NEC’s TurboGrafx-16 led a short-lived and undistinguished existence in the US. Its inability to compete with rival systems such as the Sega Genesis, and, later, the SNES could largely be traced to NEC of America’s poor choice of software brought over to the US from the largely successful PC-Engine in Japan. The TurboGrafx did, however, have a few bright spots in its software library, with great games such as Cosmic Fantasy 2, Valis 3, Gate of Thunder, and Exile: Wicked Phenomenon. As great as the aforementioned games were, Ys 1 and 2 is the game that has proved to be the crown jewel of the US TurboGrafx, and is one of the few reasons that I have no regrets about having purchased the doomed system.
The storyline of Ys 1 and 2 revolves around the land of Ys (rhymes with Reese), an ancient utopia ruled by the benevolence of its 6 priests and 2 goddesses. Drawing upon the magic of a mysterious object called the Black Pearl, the priests were able to create and maintain a society where people lived prosperously and in harmony with each other. Then, suddenly, the land of Ys mysteriously vanished. Eight hundred years later, the neighboring land of Esteria is suddenly invaded by monsters. Hearing of Esteria’s plight, a wandering swordsman named Adol arrives in the land to lend his assistance. While ridding Esteria of its problems, Adol ends up slowly uncovering the mysteries of Ys.
At first glance, Ys 1 and 2 appears to be a typical overhead-view 2D action RPG, but it actually utilizes a unique battle system. Instead of using a button to swing your sword or whip or whatever, you attack enemies in Ys simply by running into them. Whether you do damage to your enemy or get damaged yourself is determined both by the relative strengths of you and your enemy and where on your enemy you make contact with it. For example, hitting your enemies from the side is generally a much more effective technique than lining yourself up with him and running into him head on. Sword-swinging veteran gamers may dismiss this battle system as overtly simple (I was skeptical myself when I first heard about it), but it turns out to be every bit as enjoyable (if not more) as the more traditional battle mechanics of other action RPGs.
Other than the battle system, the gameplay mechanics of Ys 1 and 2 are standard RPG fare, but what separates Ys 1 and 2 from the rest of the action-RPG pack is the smoothness in execution. Adol gains an assortment of magic throughout his quest, all of which proves to be very useful in the game. Adol also obtains and uses an assortment of items and equipment, and, in a nice touch, all of the items and equipment include graphical representations on the menu screens, instead of just an ambiguous name. The difficulty is perfectly balanced, and defeating bosses requires some strategy but never becomes frustratingly difficult.
The gameplay does have some minor weaknesses, however. A consistent bug in battle is that enemies aren’t sensitive to where they get hit when they get knocked back after taking a hit; they’re only sensitive to which direction they’re facing. This means that if you shoot an enemy with, say, a fireball when he is facing away from you, he’ll get knocked back by the fireball, but he’ll get knocked back towards you, which is ridiculously unrealistic. Also, there is a relative lack of areas to explore in Ys 1, though Ys 2 is much better about the amount of territory you get to cover. These weaknesses are very minor, however, in light of the overall excellence of the gameplay.
The graphics of Ys 1 and 2 hold up fairly well compared to that of today’s 2D games despite the limited color palette of the TurboGrafx. Despite the relative lack of colors, the backgrounds are very well drawn, well proportioned, and only a small step down from the backgrounds of the better-looking 2D games of today. Spell effects are unimpressive but serviceable. Some of the more important story parts of the game are told in anime-style stills (with a little bit of animation); these are noticeably blockier than their 32-bit counterparts of today, but, once again, the quality of art in these compensates admirably. The character designs are excellent, and I enjoyed the art style as well.
The onscreen superdeformed characters are a tad lacking in detail, however. Adol is drawn well, but some of the enemies were so poorly detailed that I couldn’t even figure out what they were supposed to be. In addition, the scrolling is a little bit choppy, and there are quite a few locations where parallax was needed but wasn’t present.
Control is very precise in Ys 1 and 2. Adol is very responsive to the control pad, yet there’s just enough resistance for him to feel substantial when you control him. Because of the precision of control, it is quite easy to get Adol to attack an enemy exactly where you want him to. Jumping is not possible in Ys 1 and 2, and there were no instances in the game where I felt like jumping should have been included in the game (a sign of excellent game design). Spell attacks are also very responsive, and the menus are organized and easy to navigate.
The only weaknesses in control are the fact that Adol can only move in 4 directions instead of 8, which makes it somewhat difficult to hit faster enemies where you want to hit them, and that Adol doesn’t run as fast as you sometimes wish he could when you play. These weaknesses, however, detract only minimally from the gameplay.
The storyline is very good as well. It was exciting and fun to discover the secrets of Ys, and the plot does an excellent job of keeping you interested in the game. There is, however, very little character development in Ys 1 and 2, and Adol is pretty much the typical mute hero (he does have a few lines), but somehow, for me, he was a very charismatic character. Although the supporting characters aren’t really developed well, either, they prove to be an interesting bunch as well.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Ys 1 and 2’s storyline is the quality of the translation. Ys 1 and 2 has without a doubt the best translation I’ve ever seen in a US game. The dialogue is well written and contains a lot of personality while never getting too complicated. It is humorous at times as well, but never has to resort to pop culture jokes to invoke that humor. In addition, the editing is flawless. Ys 1 and 2 is the only US game I’ve ever played where I didn’t notice any grammatical or spelling errors in the text (not that I went out of my way looking for them, mind you).
Ys 1 and 2’s strongest aspect is its sound. The sound effects are decent but nothing special; however, the soundtrack is one of the best ever in a video game. I am usually especially critical of heavy rock-influenced soundtracks, since that’s what I often listen to when I’m not listening to game music, but I was completely impressed by the Ys 1 and 2 soundtrack. The melodies are brilliantly composed and very memorable, while the heavy rock influence helps lend intensity and energy to the songs. The majority of the music is also in redbook format, so despite the fact that the game is about 8 years old, the quality of the sound system in the music is actually noticeably superior to that of the overwhelming majority of games today. The only weakness in the soundtrack is that the town music songs aren’t in redbook, so that even though they’re brilliantly composed, they trickle out of your speakers in weak TurboGrafx PSG.
Ys 1 and 2 also impresses with its voice acting, which is the best that I have ever heard in a US game. The voice actors hired for Ys 1 and 2 are all professionals, and they show off their talents amply throughout the game. The cast includes Thomas Haden Church (who played dopey mechanic Lowell Mather on the now-defunct NBC sitcom Wings), as well as several veterans from US cartoons (which, if nothing else, are competently voiced).
Due to the failure of the TurboGrafx-16, Ys 1 and 2 has been relatively unknown in the US. However, it is one of the best action RPGs that I’ve ever played. If you ever get a chance to play through it, don’t pass it up.