Friday, January 28, 2011

Game 45: The Ancient Land of Ys (1987)

The game has several names depending on platform. The DOS version is the only one that calls it precisely this.
The Ancient Land of Ys
Nihon Falcom (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for PC-88, PC-98, MSX, Sharp X1, and FM-7; 1988 for NESand SEGA; 1989 for DOS and Apple II GS. Some versions known as Ys or Ancient Ys: Vanished Omen.
Date Started: 27 January 2011
By the Power of Grayskull, another Nihon Falcom game. They are apparently going to be a big part of my life from now on. I was having fun the last few days, blazing through some minor titles on my way to 1988, but there's no half-assing this one. Unlike Sorcerian, Ys has a full main quest. One last dragon I have to slay before I can enjoy the rewards of the 1988 golden age.

The Ys opening town.

Like Sorcerian, Ys is fundamentally a console game, requiring a minimum number of controls--basically the directional pad and two keys for inventory and status. I would say something like "the influence of The Legend of Zelda, which came out the previous year, is obvious," except that I know next to nothing about the Japanese CRPG market and never played Zelda except for maybe two hours as a 13-year-old, so I'm worried I don't know what I'm talking about. [Later edit: I was right about not knowing what I was talking about. See LordKarnov42's contributions in the comments.] I should point out that unlike Zelda (as I understand it), the character in Ys does gain experience points and levels. There really can't be any question as to whether this game is a proper CRPG. I'm not saying it's a great one, but it's in the right category.

The back story of Ys is dripping with metaphor: the land was once peaceful and happy, but when a farmer discovered a precious magic metal called "kureria" (the uses are left vague), the land was stricken with sudden wealth, income inequality, and natural disasters. Sick of the destruction, the people of Ys gathered up all the kureria, stuffed it into a vault in the Holy Shrine of Sarumon (yes, really), and erected magic statues to guard it. Things returned to normal. But many years later, an evil wizard named Malificus has seized the six Books of Ys, which hold the secret to kureria and has taken the metal. "Only by recovering the six Books of Ys can the people hope to regain their land and end the evil reign of Malificus." But five of the books are being guarded by "huge monsters" and Malificus himself holds the sixth.

Ys is one of the few CRPGs of this era to feature side quests.

Neither the manual nor the game tells you who you are, but I gather from the MobyGames summary that the character is Adol Christian, and the starting town is called Minea. You don't get the main quest right away. Instead, you get a few side quests from exploring Minea and a village nearby. Already I've been tasked with:

  • Dealing with some robbers who have been harassing the bartender.
  • Find a seed called the Rodane seed.
  • Find a stolen harmonica for a distressed songwriter.
  • Recover a lost ring for a one-eyed man in the bar.
  • Recover the Silver Bells, treasured symbols of the village, from a band of thieves.

Little NPCs wandering around the town help you with these quests by giving you hints. You have to talk to them through the cumbersome method of standing in their paths until they run into you. For instance, after I got the quest from the one-eyed man, an NPC told me:

This was the first quest I solved, though it took me a while to kill enough monsters to get the gold needed to buy the ring from the pawnshop owner. With the reward from the one-eyed man, I bought a proper suit of armor and shield, at which point I was apparently equipped enough to get the main quest (or at least the recovery of the first book) from Sara the Fortune Teller. More on that below.

Um...what are those "many things?"

When I played Sorcerian, I lamented about how basic the combat was, involving simply mashing the spacebar until the enemy dies. Well, Falcom apparently decided that even that was too much for Ys. In this game, there isn't even an attack button; you attack enemies by charging directly into them, much like in NetHack. There are, however, some tactics to this combat: you do more damage, and avoid damage yourself, if you charge into them from the back or side instead of the front. This is, in fact, the only way to survive at the opening level, when you have only 20 hit points. You thus have to dexterously dance around your enemies, watching their movements and looking for openings. Much more interesting than Sorcerian. Once you have a shield, head-on charges become a little less damaging. In the comments to Wizard Warz, LordKarnov42 clued me in that enemies can't hit you if you're slightly offset from their path of movement, but still in contact with them, although getting this just right (especially in dungeon corridors) is difficult.

Outdoors with tiny little enemies.

If you can survive combat with a single creature, you just need to run off to a safe corner and stand still for a bit, and your hit points recharge fairly quickly (at least, outdoors). Despite this, I have died many, many times since starting the game; some of the enemies are brutal. Unfortunately, their little icons (everything in the game is tiny) don't correspond to the pictures in the game manual, so I can only guess at what I'm fighting outside the walls of Minea. Black knights and mutant dwarves, I think. After I gained a few levels, with consequent increases in strength and hit points, the battles went a lot faster. Enemies that used to take a few hits now simply disappear with a satisfying bloop as I charge over them.

The inventory screen.

There are a number of things I like about the game, starting with the number of quests, and the fact that you get experience point rewards and gold for completing them. These seem like such staples of CRPGs these days that it's easy to forget their comparative rarity in this era. How many games so far in my blog have featured side quests? Exactly two: Might & Magic and Sorcerian, and it's hard to count the latter's as "side quests" because there was no main quest. Leveling is a process of grinding your way through dozens and dozens of respawning enemies, and yet it's still fairly quick, and the results are satisfying. Finally, the game has a reasonably complex inventory of swords, armor, shields, magic items, and special items.

The beginning of the main quest.

My gameplay so far has centered on Minea and its environs. As I said, I solved the ring quest right away, but most of the other side quests involve defeating a band of thieves who have holed up in the mountains. Meanwhile, Sara wants me to recover a Book of Ys from a shrine in the mountains, but my first few trips there show that I'm not quite strong enough to defeat the big bad.

The video below shows a little bit of the gameplay, including combat. As you'll hear, the sound effects are still a bit primitive. There's music in the game (as Taylor pointed out yesterday, much inferior in the DOS version), but oddly, you can only have music or sound effects, not both. As you'll see, I accidentally managed to record myself getting killed.

Before I sign off, I should note the correct pronunciation is "ees," and Ys is an ancient mythical city, said to have existed on the shores of Brittany. Without giving too much away, I have a lot of experience with the mythology of this region, and I was only vaguely aware of it (there are a lot of local legends like this), so it's amusing that a Japanese company made it the centerpiece for their game series. I suppose all it takes is one employee who once read a book. Or is it just a coincidence? (Obviously, the original name would have been in Japanese.)

The Ys series includes nine games going right up to 2006. Most were developed for consoles and Japanese PCs; only a handful were ported to DOS or PCs, so we won't be visiting the land of Ys again until Ys V: The Ark of Napishtim in 2003 and Ys Origin in 2006. I hope there's not a lot of plot in between.


  1. Ys II is a direct sequel, and a fan translation was released for the MSX2 port if you want to break your oath of playing only DOS/Windows versions, I can assist when you get there [June 24, 1988]. The MSX specification was developed by Microsoft [Japan], so it's not -that- much of an oath break!

    [The best Windows MSX emulator has built-in video and screenshot support as well]

  2. Wow, I think this game actually looks pretty nice, not as in fun to play, I haven't made my mind up on that yet, but the graphics and colours actually look appealing to me. Maybe we're getting to a point in the blog where I'll start watching videos all the way through.

    Keep it up and this speed CRPGaddict!

  3. Oh, I forgot to mention, the game that most influenced Ys was Hydlide and its sequel.

    [Hydlide is reviled in the US, mostly because it was rather antiquated when it was released on the NES here in 1987. It was originally released in 1984.]

  4. I remember playing the latest one (from 2006) throughout the first few quests, until the overall consoleness got too annoying.

    This one looks interesting, but since I'm not bound by your rules, I think I'll try a complete remake for Windows, seen here:

  5. I'm definately looking forward to see you play Sentinel Worlds, Wasteland and Dragon Wars. Keep going because this blog gets more and more interesting every day.

  6. PS, while browsing for YS stuff, I stumbled across this:

    This mentally handicapped person (or a very dedicated troll) is apparently the one responsible for translating YS remakes from Japanese to English. Once you get past his rants about YS fans, pirates and Obama, you can even download his patches for YS 1 and 2. Although, considering his hints that there might be viruses in there for 'freeloaders' who don't donate to his PayPal account, I'm starting to think sticking to 1987 official version might not be such a bad idea...

  7. I'm glad you're getting some enjoyment out of Ys. I think it has good gameplay flow, which is an underrated aspect of a good CRPG experience. Versions for other platforms are better than the DOS one, sadly.

  8. Uploaded a couple of videos of the Hydlide series, which had a clear influence on Falcom's Ys series.

    Hydlide [NEC PC-8801]
    Hydlide II: Shine of Darkness [NEC PC-8801]
    Hydlide III: The Space Memories [NEC PC-8801mkIISR]

    You can also see the influence Hydlide had on Zelda [the opening text with the colored character/object names, etc.]. All great games for their time, but we didn't get the first one over here until 1989 on NES.. five years after its original release. It was not well recieved here.

    Also, imagine the videos have twice the color brightness/saturation. Youtube's compression blends the black scanlines with the colored lines, making everything look darker. I'm going to disable scanlines and re-record them [Line-doubling, yech]

  9. Actually, Ys originated on home computers, just not DOS ones - the first three games launched on the PC-88. And the most recent Ys games, Ark of Napishtim (which is Ys VI, not V) and Oath in Felghana (a total remake of III), were originally made for Windows, although they've only been released in English for consoles/portable systems. It would appear that IV and V are the only entries in the franchise to be made first and only for consoles.

  10. I think you should really try to play a bit Zelda when you get the chance to or need a little time off your CRPG project. You could play Zelda 2 (Adventure of Link) which is still an action-adventure but with some noticable RPG mechanics. Or go for the very first or the third one (A Link to the Past); especially the latter one is still the best 2D entry in the series. Zelda is one of the few game series that I consider being an absolute must-play title beacuse of the vast influence the games had and still have on numerous other games, and even after 25 years the series is still strong. Zelda is videogame history.

  11. Looks like we've finally reached EGA! Yay for decent graphics.

  12. @samtam90

    There is an excellent interview with Rebecca Heineman, aka Burger, over at gamasutra:

    I learned a lot about the inner workings of Interplay back in the "Bard's Tale" days.

    Definitely made me want to play Dragon Wars and Bard's Tale 3 again. I never gave Dragon Wars or Bard's Tale 3 a decent run through because Bard's Tale 2 had annoyed me so much. Now I know why it annoyed me :)

  13. Thanks, skavenhorde. Another reader submitted that a few weeks ago, too. I'll reference it when I start writing about BT3. I'm glad to hear that BT3 might offer better gameplay than 2.

  14. Karnov, thanks for all your replies. I watched the videos, and the gameplay seems fundamentally the same. So rather than Zelda influencing Ys, Hydlide was the father of them both? My text is duly edited.

  15. @CRPGAddict BT3 offers much better gameplay. Burger did the whole thing herself and BT2 is hard. Masochistically hard. That thing made me so mad at the series that it killed it for me. I did buy BT3 when it came out, but barely played it at all. Too bad too it looks like that everything that was done wrong in BT2, Burger tried to correct or improve upon for BT3.

    You could read that at any time. There are no hints at all in it. It just describes the conflict between two people at Interplay and the history of The Bard Tales series which actually ended with Dragon Wars.

    Reading about Dragon Wars was too funny and sad at the same time.

  16. "So rather than Zelda influencing Ys, Hydlide was the father of them both?"

    I know this is an old post and stuff, but I don't really think Zelda was strongly influenced by Hydlide nor that Ys was really influenced by Zelda. Zelda is quite different than both and doesn't have many clear predecessors. I mean, the combat, the progression systems, and the "NPC" interaction (if you can call it that) are just very different from Ys.

  17. To clarify, I would say that, especially by your definition, Zelda is clearly not a CRPG while Ys clearly is. I know that's not very clear by itself, but it should be an indicator of the gap between the two.

    Zelda: Character progression is based on finding upgrades and a limited economy. NPCs talk to you, but there isn't any sort of town system or anything. You basically have 2 shops that matter and a few important hints, and that's it. Although progression elements certainly matter, Zelda combat is very visceral and action-based, at least in comparison with other games from the era. Personal skill trumps stats almost entirely. Zelda from this time has more in common with Metroid than with RPGs.

    Newer Zeldas, however, have introduced RPG elements to a greater or lesser extent. Zelda II is about as much of an RPG as Sorcerian and its ilk. The later Zeldas return to the less-RPG-ish progression system of the original, but they keep towns/significant NPC interaction/more variety of items/weapons. Whether or not the series as a whole is an RPG series or not is probably open to debate, but the original really doesn't have much of an RPG sensibility at all.

    Ys: From what I can gather, there is standard RPG-like progression, with stats, XP, experience levels, etc. There are also towns, quests, side-quests, and typical RPG interaction. Although combat is technically real-time, it unfolds almost like a completely auto-played RPG battle. Although skills matter, stats matter more.

  18. There's a modern remake of Ys 1&2 available on steam among other, newer parts in the series.

    Of course being modern remakes means they're also definitely more anime-ish than this older ones so while being a perfect addition to my collection, everyone else who feels like the addict towards japanese animation will probably want to stay away.

    1. Glad to see you back around and enjoying the blog Fireball despite your aesthetic disputed with our dear addict.

    2. I actually feel sorry for this post, I'm not a native english speaker so things I write might come out harsher than what I intended to say. I'm really a big fan of this blog. The one thing I hate is people bashing others for reasons of taste alone but under no circumstances I meant that the addict was doing that. I was afraid after reading the comments to Socerian that other JRPG reviews of his might have attracted flamewars in the comments section but by browsing through other reviews later I noticed with relieve that it didn't happen. I would say this is because of the really good quality of the blog postings which for Zeliard and Ys weren't angled towards anything although Chet said he doesn't like the japanese art style, I know I was wrong worrying about that.

      Another thing I only noticed after the post, flaming always of course comes from both sites, fans and haters alike...and I've seen much worse than in the sorcerian comments. BUT I'd never drop this blog just because the author or his commenters don't 100% share my taste, such a reaction is quite immature IMHO.

  19. I would conjecture it wasn't a cooincidence that Ys and the Brittany myth of Ys are connected. My only frame of reference is the giant of Japanese storytelling who influenced so much of video games - Hayao Miyazaki - who often was inspired from European literature, myth both modern and old. Laputa being named after Swift's island in Gulliver's Travels for example.


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