Quickshot Thoughts on the Ys Series

I have a soft spot for all the games I played in my childhood. They were symbols of friendship between me and my very best friend in all the world. He is, in many ways, largely responsible for the man I am now—at least, for whatever good characteristics I possess. Thanks to him I learned the value of loyalty, forthrightness, and also circumspection and self-reflection, that is to say, the importance of thinking critically about one’s beliefs and actions. The wonderful friends I’ve gained in more recent years have all sharpened and refined these lessons in innumerable ways, of course, but he was the one who laid the foundation for them in the first place. Since we spent most of our time together playing games on the old Super Nintendo system (SNES), those SNES games maintain a special place in my heart.

Some of those games were the most famous and acclaimed of their day, like Final Fantasy 3 (6) or Super Castlevania IV. Others were more obscure but have since gained a great deal of respect and praise (cult classics), like Ogre Battle. Others, though, were often just plain obscure, though fun.

We played stuff like Seventh Saga, a neat little RPG that nevertheless never got much attention and spawned only one sequel. There was also Inindo, a weird game set in Feudal Japan that I never really liked—I only found out just now it was a spinoff of the Nobunaga’s Ambition series. But one of the games I remember well was a little sidescrolling platformer called Ys III: Wanderers from Ys. It confused me a little, back then. It was the third in a series, but since the first two games had only been released on the Turbografx system, which neither of us had, I didn’t know what the title referred to until later. Still, it was a pretty fun game, though a hard one, and my best friend and I enjoyed it. We felt a great deal of accomplishment upon beating it, and it was always associated with good memories of my friend.

I didn’t remember much about it, though, until my friend came over one day recently. While we were talking about videogames, he brought up Ys III, and mentioned it had a modern remake with better graphics and an isometric instead of side-scroller gameplay. It was called Ys: The Oath in Felghana, and he encouraged me to check it out. When I did, I found out that it was on Steam, as well as these other games in the series: Ys I, II, and Origins. There’s also Ys IV and V, which were never released in the US but did receive fan translations, and also Ys VI, VII, and Memories of Celceta for the Playstation 2 and Portable respectively, but I don’t have those yet. On a whim I bought Oath in Felghana, Origins, and I and II. I’ve started playing the former two, but I just beat the latter two recently.

Thus, for this entry, I’ll be doing a quickshot review in the style of my book reviews. Rather than an exhaustive examination of all parts of Ys I and II, I’ll give you a brief overview of the games along with an analysis of a particular aspect of them I really enjoyed.

Ys I was first released in 1987 for the PC-8801 and was soon ported to the X1, MS2, and other Japanese computer systems of the day. Ys II was released soon after for the same systems. Both games have been remade several times, usually as a bundle, since Ys II is mostly similar to I and takes place literally right after the end of the first game. The first compilation was released for the Turbografx system, as I mentioned, and it was remade a few times. One remake is for the PC, released in 2001, another for the Playstation 2, in 2003, and the most recent version, Ys I and II Chronicles, was released for Windows 7 in 2009. This latest remake is what I bought on Steam.

In the Ys series, you play as the red-haired swordsman Adol Christin, who travels across the world searching for adventure. On his first voyage, however, he runs into a storm and gets shipwrecked on the island of Esteria, near the fishing village of Minea. He is fortunately found on a beach by some of the town’s militia and nursed back to health in by its doctor. Once he’s back on his feet, he’s told that Esteria is suffering from a series of sudden and troubling problems, such as the appearance of the storms which sunk Adol’s ship, monsters emerging from the mines, and general malaise. It thus falls to Adol to pick up his sword and shield and stop whatever evil is troubling this land.

Given how many times it’s been told since 1987, you might expect it’s been through some changes. In terms of graphics and music, certainly. Here are some pictures and music videos to demonstrate:

(Comparison Screenshots, music vids)

As you can tell, the Chronicles remake has improved quite a bit upon its progenitor. There are animated intros, new art to replace the old pixel portraits, new sprites, backgrounds, and effects so everything looks better, and a redone soundtrack, which is awesome. I, at least, am very happy with them…

But graphics and music alone aren’t enough to justify a purchase. What about the gameplay? Truth be told, that’s something which has barely changed at all. As you might be able to tell from the screenshots, your viewpoint in Ys I is from overhead, on top of and over your character, sort of like the Legend of Zelda series. However, unlike the Zelda games, though you can equip a sword and shield, you…don’t actually operate anything with them. There are no “attack” or “block” buttons. You fight primarily by…running into your enemies.

Yeah.

There’s some skill involved, in that if you run into something head-on you’ll take more damage and do less, while the opposite is true if you slam into a foe from behind or the side, but it’s still running into things. Swords and shields (along with other equipment, such as magic rings) only affect how much damage you take and do. Aside from that, everything in the game, including the bosses, is killed by just running into it. As you might be able to tell, I…was not really impressed. Though there’s sort of a fun, pinball-esque element to the fighting, I thought it was just too simplistic. It might have been understandable in the 8-bit days, but it felt like it did not age well at all, at least for me.

Additionally, Ys I is pretty short. Like in most RPGs, Adol can level up and gain gold by killing monsters, but the max level is 10 and you’ll max out all your gold long before you actually have a use for it. I beat all of Ys I within a few hours on a single day, and that was even when I didn’t really know what I was doing. I played on the Easy difficulty, but the harder ones don’t really add much; just improved enemy stats and movement speed. It takes some more skill to “bump off-center” enemies on those difficulty settings, and the last boss is very difficult (even on Easy!), but still, I didn’t find the battle system engaging even on the harder settings.

Despite these complaints, I think Ys I would have been okay riding solely on the strength of its great music, good graphics and art, and appealing plot (which I’ll get to later). However, remember what I said earlier. It’s a compilation remake, which means Ys I is bundled along with Ys II in Ys Chronicles. And, in my view, Ys II adds sufficient extra value to make the bundle a very worthy choice.

First off, Ys II has been enhanced like Ys I was: New music, new sprite graphics, and new art. It shares most of the sprite assets and style with Ys I, and the music and art is done by the same composers and artists, but Ys II’s original OST and most of its characters were different from Ys I’s, so there’s not much repeated content, just new stuff from the artists I’d already gotten to enjoy.

The basic battle system is the same as in Ys I as well: You bump into things to kill them, and swords and shields just add to your offense and defense stats. However, there are some big new changes in Ys II. First is an improved level system. Adol can go up to level 50 (actually slightly beyond) rather than just level 10, meaning it’s not as easy to simply grind up to the max level in a few hours. Another huge change is the addition of magic. Unlike Ys I, where rings simply added stat boosts, now they actually do things, like create a light in dark passages. Most notably, the Fire Ring allows Adol to shoot fireballs. This is very important for the bosses: They can no longer be defeated by just running into them. Fighting them was a challenge even on the easy difficulty, and honestly, much like some of the classic shooters like Axelay or Gradius. With the addition of the fireball mechanic, boss fights take skill and are a lot more fun, IMO. There are a couple of bosses which have to be fought by running into them, but even they still present some challenge and the other bosses are more numerous and far more entertaining anyways. I wish the remakes had added magic to Ys I, but still, its presence in Ys II is enough for me anyways. Fire is also not the only game-changing new spell you receive:You can also transform yourself into a monster at one point and actually talk to all the monsters in the game, each of whom will no longer attack you and will say something different (and usually at least mildly amusing, if not outrightly funny). I was rather impressed by the creativity of that; though I believe there have been similar concepts in other videogames, I’m not sure if they predated Ys II, though I’d have to check. In any case, it’s still a lot of fun and a wonderfully creative feature that adds a bit of sparkle to an already solid game. Ys II is much larger than the first game, it took me about two days to finish it, though admittedly more skilled players would probably be able to complete it in one. Still, combined with getting the first game at a very reasonable value (it was not at all expensive on Steam when I got it), the value I received was very good, in my estimation.

Now that we’ve talked about the gameplay, graphics, and music, how about the plots? First, I have to be honest: They’re not exactly great or complex. Adol himself is a classic silent hero, he never speaks and his reactions are conveyed only through the narrator saying “Adol did this” or “Adol did that.” All the other characters and NPCs in the game are more talkative, and they do get more characterization, but nothing truly impressive or profound. The story of Ys I and II itself, though it has a few twists here and there (which I won’t spoil for ya), isn’t particularly intricate. If you’re looking for something like Final Fantasy Tactics here, you’d best look elsewhere.

And yet, this is exactly what I like about the games. Their simple, straightforward, and upbeat plots, combined with their simple, cheery anime art, are what give them no small degree of charm, at least for me. The reasons behind this are what I’d like to discuss today.

Ys strikes me as very much a kid’s game—at least, so I thought at first. Perhaps it was an artifact of its time, my reasoning went, when the primary consumers of games were boys rather than 18-30 year old men (and women, I suppose, though that is a debate I really do not want to start here). The plot is simple, straightforward, and upbeat, an unpretentious tale of heroism where the protagonist is silent so young men can place themselves in his shoes. Adol meets a few fair maidens over the course of his adventure; he rescues them without complaint. He meets a kid in trouble, he saves the lad without a word. No rape, on-screen murder (one ally is assassinated off-screen), or any of that grim stuff, and less flippantly, no moral ‘shades of grey,’ either. Adol’s the hero and that’s that.  The art style is appealing and non-threatening, and there’s not much violence in either the original games or their remakes. They’re also linear, with no more than one path through the levels and bosses.

I think these characteristics make it suitable for kids (and if you’ve got young ones who are looking for a fun game to play, I think Ys would make a great choice for them). But upon reflection, I realized that calling it a kid’s game, at least because of when it was made, may have been inaccurate. I haven’t read as much as I’d like about the history of videogames, so for all I know they weren’t a “kid’s pastime” in Japan during the late 80s as they were considered to be (to an extent) in America. Perhaps a lot of older folks were the ones who primarily played these games when they first came out on those home computers. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call Ys I and II just plain “simple” rather than “kiddy.”

And yet…this is exactly what I like about the games, and why, for me, they have more than a small degree of charm.

I know, this may seem hypocritical of me, right? In my earlier post on Fire Emblem, I described what was disillusioning me about the series: Linearity, simplicity (lack of customization), and lack of moral choices. Why am I going so easy on Ys? Maybe I hold platformers/ARPGs to a lower standard than strategy games, or maybe it’s because I’m just getting back into Ys and haven’t burned out on it like I did Fire Emblem. Those may be a part of it, but only a small part, I think. Over the span of a few months, I think I’ve gained a bit of perspective which leads me to have a better appreciation for those “simpler” stories, though my love for more complex gameplay remains unchanged.

It’s not an easy world we live in. If one wants stories where the heroes are morally grey, well, as Bob Ross once said, all you have to do is look at the news. A simple tale of a silent adventurer who consistently and inevitably saves the kingdom and makes the world around him a better place…that’s something which could make many a day a little brighter. Yes, as I implied above, such a structure would be appropriate for kids, but I’d say most adults could appreciate it as well—I hardly need to bring out the old C.S. Lewis quote about maturity here. Ys may be linear, but how much choice does the player need? The option of taking a darker path, as exists in Ogre Battle, may add more replay value but at the cost of diluting Adol’s fundamentally heroic character. No, I think in this case a more linear plot works well. Don’t get me wrong, I still love morally complex and often depressing games like Tactics Ogre. But every once in a while, be we young or old, we need a hero like Adol and a story like what we see in Ys to keep ourselves afloat.

Despite this new perspective, though, I don’t think I’m falling in love with Fire Emblem again. While I can be more patient with it in respect to plot, I think its lack of customization in other areas, such as class-changing, still makes it boring for me. I also think Ys could use some improvement on this front—I’m consistent there! 😉 Adol can’t really equip a wide variety of weapons or armor in his games, there are only about 5 swords, 5 armors, and 5 shields total, with each being differentiated only by its power (i.e there’s no reason at all to use an old shield when you’ve got a better one, except for one plot-related fight in Ys I). The situation is a little better in Oath of Felghana, which I haven’t finished yet; from what I can tell you can now upgrade your weapons and armor in different ways. Still, I wish you could equip other types of weapons, like axes or spears. Ys Origins is also slightly better on this front, with 3 playable characters (rather than just Adol) who can equip a few different weapons.

This does make me think of one thing, though. I had said previously that the linearity of Adol’s quest was a good thing, since having the option to be evil would have taken away from his heroism, but now that I think of it, there’s no reason you couldn’t have branching paths through a game which were all different but still suitably positive and which led to a happy ending(s). For instance, maybe in one playthrough you’d venture through lava caves to get to a castle, but in the next you could choose to sneak into it instead. Perhaps Fire Emblem could take a page from this line of thought. Rather than just having small branching paths that only last for a couple of stages (as was the case in FE6), you could, for instance, choose a country to ally to at various points, thus radically altering the course of the entire game. Your choice wouldn’t necessarily have to be as morally fraught as, say, the decision to kill Pelleas I mentioned in my earlier entry; if you were the commander of a mercenary troupe it might be something like joining a country that has more money but riskier jobs or a country with less pay but easier work, with separate plots you’d be involved in that would lead to separate endings. This would give Fire Emblem some of the replayability and customization I crave without making it as heavy and depressing as (again) Tactics Ogre.

That about wraps it up for my thoughts on Ys and other games. Next week…I dunno. Next Friday I gotta put up new chapters of my fanfic, so maybe I’ll do something on that. I’ve also made some new friends (sort of XD) among “anti-reactionaries,” so maybe I’ll write a little bit about that! We’ll see 🙂

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