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Ys Beginner’s Guide — Where to Get Started

by Ron Duwell | September 17, 2017September 17, 2017 12:00 pm PDT

And we’re back with another chance for Ron to rant and rave about a JRPG series that he wants you to give a shot. Ys, pronounced “ees” has been around since the dawn of Japanese home gaming, and with the release of Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana this month, it sits up there with Metal Gear, Mario, Final Fantasy, and The Legend of Zelda as one of the longest running franchises in gaming history.

But you would be mistaken to believe that this game has chronologically spread itself out over eight simple releases. The Ys games are a convoluted mess to dig through, plagued with problems when it comes to remakes, localization issues, versions that are impossible find anymore, and platforms you might have never even heard of.

Today, we’ll dig through the basics and prepare you for multiple journeys in this fascinating universe. Almost every game in the series puts players in the role of protagonist Adol Christin. Adol is the classic silent protagonist, allowing players to inject whatever persona they want onto him. However, on the surface, he is defined by his crimson hair, his swordsmanship, his drive for adventure, and is terrible luck with boats. Most games in the franchise start with him being shipwrecked on an island, where he will undoubtedly find conspiracies that could lead to the destruction of his world.

Luckily, he turns up just in the nick of time to thwart each and every one of these plans and rescue blue-haired anime girls in the process.

Ys is also defined by its music. In its early days, development studio Nihon Falcom employed legendary gaming composer Yuzo Koshiro, who laid down the tracks for the first Ys game. Many consider this soundtrack to be one of the all-around greatest of all time and definitely a highlight of the 80s (I’d put it a peg below Mega Man 2, but it’s close).

Koshiro left the series after the second game, but his style set a musical standard within the franchise that lasts until this day, one that few other franchises can match.

Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished/Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter

 

The first Ys game was released for the Japanese home computer PC-88 in 1987, and its sequel followed the following year in 1988 for the PC-88 and PC-98. Both games are often compiled together since the second game takes off immediately from where the first one ends, creating an overall story arc that crosses two releases.

Ys obviously came into being as a Legend of Zelda clone designed to capitalize on the popularity of Nintendo’s booming franchise. Its overhead exploration and dungeon system will be very familiar to those who follow and love Link and his quests. Ys differs in two distinct ways, however.

  1. Ys adds an RPG system not found in The Legend of Zelda, meaning that Adol can gain levels through experience points and equip different swords and armor.
  2. Ys has a very infamous and unique “bumper car” combat system in that Adol can’t swing his sword like Link. He can only cause damage by running into his enemies, and he avoids damage by pulling away at the proper time.

The game starts off with Adol shipwrecked on one of the many islands in his fantasy land, and a blue-haired damsel eventually leads him on a path to the top of a deadly tower. What awaits at the top? The most generic villain to end all generic villains! The second game continues the story, and its greatest contribution to the series is the addition of a projectile fireball, marking the first time Adol has direct control over his combat.

Both Ys and Ys II have appeared on over 20 platforms from the 1988 PC original to the NES and even the SEGA Saturn. Each of the releases have their charms, but fans hold three releases in higher regard than the other.

  • SEGA Master System – While not the original version, this is the oldest one that came to North America in English, and it is the most loyal to the original release. This is one for purists who love authenticity.
  • TurboGrafx-16 CD – This version is loyal to the original with its old-school graphics, but it adds epic cutscenes that help flesh out the story. It also utilizes the CD space to remix the soundtrack.
  • Steam – The PC version you can buy through Steam, called Ys I & II Chronicles has the most modern graphics and still remains loyal to the original’s design. Again, rockin’ soundtrack.

Ys III: Wanderers from Ys/Ys: The Oath in Felghana

Like most sequels in those days, Ys III was the one that had to take the series beyond its comfort zone. Released in 1989 for the PC-88 & PC-98, Nihon Falcom followed in the footsteps of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link to make an open-ended side-scrolling adventure for Adol Christin.

This time, the traveler returns to the home of his friend Dogi, a popular NPC from the first two games, only to find that monsters have overrun the town… and an evil power bent on world domination awaits in the ruins far North.

Overall, the side scrolling doesn’t really suit Adol Christin. The adventure is short, even by Ys’s standards, and the janky combat is easily broken. Another force working against Ys III is that none of the systems it was released on provide the horsepower to run it properly. It’s a busted game that can’t run smoothly enough to provide the thrills a 2D sidescroller needs.

In North America, English speakers got the chance to play it on the Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis in 1991. Neither are well remembered. Only the TurboGrapx-16 CD manages to salvage this game, again, with its cutscenes and soundtrack.

However, Ys III is not entirely a story of heartbreak. While many of Ys games have been remade over the years, none have received the sheer overhaul that this one has. Its remake, Ys: Oath in Felghana, was released for the PC in 2005 and PSP in 2010, the same year North Americans first got a chance to play it.

Where as Ys III is kind of the oddball of the older series, Oath in Felghana encapsulates everything fans have come to love about the series. It tells a very direct, linear story, and it does so at a blazing pace with a lot of flash. The music, remixing the tunes of Ys III is one of the best in the series, and the graphical overhaul fits the tone perfectly.

More importantly, Oath in Felghana is one of the few games that has ever properly found a balance between the Legend of Zelda-esque action adventure genre and classic hardcore action titles. For all the dungeon exploration you’ll do in this game, you’ll spend an equal amount of time memorizing boss patterns, mastering Adol’s combat options, and struggling to survive.

Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys/Ys IV: Mask of the Sun/Ys: Memories of Celceta

Ys IV is a mess. Nihon Falcom stepped away from development at this point, allowing others to take the reigns of its franchise, and this decision led to two competing companies working with the same title on two different platforms. To make matters worse, neither of these games have been officially translated into English, so if you want an opinion, you’ll have to seek out a fan translation.

Ys IV: Dawn of Ys was developed by Hudson for the TuboGraphx1-16 CD, and it is the more loyal to the classic formula of the two. In fact, the differences between this and the first two games on TurbGraphx-16 CD are barely noticeable with Adol returning to his “bumper car” combat roots. The sweet soundtracks and cutscenes of the TurboGraphx-16 CD make an important comeback, but the biggest change to the formula is that Adol was finally able to walk diagonally!

Ys IV: Mask of the Sun, on the other hand, is generally regarded as the inferior of the two Ys IV games. It was developed by a now defunct studio called Tonkin House, and while it follows a somewhat similar story, it suffers in terms of performance.

This is thanks to the Super Famicom, and while Nintendo’s console is one of the greatest ever made, it couldn’t compete with the TuboGraphx1-16 CD in terms of power. Ys IV: Mask of the Sun’s graphics might be better on the surface than Dawn of Ys’, but they do little to distinguish themselves from the other 16-bit JRPGs of the era.

Mask of the Sun’s music takes a hit with the limited sound channels, the ultimate sin for an Ys game. Combat and level design also fall way behind Dawn of Ys with sluggish controls, no diagonal walking, and the need to be absolutely precise with Adol’s sword.

Thankfully, Ys IV also got the full-on remake treatment that its predecessor got, leading to the release of Ys: Memories of Celceta. This PS Vita exclusive takes bits and pieces from both versions of Ys IV and retells it in a manner that is actually understandable. It also gives the game a nice, modern-day shining.

Ys: Memories of Celceta scored a lot of praise upon release thanks to its music, story, and most importantly, its fast combat. While it fails to live up to Oath in Felghana in terms of how smart you have to be with it, the mindless hacking and slashing you’ll do in this game feel so great that you’ll barely notice.

To date, Ys: Memories of Celceta is actually the last “new” game made for the series, preceding Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana.

Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand

Every series needs a stinker, and this is where we find Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand. Fans are impartial to this one because of how far it deviates from what made the original games so special. Adol’s highly detailed quests and their rockin’ soundtracks suffer in this chapter because of its exclusivity on the technologically limited Super Nintendo.

Nihon Falcom, who returned to development after Ys IV, was never comfortable in those days working with home consoles, and it often preferred to stick to PCs for its games.  This inexperience shows in Ys V, which feels like an antique for its age despite being released late in the console’s lifetime in 1996. Comparisons to SoulBlazer aren’t that far off, and that game is actually four years older.

Adol’s latest quest takes him to fantasy worlds that feel like they are jumbled together with 16-bit JRPG cliches. The generic music doesn’t help, nor does Adol’s new ability to actually swing a sword. Nihon Falcom again ditches the “bumper car” combat for real-time sword swinging, and while I think it was somewhat necessary at this point, Ys V’s combat and character animations are too stiff to really benefit from this shake up.

Fan translations finally made this game available after nearly two decades of being absent, so if you fall in love with other entries, you can try it out if you want. It’s only one for the hardcore fans, meaning I haven’t brought myself to make much progress in it.

The game does have a remake on the PlayStation 2 in Japan, but unlike Oath of Felghana and Memories of Celceta, it does not enjoy universal acclaim.

Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim

Another game with a convoluted history. For most fans, this is the one that got the series back on the right track following the Super Nintendo’s intrusion. Nihon Falcom brought the series back home to the PC in 2003, releasing this game and scoring praise from longtime fans… only in Japan.

In North America, we also got two versions of this game for the PlayStation 2 and PSP, both of which were developed by Konami. These games, as you might guess given the series’ history, are vastly inferior to the original PC product and nearly derailed Ys’ ability to ever have a presence in North America. The PC version’s crisp character sprites found themselves replaced by ugly, muddy character models, the combat doesn’t have the same flow or impact, and ugh… those awful CG cutscenes.

PUKE!

Thankfully, XSEED got around to localizing the PC version for North American audiences in 2015, so fans could finally get a chance to see the real Ark of Napishtim in action. As a Ys game, it’s solid and tells a story of not one but TWO blue haired anime girls who need to be rescued by Adol.

Its biggest contribution to the series, however, is its slick graphic engine, which was used to create both Oath in Felghana and Ys Origin.

Ys Seven

No subtitle necessary. Ys Seven is just awesome. What’s funny about it though is that it operates in a similar manner to the maligned console versions of previous Ys games, sacrificing the concise action and general feel of the series for a more generic adventure.

The difference here is that it works. By 2009, Nihon Falcom had learned enough about console development and cranked this out for the PSP to universally positive reception. Fans love Ys Seven, and despite its departure from the series’ norms of quick action and light tales, they believe the changes it made to the formula ultimately became justified by the results.

In terms of combat, Ys Seven finds a happy balance between the smart action of Oath in Felghana and the glorious hackin’ ‘n’ slashin’ found in Memories of Celceta. It was the firs Ys game to add party members that fight alongside Adol, and it also supercedes its PS Vita successor in on many levels, mostly surrounding boss battles, level design, and general RPG mechanics.

And you get to play as Dogi for the first time! Fans really got a kick out of that one.

XSEED recently re-released Ys Seven on the PC through Steam, and fans are in love with the port. While it loses the benefit of portability, the difference in performance is astounding.

Ys Origin

Ys Seven wraps up the series’ chronology, but this game is important enough to the canon to mention. Ys Origin is the only game in the main series that does not star Adol Christin for the simple reason that he hasn’t been born yet.

This is an origin tale that explains how Ys’ world came into being and how many of its myths and legends got started. In terms of story, it fills in a lot of gaps and helps flesh out a timeline, and in terms of gameplay, it follows a lot of the same rules as Oath of Felghana and Ark of Napishtim.

The Steam version was the standard for many years, having been released after Ys: Oath in Felghana in 2006. However, Nihon Falcom recently put out a PlayStation 4 and PS Vita remaster that gives us a look into how it will be pursuing Ys’ future on home consoles and handhelds.

Where to get started?!

Now that Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana has launched for the PlayStation 4, PS Vita, and PC, you may want to go back and experience other portions of the series. These are my favorite choices for where to get started.

Ys Seven – The most accessible game in the series and also one of the best. If you don’t mind the ease of entry and aren’t looking for a challenge, this is the best place to get started. Both the PC port and the PSP original are fine, but as mentioned, there is no going back to the PSP version after enjoying the flawless PC performance.

Ys: Oath in Felghana – Oath in Felghana could very well be the best action RPG that you’ve never played. Its hardcore action combat gives it an edge that many other action RPGs lack, and its satisfying story and music only take it a notch higher. Be warned… this game is tough! Only play this first if you know what you’re getting into.

Ys I Chronicles – The original Ys Chronicles is actually where I got introduced to this series, and it worked for me. The “bumper car” combat takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s all worth it for that sweet soundtrack, again, one of the best ever, and the innocent 80s feel to its design.


Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...

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