Game-related ramblings.

History Lessons: Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished

Other History Lessons posts can be found here. If you’re looking specifically for console games, those are here. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

One of the reasons I wanted to play the early Japanese console role-playing games is that so many have become enduring series. Everyone knows the behemoth Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy franchises, which have been running for more than thirty years, but there are so many others too. Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, which released in 1987, spawned the Shin Megami Tensei series and its spinoff Persona series, which had new entries in 2021 and 2020, respectively. Tales of Arise was a big hit last year, the latest entry in a series that started way back in 1995 with Tales of Phantasia on the Super Famicom. And of course, we got Ys IX: Monstrum Nox in 2019, which traces its lineage all the way to Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished in 1987.

I’m cheating a little bit with the timeline. Nihon Falcom released the first Ys game in 1987, a few months after Esper Dream (the subject of the last entry in this blog series), on NEC’s PC-88 home computer system, although ports quickly appeared for other Japanese home computers such as the X1 and MSX2, as well as Famicom and Master System ports a year later. But the version universally regarded as best among fans — not counting more modern remakes, like the 2013 version currently sold on Steam and GOG — is an enhanced remake (credited to Alfa System) from 1989 for the PC Engine (rebranded in the United Staes as the Turbografx-16) that bundles together Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished and its sequel Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter in a single release. This was actually the only time (again, not counting modern remakes) that Ys II was officially localized in English, which made my decision about which version to try a bit easier (although I’m waiting to play the second game until my timeline reaches its original release date). But by playing the 1989 remake instead of the 1987 original I’m making a fairly big jump in terms of technology. You see, the PC Engine version used the CD-ROM add-on, and was in fact one of the first games developed for CD-ROM.

For those who might not remember the introduction of the CD-ROM, it was a big deal for games. As a comparison, Famicom/NES cartridges typically held around 128 – 384 kB of data, with the largest ever at 1 MB. A CD-ROM could hold 650 MB (or even more), which is roughly 1700 to 5000 times more data. That’s a ridiculous increase. There’s not just room to make games longer, with more levels and art, but also to store vastly superior audio. CD quality audio, in fact, as defined in the Red Book. Even if music takes up the majority of the CD-ROM, there’s still plenty of room left to make a game many times larger than cartridges at the time. No longer would developers need to write music as a set of instructions for an onboard sound chip to synthesize, they could simply record high quality audio and have the game play that. CD-ROMs were, if you will excuse the term, game changers.

I remember when I first tried playing games on CD-ROM, on my family’s PC, and having my mind blown. But that was in the mid-1990s. I remain shocked that there were games made for CD as early as 1989 (1990 for the US release). I heard about some of the earlier consoles to use CD drives, like the Sega CD, but I never knew anyone who had them. CDs didn’t seem to really kick off until the next generation of consoles hit, in particular the original Playstation in 1994 (1995 in the US). For that matter, I had only ever heard of the PC Engine/Turbografx-16, with or without its CD add-on, and have still never seen one. The PC Engine, made by Hudson Soft and sold by NEC, released in Japan in late 1987, but took a while to come to the US, after a rebranding that emphasized its 16-bit graphics processing unit (its central processor, however, was still 8-bit, which led to some complaints of false advertising) and a larger chassis. The original PC Engine is the smallest console ever made, and the marketing team thought (rightly, I would guess) that Americans would assume its small size meant it lacked power. Ironically, by the time it released in the US in 1989, it did lack power, at least compared to the truly 16-bit Sega Genesis which had already arrived.

But in Japan in 1987, the PC Engine was competing against Nintendo’s Famicom, and doing quite well. It outsold Nintendo’s classic console for a time, and was even the main rival to Nintendo’s successor, the Super Famicom, which released in late 1990. The 16-bit graphics system in the PC Engine included a 9-bit color palette, letting the PC Engine display a total of 512 colors with 482 on-screen at once. That’s a lot more than the Famicom’s 56 total colors, with 25 on-screen at once. It was also the first ever home console to support the CD-ROM format, when its CD add-on appeared in 1988. All this meant it was the most powerful home system available for some time in Japan. Firing up Ys I & II, I was as interested in seeing what this hardware could do as I was in the game itself.

That meant that I didn’t want to play the 2013 remake, even though it’s well regarded by fans and is arguably the ideal way to play the games today. To replicate the experience of the original CD release, I would have to either track down original hardware or use emulation, as I have for the other entries in this blog series so far. But setting up emulation was a little trickier than usual. My cursory internet research revealed that the best emulator for the PC Engine / Turobografx-16 is part of Mednafen, a multi-system emulator that actually contains two PC Engine emulators: PCE-accurate and PCE-fast. The latter sacrifices some accuracy to get better performance on lower-spec hardware. Both of these emulators have been ported to Retroarch, which is convenient since I’ve been using Retroarch to play everything in this blog series. The ported cores are Beetle PCE and Beetle PCE FAST, respectively. But, like the Famicom Disk System emulation I used for Esper Dream, these cores require a BIOS file, and there are actually several different BIOS files out there, since the PC Engine went through a large number of hardware versions. I ended up simply downloading a pack of BIOS files compiled specifically for Retroarch that should work for all supported cores that require BIOS, but if you are looking specifically for PC Engine emulation, the relevant file is “syscard3.pce”, which must be placed in the “system” subfolder of the Retroarch installation.

Further confusion resulted from the fact that there are several possible formats for CD-ROM games themselves, and I wasn’t sure which ones the emulator supported. It turns out the answer is “all of them”, but that wasn’t immediately clear, because I ran into a strange problem. With the BIOS file I was able to get to a boot screen, but it did not respond to any of my inputs. I tried different game formats and BIOS file versions in vain, until I realized that for some reason the Beetle PCE FAST core worked, but Beetle PCE didn’t. Turning to the Retroarch Reddit for help, a kind user provided the solution: with the game running at the boot screen, I had to hit F1 to bring up a Retroarch overlay menu, and navigate to “Controls > Port 1 Controls > Device Type”. This was set to “Retropad with Analog”, but changing it to “PCE Joypad” fixed the problem. From the same overlay menu I then navigated to “Save Core Remap File” to make this control setting the default, and from that point onward everything worked perfectly. I was happy to have Beetle PCE working since my computer is able to run it without any performance issues and it gives the most accurate reproduction of the original game.

Finally firing up the game, it was immediately clear that the developers at Alfa System were having a field day with the CD-ROM format. The first thing that appears is a full anime-style intro cinematic sequence, with actual voiced narration. I cannot overemphasize how crazy it must have been to have full voice acting in a game from 1989/1990. I didn’t encounter that until half a decade later. It’s not limited to the intro, either: while most dialogue in the game is presented as text, at certain key points characters get close-ups of their faces as they actually speak their lines.

Even more impressive is the incredible music. I’d heard the Ys games were famous for their music, but I was still blown away by the quality. Much of it still uses FM synthesis or early sample-based synthesis, which makes it sound a little dated, but it was clearly made with studio-grade synthesizers rather than the comparatively simple sound chips included with most consoles at the time. And these base arrangements are then augmented with live instruments, in a manner that may have been even more mind-blowing than the voice acting. Calmer melodies feature strings and flutes, but the more energetic themes that accompany dangerous locations and boss battles are the standouts, with bona fide electric guitar wailing to underscore the action. The tune that stayed with me the most was the downright funky track that accompanied explorations of Darm Tower in the finale of the game. Clavinets, funky drums and an excellent lead guitar create a kind of jazz-rock fusion that is simultaneously toe-tapping, tense, and exciting. Composers Yuzo Koshiro (who later received acclaim for the Streets of Rage soundtracks) and Mieko Ishikawa, as well as arranger Ryo Yonemitsu, did a fantastic job with the score.

Visually, there are some hints that this is a remake of a more primitive game. Most notably the small viewing area that only takes up the top two thirds of the screen, with oversized health bars for protagonist Adol Christin and whatever enemy he happens to be fighting taking up the rest. But what’s shown within that viewing area looks quite nice. The larger color palette is immediately evident, making it look somewhere in between games for the Famicom/NES and those that would come soon on the 16-bit Super NES. The view scrolls far more smoothly than anything I’ve played so far in this blog series. I was often surprised to find special locations full of their own art, which added a nice thrill to exploration. And while many areas are clearly built from tiles, like most games I’ve coevered, some areas seem to break that mold. In the fields north of the town of Minea, the dirt paths and small river curve and meander in a natural way, unconstrained by an underlying square grid. This actually reminded me of early PC games using VGA graphics, something I also noted about Phantasy Star (which actually came out about six months after Ys; I didn’t have my full timeline in order when I wrote that post). That’s perhaps unsurprising, since Ys began life on a home computer system rather than a console.

The thing that feels most dated about Ys is the way combat works. But I was surprised at how quickly I warmed to it. Ys is an action role-playing game, in the tradition of earlier games for Japanese home computers such as Hydlide or Dragon Slayer (which I decided not to cover in this blog series). These are the games that inspired The Legend of Zelda, but where that game innovated by adding a dedicated attack button and changing the flow of combat with special items, Ys opts to maintain tradition: our hero Adol fights enemies simply by walking into them. There are some nuances to this, such as hitting enemies from behind or from the side to do extra damage, or approaching from “off-center” to avoid counterattacks. But in practice it’s a bit frantic and difficult to approach strategically. Adol has two walking speeds that can be toggled via a menu, but even the slower speed is a lot faster than most of the games I’ve covered so far, making careful approaches tricky. There’s no separate battle screen; enemies appear directly on the explorable maps, and most fights are over in a few seconds. It looks a little awkward, with baddies lurching backwards with jerky motions as they take damage, accompanied by simple sound effects that seem to have been skipped over when redoing all the sound for CD-ROM. It was not always clear why sometimes I’d eliminate a foe by inflicting three or four hits in a row, but other times they’d hit me back after my first strike.

But after playing for a bit I came to like the combat. For one, it’s so much faster than the menu-based combat in most role-playing games at the time. Adol’s ability to sprint around and dispatch adversaries left and right was a breath of fresh air after sitting through the incessant slow message boxes of the Dragon Quest games. I also soon realized that enemies are treated a bit differently than in the turn-based role-playing games that were coming out on consoles. Those usually introduce strategy by giving certain enemies special attacks, magical spells, or other unique features that require different tactics to defeat. In Ys, the only things that set enemies apart are their appearance, their movement speed, their health, and their attack and defense ratings. Otherwise they all behave the same way, wandering around and trying to barge into Adol, while he tries to do the same to them. But since each clash is so quick, and new monsters are constantly spawning everywhere, they soon become kind of a background consideration, a hazard intrinsic to exploring new locations. Mostly, they’re there to ensure players don’t venture somewhere they’re not ready to face yet.

I worried that meant there would be a lot of grind, but the opposite is true. At the very beginning, Adol needs to earn some money for equipment by fighting enemies, but all too soon money becomes completely superfluous. And while Adol gains experience from battling enemies, and will gain levels that modestly increase his maximum health as well as attack and defense ratings, this has a much smaller impact than equipment does. Soon, the focus shifts to finding specific items which allow Adol to face new areas. Some are obvious, like keys, but others are simply better weapons and armor that catapult Adol’s prowess to a new tier, letting him hold his own against monsters that used to tear him apart. I like the way every treasure chest holds something significant. Other games might have treasure chests with just a few measly coins inside, but each chest in Ys contains an item that is either essential or highly useful. Even when the designers wanted to give players a monetary reward, they placed a chest containing valuable jewelry or gems that can later be sold for cash. In this sense Ys reminded me more of an adventure game than a role-playing game, where specific items needed to be found and brought to the right person or place, or used to solve simple puzzles. Even role-playing mainstays like healing potions are significant in Ys, because Adol can only ever carry one of each item at a time. Although, thankfully, finding a second healing potion when Adol already has one causes him to drink it right away, rather than simply wasting it.

Another similarity to adventure games is the relatively small area in which the game is set. There’s a large-scale threat, but it doesn’t lead to a world-spanning quest like most other role-playing games. Instead, the nefarious deeds are going down right here, in the area around the city of Minea and the nearby Darm Tower. There’s no zoomed-out world map like those in the Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy games. Adol simply explores a few interconnected areas, with outdoor locations no different in scale than dungeons (although Adol will heal while standing still outdoors, which is a big help). This allows for each place to have its own character. The fields that connect Minea with the village of Zepik are wide open and hide a few secrets. The shrine in the mountains is a maze of archways and corridors. The tunnels of the mine must be explored carefully, since Adol’s torch only illuminates a small area around him. And Darm Tower, with its excellent music, is a huge multi-floor structure suitable for the dramatic finale. No area is quite labyrinthine enough to require drawing maps, but thorough exploration is rewarded. With each place feeling so different, and every treasure important for Adol’s quest, I always felt that I was making progress, even when I was just double-checking that I’d found every corridor or back room.

The smaller scale also helps with the narrative structure of Ys, which is one of the more striking things about it. The story, centering on the mysterious disappearance of the ancient civilization of Ys long ago, feels the closest of any game so far in this blog series to what would become the archetype for Japanese role-playing games. Even more so than Phantasy Star (which, remember, would not release for another six months). Not only do players control a pre-set character in Adol Christin, but there’s a decent sized cast of other characters for him to meet. And they’re not just static sources of hints or quests (interestingly, Ys features experience rewards for completing tasks, not just for defeating enemies, which is not common in Japanese role-playing game design). Characters start popping up again in unexpected places, as they work to help Adol. For example, maybe someone offers some hints early on in Minea, and then later Adol hears about someone who was taken captive in another location. Upon rescuing them, surprise! It’s the same person, and this time they’ve managed to pocket an item or overhear some key piece of information. This type of thing happens throughout, and does an excellent job fleshing out the supporting cast and making Adol’s quest feel like a group effort even though players only control a single hero. Giving these characters a closeup headshot and some voiced lines at key moments is just icing on the cake.

The writers did a great job giving players just enough guidance to work out how to proceed without making it too obvious. For most of the game I was feeling clever, as I found a mysterious item and then worked out exactly who I should ask about it, or I remembered something someone said a while back which led me to a puzzle solution. There was only one section that would have stumped me, due to having only the faintest hint for what to do, but I accidentally spoiled it for myself when I looked up some advice about one of the bosses. Oh, right, the bosses… I should probably talk about those.

There are several boss battles throughout the game, and they’re interesting bits of design. Basically, each boss has attacks — often projectiles of some sort — that must be dodged, as well as a vulnerable form that Adol must attack by walking into it. I was impressed with how much variety is on display given this simple concept. One boss might switch between vulnerable and deadly modes, requiring careful timing of attacks. For another, Adol might attack a beast’s tail while avoiding its head. These end up feeling like arcade challenges more than anything else, and they are in some ways separate from the rest of the game. During normal exploration, Adol can choose to wear different magical rings that confer certain bonuses: doubling the damage he inflicts, halving incoming damage, slowing down enemies, or — most critically — allowing him to heal while standing still, even when inside a dungeon. But none of these rings have any effect during boss battles. Boss battles feel like separate challenges, albeit ones that are often interesting. They are also the points where Adol is most likely to die, which means going back to the last saved game. Fortunately, players can save at any time (except in the middle of a boss battle) in one of six save slots, so smart players will save right before entering the clearly telegraphed boss rooms. I managed to best most bosses after just a few attempts, and largely enjoyed them.

But the one I looked up advice for was different. Coming very close to the end of the game, it was a huge and very frustrating difficulty spike. This boss’ design was such that Adol can only land one hit at a time, doing a tiny bit of damage while trying to avoid some deadly orbs that absolutely tear through his own health bar. I was only reducing the boss’ health by about a sixth before dying, and I was starting to lose hope. The internet wasn’t much help either, it just told me to use the same tactics I was already using. Eventually I found a Youtube video of another player tackling this boss, a player who was simply much more skilled than I was at evading attacks. But I noticed that they seemed to be inflicting about twice as much damage to the boss per hit as I was. I couldn’t figure out why, until I noticed that in the video Adol had a maximum health of 132, whereas my Adol had a maximum health of 130. That implied that the Youtube player was one level higher. Could gaining one level really double Adol’s damage against this boss?

So, I decided to do some grinding, which I’d never really had to do before. I left the boss room and wandered around fighting some regular enemies. Funnily enough, it only took a couple of minutes to gain a level this way, so I decided to stick with it for another ten minutes or so and gain three or four more levels. Returning to the boss, I had a much easier time, dishing out far more damage per hit and able to weather more hits in return. The boss also gets easier after it takes some damage, so I was able to pass with little trouble at all. The point of this anecdote is that I learned (perhaps too late) that boss battles are where Adol’s level really matters. It seems to make a bigger difference than whatever items he has equipped. For what it’s worth, I had probably been avoiding enemies a bit too much, and other players will likely reach that boss having already reached an appropriate level. But if you do try playing Ys and find yourself having trouble with a boss, know that retreating and gaining a few levels will help, and the process is mercifully quick.

That snag aside, I was hugely impressed with Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished. I’ve already raved about how technically impressive this CD remake is, but so much of what makes the game great comes from Nihon Falcom’s original 1987 design. The recurring characters, flavorful locations, and wonderful sense of exploration and puzzle solving were all present in the original PC-88 release, and the fancy graphics, voiced dialogue and amazing music in the CD remake are just an extra bonus. I’m not surprised that this is the game NEC and Hudson Soft picked to remake as a showcase for the CD-ROM addon to their PC Engine/Turbografx-16 console, nor am I surprised that it spawned the enduring series that it has. Indeed, upon conquering Darm Tower, this version proceeds straight into Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter, a direct sequel that concludes the story. But since I’m already cheating by jumping ahead to this 1989 remake, I decided to not to play that yet, so I can cover a few other games that released between Ys I and Ys II. Less than a year elapsed between the two games, however, so it won’t be long before I’m back to play Ys II, and I’ll be sure to write about it here when I do.

As I said above, Ys I (and II) is sold today in the form of a more modern remake, Ys I & II Chronicles+, released in 2013 and sold on Steam or GOG. Fans seem to like it, and it’s probably the best way to start if you are mostly interested in the background story as context for the later Ys games. If you want to play the PC Engine CD/Turbografx-CD version like I did, or go even farther back and try the PC-88 original, you’ll need to use emulation. Either way, I recommend checking out Ys, since it holds up really well given its age. The fast pace eliminates common annoyances with older role-playing games, and the entire adventure is on the short side so it won’t consume nearly as much time as a modern Japanese role-playing epic. You might even learn why ancient Ys vanished while you’re at it.

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3 Comments

  1. It’s so weird to see the proper title because it’s always been The Vanished Omens to me, because the Master System version is the one most familiar to me.

    Not that I ever played it. I remember having the option to get YS or Phantasy Star and I chose the latter. PS is much more my sort of thing, so that was a wise decision by the much younger me, but Ys seemed to get much more coverage in the magazines of the day, so I’ve always been a bit curious. I don’t know how well I’d get on with the combat system, but I appreciate their reasons for doing it.

    (To make grinding more fun, apparently.)

    • If I had to choose, I’d take Phantasy Star over Ys also. It’s a more involved (and lengthier) game. But Ys was surprisingly good. I don’t think the action combat in Ys was really designed as a way to make grinding fun, necessarily… the concept dates back to Nihon Falcom’s own Dragon Slayer in 1984, which was apparently quite grindy indeed. The lack of grind in Ys is more of a wider design principle. It’s mostly a game about exploring and finding treasures, and combat is downplayed by becoming a fast, frequent background challenge that gates progress through certain areas. For what it’s worth, I rarely had to actually grind in Phantasy Star either, I was usually just exploring and getting on with my quest, and battling enemies along the way kept me at an appropriate power level. There were only a few occasions that I sought out battles just to gain levels.

      If you are curious, I’d recommend trying out Ys. I was also worried about the combat design but it turns out to be pretty easygoing and not too intrusive. I’d also be interested to see how different the Master System version is.

      • Yes, sorry, I didn’t convey the designers’ meaning properly. The combat system wasn’t chosen to make grinding fun as such, but to make exploration and travel easier and quicker, without the interruptions of random encounters going into a separate battle screen. You just run around or into the monsters and then move on. Easy!

        I may well give Ys a try now that you’ve reminded me of it.

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