[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, concepts, and companies failed. This week’s edition looks at Telenet Japan, a developer and publisher in business from 1983 to 2007.]

Few Japanese game developers go out with a bang. For every studio-closing spectacle like Clover’s Okami, a dozen other companies sit idle, cranking out cell phone distractions and mahjong titles until their inevitable financial disintegration. That’s what happened to Telenet Japan this past October, when years and years of utter stagnancy finally brought down the company behind Valis (upper left), El Viento, Gaiares, Cosmic Fantasy and other not-quite-famous names of the 16-bit era.

There’s a lot to be said about Telenet, about the way they started off by making golf titles and trucking simulators in the mid-'80s, about the way they made hordes of games on Japanese computers, and about the way they spawned everything from largely forgotten developers like Glodia to Namco’s still-successful Tales series. But for those of us in the West, Telenet lived and died by the console games they made, and it’s those games that show a company perpetually just shy of something great.

Swords and Schoolgirls

Telenet was never deeply entrenched in the anime business, but they were among the first game companies to ride atop Japan’s animation industry in the bubble economy of the ‘80s. There's no better example of this than Telenet's Valis. At first a clumsy PC game released by the company's Wolf Team sub-developer in 1986, Valis took a blue-haired schoolgirl named Yuko, turned her into a bare-bellied warrior, and tossed her at a dimension of monsters in a doomed attempt to rescue her cynical friend Reiko (who may have served as commentary on the trend of Japanese schoolgirls whoring themselves out to older men for shoes and Malice Mizer ringtones).

Valis was aimed at the anime crowd from the start; the game was stocked full of vibrant animated story scenes, and Yuko herself was designed by animator Osamu Nabeshima with help from Tomokazu Tokoro (who’d later come into his own by directing such modern-day anime as Haibane Renmei, NieA_7, and Hellsing Ultimate). Strangely enough, Valis never became an anime series in its own right, even though many popular games of the early ‘90s did. The best it got was a commercial supposedly handled by future Evangelion director and self-hating anime artiste Hideaki Anno.

Today, it’s hard to tell why Valis was a hit. Yuko’s story now seems trite, and the gameplay was always generic action-platform fare nearly as stiff as old-school Castlevania. Yet Valis impressed in the ‘80s and into the following decade, largely on the strength of its cinematic scenes and alluring fantasy tropes, and it steadily grew to include three better sequels, along with a few remakes and spin-offs. Telenet shipped it to the Sega Genesis, the PC-Engine, the Super NES and even, in a best-forgotten form, the Famicom/NES. The whole thing reached its peak with Valis III (upper right), which introduced two other playable characters and a wealth of stages. Valis IV had a similar lineup, minus Yuko, but by then players were getting just a bit weary of yet another Valis game about a scantily clad girl facing yet another generic monster overlord.

Shovel on More Cutscenes, Engine Room

Other Telenet games used the same anime tactic. The Cosmic Fantasy franchise, released in five parts for the PC-Engine, had plenty of yipping, colorful cutscenes to distract players from its generic Dragon-Quest combat system and ridiculously high battle rate. Unlike Valis, it even managed to get an anime tie-in before Telenet moved on.

If Valis and Cosmic Fantasy were fated to age poorly, Telenet’s three-game Exile series (upper left) wasn’t so doomed. An anime-ish take on the Crusades, Exile began on Japanese home computers, yet it was the PC Engine/Turbografx that saw it at its best. As action-platform-RPGs, the system's two Exile games often veer into surprisingly dark territory, with an atmosphere that’s unique even today. Their gameplay is simple but consistently solid, something Telenet couldn’t nail as often as they should have.

Yes, Telenet’s quality control was lacking. For every Exile series, the company churned out twice as many unremarkable titles: the generic RPG Traysia, the humdrum pinball game Dino Land, the ridiculous proto-fighter Beast Wrestler, the clumsy mech shooter Browning, a lousy PC-Engine port of Golden Axe, and so on. It wasn’t as though the typical Telenet release was even memorably bad; it was more the game equivalent of unflavored oatmeal.

Team Players

Fortunately, Telenet was large enough to have several internal developers, and whenever the team known as Riot fumbled a Valis port or the Laser Soft division sleep-walked through a Cosmic Fantasy game, another squad had something good to take the attention off of Telenet’s failings. Most of those good games came from Wolf Team, Telenet’s first and most talented offspring.

Despite working in PC games for years, Wolf Team earned most of its reputation on the Sega Genesis (or, if you’re still following the Japanese nomenclature, the Mega Drive), at first by re-working their independently made PC games into improved console versions. Their lineup started strong, with engaging shooters like the diagonal-view Final Zone and the addictively simple Granada. Arcus Odyssey (Arcus Spirits in Japan), an isometric action game based on a PC RPG line, offered a surprisingly complex quest, Gauntlet-style shooting, and one of the prettier intros on the Genesis.

Yet Wolf Team’s most popular Genesis outing was an original action-platformer called El Viento (upper right). It found a green-haired girl named Annet, armed with boomerangs and dressed in ancient Incan lingerie, at the center of a war against stirring Lovecraftian horrors and 1920s gangsters. It’s a compellingly odd game: Annet explores subterranean hellscapes, fends off shirtless thugs in city streets, surfs an ocean of giant pixelly octopuses, and even faces down Al Capone (unfairly renamed “Vincente DeMarco” in the North American version). And despite the clash of styles, El Viento’s also a fun, creatively designed title, the type that Wolf Team would seldom make again.

Earnest Evans Ruined Everything

Everything was going well by the end of 1991. Telenet’s Renovation label had taken root in the U.S. and emerged as one of the biggest publishers for the Sega Genesis. El Viento and Valis had fan followings both there and in Japan. An American publisher called Working Designs was picking up Cosmic Fantasy 2 and Exile. And Gaiares, a Telenet shooter with a creative weapon-stealing gimmick, proved to be such a critical success that it inspired several ads still remembered fondly today.

Telenet had every reason to believe in Sega, and when the Sega CD arrived in Japan late that year (as the Mega CD, naturally), Wolf Team was there, firing off new titles a bit too quickly. While Sega itself took a while to give the new peripheral anything substantial, Wolf Team and Telenet had Earnest Evans, Sol-Feace, Fhey Area, and Aisle Lord ready and waiting.

And, unfortunately, sucking. Sol-Feace was a tiresome shooter warmed over from a PC game, while Fhey Area and Aisle Lord were routine RPGs. Earnest Evans was the biggest disappointment; a prequel to El Viento, it focused on Annet’s cocky blond archeologist caretaker and tried out a new visual concept: Earnest was a jointed sprite, with each of his limbs animated independently. The idea worked for non-human characters (and, fifteen years later, in Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere), but Earnest was a horror, a limp-stringed puppet loping nightmarishly across awkwardly designed levels.

Wolf Team and Telenet soldiered on, giving the Sega CD an Arcus compilation, a Cosmic Fantasy pack, and ports of old full-motion-video arcade games like Road Avenger, Time Gal, and Cobra Command. If these relics were fun in their own hokey, Dragon’s Lair way, Wolf Team’s original Mega CD titles weren’t. A generic mech action game called Devastator failed to interest anyone past its pretty cinema scenes, and Annet Futatabi (upper left) was a rushed, bland close to the El Viento trilogy, bringing back Annet only to squander her in a sub-par Golden Axe clone. At least the cutscenes were pretty. As usual.

Old Gear

To make matters worse, the Sega CD wasn’t a particularly huge success in Japan. As the system’s bloom wore off in 1993, Telenet turned to the RPG market and its biggest point of growth: the Super Famicom.

As before, Telenet began to support the console with a handful of ports (including the B-list RPG Tenshi no Uta and two of Wolf Team’s strategic Zan titles) and followed it up with some original creations. None of them caught on, even though they represented unique new turns for the company. Wolf Team’s PC-born Hiouden: Mamonotachi Tono Chikai was an unorthodox strategy game, while Telenet’s Dark Kingdom offered an RPG in which players conquered a world as a villain instead of saving it.

Wolf Team’s Neugier (upper right) was another failure of ambition. An action-RPG with brisk pacing and a unique grappling weapon, it pulled in some anime-industry professionals, including artist Kia Asamiya and writer Noboru “Sho” Aikawa (who, at this point, was only “professional” in that he’d written a lot of hysterically awful series). For all of its expense and invention, though, Neugier lasted only a few hours.

And out of Telenet’s Super Famicom lineup, only a terrible version of Valis IV (sorry, SUPER Valis IV) would see an American release. A Super Famicom port of Arcus Odyssey was slated to hit the Super NES along with Neugier (under the title The Journey Home: Quest for the Throne), but Renovation was abruptly sold off to Sega in 1993, and Sega wasn’t exactly supporting Nintendo’s system.

Tales of Internal Strife

Things weren’t particularly bright inside the company, either. Wolf Team, which Telenet brought under tighter control in the early ‘90s, had lost a number of staffers by 1994: Masaaki Uno left to found Camelot (the future developer of Mario Tennis and Golden Sun) while a few employees struck out as Gau Entertainment and made the decidedly Wolf Team-esque Ranger-X. Even Wolf Team head Masahiro Akishino, who’d been with the developer since the original Valis, departed in 1993.

Telenet was in trouble, and a group of eager young Wolf Team staffers reacted by looking elsewhere for help with their next project: a gorgeous RPG called Tale Phantasia (upper left). They found that help in Namco, which financed the project in partnership with Telenet and then proceeded to piss off at least three key Wolf Team members. There’s no official word on why Yoshiharu Gotanda, Joe Asanuma and Masaki Norimoto left Telenet; some say that Namco changed Tales of Phantasia a bit too much (adding the particle “of,” among other things), though rumors also point to relative newcomer Eiji Kikuchi being made the game’s director.

Whatever the cause, the three departed with several Wolf Team cohorts in tow. They formed tri-Ace, using the idea behind Tales of Phantasia’s action-based battles to fuel their own RPGs, from the bland Star Ocean franchise to the striking Valkyrie Profile. Aside from an Earnest Evans reference in Star Ocean: The Second Story, their break with Telenet and Wolf Team was complete.

With Wolf Team a shell of its former self, Telenet turned to the best thing it had left: Tales of Phantasia. Namco pimped the game into a major RPG name, and Telenet came along for the ride. Wolf Team’s remnants gradually became Namco Tales Studio, with Kikuchi heading the developer and Telenet owning about a third of it. Namco, however, claimed most of the new venture, and was thus in charge.

Too Little, Too Late, Too Filthy

Wolf Team wasn’t finished just yet. In 1998, the developer’s name emerged from its Tales-induced hibernation, appearing on a PlayStation game called Cybernetic Empire. It wasn’t a terrible action title, but the 3-D elements and character renders looked amateurish next to the likes of Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil 2. If anything, it was a return to the mediocrity that had damaged Wolf Team in the first place.

In the years following Cybernetic Empire, Telenet cranked out low-effort sports titles and puzzle games, the usual refuge of decaying game companies. It wasn’t until 2006 that Telenet, like a failed actress, went into porn.

Lazy as ever, Telenet couldn't be bothered to make their own porn, and instead licensed the Valis and Arcus names to a little-known publisher called Eants. Eants wasted no time in making Valis X (upper right), a line of "adventure" games featuring graphic shots of highly unpleasant things happening to Yuko and any other Valis character with breasts. When word of it and Eants’ similar Arcus porn leaked out to the West, some fans were outraged. Others were cynically amused, and a few even clamored for similar titles starring Annet and Earnest Evans. Perhaps the Valis series always had a half-naked heroine and some suggestive moments, but Valis X was clearly desperate financial flailing on Telenet’s part.

Porn among the Ruins

And on October 29, Telenet flailed its last. While the fates of many of their properties are unknown, Eants’ porn ensures that Valis and Arcus will survive their creator, while another Telenet title, the shooter Silky Lip, was similarly licensed to a developer called Waffle.

Prouder traces can be found: two Valis games are out for Japanese cell phones (upper left), while a new Valis manga’s running in the bi-monthly anthology Comic Valkyrie. Naturally, all of the Telenet employees who went over to Namco Tales Studio remain there, with the franchise now resting solely in Namco’s care. Such is Telenet’s legacy.

Should Telenet’s passing be mourned? It's hard to say. Telenet was such a titan of mediocrity that it’s tough to feel anything about them; maybe a blip of anger at that Valis X thing or a passing fondness for Wolf Team and El Viento. Telenet may have delivered the first tastes of anime-styled games to entire generations in both Japan and the West, but for all of the titles they put out, there's not much to praise. Perhaps it’s best just to remember their finer moments, and where those moments could've led.