Adol Christin, the man, the myth, the legend. Sure, he may look like a clown nose-red hair colored doofus, but he’s really the baddest man to set foot onto Esteria. The two games in one package of “Ys Book I & II” for the Turbografx CD, sets out to prove that fact. A North American remake of the PC-Engine titles released in 1989, “Ys Book I & II” combines “Ys: Ancient Ys Vanished” and “Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter” into one CD-ROM released in 1990 for the Turbografx CD.
Immediately after inserting this game into your TG-CD or Turbo Duo player, you are faced with the significant differences that CD games can offer vs. what a cartridge, or in the case of the Turbografx, a Hu-card can. Glorious Red Book audio greets your ears, and you might as well get used to this aural treat since “Ys Book I & II” has one of the best soundtracks of the 16-bit era. If you choose to sit through it, there’s a nice looking animated opening cut-scene with, get this, cringe-less narration and voice acting! The game really sets the tone early with these enhancements, showing off exactly why CD-ROMs were the future of video games in 1990.
Once the game gets started, “Ys” graphics become slightly less impressive but only in comparison to what the opening cut-scenes offered, not when compared to other NES, early Genesis or Turbografx-16 Hu-card titles. The game often looks and feels like “Crystalis” for the NES, which is a compliment as I consider “Crystalis” one of the best games available for that system. In it’s most basic form, “Ys Book I & II” is an action RPG title in that Adol must accomplish objectives that move the story forward while also battling monsters in order to gain experience and gold. Experience will increase Adol’s health bar as well as make his attacks more effective, while gold is used to purchase upgrades to weapons, shields and armor. Additionally, Adol can use gold to purchase certain items that sometimes come in handy, although many of them are not necessary.
What “Ys Book I & II” is not, is a turn-based RPG, made popular in North America by the “Final Fantasy” series. “Ys” is notable for its unique battle style, in which Adol simply runs into his enemies. Yes, that’s correct, all you need to do in order to engage in battle with your enemy is to simply run into them. Running into an enemy will either damage your character, damage your enemy, or do a little bit of both. The number of times you need to run into your enemy in order to defeat it will vary depending on yours and its respective strengths. Once you engage in battle with an enemy, its health bar will show up underneath Adol’s so you can get a sense for how strong it is based on how much or how little health is taken away with a single hit. On the flip side, if you notice that a single hit from an enemy takes away one half or more of your health bar, you are probably fighting an enemy that is bit too strong for you at the moment. It may sound like simply running into an enemy requires zero skill on the part of the player, but you quickly learn there are techniques such as coming at enemies from behind, or hitting them from the side or the “stick and move” approach. All of these techniques prove to be significantly more effective than just running into enemies head-on. Later in the game, you will earn a magic spell that allows you to shoot fire, eliminating the need for hand-to-hand combat, but this magic won’t work on every enemy.
The plot of “Ys” is your standard RPG fare involving a mystical island of Esteria and a quest to recover the six books of the ancient civilization of Ys, which seems to be the key to saving Esteria from an evil force that has overcome the island. Along the way, Adol meets a number of characters in various towns, caves, shrines, etc. that oftentimes provide Adol with the next objective. Most characters Adol meets are there to help, however some come with nefarious intentions. Usually, the few towns Adol visits end up being chances for him to learn new information, buy upgraded weapons, get sent on missions and refill health. Once the magic of return is earned, Adol can transport himself to one of these towns at any given time, as long as he has enough M.P. (magic points) at his disposal.
Besides the battle system, another unique aspect to “Ys Book I & II” that I had never experienced before was how Adol can refill his H.P. (hit points). Anytime Adol stands still in certain overworld portions of the game, his health automatically refills, which is a very convenient game feature for extended plays. Later portions of the game take place in the Shrine of Solomon, not considered part of the overworld, so you’ll find yourself using the magic of transport to send Adol back to a town just so he can stand there for half a minute and refill his health bar. “Ys Book I & II” is also very forgiving in allowing you to save your game at any time, anywhere (except in the middle of a boss battle or during a cut-scene). It is highly recommended to save your game often as you never know when you’re going to run into a new enemy or enter a section of the game that instantly wipes out your health.
“Ys Book I & II” does a good job of making the missions and enemies just hard enough to be challenging but not so hard that you find yourself extremely under powered. By the time you reach the first part of the game’s final boss, Dark Fact, you feel adequately prepared to take him on. Like every RPG, grinding for experience and gold is a necessary evil, but there were only a couple of times where I felt like I HAD to grind. First was very early in the game when you simply don’t have enough money to buy the necessary weapon and items to allow you to advance in the game and the second was at the very end of the game, before taking on the final boss, Darm. The battle against Darm is a tough one and if you haven’t reached a certain level of experience, you will not do enough damage to him before sustaining inevitable damage yourself.
“Ys Book I & II” does a lot of things right. The story is compelling, the music is a significant highlight, the bosses are unique and varied in the battle techniques that are needed to defeat them. The missions you are sent on to retrieve items are (usually) clear and distinct, the animated cut scenes and dialogue may not be Oscar worthy but they are far from being a laughingstock that video game dialogue from the era often is. The game is fun, plain and simple. I enjoyed working through “Ys” all the way to completion and found myself eager to find out what my next mission was or what the next objective to get me closer to the game’s conclusion would be.
The criticisms that I have for “Ys” are relatively minor but they do prevent it from being a bonafide classic in my opinion. While I personally had no issues with the whole “running into enemies as the means to battle” gameplay choice that developer Nihon Falcom utilized, I can see how this would be a deterrent for many fans of turn based RPGs as well as action-RPGs like “Crystalis” and “Legend of Zelda”. My single biggest complaint with “Ys” is the often confusing layout of some of the caves and shrines within the game. With no map system to guide you and inform you where you’ve gone and not yet traveled, these areas can become hugely frustrating mazes that look much too similar to realistically offer gamers the ability to memorize without hours of trial and error and useless wandering. Plenty of games from that time period, most notably the original “Metroid” on the NES, were devoid of map systems and I’ll put “Metroid” on my list of favorite Nintendo games whenever I’m asked. Obviously I don’t hold the lack of a map against that classic title, but I feel like the technology that was available to allow “Ys” to include both an over and underworld maps should have been used to make this game less frustrating and as a result, better.
One early offender is the mine system that Adol must traverse in order to find one the six books of Ys. All of the mine rooms look the same and most of them have multiple doors leading to different parts of the mine. I made an early vow to try to finish “Ys” with either zero or as little online assistance as possible in an attempt to play the game as if it was 1990. After a number of attempts through the mine, getting lost, hitting dead end after dead end, backtracking endlessly, I grabbed a piece of paper and pencil and drew a map. It worked beautifully and I was proud I didn’t take the easy way out by using an internet map or walkthrough. Eventually, I was presented with additional shrines and towers and caves that were all equally confusing and meandering and the thought of drawing maps for all of these became overwhelming. I gave them all a shot by winging it and when I inevitably became lost or realized I wasn’t finding the one thing that I HAD to find, I caved and went online. I only needed to use the internet a few times over the course of the entire game but the fact that I gave it a legitimate shot and still failed tells me that “Ys Book I & II” was the cause of plenty of frustration when it was being played as a new title in the 1990s. When you can no longer figure out what you’re supposed to do or where you’re supposed to go (the end shrine is a particularly egregious example) and you’re so close to finishing the game, how can you blame someone from getting a little assistance?
I feel that many of the game’s characters are unmemorable and once you’ve interacted with them enough to get you from point A to point B, you forget who they are. At the end of the game, a number of characters come back to greet/congratulate Adol but I was unable to point out where I met and interacted with most of them due to the bland nature of their personalities. One character that always makes me crack up is the Demon Keith. That’s primarily due to the fact that the characters within the game all have mystical and creative names to imply we are not on modern day Earth. Names such as Adol, Slaff, Jeba & Feena. Then there’s Keith. A human turned into a demon that you interact with a few times throughout the game. Whenever I hear him say a line like “Hi Adol, it’s me, Keith”, i can’t help but smile.
While the Fire Spell is a great early addition to Adol’s arsenal, allowing him to attack enemies from afar, the most important spell for later in the game is Transform. Using Transform, Adol turns himself into a goon/monster which allows him to wander around Solomon Shrine without getting attacked. He can use this magic spell to learn secrets that the goons will only tell one of their own but if you want to have fun and turn yourself into a goon while in the towns, feel free. Just know that humans don’t take kindly to goons approaching them without warning.
Ys excels when it comes to offering up interesting and unique shrine bosses that must be defeated in order to advance through the game and one of the more difficult but memorable is Greenface. It’s just a giant, green disembodied head that will pop up out of the ground and begin its pursuit of you. It will periodically spit a giant worm like creature out of its mouth. Only during the spitting and re-inhaling of the worm can Greenface be damaged so you must attack him while trying to avoid the worm. Just another bizarre enemy in a long list of bizarre enemies that Ys Books I & II offers.
From a gameplay standpoint, “Ys Book I & II” is a product of its time, but the music, animated cut scenes and audio clips are not. “Ys” was ahead of its time in those respects and when put into context of what was available to gamers in 1990, it is a superlative title. I do feel that it still holds up but some of the more mundane aspects, as I’ve already mentioned, as well as some less than memorable characters prevent it from being that classic title that transcends all eras. Don’t get me wrong, “Ys Book I & II” is an excellent title and makes for a welcome addition to any Turbografx CD library, but I can’t put it on the same pedestal as “A Link to the Past”, “Final Fantasy III/VI” or even “Crystalis”.