“Ys, the ideal utopia… How could such a land of promise, simply vanish from the face of the planet? How could such prosperity be forgotten? The legend has been silenced for over 700 years. And now, the mystery unfolds…”
Who would imagine that Alan Oppenheimer’s stirring introduction to the mystical world of Ys would be a fitting eulogy for the legacy of the Turbo CD. Attempting to write a modern review for Ancient Ys Vanished: Book I & II is a difficult task. While the game is antiquated, it holds such historical and personal significance for older gamers that it’s challenging not to be biased.
Ys Book I & II was released as the first RPG on the first video game console CD-ROM (the Turbo CD) in 1989. Its release heralded the evolution of the standard role-playing game. With more than 100 times the memory of console RPGs at the time, Ys promised a much larger, more colorful world, populated with lifelike characters who communicated with voice instead of text. Did Ys Book I & II deliver on its promise? Let’s take a look.
For an RPG on a hybrid 8/16 bit system, Ys Book I & II painted a very pretty picture. While sporting simplistic overworld design and utilitarian character animations, Ys did an amazing job of painting its tapestry of landscape in bold colors. While the Sega Genesis scrambled to display 64 colors out of a palette of 512, Ys had the advantage of drawing from an unlimited RGB palette displaying up to 256 colors simultaneously. The earlier parts of the game are simply decorated, but as the player continues on his quest, the graphic prowess of Falcom’s artists shines through in a way that was not surpassed until the seminal FFVI.
I shall never forget how awe-struck I was at the scenery in Ys Book II as I raced up a cathedral bell tower to prevent a cursed bell from tolling. The stained glass windows and flickering torches were clearly drawn and well animated, even with faux lighting effects. Upon reaching the bell tower I was amazed at the scenery, for in the distance you could see the sun setting between mountaintops, awhirl in hues of orange and red clouds that scrolled independently of the foreground. The illusion of the height of the tower and the majesty of the landscape was complete.
Though the character sprites were simplistic in design and animation (a trend that continues today in most RPGs), the close character portraits are pristine and still some of the best anime designs to date. With the advent of such a large memory medium as a CD, Falcom included an introduction, intermediate and ending cinematic. While a far cry from the anime FMV found in most modern RPG’s, for the first attempt ever, Ys Book I & II was remarkable. In keeping with the fantastic character design, these cinematics were well directed, even though their animation was severely limited due to the Turbo CD’s RAM.
Overall, the graphic quality of this game has stood the test of time. Simplistic at times, and breathtaking in the end, Ys Book I & II paints its world of wonder without much difficulty.
I could write a novella about the legendary music of Ys. While most import shops have a hard time stocking the dozen or so Ys Perfect Collection music CDs, there is good reason why. Before the sweeping orchestrations of Nobuo Uematsu and his contemporaries, Ys = acoustic bliss. In a time removed from the advent of MP3s and over sampling PCM, there was this divine beast known as Redbook Audio, also known as true digital sound. While not very memory efficient, this was, and still is the standard for CD audio.
Besides the functional MIDI, with its “slash”, “clang”, “boink” and “boom”, Ys Book I & II took Redbook Audio and ran. The pacing and instrumental choices always fit the mood, whether you were lolling around Esteria or racing to the (final?) confrontation at the top of Darm Tower, the quality was unmistakable.
The vocal performances also deserve equal praise. The quality of the dubbing in Ys Books I & II surpasses most gaming dubs produced today. NEC/Falcom went the extra mile here with higher dubbing production values than most anime OVAs. With top-notch talent such as Debby Derryberry (Sasami from Tenchi Muyo), Alan Oppenheimer (Merlin from Prince Valiant), Michael Bell (Transformers, the Smurfs, as well as Soul Reaver’s Raziel), the experienced cast of Ys makes the acclaimed voice talent from Metal Gear Solid sound like a high school drama club.
It has taken the gaming industry over a decade to even match the performance delivered in Ys Book I & II. From Lilia’s sweet inquiries to Dark Fact’s boasting, you just can’t beat the acting in this game. It’s a shame this much talent wasn’t put to work on other Turbo CD titles. From the sweeping orchestrations of its tragic introduction, to the rustic dalliance of its lighthearted ending, Ys Book I & II is an audio masterpiece; simply brilliant.
The tale that is woven in this classic tells of a young adventurer who sets out on a simple archeological romp (though a dangerous one at that) at the behest of a local seer, only to be thrust into the classic struggle of good versus evil and eventually become light’s champion in a conflict of celestial proportions. Pretty standard RPG fare for the experienced, but it is a story that is told quite well. The text translation may seem stiff at times, but as the game progresses, the dialog improves considerably. The text moves quickly, and is paced adequately for most audiences. The vocal performances of the key characters add color and depth to their sprite counterparts. The world described is one of magic and mystery, and though the game severely limits your actual exploration, the numerous musings of the populace at large dictate a seemingly larger, more realistic environment. What truly makes the story stand out is the cohesiveness and independence of both volumes of the game. Both “Books” could have stood independently, and to have them flow seamlessly into one another gives the gamer the image of a far grander epic.
To put it simply, there really isn’t much to it. Though the game offers a good variety of equipment, only the presence of the hero’s diminutive blade and shield is altered. Magic does come into play during the later stages of the game but the spell selection is basic at best. With a spell for each simple element (fire, ice, etc..), the graphical effects are efficient, but not magnificent.
The actual combat mechanics seem to have been an afterthought. Simply run into the enemy (preferably his side or back) and the game tallies up the damage to you and the enemy. Though this makes combat fast paced and removes the annoyance of random encounters, it just looks silly. When most Action RPGs have some kind of combat interface, Ys resorts to a sprite based Milli-Vanilli chest bash. Tactically, plotting
your ramming trajectory is the key to victory, but this gets a bit perplexing when you have to deal with significantly larger opponents, ala… the last boss. Overall, disappointing, but it worked.
The only real saving grace Ys I & II exhibited was decent dungeon design. There are roughly a dozen enemy infestations to conquer and each is completely unique in style and layout. All the dungeons in the game are pre-plotted with specific tasks that must be completed to gain entry into the deeper depths. These vary from finding the correct sequence of teleportation statues to using a magic mirror to lift illusions that would seemingly lead the player to an impasse. None of the puzzles presented therein are particularly difficult, but provide enough stimuli to keep the player interested.
Though the dungeons are a bit short-lived for my taste, I’m thankful that that aspect of the game never got tedious. Using admirable methods of cavern crawling, Falcom has created a stable, enjoyable adventure, that could have been a disastrous melding of poor combat mechanics and respectable dungeon design.
The game is responsive but the main character is limited to moving in the 4 cardinal directions. Compounding this error is the fact that playing on the dog biscuit of a controller that NEC devised for their TurboDuo is an added…treat. The inflexibility of the control coupled with the slab of plastic required to play the game is vexing, but at the time of the game’s release, ergonomics weren’t an option. The actual controller isn’t an issue until you’ve been playing for several hours. After questing for a significant amount of time, the player is forced to wonder why his combat skills were degrading, was it due to the limited control, or the massive hand cramp?
For its time, Ys Book I & II introduced us to a fantastical world created with cutting edge technology. It told a story of tragedy, hope and life. It wove a convincing and enthralling experience that has made it legend, and with good cause. Though not an epic like the 80+ hours of Xenogears, the game (both books) will take a seasoned gamer little over 14 hours to complete. But, those brief moments spent under the spell of Nihon Falcom’s classic will last you for the rest of your days. Heck, it still puts a smile on my face.