandish looks terrible then you will change your mind when you take a glimpse at Epoch's port of Nihon Falcom's turn-based (yes, turn-based) RPG Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes (now that game looks awful for 16-bit standards, but its gameplay is decent).

Chest inspection time
The idea that you're taking the controls of who is essentially an anti-hero is a fascinating one given many SFC/SNES RPGs usually revolve around protagonists (or heroes in coming of age situations), but I hesitate to call him an antagonist because he doesn't seem all bad, despite not knowing all that much about him: yeah, he's a wanted criminal and he may or may not have killed a master sorcerer but that's it, his character is never expanded upon (even when he gets a chance to save his pursuer from being killed).  But you know what?  I did not mind that in the slightest as it gives Varik (Ares in Japan) such a mysterious flair about him.  While there are moments when you occasionally have to backtrack I highly appreciate the option to alter the game's speed setting to low or high when necessary (certainly beats slogging along at a consistently slow pace like you did in Kemco's Super Drakkhen/Dragon View), so kudos for that inclusion--makes Brandish more fun and bearable to play.  =)  Equipping is as simple as that, and jumping is a lot of fun too as you get to move faster that way (one of the plaques you read even urges you to do so), and I liked the puzzle-solving moments as most of them I found out how to do on my own while some I relied on a guide after numerous failed tries during my first playthrough,
including one which, in hindsight, should've been very obvious given that you only face four directions and not eight.

Gotta say, you don't see Death with wings on
his back that often
And something that's just occurred to me the more I really think about it, the more I realize this A-RPG was quite ahead of its time.  Nowadays there are games aplenty (regardless of the genre, regardless of the perspective) where you could rotate the camera to your desire (if it let you), but at a time when bird's eye viewed RPGs of any kind relied on a fixed perspective Nihon Falcom stood out from the crowd by doing something new in Brandish which I bet initially startled the very first people that got to play it the first time, though it didn't take long for it to be warmed up to in Japan.  It's a real shame it didn't meet the same success in America with the NTSC SNES format, but that'll happen when the North American continent had nowhere near as much exposure to the branching RPG genre as Japan did; my guess is that Koei figured it would potentially gain a big American audience but it didn't quite work out like they thought it would.

Oh, hello, teleportation star room
Out of all the Nihon Falcom licenses and games made for the Super Famicom only two of them got localized for the SNES in America (Tonkin House's 1991 port of Nihon Falcom's divisive 1989 sidescrolling A-RPG Ys III: Wanderers from Ys published by American Sammy and Koei's port of Brandish) which is really sad given the company's good catalog.  =(  Most people likely prefer the former than the latter, and I do understand why given its simplistic gameplay and area structure in and out of comparison, but to me it's quite the contrary in that I honestly like the latter more.  Now I do still like and enjoy playing Ys III: Wanderers from Ys once in awhile, and it's a game I'll always have a fondness for as it was the second SNES game I ever bought and ordered from eBay in 2009, but unfortunately after two-to-two and a half hours it's over; Brandish, on the other hand, I felt greatly benefited itself from its reasonable sense of longevity.
I also enjoyed Brandish slightly more than Red Company's The Twisted Tales of Spike McFang (Chō Makai Taisen! Dorabotchan in Japan) which I also got last Christmas, an incredibly endearing and purely innocent lighthearted A-RPG with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek that I also love and is so fun to play that it's too bad its only four or four and a half hours short.  Is the obscure spinoff that I got months later, Super Naxat Open: Golf de Shōbu da! Dorabotchan, about on par with or better than Brandish?  I can't say for the moment, but it is fun from what I played of it.  =)

Sooo many holes to hop over
Another thing that Brandish benefits from is replay value, and there is tons of it, but only for those who persevere or enjoyed it a lot the first time, like myself.  If you didn't explore a certain portion of the area you were at the first time you could get a chance to do it the next time you play it through, and the more rooms you find the better the chance to find more things that come to your aid (that, or more sellable items if they're of no use to you) as well as deciding whether or not to save Alexis.  It's too bad that this version of Nihon Falcom's A-RPG in particular doesn't have any in-game credits (we don't know the names of the people involved, a similar thing having happened in Kemco-Seika's Nintendo 16-bit port of Zoom's Ys clone Lagoon) but it's made up for your overall stats being presented to you before it truly ends.  I've kept track of my stats for the two playthroughs I've done for it, and here they are for those who are curious--Level: 72/69, HP: 174/165, MP: 152/143, Arm Strength: 91.64/97.13, Knowledge: 82.19/81.84, Magic Endurance: 48.28/49.04, Attack Strength: 141/147, Defense Strength: 68/72, Luck: 93/87, Escape Time: 18h4m (in seven days)/14h18m (in four days), Steps Taken: 77937/70934, Monsters Defeated: 1529/1030, Lives Lost: 74/43, Swords Broken: 31/11, % of Map Completed: 82%/92%.  All things considered I think I did better the second time around.

ALEXIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  >O<
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed playing Brandish back in January, admittedly a tad more than I should have, but even more surprised at how much I loved it that I wanted to play the sequel right away.  Took awhile to get to it, though, as I didn't want to jump towards the cheaper Brandish 2 Expert but Koei's initial SFC take on Brandish 2: The Planet Buster which I actually got to play a few months ago on my Super Famiconsole.  I hoped that because I loved the first game that I would be greeted with the same amount of fun for the sequel if not more, but I ended up getting neither surprisingly.  Now just to get it out of the way as I didn't get to finish it: I didn't dislike it as the gameplay was still good and visually it was better, but I felt that it was missing something (I can't quite put my finger on what it is).  Brandish was the kind of A-RPG that compelled me to play from the beginning and not stop until I reached the very end, Brandish 2 didn't quite do that for me (it must've been an off-moment for me).  One of these days I'll give that game another go and try to finish it, but for now it's safe to say that out of the two I enjoyed the original the most.

Only go for it if you're confident, brave, and patient
Brandish is not for everyone, and if you're someone who easily gets frustrated then this will do exactly that; but if you arm yourself with tons of patience and perseverance then the journey will be rewarding in the long run (not that there aren't moments that will test you in that regard, but the good outweighs the bad in my book).  While you can go at a high speed if you wish to backtrack it's also imperative that you take your time for you never know if you'll wind up overlooking something vital if you rush through it; and if you love things like atmosphere and replay value you'll find a bunch of it in store here.  Of the Nihon Falcom properties I played on the Nintendo 16-bit Brandish is in my Top 3: third behind Popful Mail (which Nihon Falcom ported themselves and also turns twenty-five this year) which is second and the Tonkin House-developed Ys IV: Mask of the Sun which is first (even though both are shorter than today's A-RPG).  If you're willing to give it a chance it's not as impossible as its naysayers have made it out to be but it will prove to be challenging at points, and if challenge is what you seek then you will find in it a pure, underrated treasure.  =)

My Personal Score: 8.0/10
<( ^o^)^TO EACH THEIR OWN^(^o^ )>
P.S. Oh my God=O  I did it?  I reviewed all nine of these games this year like I promised I would?  ...  I'M FREEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!  I can't believe it, I'm so excited; I didn't think I would be able to do it but I managed!  =D

P.S. 2 I dedicate this review to RVGFanatic, thank you for inspiring me to try this game with your excellent review.  I wonder what he'll think when he reads my thoughts on it?
Happy 25th Anniversary, Brandish!!!  =D
Thank you for reading my review, please leave me a comment (spam will not be tolerated) and let me know what you think.  Merry Christmas to you all, and take care!  =)  See you all again in 2017!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Super Valis: Akaki Tsuki no Otome (SFC) Review

Received: October 27th, 2016 / Written: December 1st-3rd, 2016
Alternate Title: Super Valis IV
Year: 1991, 1992 | Developed by: Telenet Japan
Published by: Shin-Nihon Laser Soft | [|O|]

Hello everyone, StarBoy91 here, passionate about video games, big retrophile, and fan of all things 16-bit.

Image from Wikipedia; Happy 30th Anniversary, game I haven't played
On December 1986 the MSX, NEC PC-8801, and X1 computers saw the debut of Mugen Senshi Valis in Japan, which Americans will identify as Valis: The Fantasm Soldier, developed by Arcus and Tales of Phantasia developer Wolf Team and published by Telenet Japan which was about a contemporary 1980's schoolgirl named Yūko Asō who becomes the chosen warrior to wield the mystical sword named Valis as the realms of Earth, the spirit realm, and Vecanty, the Dream World are endangered.  The game would also see different versions on the FM-7 and NEC PC-9801 computers as well as the Tokuma Soft-developed Famicom version in 1987, leading to the Riot-developed MegaDrive/Genesis and PC Engine Super CD-ROM² System conversions in 1991 and 1992.  What made it stand out from other games at the time was its heavy emphasis on storytelling cutscenes to advance the narrative which would influence games like Ninja Gaiden, Cotton, and Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, all of which owe Valis in this regard.  Popular consensus says the story and cutscenes are the sole reason to play it as the gameplay apparently left a lot to be desired, though I hear the PC Engine Super CD-ROM² System is the superior version of them all.
Image from Wikipedia
After several versions of the first game combined with intrigue to where the story would lead to next, Valis warrior Yūko would return to the scene in Mugen Senshi Valis II or Valis (The Fantasm Soldier) II in the Summer of 1989 with versions ranging from the Laser Soft-developed PC Engine CD-ROM² one (being the first game in the series to come out in America as Valis II for the TurboGrafx-CD in 1990), versions available on the MSX and NEC PC-8801 and PC-9801 and Sharp X68000 computers, and a super deformed edition on the MegaDrive/Genesis as SD Valis (Syd of Valis in America)--the last of which even Valis fans consider to be an embarrassing disappointment.  Overall the follow-up has been revered as a slight improvement from its predecessor, but it wouldn't stop there.
Image from Wikipedia
Yūko would wield the Valis sword one last time in Mugen Senshi Valis III, Valis III in America, on the PC Engine CD-ROM² System in September 1990 (with a TurboGrafx-CD release following suit in 1992) which would also receive a Reno-developed MegaDrive/Genesis port in 1991.  Of the Valis series' offerings general gamers as well as fans consider it to be the best in terms of gameplay (as you could also choose to play as either Cham or Yūko's sister Valna Asō) as well as a really good sendoff for the blue-haired Valis warrior.  I recall reading an article several years ago saying this Valis iteration in particular (among other games) was slated to come to the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console, but obviously that never came to pass (likely due to licensing disagreements).  =(
Image from MobyGames; Happy 25th Anniversary, other other OTHER game I haven't played
On the heals of the third game Telenet Japan followed it up with the PC Engine Super CD-ROM² System-exclusive Valis IV in August 1991, transpiring fifteen years after the events of the previous game which was essentially a passing of the torch kind of game as Yūko, who's become a goddess in the end of Mugen Senshi Valis III, bequeaths the sword to Vecanty-born Rena Bland should she be worthy of it who's accompanied by her twin sister Amu and Asfal.  General consensus states that it's good but is outrageously difficult throughout.
No direct port of Valis IV has been made, but there was a reimagining of it on March 1992 with the Shin-Nihon Laser Soft-published Super Valis: Akaki Tsuki no Otome (for which the subtitle translates to "Red Moon Rising Maiden"; produced and directed by Valis IV producer Masami Hanari) for the Super Famicom which would arrive in NTSC SNES format on February 1993 (courtesy of Atlus) as Super Valis IV, which I bet baffled American Nintendo loyalists at the time; suddenly getting a Valis game with the Roman numeral "IV" attached even though the only American gamers who got to play the first three games at the time comprised of TurboGrafx-CD and Genesis owners (the first Valis did see a Nintendo 8-bit edition, but only for the Famicom in Japan).  So how is this series' first and only Nintendo 16-bit take?

In the year 199X, the Dream World of Vecanty had prospered in its peaceful lifestyle for fifteen years thanks to the heroic efforts of the legendary Valis warrior Yūko Asō.  But now that's being threatened by the generals and forces of the Dark World overlord
Prince Galgear.
In Vecanty, Yūko has since become its goddess who's been watching over peace all these years, but now that she can't afford to fight for the three realms herself she awaits for the one who can save everyone.
That one is the young M'aider Maiden Rena Bland, who upon meeting her swears and vows to use the Valis sword wisely against Galgear and his forces.  Yūko then bestows the mystical sword to the red-haired maiden, which is the only weapon that can hurt Galgear.
It is up to Rena to restore peace and take down the evil forces that threaten the good people of the three realms.

From Vecanty to the Red Moon, Rena will stop
at nothing to restore peace
Super Valis: Akaki Tsuki no Otome has you take control of Rena Bland in this sidescrolling actioner whose main method of attacking enemies is with the Valis sword via the Y button, with the B button allowing you to jump (how high or low you jump depends on how hard you pressed the button).  As you venture throughout you'll find varying power icons which you can toggle with either shoulder button (even when paused a la Contra Spirits/Contra III: The Alien Wars), only able to carry six at a time, and once you've chosen the power-up you want to use press the X button that way you'll use up it as much times as it allows you by pressing up and Y.  I know what you're thinking: "Castlevania clone?"  Yes,... and no.  One game series that Valis has drawn comparison to since its inception was Konami's Akumajō Dracula/Castlevania series (Mugen Senshi Valis debuted three months after the vampire slaying game that started it all) if only for this reason; in America Super Valis IV (as it was known) more than likely got compared to Super Castlevania IV (as Super Famicom Akumajō Dracula was known) due the same Roman Numeral and the word "Super" in the title even though gameplay-wise those two are dissimilar (there's no eight-way weapon aiming here, only left and right).

"Vecanty Dominator", huh?  You wouldn't happen to
be related to the ironically named Wander Over Yonder
villainess Lord Dominator, would you?  -_O
Unlike the aforementioned series where you could refill the amount necessitated to use the subweapons, in Super Valis once you choose the power-up you're only allowed to use it as many times as you're given (numbers depend on the difficulty you choose to play) and if you've ran out of the other power-ups you can still shoot the small but wide-ranging beam from your sword by pressing up and Y (the only magic you can use indefinitely).  You can swing your sword as you're standing, while in midair, and when ducking down; and you can dash also.  Your normal walking pace is deliberate, but in order to gain traction just double-tap the left or right buttons to let Rena go fast (which proves very useful when it comes to wide gaps)--you'd think that'd be enabled by simply moving and holding down the attack button like in most games of its ilk, who'da thunk that it would function as if it were a Kirby platformer post-Adventure?  Oh, who am I kidding, this game precedes the Kirby series entirely!

"Begone, foul infiltrators!"
Super Valis is a pretty game to look at, colors and details and all.  =)  Because Valis IV was a PC Engine game it could not be completely transitioned to the Nintendo 16-bit, only partially; among the elements brought over to today's game are many of Sayoko Kingodzi's background designs, with some additional ones provided specifically for this game by Kumataro Shigeta, albeit in a different layout as rearranged by Hal Nishida.  The Dream World of Vecanty has got a fiery and looming backdrop amidst the destruction of buildings and walls sometimes littered with fallen corpses; Babylon has got a bright sky with a small amount of clouds with some added visual depth incorporating two different layers scrolling at different speeds in the background as well as a towering color-layering waterfall occasionally popping up in the foreground; and there's a chilling feel as you roam its Clistal Pillor that subtly changes colors at points with occasional ice falling down.  Some of the best-looking areas this game has to offer are Castle Vanity with the parallax scrolling clouds in the backdrop amid a star-studded sky as you explore the walls and (sometimes incomplete) statues, Valhara which starts off refreshingly bright with the slow but looming backdrop and parallax scrolling sea of grass which ends up inside a worship place adorned with stained glass windows dedicated to Yūko, and there's a psychedelic wavy effect during the Red Moon stage which is cool.  =)

So beautiful  =O
Also carried over to Super Valis were the in-game character and enemy designs and animations originally done by Kōji Otsuka, Kenji Kobayashi, and Kazuhiro Koizumi who all make a return.  Rena animates nicely as she moves (faster as she runs) and as she swings her sword (but is it me or is her upper torso briefly split from her lower body as she proceeds to swing a sword while ducking?), plus her hair animation is quaint.  Among the enemies Rena encounters are evil pike-throwing suits of armor, white creatures with red spider-like tentacles, floating swordsmen, varying kinds of Valkyries, and even Rena clones who spring from sentient floating fetuses.  Boss-wise there's a general who rides a leaping, fire-breathing tiger; a three-formed boss fight who begins as a statue then turns into a harpy until finally she becomes a mermaid; a tall jet-fast general whose got a big countenance on his body; and Galgear's not too shabbily designed in-game.

Like the previous games Valis IV advanced the narrative with anime cutscenes with animation and voice acting included, but were reduced to stills when it came to Super Valis, as the scenarios were done by Haruyuki Nishida and Bunzō Matsui (who suspiciously are not credited here).  Naturally since the game got restructured the stills could not be used in chronological order (that, and another reason); doesn't matter what the context is, if Telenet Japan could fit those in somewhere that's all that matters.  Rena, Yūko, and Galgear look really good in cutscene format, and before Rena and Galgear duke it out there's a slight bit of animation with his cape flowing to the side, Rena raising and pointing the Valis sword to him, and Rena moving her lips as she's talking in that brief moment.  The colors are gorgeous during these moments, and depending on the difficulty there might be a different profile pic after you see the credits.  =)

Ah, nothing beats showering as you're fighting baddies
With none of the cues composed by Kawame, Junta, and Shingo Murakami (Mugen Senshi Valis III) making their way over to the Nintendo 16-bit console (despite many of the backgrounds, sprites, and some of the gameplay being transitioned) Super Valis' soundtrack had to be done from scratch, this time done by Junta (whose only other credit seems to be the one-on-one fighting game Taiketsu!! Brass Numbers/Doomsday Warrior), and it's a good soundtrack in its own right... however, a lot of it doesn't quite work when heard out of context, and the reason for that is because there's a heavy quality to some of the tracks.

Hurray, fixed patterns  =D
The introduction theme, for example, has got an overwhelmingly urgent and at times nightmarish sound to it with its emphasis on prolonged intense notes, and it doesn't let up until the title forms up; Babylon's theme is a fast-based techno beat that works wonders serving atmosphere for its setting but proves to be ineffective outside of that; the organ-ridden Clistal Pillor theme is heavy in terms of tone; and the Red Moon theme has a foreboding composition going for it.  The only themes that work best both in and out of context are Vecanty's theme which sets a heroic tone for what's to come, Castle Vanity's theme with its majestic instrumentation that sounds inspiring, Valhara's theme which is atmospheric yet lighthearted with some mysteriousness thrown in, and the ending theme is pleasing to listen to as your adventure has come to an end.

Harpy dives down, gets slashed in the process
The boss theme is swift-sounding but serviceable, but Galgear's theme as you fight him is a big step up as it sounds so energetic and fun (really depends on the mood if it works specifically for the game or can be listened to either way)--the sound samples might attribute to that.  =)  The sound effects are quaintly-chosen in Super Valis for Rena's normal sword swings sound just right, the magic she shoots from her Valis sword has got a somewhat whooshing sound, and the sound effect of the bosses as they explode in defeat is rather satisfying; the dinging sound for when Rena dons her health supplement armor which ironically protects even less skin (and the sound for when her health bar capacity has been augmented in the Normal and Hard difficulty settings) is cute, but for some reason when she sustains damage the sound is akin to the sound of chopped wood.  =/

Who knew that grass would be enough to slow
you down?  That is a nice view, though  =)
In the options screen you have a choice to customize the control scheme if the default one doesn't suit you (I don't have a problem with it myself) as well as set the difficulty setting between Easy, Normal, and Hard.  On Easy you automatically start with six power-ups to choose from, but in both subsequent difficulties you start with zero and have to grab them in order to make use of them should you so please; should it be full, the next one you grab will take out the leftmost power-up of the bunch due to overlapping.  You'll notice that even before you face the boss in question their health bar is ever-so present, but what you may not notice (at least not right away) is that with each moment that passes their health capacity will augment itself just slightly until it's time to face them; meaning that if you dawdle too long then their health bar will be close to maximum capacity; there's no timer, but the goal is to get to the boss fight as fast as you possibly can manage.

Don't kill Valkyrie!  =O  Who'll compassionately
break Krino's Black Xandra curse if not her?  =(
Also on Easy Rena's health capacity will be at its fullest while in both Normal and Hard you get an increase in health after every 10,000 points (up until you reach 30,000 in which case there's nothing more to add); and any time you lose a continue you'll either restart from the segment you lost all your health (Easy) or start the stage over at square one (Normal and Hard).  Super Valis joins the likes of Jaleco's shoot'em up Super Earth Defense Force, Konami's cute'em up Pop'n TwinBee, and Jaleco's beat'em up Rushing Beat Shura in that a credit constitutes as a life, but unlike those games where the amount of continues you had were limited (thirty in Rushing Beat Shura's case) this game has unlimited continues which is fairly convenient for gamers who are inexperienced and unseasoned (specifically for Hard mode).

I'm a sucker for stained glassed windows
Super Valis is a pattern-based game, which means that should you memorize where the enemies are and how you should deal with some of them (particularly the gravity-bending dragon statues in the Red Moon stage) you'll be just fine in future playthroughs; and while some enemies take one hit to demolish others will take more than that (even on Hard mode).  Any time you reach a boss you'll be given a boss description and their main method of attack, which prepares you somewhat for what's to come; General Dhalgen's schtick is jumping and shooting at you (how... simplistic), General Medius has a "Schrole Approaching Fast" technique where she sends three illusions towards you before the genuine article starts appearing swiftly (from any random angle, so be careful) on top of a small platform, and Galgear's fight gets really involved as it goes on.  There to help you sometimes is the armor power-up which is a health supplement that takes up to five hits before you're back to normal, but to perform a special explosive magic press up and Y with the armor power-up in stow as you're wearing the armor (but only use it when it's really warranted, like the fight with Galgear).

She may be a goddess, but Yūko will always
watch over you
Super Valis: Akaki Tsuki no Otome (which was programmed by Hiroshi Ono, who also did the programming for Valis IV) was not well-regarded at the time, and to this day some say it's a low point in the Valis series, with the major complaint being that it should've been a straight port of Valis IV.  It's not that simple; with it originating on a PC Engine format a direct Nintendo console conversion was out of the question (though NEC had no problems with them happening on Sega formats) so it had to be slightly altered in order for it to be approved.  In Valis IV you could choose to play as Rena, Amu, and Galgear's father Asfal, but the latter two were removed for Super Valis as Rena's the central focus, she could run now which she could not do before, her sliding ability is absent (her sliding sprite in this game is her death sprite), and while Valis IV had a heavy emphasis on narrative, Telenet Japan turned Super Valis into an arcade game, one that takes exactly thirty minutes to beat.  Could Valis IV have been ported to Nintendo 16-bit format?  In theory, it could've been a possibility (give or take some elements that may or may not be lost in translation), but unfortunately at the time it wasn't so much a question of whether you could convert PC Engine games to Nintendo format so much as were you allowed to?  =(

Aren't you cold with that armor (or lack thereof) on?
Is Super Valis that bad, though?  I don't think it is, honestly; it's not without its issues, sure, but as a whole I find it to be a good game in its own terms.  I first found out about it as well as the series on YouTube almost ten years ago as I saw some gameplay videos by a user named Valis77, who I recalled had done some Let's Play videos (with some hilarious commentary) and I was interested; it's been awhile since I've seen his videos (I do miss them) but they made me want to try anything Valis.  But, being a collector meant constantly wanting to try new games and would not get to play Super Valis until this October (in its native Japanese version).  =)  I do own a RetroGen adaptor that lets me play Genesis games on my SFC and SNES consoles, but Valis: The Fantasm Soldier and Valis III are a bit on the costly side (maybe one day I'll get to play them for myself).  I don't own a PC Engine console (I usually use consoles that require yellow/white/red AV cables and not the A/B switch boxes which you had to fidget with until the screen quality was just right, the latter option never was fun), but if I get one (and that's a big "if" 'cause it's unlikely) I would like to try Valis IV as one of the first games I get for it.

In 1995 a similar thing would happen on the Nintendo 16-bit with Akumajō Dracula XX/Castlevania: Dracula X/Castlevania: Vampire's Kiss where it was a restructured take on the previously existing Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (which I have played on Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles) with its gameplay and sprites retained as Konami could not directly port the 1993 game on account that it was a PC Engine exclusive, and because of that the Nintendo 16-bit game also garnered a less than pleasing outlook from general gamers.  So between the unfortunately named Castlevania: Dracula X and Super Valis, which do I consider to be the superior title of the two?

Shoot the core
Personally I enjoyed Super Valis more, for plenty of reasons.  I liked that you could dash if you so please, visually it left a stronger impression, and the gameplay felt for the most part more polished (as much as it might take a bit to adjust to when playing it for the first time).  =)  The lack of a timer was a plus, though I appreciated the added sense of challenge value concerning how much health the boss would have depending on how long or short a time it took you to get there, and I like the area designs; also, trying to get by with just one life can be a real rush (on Hard mode, particularly).  Despite the brevity, is there are any replay value to be had?  Yes, actually; aside from playing any one of the three difficulty settings, your overall gaming performance will be ranked based collectively on your time (out of a possible 60) and item (out of a possible 40) bonuses, which you will see after pressing Start the moment the credits are over.  I may play games for fun and not for score, but this is actually exciting as you don't find out until after you beat it.  Among the ranks you'll get based on the total score are Valiant Warrior, Pallas Athena, Joan of Arc, and Valkyrie Rena to name some; the highest I managed to score so far was a 93--all right, I'm a Super Heroine, yeah!!!  =D  ...uh, wait, what???  o_o

Sooo, who's the space babies' mother?
So what qualms do I have if it's not perfect?  For starters, Rena's invincibility time as she gets hit lasts one second and later on there are icicles that fall down or ice blasts which if you're not careful to avoid you'll be frozen for a few seconds in which case if there's an enemy or boss nearby will render you susceptible to enemy attack.  Nornil's mermaid form stays underwater just slightly below the surface and you have to wait until her body pops up, the core in the Clistal Pillor consistently moves up and down as you must time your jump properly as you shoot the normal beams towards it (once it's in vicinity) while contending with a laser-spewing guardian, but the biggest problem is the Red Moon stage itself--not necessarily on Easy and Normal but on Hard--for not only do you have to contend with Rena clones spouting from fetuses who take two sword swings on Hard (or don't, just jump over them, and jump over them again if they turn around) and gravity-pushing dragon statues but there are fireballs which will explode and take out a chunk of your health (unless your armor is on) should it be destroyed.  It is the only stage where going at a steady pace is a must unless you want to lose your health quickly, which is too bad because all the other stages I can handle just fine in any difficulty with no problem.

Super Valis was the only Valis game available on the Nintendo 16-bit console, and for awhile was the last game to come from the series until 2006 when Telenet Japan sold the Valis rights to Eants who developed Valis X, a five-episode erotic visual novel series recounting the first four games to commemorate its twentieth anniversary--which were the last games Telenet Japan published before they shut down in 2007.  Um, beg pardon?  o_O  How do you go from well-respected action/platforming fantasy series to... hentai?  That just sounds so wrong!  XP  Luckily for Valis fans the November 2011 release of  Mugen Senshi Valis Complete Plus – Legend of a Fantasm Soldier was the most recent thing pertaining to the series, but only in Japan.

If you wanted to play the closest thing to a proper Valis experience on the Nintendo 16-bit console, you would have better luck with Affect's Makeruna! Makendō or Kendo Rage as it was called in America.  But if Super Valis wasn't enough Telenet Japan action/platforming entertainment for you, don't worry: they would follow up on it with a Super Famicom-exclusive title developed by their Riot firm in
Image from Wikipedia
Psycho Dream.  Christmas is coming around the corner; it's the perfect time to ask for expensive games--well that, and birthdays.

If you're walking into Super Valis: Akaki Tsuki no Otome expecting it to be exactly like Valis IV you're going to wind up disappointed as it's best to treat it as its own game.  If you're looking for a game that's got a lot of depth and length you're not going to find it here, but if you're searching for something short and sweet then this isn't a bad game to play.  If you like action/platformers that incorporate emphasis on story and narrative your best option is to play the preceding Valis games (provided you own the consoles in question), but if you like arcade games (or rather arcade equivalents) I think Super Valis will suit you just fine.  Or if you're looking for a game you can have fun playing with thirty minutes to spare, I think you should go for it.  =)  Nothing great, but good to play once in awhile.

My Personal Score: 7.5/10
<( ^o^)^TO EACH THEIR OWN^(^o^ )>
Thank you for reading my review, please leave me a comment (spam will not be tolerated) and let me know what you think.  Merry Christmas to you all and take care!  =)
Happy 30th Anniversary, Valis!