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.

When I first started writing about early console games, I was only planning to play through the Final Fantasy series. Then I decided I should probably go back and play the Dragon Quest series too. Then I decided I should also play a bunch of other role-playing games, and then that I should add some action role-playing games… the result was something of a mess in terms of the timeline, jumping back and forth as I kept expanding my list of games. This post, however, brings my (now massive) list back into order. My last post was about Hydlide 3: The Space Memories, which originally released on November 22, 1987. The original Final Fantasy (the very first post I wrote in this console history series) appeared about a month later, on December 18, 1987. A mere two days after that, the excellent Phantasy Star released. Next came Dragon Quest III on February 10, 1988. And, finally, that brings us to Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter, originally released in Japan on April 22, 1988 for Japanese home computer systems like the PC-88. From here on out, we should be going in chronological order!

As the name suggests, Ys II is a direct sequel to the original Ys that finishes up the story. The connection is so strong, in fact, that both games were later remade and re-released as a single title, Ys Book I & II, for the PC Engine CD/TurboGrafx-CD in December 1989. That’s the version I played, and I’ve already written about Ys I. I then paused my playthrough to cover other games that released between Ys I and Ys II. Now, I’ve gone back to finish off Ys II.

In the TurboGrafx-CD version, there’s no separation between Ys I and Ys II. Play proceeds directly from the end of Ys I to the start of Ys II, which looks, sounds, and functions the same. But by “the same”, I mean “remarkable”, since this pair of remade games is one of the first ever developed for CD-ROM. I direct readers again to my post about Ys I where I delved into the details of the hardware and exactly how impressive it must have been in 1989/1990. Reloading my saved game at the end of Ys I, my ears were once again treated to the incredible music that plays in Darm Tower, recorded on real instruments including a clavinet and electric guitar. The cinematic sequence that marks the transition between the two games is stunning for the time as well, featuring anime-style scenes and full voice acting, just as the game’s intro sequence did. And upon starting Ys II, I almost immediately ran into music that blew the Darm Tower music out of the water. I’m talking a full power metal rocker, with harmonized wailing guitars backed by some synth string arpeggios and an energetic programmed beat.

I must stress again how crazy this would have been in 1989/1990. 16-bit home consoles were just starting to appear, and while a few experimented with CD add-ons, most players would not have had access to these expensive devices. Even the CD add-on for the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16, which was required to play Ys I & II, was prohibitively expensive for most players, but it was the most widely adopted of the CD add-ons. It didn’t make the processing power any better than competing consoles, but the massive storage space of CD-ROMs allowed huge advances in sound and cinematics. Most players wouldn’t see similar capabilities for another five years, when the original Playstation released in 1994/1995. But I’ve already written about that, so let’s get into what’s new in Ys II.

Actually playing Ys II feels nearly identical to Ys I, as I mentioned above, but there are a few new design elements in the sequel. The most notable is the addition of magic, which finally gave players a reason to use Button 1 on their gamepads. Combat works the same way as the first game, with protagonist Adol Christin fighting the “goons” by bumping into them, but he soon discovers fire magic, which lets him shoot out a ball of flame. This is technically limited by his new pool of magic points, but fire magic is quite cheap, with a single magic point fueling multiple casts. Fireballs make combat feel quite different, letting Adol hang back and avoid dangerous counterattacks from enemies. Adol can also find items during his adventure that enhance his fire magic, first by letting it pass through enemies and (if timed correctly) hit an enemy multiple times (actually, I’m not sure whether this came from an item or something else, it just started happening later in the game) and later by turning the fireballs into guided missiles that seek out and destroy enemies. To compensate for these new ranged options, enemies tend to hit harder and more often when they are able to close the distance, and there are fewer places where Adol can easily heal himself.

Also, sometimes Adol needs to use other types of magic, and he can only have one active at a time. While a few are also used actively by pressing Button 1 — like the magic of Return, which is indispensable for teleporting back to towns after running into trouble — most are simply toggled on while they are equipped, constantly draining magic points. Some of these burn through magic points pretty fast, but I still never really ran out, even when keeping spells active for a long time. I’m not sure if the original PC-88 version of Ys II worked this way, but here Adol kept all of the levels he’d gained from Ys I but lost most of his items and equipment as Ys II begins. That meant he already had nearly 150 health points, and soon gained an equal number of magic points, which can power magic for a long time.

Adol’s high starting level definitely changed the feel of the game. In Ys I, gaining levels never felt that important, since each gave only a small increase to Adol’s health, strength and defense ratings. Better equipment, however, had a huge effect, and were used to gate access to new areas. Until Adol found better weapons and armor in one location, he would have no hope of defeating enemies in another. But even after losing all Adol’s equipment at the start of Ys II, he still had strength and defense values above 100, which meant buying a sword that added 6 more strength hardly felt essential. In fact, I followed the advice given in the game manual and went around unarmed until I could afford the best items in the shop. With equipment no longer as critical as it was, the design of Ys II felt much more linear, with only one place to explore at any given point in the story. The first game was effectively linear too, but its use of enemy gating to guide players made it feel more open. The more constricted exploration in Ys II makes sense as part of the story, but it still felt limiting.

I also got confused and lost more often, in the early areas. There’s a mine, as there was in the first game, but the dark tunnels are handled differently. Instead of having Adol’s torch illuminate only a small area around him, certain sections of the caverns are obscured until Adol comes near, and then the darkness recedes all at once to reveal a new cavern or passage. I actually like this, but any advantage of being able to see farther is undone by the maze of doorways and branching paths. Finding myself stuck, I turned to an online walkthrough only to find that I’d just completely missed one of the doorways, which led straight to the thing I’d been searching for. I never felt I needed to draw a map in the first game, but here a map (or at least taking some notes) would have helped me navigate. This is exacerbated by the fact that the mines are also full of secret passages. It turns out there’s a way to help find these, but the hints weren’t very clear and I ended up stumbling upon most of them by blind luck. Later areas are less confusing, but I still simply missed doors on occasion.

These areas do feel distinct, however, as they did in the first game. After the twisting funnels of the mines, the open slopes of the Ice Park are quite the change of pace, peppered with stairways and frozen waterfalls. In the Burnland, Adol must navigate lava-filled caverns and cross bridges between different mountain peaks. Most impressive, however, is the Solomon Shrine where the finale of the game takes place. Like Darm Tower in Ys I before it, the Solomon Shrine is a huge location suitable for a dramatic conclusion, and it’s here that the nonlinearity I missed in the early areas makes a return. A massive complex of courtyards and buildings, it has criss-crossing paths at three elevations: ground level, a mezzanine level, and even loftier balconies. Stairs connect these levels, and buildings can be entered from every level, sometimes containing internal passages with their own stairways leading up or down. The shrine is spread across multiple separate areas, and Adol is free to wander in any direction he pleases, crossing between these areas at different elevations. Add in the locked doors and security checkpoints which can be bypassed later after obtaining the right items, and the underground canal system (don’t call it a sewer) that runs underneath it all, and the shrine becomes the most complex location I’ve encountered in this blog series so far. Two months before Ys II, Dragon Quest III brought dungeon designs with multiple floors and asked players to strategically drop from above to access new areas. That felt like a hint at the location designs that were to come in console role-playing games, but the Solomon Shrine feels like that future is already here. It’s simply stunning.

And that’s not the only way in which Ys II feels ahead of its time. I said this about Ys I also, but the narrative design on display is remarkable. There’s a full cast of recurring characters helping Adol along on his quest, providing hints or asking for specific items (the array of unique items that ensure every treasure chest is an exciting surprise is carried over from Ys I), and it all ties together into a detailed story about the history of the land of Ys and its mysterious disappearance. Perhaps my favorite magic in Ys II is the magic of Transform, which disguises Adol as a goon as long as it is active, allowing him to talk to the enemies instead of fight them. Not only does this provide a respite from the near-constant combat when needed, it means that hostile areas (like the Solomon Shrine) become sources of hints or critical information on how to proceed. It also gives a lot of insight into what the goons are planning and why.

The Japanese style of role-playing game would become known for a heavy focus on story, using pre-set characters with their own character quirks and attachments to the world, and indeed the more modern examples are infamous for lengthy cutscenes that aim for maximum drama. The early games I’ve played so far in this blog series, however, have been much lighter on story. I thought I saw some hints of what was to come in Phantasy Star, but the Ys games don’t merely have a hint of this story style, they have the entire thing. I felt like I was playing a role-playing game from the mid-1990s. And let’s not forget that while Phantasy Star released four months before Ys II, it was six months after Ys I, which had just as strong of a narrative.

Given all of this, it’s easy to see why the Ys series has such devoted fans. The series is not as well known outside of Japan — this TurboGrafx-CD version is the only time (barring much more recent remakes) that Ys II was officially localized in English, and many later series entries were Japan-only — but it was doing things that would become genre-defining staples long before anyone else. One could even argue that the action combat of the Ys games was ahead of its time, since modern games have generally replaced their classic turn- and menu-based combat systems with real time action. In short, I’ve been very impressed with the first two Ys games and I’m looking forward to exploring the rest of the series.

Before concluding, I want to talk a bit about how Ys II concludes. The first game had a satisfying ending, but the ending of Ys II is even more impressive, tying together all the story threads across both games into an incredibly satisfying finish. The story and characters I lauded above are a big part of that, but the difficult final battles are also key. As in the first game, Ys II features several boss battles, which act like isolated challenges: Adol is unable to access and change his equipment, magic, or items during the fights. In Ys I, these battles tended to ask players to evade the boss’s attacks while running into its weak points to deal damage, but in Ys II they’re all about using Adol’s fire magic. Most bosses have a vulnerable point that can be blasted at the right time, so Adol must dodge incoming damage before launching his own counterattacks. These tended to be interesting encounters that weren’t too hard to best.

That is, until the end of the game. The penultimate boss is immune to Adol’s magic, so Adol must attack with his weapons (by running into the boss). This boss also feels like an homage to the one dastardly boss that so plagued me in Ys I. There, I realized my problem was that Adol wasn’t high enough level, but here I simply tried the battle many times and finally got good enough at dodging that I was able to prevail. That was nothing, however, compared to the final battle. Once again, Adol’s fire magic is useless, and I found myself getting annihilated frighteningly quickly. I considered delaying the battle while I gained a few levels, but at this point Adol’s strength was so high that I doubted a few more points would make any difference. I did, however, decide I should purchase the Life Drop, an absurdly expensive item that can bring Adol back from death — once. To do that, I needed a lot more money. Ys II makes equipment far more expensive than in Ys I, so money is never technically superfluous as it became in that game, but since there’s nothing else to spend it on I bought new weapons and armor anyway even though it made no discernable improvement during fights. Now, I regretted that decision, because I would have been able to afford the Life Drop straight off if I hadn’t thrown money away on equipment that quickly got replaced with better stuff anyway. I did gain another level while saving up, though, which may have been the final level since it brought Adol’s hit points and magic points up to 255, the largest number that can be stored in a single byte of information (although the game did indicate I could gain another level if I kept going… I don’t know how that would have worked).

It turns out this was all in vain, however, because the Life Drop doesn’t automatically work, it must be the “equipped” item. And the final boss battle requires another item to be equipped or it becomes impossibly difficult (and, remember, items can’t be swapped in the middle of a boss battle). If I’d known that, I would have grabbed the Life Drop for the penultimate boss instead. Oh well. It was back to trying the final boss battle over and over until I was able to prevail. Now, I’ve faced some final bosses that felt horribly unfair — Hydlide 3, I’m looking at you — but this battle actually did feel fair. Just very, very difficult. It all boils down to how well Adol can dodge incoming projectiles. In fact, I preformed best when I just focused on dodging and didn’t even worry about going on offense. Since the projectiles aim towards Adol’s position, I eventually learned to guide where they would go so they would be easier to avoid, and after countless tries, I finally emerged victorious.

This difficulty spike might be the most frustrating thing about Ys II (and woe betide any player who didn’t heed the hints about using that specific item during the final fight), but boy did it make that victory feel sweet. And it made the final story scenes even more satisfying too, as Adol got to check in with all the major characters, basking in their congratulations and making a few emotional farewells. There’s even some moral lessons in there for good measure. Cap it all off with a final animated cutscene that accompanies the credits, complete with some epic music, and it’s one of the most satisfying endings I’ve encountered thus far. So yes: I highly recommend the first two Ys games. Those looking to play them today may prefer the 2013 remake, Ys I & II Chronicles+, which is sold on Steam and GOG, but if you’re also interested in the historical context of the games, then emulating the TurboGrafx-CD version as I did is the way to go. I detailed how to set that up in my post about Ys I. However you choose to play the games, I’m confident you’ll enjoy Adol’s adventure. Which, apparently, continues in the later games in the series, so I’ll be sure to post about those once my timeline progresses that far. For now, however, I’ll be covering other games as we stride confidently into 1988. Stay tuned!

Next on Console History: Lord of the Sword