Thursday, January 31, 2013

Little Things: Alisia Dragoon

Alisia Dragoon was overlooked quite often in its day. The game's North American cover, with its bikini-armored amazon and gawking orcs, lumped it in with Blades of Vengeance, Sword of Sodan, and other routine medieval-fantasy outings on the Sega Genesis. The Japanese box art, promoting a less aggressive sorceress and her dragon menagerie, didn’t get Alisia much attention either.


Dig past either cover and you’ll find a standout of the 16-bit era. It’s a side-scroller, yes, but Alisia’s outfitted with a selection of four different flying beasts, plus lightning magic that behaves much like the auto-targeting lasers in Thexder. The game’s scenery also hides numerous surprises; hidden items abound, and Alisia’s journey unfolds in unexpected tangents. She begins by storming temples and braving swamps, but later stages launch her aboard a fish-like blimp and plunge her into the long-buried wreckage of a spaceship. It’s all presented with magnificent style, even if entire stages steal quite blatantly from Hayao Miyazaki’s NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind. It’s evident even in the opening crawl of an ancient relief that shows the devastation of millenniums past. Of course, Alisia Dragoon was a co-production between Game Arts and anime studio Gainax, and some of the latter’s founders worked on the NausicaƤ movie. So perhaps Alisia comes by Miyazaki's material more honestly than other games.

Alisia Dragoon doesn’t spoil the atmosphere by explaining too much of it. Alisia herself never speaks, and the only in-game dialogue is delivered by Ornah, the priestly servant of an ancient horror named Baldour. The game’s introduction spares only a few lines setting things up: Baldour’s prison has fallen in the shape of a “silver star” (sound familiar, Lunar fans?), and someone has to stop him before he awakens. It doesn’t even mention that Alisia’s avenging the death of her father. You’ll have to read the manual for that.


Upon blasting her way into the first level’s underground ruins, Alisia confronts Ornah and the cocooned form of Baldour. This leads to two small details that I appreciate.


For one thing, Alisia immediately attempts to fry Ornah with her lightning spells. She needs no introductory palaver, no stoic entreaties to cease the evildoing, and not even any anguished cries about how Baldour’s cult killed her father and she’ll never forgive them and whatnot. Alisia may be a voiceless (and faceless) cipher in need of sensible outdoor pants, but she’s apparently seen enough video games to know that there's no point trying to reason with the bad guy.

This being the initial stage of the game, Ornah evades Alisia’s attack and rockets off with that big bundle of Baldour. And there’s the second little touch. Baldour is a giant sealed monstrosity, with only two eyes visible inside the gray carapace of his prison. It’s a neat glimpse of what will be the game’s final boss, and players are free to imagine just what nightmare from beyond space might lurk inside the cocoon. Intentionally or not, the first round of Alisia Dragoon follows that old Lovecraft dictate: never show too much of the monster.


Unfortunately, Alisia Dragoon can’t obscure it forever. Tradition demands a climactic battle to end the game, and so Alisia's raid on a floating fortress leads right to a reborn Baldour. Game Arts and Gainax tried their best to make him a chimerical mass of mouths and limbs and horns and wings, as though Alisia interrupted him halfway through regenerating. That’s a neat idea in itself, but it doesn’t quite match his introduction. Nothing compares to what you might imagine attached to those eyes.