Retrospective: Ys – Part I

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Growing up, RPGs were never really my thing. Sure, there were the occasional games I liked – the Lunar games on PS1 and Evolution on Dreamcast come to mind – but for the most part, the genre eluded me. That is, aside from one subgenre: the action RPG. Now being a child and, by extension, having a fairly low budget for video games meant that I had to choose my purchases wisely and quite frankly, I tended to prefer platformers, puzzle games like Tetris and especially fighting games. Fortunately, I did manage to cement my love for the genre via various demo discs, with my introduction to the franchise at the hands of such games as Brave Fencer Musashi and Threads of Fate – games, ironically enough, made by the main purveyor of RPGs I found bland: the company then known as Squaresoft.

Since then, I’ve been able to better explore the action-RPG genre and have found many of the titles of old to be enjoyable. One series stands above the rest in my eyes: Ys. Developed by the good people at Nihon Falcom – a Japanese development team that cut their teeth developing for various PC platforms – Ys stands out as one of the longest-running action-RPG series of all-time, effectively the subgenre’s equivalent to Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Unfortunately, aside from a few early releases, the series never managed to gain a major foothold in the West until the days of the PSP, which saw the release of a whopping 4 titles in North America – most coming from the good folks at XSEED. Before that, it was mostly relegated to the perpetually third place TurboGrafx-16 system when it came to American releases, though the third game also saw releases on the Genesis and Super Nintendo outside of Japan. I can’t quite recall if this is wishful thinking or a repressed memory, but I somehow recall seeing the box art for the Genesis version of Wanderers from Ys up for rental at a mom-and-pop video store back during my childhood. I almost wish I could’ve gotten into the series sooner, but considering the lack of options I would have had for obtaining the games back then, it’s probably for the best that I waited.

Since I started playing the series, I’ve become something of a journeyman with regards to it. I’m by no means an expert on the series, but among my group of friends, I’m generally considered the best direct source of information. As of yet, I haven’t played the “full 3D” games in the series – specifically Ys Seven and Memories of Celceta – but aside from that, I’ve played at least some version of every other game in the series. Granted, in many cases, it wasn’t “the original” – I would generally aim for the “definitive versions”. So, considering that today is the 30th anniversary of the original release of Ys: Ancient Ys Vanished and with the North American release of Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana coming later this year, it seems only fitting to discuss the series or at least as much of the series I’ve played thus far.

Compared to the previous two Retrospective articles I’ve written for Retronaissance, this Ys article will be handled slightly differently. In the earlier entries, I sorted the games by release date. This time, however, I will be sorting them in the order I played them. While this will lead to an effectively identical ordering throughout the majority of the article, I feel that this format will better serve to illustrate my thoughts on the franchise as a whole, with each consecutive game adding to my insight regarding the series as a whole.

Ys I & II Chronicles+

Ironically, the first Ys game I ever played was not the first one I purchased – it was a remake of the first one I ever owned. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: Steam sales are a hell of a drug. Admittedly, I bought the Ys games that were available on Steam at that point due to my interest in the series and because I felt like if I was going to play the games on any platform, it would be PC. What I’d heard of the soundtracks intrigued me, action-RPGs were always a passing interest of mine and the unique combat mechanics of the early games in the series piqued my interest enough to start me on the series, a whopping 2 years after I’d purchased the game on Steam. Looking back, I regret nothing.

Chronicles+ has a unique history behind it. In 1998, Falcom developed an enhanced remake of the original Ys for Windows computers, dubbed Ys Eternal. It was followed by a remake of the second game – fittingly dubbed Ys II Eternal – in 2000, which made even more improvements to its source material than the first release. The following year, Ys Eternal was further improved and bundled with the second as “Ys I & II Complete”. This release was ported to a few consoles by various developers: the PS2 saw Ys I & II Eternal Story from DigiCube; Interchannel ported both games separately to the Nintendo DS – and both of these ports would later be released in North America on a single cart by Atlus USA as Legacy of Ys: Books I & II and finally Falcom themselves would further enhance their original PC version on the PSP as Ys I & II Chronicles. Falcom would eventually port Chronicles back to the PC themselves, but this isn’t the version available in the West. Instead, XSEED – the company responsible for the most recent batch of Falcom releases in North America – went back to the original release of Complete and managed to rebuild Chronicles in its entirety with a host of further enhancements: hence “Chronicles+”. It’s kind of impressive when you consider this was done for a remake that, at best, was already over a decade old. Since then, Chronicles would be re-released on iOS and Android by DotEmu as two separate games.

Unlike later games in the franchise, Ys I & II are linked to the extent where it’s difficult to truly understand the story of the latter without the former. Ys introduces us to a young swordsman by the name of Adol Christin – dubbed “Adol the Red” due to his crimson hair – as he ventures to the small island nation of Esteria. Hearing rumors of the fabled lost Kingdom of Ys – which once existed alongside Esteria according to legend – Adol recklessly ventures there by boat, only to end up shipwrecked in the port town of Barbado. He eventually makes his way to the Town of Minea, where he finds the fortune teller Sara who shares what she knows of Ys: legend states that six books were left behind when Ys disappeared and the location of Ys will be revealed to the one who obtains every tome. Upon searching for the first book, Adol meets a mysterious young woman by the name of Feena, who was being held captive by the demons that have invaded the once-peaceful land of Esteria. After collecting the first three books of Ys, Adol soon learns that the remaining three are locked away in Darm Tower – a colossal fortress said to be built by demons that reaches far into the sky. What evils will Adol confront at the tower’s summit?

Ys II continues directly after the events of the first game. After collecting the six books of Ys, Adol is forcibly teleported to the mystical land of Ys – the continent now resides in the sky, floating effortlessly above the world below. Drained from both the arduous trials he faced in Darm Tower and the journey to Ys, Adol falls unconscious. He’s then rescued by Lilia, a young girl from nearby Lance Village, who helps to nurse him back to health. After recovering from his wounds and exhaustion, Adol continues his journey – after returning the six books of Ys to their resting place and conferring with the spirits of the priests that once ruled Ys in its infancy, he explores more of the mystical continent, including the labyrinthine Solomon Palace. Eventually, Adol discovers the true plan of the demons: they seek to revive their master Darm, an unimaginably powerful demon who caused such calamities that the people of Ys had no choice but to raise their great nation to the skies to escape his malice. Darm seeks to steal the powers of the twin goddesses of Ys to achieve world conquest and the destruction of humanity.

The gameplay in the original Ys is simple but unique. At first, it appears to be a standard top-down action RPG, not exactly uncommon for its time. There is, however, one simple difference: there’s no attack button. To attack enemies, Adol must ram into them – but there’s a caveat, he must attack from off-center. Attacking dead-on allows the demons to trade hits, which will generally work in their favor. This makes boss fights particularly grueling – as it can be difficult to determine what doesn’t count as a direct attack with some of them. Fortunately, Adol is also capable of recovering his health by standing still – but only outside of dungeons. The game also allows players to save their game at any time, though one must be careful when saving: the game can be saved directly over an enemy spawn point, which will render the save absolutely worthless and force players to restart from an earlier save – or worse, from the beginning of the game. Trust me, this has happened to me not once, but twice.

Of course, the game also has various elements that are common to the RPG genre. Adol still gains experience by defeating enemies and can level up to increase his strength. Adol can also equip swords, armors and shields to further augment his power – new swords increase his attack, while armors and shields increase defense. The ability to improve Adol’s arsenal remains a consistent throughout the series. Adol can also find an assortment of rings, which he can wear to grant various abilities. The Power Ring doubles his attack, Shield Ring halves the damage he takes, the Heal Ring allows him to heal within dungeons, the Timer Ring halves the speed of most enemies and the Evil Ring …slowly taints and destroys whoever wields it. So maybe just ignore that last one. Switching between these rings and determining which is best for your current situation is perhaps the closest thing to actual strategy the game requires. There’s also a standard inventory, which keeps track of all of the minor items Adol collects on his journey – only one of them can be equipped for active use at a time. A few key items from the original Ys include the Mask of Eyes, which allows Adol to see secrets at the cost of being able to see enemies (also color); the Blue Necklace, which protects Adol from demonic traps and the Monocle, which allows you to decipher the ancient text of the six books of Ys.

The second Ys builds on these mechanics, adding entirely new wrinkles to change things up. Perhaps the most prominent of these would be the Magic system. Throughout the game world, there are six different magical staffs found during Adol’s journey – each associated with one of the six priests of Ys. The Fire Magic allows Adol to shoot fireballs – which completely changes the dynamic of combat and becomes essential to completing most of the boss fights in this game; Return Magic allows Adol to warp to any towns or villages he’s previously visiting; Light Magic illuminates dark areas and reveals secret exits; Shield Magic protects Adol from any and all attacks and Time Magic freezes enemies in place temporarily – far outstripping the Timer Ring from Ys I. The most interesting of the magics is the Alter Magic, which transforms Adol into a Roo: a creature as demonic as it is adorable. This leaves you defenseless, but also prevents standard enemies from attacking you and even allows you to understand the language of the demons, which even becomes relevant to the plot at various points in the game. However, this new mechanic comes with the addition of magic power (MP), which helps to balance things out. For example, though Shield Magic renders Adol invincible, it also consistently drains MP at a steady rate, and taking damage reduces it significantly.

The Rings from the previous game are replaced with a new set of “accessories”, which by and large serve the same purpose. The Spirit Cape – like the Heal Ring from Ys I – allows Adol to heal in dungeons. The Hawk Idol adds homing capabilities to Adol’s Fire Magic, which can be further augmented by the Falcon Idol. The Cleria Ring allows for random attacks to be parried, avoiding damage. The Ring of Ease – ha! – halves the consumption of MP. Finally, there’s the Goddess Ring, which increases Adol’s strength and defense. Likewise, the Inventory system from the previous game returns, effectively serving the same purpose. Some items return from the first game, but there are also some brand-new ones: for example, the Roda Leaf filters out poisonous gas; the Stone Shoes give Adol traction when navigating slippery areas; and the Elixir can revive Adol after he runs out of health – but there’s only one available in the entire game.

Having said all that, Chronicles+ is not a perfect representation of how the original Ys I & II played – and I mean that in the best way possible. Various improvements were made to the game engine: including the ability to move diagonally, the addition of a bestiary and character log allowing the collection of information on both the game’s enemies and various NPCs respectively and even expanding on the story with some additional content. Chronicles+ even gives players the ability to choose between two separate user interfaces: the more compact one seen in the PSP version and a more ornate border, based on the one present in the earliest releases in the Ys series. I personally went with the latter, but offering players the option between the two seemed like a nice touch overall.

For the most part, Chronicles recycles the art assets from the Eternal and Complete releases, including character sprites, backgrounds and even the animated cutscenes. Fortunately, none of them really show their age: one of the advantages of pixel art from that era. In addition, entirely new CG art was drawn for the various major characters in the game specifically for the PSP release. Chronicles does offer players the choice between both versions, which further cements its status as the definitive version of the Eternal line of remakes. Both art styles differ only slightly: Complete better resembles a JRPG from that era, while Chronicles has a style more befitting a manga. The stylistic differences are visible, but difficult to properly articulate – both are clearly Japanese, but illustrate this cultural origin in different ways. I personally preferred the new artwork for Chronicles, simply because the characters’ posture looked a little more realistic and less staged. Still, having both options was great.

Perhaps one of the most acclaimed aspects of the Ys franchise would be its music. Best described as “symphonic metal”, much of Adol’s adventures have been accompanied by a soundtrack that perfectly characterized their tone – equal parts epic and relentless. The first game in the series started this tradition, ranging from the courageous overworld theme “First Step Towards Wars” to the downright imposing “Tower of the Shadow of Death”, effectively the theme of Darm Tower. Ys II would further expand on this, with songs like the anxious “Companile of Lane”, the melancholic “Apathetic Story” – which I’m sure was meant to be “A Pathetic Story”, but whatever – and the imposing theme of the battle with Darm himself: “Termination”. The soundtracks of both Ys I & II were expanded upon in Complete, adding a variety of unused tracks intended for the first game to improve the already exceptional soundtrack. These include “Tension” and “Dreaming” – both used to break up the monotony of Darm Tower – as well as “Over Drive” which was given to Dalles – Darm’s second in command – as a unique theme for his boss fight. Technically, only one piece of music was exclusively arranged for Complete: “Colony of Lava”, which itself is simply a serene take on “Moat of Burnedbless”, better suited to its village setting. As with the artwork, players are given the option of three soundtracks: the original version used in the PC-88 release – composed by Mieko Ishikawa and the legendary Yuzo Koshiro – as well as the arranged soundtrack made for the Eternal games (and by extension, Complete) which was handled by Falcom’s Sound Team J.D.K. and finally, a brand-new arrangement from Yukihiro Jindo that uses actual instruments in addition to synths. Again, I personally used the soundtrack unique to Chronicles, but having the option to use all three is a major plus.

Chronicles itself appears to be something of an anomaly at this point: a pure throwback to the early games of the Ys franchise. As such, it’s generally not recommended as a first game for most people just getting into the series, as the game just doesn’t offer an accurate representation of what the series has evolved into since then. Personally, I found the bump system engaging as an introduction to the series, simply because it differs so much from the norm of the action RPG subgenre. It was a unique method of attack that clearly influenced the trajectory I took when further exploring the series itself: focusing on the older games in the series, before working my way to more modern iterations.

Ys: Book I & II

Having played through the first two games on Steam, I’d become a huge fan of the Ys series in general. With the long-awaited English release of the original PC version of the sixth game in the franchise finally arriving on digital storefronts, I decided that I would dedicate a significant chunk of my free time in 2015 to playing through some of the older games in the franchise to prepare myself: to experience the storyline of the Ys games for myself and to scope out the series’ evolution through the ages. This would also finally give me the chance to right a self-inflicted wrong and finally play through Ys: Books I & II on the original Wii’s Virtual Console. This was the first Ys game I ever received, given to me as a gift some Christmas past – I’m still a bit angry that Nintendo removed gifting from future platforms, but that’s a delusional rant for another time – and since then, it had rotted away in my backlog, effectively forgotten. As I was going to be playing through the other games in the series released during the fourth generation of consoles and because I was otherwise starting from scratch, it only felt right to start my streaming marathon with the duology where it all began …again.

Ys: Ancient Ys Vanished was originally released in 1987 for various Japanese computer platforms – particularly NEC’s PC-8801 and PC-9801, but also Fujitsu’s FM-7, Sharp’s X1 and the MSX2. The following year, Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter would be released on the same platforms. These would eventually be followed by a variety of ports for other platforms. Both games would be ported to the Famicom in 1988 and 1989 and Sega’s Master System would receive a port of the first game in 1988 as well: this would be the first game in the series released in North America. 1989 would see English PC ports for Ys I on both Apple IIGS and DOS computers, handled by Kyodai. The very same year, the two games would be ported to the PC Engine CD by Alfa Systems and published by Hudson Soft. In 1990, it would be released in North America as “Ys: Book I &II”. Future releases of the two games would include a port of the original to Sharp’s X68000 in 1991 – this version had some bizarre mish-mash of graphical styles, including pre-rendered 3D bosses and poorly-digitized photographs for CG art – as well as the Falcom Classics collections on Saturn, which included enhanced remakes of Ys and Ys II on the first and second volumes respectively. These would later be followed by the Ys Eternal remakes on Windows, which I mentioned earlier.

The story is identical to the game’s remake, but I guess it’s worth mentioning the differences between the two versions. For example, while Adol ends up shipwrecked in Barbado in the remake, he uneventfully arrives in Minea Town’s port at the beginning of the original version. As such, the town of Barbado didn’t exist in the original game, leaving Minea and “Zeptic” Village as the only two towns in the entire game. One major difference that only exists in the TurboGrafx-CD version would be the fate of the fortune teller Sara: she survives in this version, while she dies in every other version. I assumed that this was a case of censorship for the Western release – specifically because she just essentially disappears for the remainder of your adventure regardless – but it turns out she survived in the original Japanese release on the PC Engine as well. Aside from that, Chronicles simply expands on the original’s story, which could be taken as a testament to how well they handled the story in the first place.

As a bit of an aside, I’d like to discuss the final boss of Ys I’s campaign: Dark Fact. The first time I played through the Ys games, I found him intriguing, simply because he was an enigma – you had no real interaction with him until the end of the game, but you heard vague references to him throughout the story: the mysterious cloaked man stealing anything made from “silver”. Adol was a hero fighting simply for unknown reasons and Dark Fact served as a perfect foil, performing evil deeds to further equally mysterious ends. The fight with him was perhaps the hardest thing I had to deal with in the entirety of Chronicles – maybe even the entire series – and then I ended up beating him on my first try in the TG-CD version. I was staggered by that. Looking back, Dark Fact was unique in the Ys series – simply because he was the only case where the main villain you face ends up being the game’s final boss. His backstory, detailed in future releases, would also prove interesting: born Siegue Fact, a descendant of one of the Six Priests, he sought power to avenge the death of his parents, who were killed by a mob for preventing the mining of what the people of Esteria knew only as silver – in reality, Cleria, a holy metal sealing off the evil that would eventually spawn the demons he would end up commanding. Kind of ironic in the grand scheme of things.

As with the story, the gameplay in Ys Book I & II is, for the most part, identical to the later release. Motion is limited to the cardinal directions in this version – no diagonal movement – which in turn helps to better define the strategy associated with the “bump” system. Being able to move diagonally outright breaks this method of attack, which is likely why they dropped it in future games. However, the TurboGrafx version of the first two games were generally considered an improvement over the previous PC versions of the game, strictly because there was a lot more leniency given to aiming the bump attack – these early versions would require exact aiming to deal damage without being harmed in response. This change is perhaps a big part of the reason why this version was considered the definite version of the first two games before the Eternal re-releases, though being readily available in English was likely the biggest factor.

Of course, as with most early translations of Ys games, there were a few misnomers in the TurboGrafx version, though thankfully not nearly as many as in the earlier Master System and Kyodai releases – the former referred to Adol as “Aron” and Dark Fact as “Dulk Dekt” for some inexplicable reason and apparently the latter had so many translation issues, it’d be worth discussing in detail at a later point. Reah is renamed “Lair” – clearly just a poor translation – but Dogi has been rechristened “Colin” for reasons I don’t entirely understand. Thankfully, his name was reverted in Ys III, but in retrospect, that makes the earlier change even more baffling. A few items have also been renamed, but these are relatively minor by comparison. The most significant example would be the Rod that allows you to travel through the mirror maze near the end of Darm Tower is reclassified as a “brooch”. Aside from these minor quibbles, the translation appears to be relatively accurate, which is a pretty remarkable feat given both the game’s relative obscurity and the period it was translated during. Perhaps both the minor reputation of Ys and the TurboGrafx itself worked to the localization process’s advantage.

I think what I found the most interesting about this version of Ys I & II is the fact that it outright links the two – both adventures have been combined into a single narrative. This led to some balancing changes between the two games: in most versions of Ys I, Adol’s ability to level up is generally capped at 10, but this version allows for a much higher limit, allowing a much more gradual boost in power compared to most versions of the first game. As Adol maintains his experience when shifting over to the Ys II portion of the game, the beginning of that game also had to be rebalanced to allow a smooth transition. This direct continuity is unique to the TurboGrafx release – even the current Chronicles releases packaged both Ys I & II as separate titles. As such, I found the concept unique and thoroughly satisfying – it had always struck me as odd how you could technically play the games in any order in most other bundled re-releases.

The graphics in-game aren’t particularly spectacular, though they do far outstrip all of its predecessors. The TurboGrafx-16 itself wasn’t exactly a powerhouse, especially when directly compared to its contemporaries during the 16-bit era. This coupled with the fact that the game was released roughly one year after the PC Engine’s CD add-on – the first video game home console to use the CD-ROM format – makes the graphics a little more impressive by comparison. Of course, the game’s true graphical star would have to be the animated cutscenes. Boasting 20 minutes of fully animated cutscenes – an impressive amount given the game was originally released in 1989 – Ys Book I & II typifies what I’d expect all CD-based games of the time should look like: that distinct anime style common in the 1980s and 1990s, the limited yet fluid animation, even the limited color palette representative of video game consoles and home computers at the time. The game even managed to sneak in animated character portraits for important moments within the game itself.

The TG-CD version of Ys I & II retains the amazing soundtrack the games were known for – for the most part. In addition to lacking the tracks that were clearly added in the Eternal releases, Book I & II is missing a few tracks: the original game over theme from Ys I – which is, honestly, forgettable – as well as the standard boss fight theme from Ys II. These tracks were just replaced with the counterparts from their respective pack-in. On the plus side, another unused track from Ys I – “Theme of Adol” – was rearranged for one of the game’s opening cutscenes. The soundtrack is split between the TurboGrafx’s internal sound chip and Redbook Audio courtesy of the game’s CD format. To many, the TurboGrafx-CD arrangements are considered the best versions of each game’s soundtracks – though I’m not clear on if they mean the direct TG-CD soundtrack or the extremely similar “Perfect Collection” albums. However, as both were arranged by Ryo Yonemitsu, it may not matter in the long run.

The sound effects are pretty much what you’d expect from the hardware: nothing too spectacular. Fortunately, the game’s CD format added something quite impressive to the mix: voice acting. While most of the game isn’t voice acted, there’s still a fair amount – with 24 minutes in total, many major characters receive their fair share of voice work. What’s more impressive is the big names they got for a variety of roles: Debi Derryberry plays Feena, Dan Gilvezan plays the rogue demon Keith, Dark Fact is played by Michael Bell, Alan Oppenheimer plays both the narrator and Darm and, most surprisingly, his lead servant Dalles is played by none other than Jim Cummings! Unfortunately, the quality of the audio is fairly poor – which was to be expected, considering the TG-16’s weak audio processor – but the fact that the game was dubbed in the first place (and with such big names) is still impressive to me.

One might expect that I’d consider replaying an earlier version of the game that got me started on the franchise a waste of time, but honestly, it served a few purposes for me. For starters, it was technically still on my backlog, so it felt good to put that behind me. Secondly, it did provide a decent start to the stream marathon – considering I was playing the remainder of the games that saw at least some form of a release during the 16-bit era, it only seemed right to show off its respective form of the first two games. Most importantly, it gave me an even deeper insight into the games that started it all. While it’s unlikely that I’ll ever go back and play these two games in any other form – barring some ill-conceived future remake – Ys: Book I & II gave me an insight into what caused the cult following of the series in North America to get its start in the first place. Likewise, I’d have to acknowledge that even if I would probably say I preferred Chronicles+ overall, the earlier release on the all but forgotten TurboGrafx-CD did some things better than the later release would: in addition to the downright ‘90s presentation of the game, the seamless connection and subsequent rebalancing of the first Ys games made it feel like one truly grand adventure, rather than the two parts they’re separated into in practically every other iteration. It’s just a shame that, as of right now, the only ways to find this version would be to trawl for used copies in the usual fashion or hope that the original Wii’s Virtual Console stays on long enough to grab a copy digitally – which seems to grow more difficult by the day.

Ys III: Wanderers from Ys

Once considered the black sheep of the entire Ys franchise – Wanderers from Ys isn’t, at least in my opinion, really that bad of a game. It’s just a very stupid one. I’m aware of just how insulting that last statement is, but honestly: I mean it in the best way possible. Ditching the top-down overhead perspective of the previous Ys games, Wanderers resembles Zelda II – another controversial sequel in a beloved series – more than anything that came before it. A side-scrolling action RPG; what Ys III lost in overall complexity, it more than gained in pure “stupid fun”. Adol no longer rams askew into his foes, rather now he can just rapidly hack-and-slash, while also gaining the ability to jump – and by extension, a killer downward stab. Keep those additions in mind for later.

This was the second game I tackled in my retro Ys marathon back in 2015 and I was determined to play it early, simply due to both the poor public opinion surrounding the game and the existence of a “far superior remake” (more on that later). I chose to play the TG-CD version, handled again by Alfa Systems and Hudson Soft, which was generally considered the easiest of the three Western released versions. I ended up choosing that version mainly due to the animated cutscenes and the (admittedly terrible) voice acting, but also because I wanted to play as many Ys games on the TurboGrafx as I possibly could.  The Genesis version –  published by Telenet Japan (the company behind the Valis series among others) and developed by their RiOT division – is generally considered the definitive version of the game, due to proper difficulty balancing and improvements over both the TG-CD and SNES versions in various technical areas. The SNES version, developed by Advance Communication and published by Tonkin House, is generally considered both the hardest version of the game and the worst home version available in North America, despite having the most accurate translation by far. As with the first two games, the game was originally developed for the NEC PC-8801 and PC-9801 – with further ports made to the MSX2, the Sharp X68000 and even Nintendo’s Famicom.

The game’s story is fairly simple: at the behest of a fortuneteller, Adol and Dogi travel to the nation of Felghana (Kenai) to visit the city of Redmont (Sarina), Dogi’s childhood home. Unfortunately, the local economy has suffered due to mysterious weather patterns, a poor harvest and the local quarry being infested with monsters. Despite all that, Dogi returns home to a warm reception, except for Elena (Ellena), a young girl Dogi knew when they grew up together who has grown distant and indifferent. To make matters worse, the wicked Lord McGuire (King McGuire) has been terrorizing the townsfolk and the wicked knight Chester, Elena’s brother and – at one time – Dogi’s childhood friend, is leading the charge to fulfill the count’s evil ambitions. At the behest of Redmont’s mayor, Adol investigates the mysterious happenings and stumbles upon a plot to revive an ancient demon known as Galbalan (Demonicus).

There are a few things one must understand before the above paragraph makes complete sense: Wanderers from Ys was the one of the few early games in the series to actually receive an official contemporary English release – on the TurboGrafx-CD, Sega Genesis and Super NES – as well as the last game to receive such a treatment until XSEED gained the license in the 2000s. As such, many names were changed in a few of the translations – TurboGrafx changed the most, Genesis kept many of those changes, while the SNES probably has the most accurate translation of the three. To make things more coherent in the future, I decided to use the original Japanese names, while putting the new names devised for the translations in parentheses.

Having said that, Wanderers from Ys’s story has a few odd quirks behind it. Most notably, Adol’s characterization – he actually has one this time. No longer the essentially silent protagonist, Adol actually gets a fair amount of dialogue in this game. It just comes across as awkward, as Adol is portrayed as more invested in the fates of the people of Redmont than anyone else. This is only compounded by the outright apathy displayed by Elena, who is the most prominent supporting character in the entire game. The worst example comes fairly late in the game: when it appears that her brother Chester has died, Adol seems to care more about his demise than Chester’s own little sister. Furthermore, the game itself has little to do with the games that precede and follow it – effectively acting as an odd little shaggy-dog story. To make matters even more confusing, Wanderers from Ys wasn’t originally intended to be deemed the third Ys game: its Roman numeral was added in later releases. This would make sense given the game’s placement in the timeline, which I’ll elaborate on later.

As I said earlier, the game can be best described as “pure, dumb fun”. It plays like a Zelda II with far looser controls –  while Zelda II had stiff controls, Ys III goes too far in the opposite direction –  but isn’t quite as far removed from its predecessors. The game starts out difficult, because the game itself generally only consists of the Town of Redmont and the dungeons: travel between these areas is handled via a map that acts like a stage select. The general rules of the first two Ys games apply: you can heal by standing still, but only outside of dungeons. Unfortunately, the lack of substantial overworld space (you’ve got about a screen or two’s worth before each dungeon) makes this ability useless and as you need to be within the dungeon to spawn the enemies you need to gain experience and power up.  As a result,  you’re pretty much forced to constantly enter and exit the dungeon to gain your first few levels without dying at the beginning of the game. Boss fights range from insane to just plain boring – quite a few bosses are stationary, which could have posed a suitable challenge in the earlier Ys games, but not so much in the context of a side-scroller.

Ys III chooses to eschew the magic system from Ys II in favor of the rings from the first game. Most are identical to the assortment from Ys I, each granting Adol a specific ability. The Power Ring, Shield Ring, Heal Ring and Timer Ring all return with their respective enhancements from their previous appearance. However, like the Magic system from the second game, Adol’s rings require magic power – or ring power, as it’s called this time around – to activate and different abilities exhaust his RP at different rates.  They are joined by the Protect Ring, which shields Adol from any damage at a high RP cost – much like Ys II’s Shield Magic. Adol can also carry limited-use items as in previous games, including an herb that heals him to full health, medicine to restore RP, a mirror that can freeze enemies temporarily and an amulet that can destroy nearby enemies. The inventory system from previous games also returns, simply keeping track of any and all passive items Adol needs in his quest.

This brings us to perhaps the greatest flaw in the entire game: it fails to take advantage of both the shift in gameplay and the most popular features from the first two games. Switching from a top-down perspective to a side-scrolling game could have allowed for some interesting new game mechanics, but aside from some extremely stiff platforming – to the extent where it makes the original Castlevania feel like Super Mario Bros. – things stay relatively linear throughout, ditching the treacherous labyrinthine level design from the first two games. It’s not like side-scrolling games weren’t capable of complex layouts: imagine if Ys III’s dungeons were designed as if they were miniature versions of the maps you’d find in Metroid. Likewise, Wanderers from Ys ditches the then-iconic bump system, exchanging it for a fairly simple slash attack, which makes up for its lack of range with its ability to be “rapid fired” by holding down the attack button. What if, instead, holding down the attack button simply allows Adol to hold out his blade and ram into enemies for extra damage, effectively combining the more versatile slash with the more traditional bump mechanics of Ys I & II?

The one aspect of the game that is rarely criticized would be its soundtrack. Even the most discriminating Ys fans generally consider the music in this game to be among the best in the entire series, if not the best. While I personally don’t rate it quite that high, I do recognize the quality of the game’s soundtrack. Falcom’s legendary Sound Team J.D.K. – at the time, still led by the incomparable Mieko Ishikawa – was firing on all cylinders and delivered a soundtrack so memorable, even those entirely put off by the game it accompanied could not help but admit its quality. My favorite tracks in the game would have to be “The Boy’s Got Wings” – played at the entrance of each dungeon; “Sealed Time” – the theme of the Clock Tower; “Behold!!” – the introductory theme for the game’s final boss; and most of all, “The Theme of Chester”. The only real shortcoming I’d have to attribute to the soundtrack would have to be the fact that many of my favorite tracks only have fleeting appearances in the game itself – “The Theme of Chester” didn’t even appear in the TurboGrafx-CD version.

Regardless of the game’s flaws, I still had a blast when playing the game. The voice acting was horrible to the point of having a kitschy charm, the gameplay provided some good mindless hack-and-slash fun, the game’s short length meant that it didn’t overstay its welcome and best of all, the soundtrack is amazing. In retrospect, I enjoyed Ys III despite its flaws. It was just pure dumb fun – almost like an intermission, providing something of a breather between the first two games and the later, more complex entries in the series. While I acknowledge its shortcomings, I can’t say that I’d consider Ys III the worst game in the franchise’s history. Unfortunately, for me, the worst is yet to come.

Ys IV

Finally, we reach the end of the “classic Ys” era. After the quick diversion that was Wanderers from Ys, Ys IV would return to the classic overhead gameplay of the first two games, “run and bump” and all. Of course, Ys IV’s development was complicated by several factors: the most major of which being that there isn’t a singular Ys IV, rather two entirely different games were released by two entirely different companies at the behest of Falcom themselves. As such, Ys IV was the first game in the series to only be available on consoles – Falcom themselves did not develop a version for any Japanese computer systems. At this point in time, Falcom’s finances were struggling and while they did wish to create a fourth game in the Ys series, they lacked the necessary funds for development. As such, they created a story outline and a soundtrack, which they provided to both licensors of Ys IV.

The first company to license the creation of a fourth Ys game was Hudson Soft. They handed off development to Alfa Systems, who handled the development of the previous Ys games on the PC Engine, the Japanese counterpart to the TurboGrafx-16. They titled their treatment of the game “Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys” and created a game that managed to surpass the quality of their previous Ys treatments – no small feat, given the fact that their ports were generally considered the definitive versions of the previous Ys games. Unfortunately, in doing so, Dawn managed to stray significantly from Falcom’s original outline for the game. In response, Falcom also licensed the game to Tonkin House – the company that published the Ys III port on SNES – who once again handed development to Advance Communication, the developer that handled every Ys port on Nintendo platforms. Christening their own version as “Ys IV: Mask of the Sun”, Tonkin House stayed truer to Falcom’s original vision, but still deviated in some ways. Though Tonkin House’s version of Ys IV entered development after Hudson Soft’s, the game managed to release first on Super Famicom – and believe me, the difference in development time is reflected in the disparity of quality between the games.

Perhaps the most interesting tidbit about Ys IV’s development was that there was a third version planned as well, but it never came to fruition. At this point in time, Sega and Falcom had partnered up to port various Falcom games to Sega consoles, including MegaDrive ports of Lord Monarch and the first two Legend of Heroes games. The most famous product of this collaboration was, of course, the Sega CD version of Popful Mail, which actually managed to see release in the West via Working Designs. Very little is known about the Sega-Falcom version of Ys IV, aside from the fact that it was also developed under the title “Mask of the Sun”. Many speculate that the game was being developed for the Mega-CD in Japan. Admittedly hearing about this makes me feel sad: given the fact that Sega’s version of Popful Mail is generally considered the definitive edition of the game, not to mention Working Designs’ partnership with Sega – not only could this have been the best version of Ys IV, it could’ve been the only version that would’ve seen release in the West.

Regardless, due to the differences between the two versions that saw release during the fourth generation, I will be covering both games separately, followed by a direct compare-and-contrast, detailing what I liked more about each respective iteration of Ys IV.

Mask of the Sun

When I was doing my series of retro Ys streams, there was only one major question I had to ask myself: which version of Ys IV should I play first? Admittedly, my arguments for starting with the PC Engine version were weak – both keeping the systems together and the fact that Dawn had entered development first – but there was one particular reason I chose to start with Mask of the Sun: most people said it was garbage compared to its counterpart. Not specifically that the game itself was terrible, but just so underwhelming compared to the other iteration that it might as well not even exist. This essentially meant that I felt I owed the Super Famicom version the first playthrough, simply to make sure that I could be as unbiased as possible when comparing the two games. The thing is, they were right. In fact, even when I could only reasonably compare this game to the TurboGrafx version of Ys I & II, something just felt inherently wrong with this game.

Despite being called Ys IV, this game actually takes place between Ys II and Wanderers from Ys. Two years after his adventures in Esteria and the legendary continent of Ys, Adol Christin is reminiscing about his old adventures while looking at the ocean. Suddenly, a bottle washes ashore, containing a message in a language Adol didn’t recognize. He took the letter to Luta Gemma, who determined that it was written in the Celcetan language and translated it: “Celceta is in dire need… please, if a great hero lives among you, send him to aid us…”. Adol’s natural sense of heroism implored him to do what he could to help, so he immediately prepared to journey to Celceta. He leaves Esteria through Minea Port, but is joined by Dr. Flair – the doctor who cured Lilia of her mysterious yet deadly illness with medicine created from the Celcetan flower. He decides to join Adol to further study the flower in its natural habitat. The two arrive in Promalock, a port town near Celceta. There he first encounters some soldiers representing the Romun Empire – a kingdom with aspirations for world domination – who have stationed themselves across Celceta to protect the villagers from the demons that have sprung up. They quickly imprison Adol, having been ordered to lock up anyone suspicious. When locked in his cell, Adol meets Duren, a roguish “information vendor” who helps him make his escape. Fortunately, the Romun Captain meets with Dr. Flair who convinces him that Adol is nothing more than a harmless adventurer. The unnamed captain frees Adol (and Duren), offering him items from their armory as compensation, but warns Adol not to interfere in the Romun Empire’s affairs. Along the way, Adol learns of the legend of Lefance, the hero of Celceta, by stumbling upon the ruins of a temple built in his honor. He also meets various allies: Karna, a warrior from the Wind Village of Komodo searching for people who have gone missing from her village and Leeza, the caretaker of the mysterious Eldeel, the last of the angelic “winged ones”. Likewise, both Dogi and Lilia return to offer what assistance they can. However, in the background, three mysterious figures – the brutish Gadis, the steamy sorceress Bami and the small but sinister Gruda – appear to be working alongside the Romun Empire to unknown ends.

I’ve heard people compare the base gameplay of Mask of the Sun to some of the early computer versions of the first two games in the franchise, with walking controls that were significantly more clunky than the later console versions. The game also only allows players to move in the four cardinal directions. Likewise, the aiming required to properly attack enemies is significantly more sensitive – you need to line up exactly when attacking enemies or you’ll either miss or take damage yourself. Truth be told, I’ve tinkered with a few of the early PC versions of Ys and frankly, a keyboard generally allows for more precise control in this style of game when compared to the D-Pad, likely the reason why earlier console releases tended to fudge the minutiae of the targeting. Unfortunately, this in turn leads to a case of the worst of both worlds. Given the lack of quality control in the previous Ys game on the SNES, it’s not really much of a surprise. Regardless, having to essentially fight with the game’s controls to progress puts a damper on the game’s fun factor. An odd change that I found annoying is that after dying, instead of simply respawning you with your latest save, the game sends you back to the title screen. Seems kind of like an odd decision for a game that lets you save at any point – it just adds tedium to continuing.

It doesn’t help that for whatever reason, they decided to add poison effects to this game. I’m not entirely sure who was behind this addition, but it definitely ended up being a thorn in my side. To make matters even worse, Adol’s ability to heal while stationary outside of dungeons has been severely hampered compared to previous iterations. To be honest, I was well into the game before I even realized he still had this ability. The amount of time Adol needs to stand still to start recovering health is downright ridiculous. Even Wanderers from Ys handled it better than Mask of the Sun did! In the end, all of these small issues I had with the game ended up consolidating in a game I don’t think I’d ever want to replay. Honestly, while I was playing through the game, I essentially had to cheat in order to make progress: if you level up to a certain extent in each area, weaker enemies do minimal damage, no matter how poor your aim. I’m not sure if this was an intentional exploit designed into the game itself, but it still felt like cheating to some extent. I don’t particularly hate breaking a game’s rules, but it feels a little different when it’s the only way to make any progress.

The item and inventory system are essentially functionally the same in this game. This time, however, the “Equip” menu only allows you to equip Adol’s sword, shield and armor – no extra items, rings or magic this time around. Of course, in this game, some of the higher level swords contain special magics of their own. For example, the Flame Wind Sword acts like the Fire Magic from previous games, the Thunder Sword fires off two balls of lightning and the Hero’s Sword allows Adol to heal himself. Of course, all of these abilities come at the cost of MP. The Wing from the original Ys returns as an inexhaustible standard item, though for some reason, it now has the functionality of the Return Magic from Ys II – lacking the MP cost. The items also work like they do in previous games: Adol can only equip one at a time and uses it by hitting a specific button. Overall, this is somewhat simpler than previous games, due to the lack of additional items in the equipment menu – however, due to the fact that there is a total of 8 sets of swords, shields and armor and certain swords offer special abilities, it seems to even out in the end.

The graphics in this game are average for a SNES game: nothing impressive, but at times they represent the capabilities of the system fairly well. There are a few segments in the game that even utilize Mode 7, to my dismay. It’s kind of a mixed bag to compare the two games in this field – due to the Super Famicom being more powerful than the PC Engine, there are some things it does better than the other version. For example, the various character sprites have more detail and better coloring in Mask compared to Dawn. Likewise, the SNES can display a wider color palette than the TG-16, and there are some areas where this is clearly visible. Of course, the fact that Dawn of Ys used CD media gave it some advantages Mask of the Sun simply could not match, but there are some other odd stylistic choices that Tonkin House made when developing their version of Ys IV. For example, while most Ys games up to this point would use a single, static but detailed image to represent specific shops and homes in game, MotS elects instead to maintain the overhead view for the entire game. This decision diminishes the impact of a lot of scenes, given the limited range of expression allowed by the overworld sprites.

Likewise, many in-game areas have dull designs that don’t really utilize the SNES’s graphical capabilities very well: most dungeons are dominated by at least one shade of brown or gray – kind of a let-down given the diverse terrains Adol normally explores. Even the game’s standard border is dominated by a particularly dull shade of gray. I believe their intent was to draw greater attention to the gold trim, but it’s particularly sparse. There was one thing that sort of bothered me about the game in general, but it’s not entirely unique to Mask of the Sun. The way the game handles dialogue is somewhat awkward: during conversations in the game, new dialogue boxes will generally spawn on top of existing ones. It’s another choice that just seems a bit ugly. To make matters worse, this is another game that decides to grant Adol the full power of speech, which definitely negatively affects his character this time around – even more so than Wanderers from Ys did. Maybe this is just my opinion, but at this point particularly, Adol worked better as a silent protagonist.

I’ve got mixed feelings on the sound design as well. Falcom’s soundtrack for Ys IV contains many of my favorite songs in the entire series. Unfortunately, Mask of the Sun uses a relatively small number of these tracks – and consequently, quite a few of my favorite songs don’t appear in this version. However, they do manage to not only use one original track that wasn’t utilized in any other version, a song from a previous game that also didn’t appear anywhere else, and even managed to make an entirely original opening theme, as well as a few other original tracks. Likewise, the instrumentation is a little on the weak side compared to other arrangements of what appears in the game. Now, it’s not fair to compare the SNES’s sound chip to Redbook-quality CD audio, but many of the tracks have also been reproduced on weaker sound chips – hell, Falcom provided a version of the soundtrack that utilized the PC-88’s hardware – to a far better effect. This isn’t to say that Mask of the Sun does a bad job on its soundtrack, I actually enjoyed many of the game’s arrangements while playing. It’s just been outclassed by essentially every other iteration of the Ys IV soundtrack.

Of all the Ys games I’ve played so far, I think I’d have to consider Mask of the Sun to one of the worst games in the franchise, if not the worst. While I can understand the hatred for Wanderers from Ys, the game was at least enjoyable to charge through, even if it didn’t particularly represent the rest of the series. Mask of the Sun is essentially the exact opposite in its design: it tries too hard to represent the previous games in the franchise, at the expensive of creating an enjoyable experience. Tonkin House’s previous work on Wanderers from Ys is generally considered one of the worst of the versions, with two of its major flaws being high difficulty and non-responsive controls. With issues like this in their previous release, why would they consider making a “run-and-bump” style Ys game – a style of game that relies entirely on good controls and proper difficulty balance? I’ve heard some Ys fans claim that without its counterpart on the PC Engine overshadowing it, Mask of the Sun would be considered a far better game – but if I were to be honest, I played this version first, so I think I’m justified when I say that’s an exaggeration, if not an outright lie.

The Dawn of Ys

From what I can tell, The Dawn of Ys is considered the best iteration of the original Ys format – the games that utilized the unique “run-and-bump” system found early on in the franchise – by the majority of the fanbase that has played it. I’m inclined to agree with that assessment: if Hudson deviated from Falcom’s original vision more than Tonkin House did, it was clearly to the game’s benefit. Dawn of Ys was the last game in the franchise to make use of the classic gameplay style from the first two games, effectively perfecting it to the point where it could no longer be improved. Likewise, unlike the other follow-ups to the first two games before it, it pays homage to the first two games in the franchise in a way that would not be surpassed for over a decade. The PC Engine’s take on Ys IV is a love letter addressed to Adol’s original adventure in its entirety, in terms of its gameplay mechanics, its storyline and various other elements of the game. Yet, in spite of this, the game itself also manages to carve out its own niche within the franchise, certainly earning its reputation as one of the best games in the entire series.

Ironically, the game’s storyline is similar to its Super Famicom counterpart in many ways. I’ve read conflicting information about whether or not DoY takes place before or after Wanderers from Ys, but like Mask of the Sun, it takes place two years after the first two Ys games. Likewise, there is a throwaway line where Dogi tells Adol about Felghana – his homeland and the setting of Ys III – which would seem to imply that it predated that game as well. Another major difference is that instead of finding a message in a bottle, Adol is told to go to Celceta by Sara, the fortune teller from the first game who, if you’ll remember, only managed to cheat death in the TurboGrafx-CD port. Furthermore, you start off with all of the Cleria items – the top-level items from Ys II, a nice little continuity nod.  You also end up encountering Karna earlier, as she’s being detained by the Romun Empire. The Romun Empire’s captain also has greater characterization: he is now known as Leo and comes across as both power-hungry and arrogant. Of course, as with Mask of the Sun, the Romuns imprison you, but not before displaying their military strength and stealing your high-level equipment for good measure. Once in prison, you meet up with Duren again – this time, he regales you with the legend of Celceta’s fabled Golden City. Soon after, Karna returns the favor by assisting you in your escape – you’re only able to steal a new sword, shield and set of armor on your way out – only to be surrounded by 6 guards. Durna bails on you, and as a result you and Karna are left to face off with the guards. This time around, Gruda, Bami and Gadis are working independently of the Romun Empire – this time, they take a far more active role in fighting Adol. Another major difference would be the location names: aside from Promalock, Dawn of Ys renames all of the shared locations that appear in both games. An odd quirk, considering most other versions use the names from Mask of the Sun, but I’m not going to judge. Finally, Adol’s ability to speak has been reverted to the same levels as Ys: Book I & II, which makes him significantly more charming: somehow our red-haired swordsman is much more charming when he’s essentially mute.

While Mask of the Sun’s gameplay was more unwieldy than the previous games in the series I’d played, Dawn of Ys goes in the exact opposite direction – essentially taking the responsive controls from Ys: Book I & II and further streamlining them. This is the first game that allows Adol to move (and attack!) in 8 directions – this is the key improvement Alfa Systems made over their previous ports. While this ability would be added into future remakes of the first 2 Ys games, this was the first release in the Ys series that allowed players to move in more than just the standard 4 directions. Even without this new ability, Adol effectively glides around the game world effortlessly, a decided contrast from the somewhat clunky controls from the Super Famicom release. Unfortunately, there are times where this can be detrimental: there have been times where the responsiveness of the controls inadvertently got me trapped right near an enemy, effectively wiping out my health in one shot. On the other hand, the addition of diagonal attacks also proved to be the undoing of the “run-and-bump” system: when walking diagonally, it’s essentially impossible to line up with a standard enemy in such a way where Adol takes damage from the enemy. Of course, bosses are generally immune to this sort of trickery – they’re generally large, so it’s far easier for them to reposition themselves in such a way that ramming into them from any angle will result in a quick suicide – but it does put a bit of a damper on the strategy behind fighting standard-sized enemies. Another unique addition to Dawn of Ys was that, at various points in the adventure, Adol can be joined by a partner character, essentially mirroring Adol’s movements like Tails in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and randomly locking onto and attacking various enemies. This is a double-edged sword: while you gain no experience for demons felled by your partner; they can also effectively act as a shield when Adol’s low on health, providing cover when escaping from a dungeon. Something similar showed up in Ys II Chronicles+, though it was simultaneously simpler and more complex: one escort mission allowed you to attack enemies using your charge, who was even capable of leveling up and getting stronger as he defeated more enemies. I’ll never know whether that optional side-quest was inspired by Dawn of Ys, but I’d like to think it was.

The equipment system once again adheres to the standards of previous games, but this time, the line-up is slightly different. Sword, Shield and Armor all return – but Dawn of Ys also adds in the Rings (acting as they do in the original Ys) with Ys II’s Magic. All other items are essentially shunted over to the inventory, allowing Adol to choose one of each at a time. Most of the Rings and Magic return from previous games, but there are also some new power-ups as well. The Ring of Roda replenishes magic points, similarly to how the Heal Ring allows Adol to recover HP in dungeons; the Magic Ring increases the strength of magic attacks; the Seeker Magic uncovers secret entrances – effectively a less useful version of the already situational Light Magic; and my favorite of the new items: Freeze Magic. Freeze Magic allows Adol to fire ice bolts which, while they do less damage than the Fire Magic’s fireballs, will freeze standard enemies in place, leaving them open to other attacks. Likewise, the Inventory contains a lot of old items, though there are some new ones. One interesting item is the Flute of Wind, which allows Adol to send messages via a messenger bird. This is actually crucial to obtaining an optional but powerful set of weaponry. Aside from that, many of the items are mostly contextual – the usual set of recovery items, various keys and items that are otherwise functionally identical to keys. The Mask of Eyes reappears, and actually factors pretty heavily into the storyline: its true name is the Mask of the Sun and along with its sister relic, the Mask of the Moon, holds the very key to the lost civilization of the winged ones.

I’d argue that the graphical style of Dawn of Ys suffers from the exact opposite issues Mask of the Sun had: Hudson Soft clearly understood the PC Engine’s hardware, but despite its add-ons, it was severely limited when compared to its fourth-generation contemporaries. As such, for the most part the graphics are only marginally better than those of Books I & II and those improvements that were made appear to be more due to being allowed to make an original title, rather than matching the artstyle of a game originally designed for weaker hardware. Having said that, Alfa Systems still managed to create a fairly vibrant game world with loads of variety in its settings. Of course, the true star of game would have to be the animated cutscenes, which have been significantly improved since the previous title in the franchise. I’m still impressed with the video quality the TurboGrafx-CD could achieve, especially when compared to the more powerful Sega CD. Dawn of Ys is perhaps the greatest example of what the system was capable, dwarfing even what was considered the PC Engine CD’s quintessential masterpiece, Dracula X: Rondo of Blood.

Once again, the music takes center stage in Dawn of Ys. In addition to using the most songs from Falcom’s original soundtrack of any iteration of Ys IV, the tracks that managed to utilize the Redbook CD audio have been once again lovingly rearranged by the incomparable Ryo Yoneimitsu. Unfortunately, a significant amount of the soundtrack had to be reproduced on the PC Engine’s built-in sound chip, leading to a less impressive sound. Oddly enough, I’d probably say I preferred even these takes on the songs over the arrangements found in the Super Famicom version. In order to enjoy the game as much as possible, I played the game using a fandub – a unique concept in general, but extremely rare with PC Engine CD games – as opposed to the original Japanese voiceovers. Since then, I’ve listened to snippets from the original audio and I was floored with how good both the voice acting itself and the audio quality was in the game. The fandub, on the other hand, also felt like it was handled perfectly: it was mostly the work of enthusiastic amateurs, but they managed to create a product that truly sound like it could’ve been a commercial dub of a video game from the mid-1990s. In the end, that’s exactly what I would’ve hoped from a labor of love like that.

In the end, perhaps “The Dawn of Ys” was an ironic title: it marked the end of the first stage in the Ys franchise’s development. Even though only 4 games in the franchise – Ys I, II and both versions of IV – utilized a unique method of attack that set it apart from other action RPGs, this was considered the franchise’s trademark in its early days. As such, it was perhaps fitting that Dawn would be the last original (i.e. non-remake) title in the franchise to make use of it, but at the same time pushing the design to its logical conclusion. Hudson’s last Ys game was perhaps its best – ultimately paying homage to the first Ys games, while crafting their own new experiences at the same time. My only real criticism was that by pushing the classic “run and bump” mechanic to its limits, Dawn ultimately exposes the limitations of this system – leading Falcom to essentially reinvent the wheel in future titles. In the end, I feel The Dawn of Ys is really the best ending to the initial era of the Ys series anyone could have asked for. Even today, the game is considered among the best games in the entire series, which is a testament to just how well it was crafted.

Comparison

Considering both the glowing praise I’ve heaped upon Dawn of Ys and the scorn I’ve leveled at Mask of the Sun, one might suggest that attempting to compare and contrast the games would be a fool’s errand. Regardless, I still think it’s worth doing, simply because it’s fascinating to detail the differing paths both games took in the development process. Interesting side note: there are even a few things I thought Mask handled better than Dawn anyway, so those could be fun avenues to explore as well.

It would seem like the best place to start would be cataloging the various references both games made to Ys I & II, their direct predecessors both in terms of gameplay mechanics and timeline placement. Both games contain cameos of varying degrees from Dogi, Lilia and Dr. Flair. As I said, Dr. Flair has a much more important role in Mask of the Sun – acting as Adol’s travelling companion during the first leg of his journey – but he appears as a traveler tending to the wounded in Karna’s village in Dawn of Ys. Likewise, both Dogi and Lilia’s roles are far more limited in MotS compared to DoY: they make various small appearances through the Super Famicom release, while Dogi acts as Adol’s constant companion in the PC Engine version and Lilia ends up as a damsel in distress at one point. Interestingly, both games do send Adol back to locations from his previous adventures during his journey in Celceta. Mask of the Sun sends him back to Rance Village from Ys II, which is accompanied by its classic tune “Too Full with Love”. Dawn of Ys, however, manages to outdo it: not only does Adol return to Minea Town in his adventure, but has to once again scale the dreaded Darm Tower – scored by a new arrangement of “TOWER OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH”. The way both of these games handled these throwback segments were suited to their general developmental approach as well. Mask of the Sun took a far less detailed approach, keeping in line with the game’s basic structure, while many familiar faces reemerged in Minea Town, including the pawn shop owner Pim and the aforementioned Sara.

This brings me to my next point: world-building. Mask of the Sun tended towards a more minimalistic approach – each character, no matter how major or minor, has about the same level of detail to one another. I guess this is somewhat fitting, considering that future games in the Ys series (particularly Ys I & II Chronicles) would take a similar approach, only with more detail applied to even the most minor characters, as opposed to reducing the characterization of every character in the game. Dawn of Ys, on the other hand, had different aspects that fleshed out the various denizens of the game world: voice acting wasn’t strictly limited to major characters, a few minor characters also got some lines of dialogue. Some minor characters even had in-game artwork dedicated to them, particularly the shopkeeps. Both elements helped to flesh out the world, but clearly favored certain characters over others. DoY only chose to highlight specific characters while MotS’s approach led to a far less vivid world but treated each character equally, regardless of their importance to the story.

Of course, essentially building a game’s story from an outline can lead to some weird quirks when portraying various characters in the game, especially with two completely different creative teams working entirely independently of one another. Therefore, we’ve got multiple versions of various characters that appeared in both games, with their own unique traits and storylines. For example, as I mentioned earlier, the villainous trio of Gruda, Bami and Gadis are affiliated with the Romun Empire in Mask, but act independently in Dawn. This actually manages to have an effect on the portrayal of the Romun Empire itself: in MotS, they are an outright evil faction, unwitting pawns to the Clan of Darkness’s true machinations; DoY portrays them as a powerful group as well, but one that’s more greedy than megalomaniacal – searching for the fabled Golden City and its treasures rather than focusing on their usual goals of world domination. Likewise, while the Romun Captain in Mask was essentially just a generic bad guy, Dawn’s General Leo had actual characterization behind him – not to mention a name. Duren’s effectively a source of exposition in the Super Famicom version, but his involvement is a lot more personal in the PC Engine version: he was a former member of the Clan of Darkness.  Karna receives roughly equal characterization in both games – she just manages to show up earlier in Dawn of Ys. Leeza, on the other hand, is much more important in Mask of the Sun: she acts as Eldeel’s caretaker, a responsibility passed on from generation to generation in her village. She also wrote the message that brought Adol to Celceta in the first place. She’s still got the relationship with Eldeel in Dawn of Ys, but aside from finding Adol after a severe injury and nursing him back to health, her involvement is much more limited.

As I said before, both games essentially shared the same basic storyline, but the way they handled discussing various aspects of their stories differed greatly. For example, Dawn of Ys essentially has Adol commune with the spirits of Lefance’s disciples: fleshing out various aspects of Celcetan history, including the role of the “winged ones” in building the Golden City as well as the role they played in building the ancient human society, the Clan of Darkness’s war with winged ones and their motivations, as well as some information about the role Adol’s adventures in Esteria and Ys played in his current situation. Even Dark Fact’s true identity was essentially stated in DoY – his original name was Siegue Fact. The Clan of Darkness even attempt to resurrect Dark Fact by using his long-removed relative Keith’s body as a vessel. Feena and Leah resurface when Adol visits Darm Tower, which heavily hints that they too were members of Eldeel’s race. Mask of the Sun essentially implies a lot about the history of Celceta, but doesn’t really state outright nearly as much information as its counterpart.

I also mentioned earlier that the gameplay between both games, while using the same core concept, varied significantly in terms of execution. It may seem like gloating to bring this up again, but in the end, I speculate that both games when taken together were what caused Falcom to depart from their traditional mechanics in future iterations of the series. Mask of the Sun favored a more classic approach to the gameplay, essentially emulating the gameplay schema of the original PC versions of the first two Ys games. While this reliance on more precise controls didn’t quite lend itself well to the twitchier style of gameplay expected of console games, it did manage to make the game more difficult. Conversely, Dawn of Ys took the simplified version of these mechanics and expanded on them, essentially making them even more user-friendly with the addition of diagonal movement. Unfortunately, in turn this broke the balancing of the entire concept: the ability to walk diagonally makes it essentially impossible to not run into an enemy off-center which, in turn, essentially makes Adol invincible throughout most of the game. This would essentially leave Falcom in an awkward position for future titles if they decided to retain this mechanic: either essentially crippling players with an archaic concept while retaining a sense of difficulty or throwing any sense of balance out the window while modernizing the concept. Perhaps playing both versions of Ys IV essentially makes the shift to new gameplay styles feel like less of a betrayal of their trademark concept and more like a pragmatic shift in order to keep the series moving.

One final contrast I feel is a bit of a necessity to explore, though I guess it relies significantly more on spoilers than anything else I’ve mentioned so far. Then again, as this article is a retrospective on a series that’s been around for 30 years now, spoilers had to be expected. Each game approached its climax in very different ways, leading to substantially different final bosses. Mask of the Sun sets Eldeel as the game’s final boss – a choice that is definitely a significant improvement over how they used him in Dawn of Ys. In Dawn of Ys, Eldeel was essentially the pawn of the Clan of Darkness and gets unceremoniously stabbed to death by Gruda. Kind of weird seeing a god-like being get taken out so easily. Dawn of Ys, on the other hand elects to use an original character: Arem, the legendary leader of the Clan of Darkness during their war with the Golden City. Again, this sort of elevates the Clan of Darkness significantly when compared to Mask, where they’re essentially staged in such a way where they’re getting ready to betray Eldeel and steal his powers but never actually manage to pull off their schemes, which just ends up making them look stupid. In both games, the Clan of Darkness are the ones who persuade Eldeel to turn on the people of Celceta, but it is interesting to see how both games took this story prompt in completely different directions.

Personally, I always found it amusing that Falcom would consider Mask of the Sun to be the “canonical” take on Ys IV. I mean, it’s understandable – Tonkin House more closely followed Falcom’s outline than Hudson Soft did, so it’s only fair that their version would earn the title of the “true” Ys IV – but at the same time, it’s a little baffling. Not exactly from a quality standpoint, that’s irrelevant. Rather, a majority of the merchandising surrounding Ys IV in general appeared to favor Dawn of Ys over its Super Famicom counterpart. The “Perfect Collection” albums used the PC Engine’s selection of songs as its basis, but this may have been due to the fact that Ryo Yoneimitsu handled them as usual. Of course, that didn’t explain the fact that the soundtracks that showcased Falcom’s own original PC-88 compositions were also named for DoY. Perhaps the most baffling aspect of this whole affair is the fact that Falcom themselves produced several videos focusing on Dawn, not to mention the fact that their pitch trailer for an anime based on the fourth game was named “The Dawn of Ys” and utilized designs that clearly resembled that version more than those from Mask of the Sun. In the end, the arguments are irrelevant in general, simply because Falcom ended up releasing their own version of Ys IV several years later: Foliage Ocean in Celceta, or “Memories of Celceta” as it’s known in the West.

Ys V: Kefin, Lost City of Sand

While Ys IV would mark the end of the classic Ys formula, Falcom had one last game in the series planned for the fourth generation of video game consoles. Whether Falcom themselves knew that they had reached the logical conclusion of the original “run-and-bump” system present in the previous games or simply believed that the franchise needed to be refreshed, Ys V would take things in an entirely new direction. Of course, it didn’t exactly work out for the best: the game shares a Black Sheep status with Wanderers from Ys. The game was so bad, I even managed to write an entire article on what I feel the best course of action would be if the game were ever remade – and believe me, it desperately needs a remake. Yet, despite all its problems, Ys V would have a profound impact on future entries in the series, albeit not an entirely positive one.

Released at the tail end of 1995, Ys V: Ushinawareta Suna no Miyako Kefin – generally translated as “Kefin, Lost City of Sand” – was the first game in the series developed exclusively for consoles by Falcom themselves. This was may very well have been Falcom’s first attempt at developing directly for the Super Famicom, Tonkin House handled the previous Ys games and Koei would handle the ports of the first two Brandish games on the platform. This simple fact entirely foreshadows the game’s quality. To make matters worse, I’ve heard speculation that Kefin had a particularly short development cycle, leading to the excision of various content, including an appearance from Adol’s constant travel companion Dogi, whose absence was particularly worrying. Apparently, many fans complained that the game was too easy, so Falcom would release “Ys V Expert” the following year: in addition to raising the game’s difficulty level, Expert also included various bug fixes, a hidden dungeon and a brand-new Time Attack mode – essentially a Boss Rush, the first (but not the last) in the series. Surprisingly, the game took a long time to receive a fan translation, due to various technical difficulties found while editing the game itself. Aeon Genesis, the same team that handled the translation for Mask of the Sun, managed to release a fully playable translation in 2013. To put that in perspective, the English fandub project for The Dawn of Ys was completed the previous year. Currently, the fan translation is the only way to play the game in English in any form, which is very telling.

Ys V lives up to its name, in the sense that it takes place after both Ys III and IV. This time around, our hero Adol lands in the Xandria region in the continent of Afroca – don’t ask me, I didn’t name it. Adol has built quite the reputation, earning the attention of a wealthy merchant named Dorman. Dorman hires Adol for the expressed purpose of finding a special set of crystals that are said to be related to the lost civilization of Kefin, a legendary city in Afroca’s desert said to have disappeared over five hundred years ago. In fact, the desert where Kefin was said to reside has been expanding recently, ruining various towns across the continent and displacing their residents. Dorman believes that the secrets of the people of Kefin, who are said to have discovered the magic of alchemy, should be able to revive the land. On his quest to find the crystals, Adol meets various people who help him on his journey. Niena, a young shopkeeper with a mysterious past; Massea, a wise woman who teaches Adol the ways of alchemy, and the Evil gang, a family of thieves consisting of young Terra acting as a decoy, her older brothers Dios and Nortis as the muscle and their mother Alga who acts as their leader. Throughout his journey, Adol also encounters Stoker, a spirit from 500 years in the past, whose motives are unclear. Of course, things may not be as they seem, which seems to be the case with most RPGs. Can Adol discover the secret of Kefin and save Xandria from desolation?

Perhaps the weirdest part of Kefin, Lost City of Sand’s story is the fact that outside of a few character appearances, it doesn’t really relate to anything that came before it or, even more surprisingly, follows it. I’ve heard some Ys fans categorize the fourth, fifth and sixth games in the franchise as a “trilogy”, but the story of Ys V just sort of comes across as a bit of a non-sequitur in a lot of ways. For example, apparently Dogi was originally planned to be involved in the game, with minor character Effy even planned to be his girlfriend at that point in development. Aside from Adol, the only character or story element from this game that even reappears is Terra, who ages 3 years and becomes a pirate in the process. It doesn’t really help that the game’s true villain – the captain of Dorman’s guards: Rizze – doesn’t really do anything of importance after her reveal as the true mastermind. The game’s final boss is a random henchman of hers, who Adol ends up fighting twice in succession. I’ve joked in the past that playing an Ys game strictly for the story entirely misses the point of the series, but even the most threadbare of storylines from previous games were at least coherent.

Just like Wanderers from Ys before it, Ys V departs from the established Ys formula, though not quite to the extent of its predecessor. The game maintains its top-down overhead perspective, as well as various staples of the series such as the ability to regain health by standing still outside of dungeons, as well as the standard inventory system shown in games past. However, Ys V did ditch the classic attack system, going for a more traditional attack button, mimicking games like The Legend of Zelda, Crystalis or Secret of Mana. Adol’s attacks would often vary based on which weapon he has equipped: either a traditional sword slash or a stab, which offer more range sideways and straight forward, respectively. The shield is also given a tangible use in this game, allowing our red-haired adventurer to block oncoming attacks. He also gains the ability to jump, allowing for simple platforming in a slightly isometric style. Jumping would also come into play in several of the game’s boss fights. On the surface, all these changes sound like they would be positive additions to the series – as I said earlier, both iterations of Ys IV showcased the impending limitations of the traditional “run-and-bump” gameplay from previous titles in the series. Unfortunately, they came with a caveat: terrible controls. Ys games are traditionally fast-paced affairs, relying far more on reflexes than thoughtful planning, and Ys V is no exception. Unfortunately, Adol’s new slash and stab attacks both move at a glacial pace, giving players only a short window of opportunity to attack without trading hits. Compared to the original Zelda, which came out nearly a decade prior, the attack speed is abysmal. Likewise, the jumping controls are incredibly clunky, which makes the mercifully few segments that require pixel-perfect platforming a nightmare to complete.

The game’s magic system is also significantly overhauled. While previous games, even Ys III, tied specific effects to specific items, Ys V utilizes a brand-new system it dubs “alchemy”. Throughout the course of his adventure, Adol finds various elemental stones, each representing one of six elements: Fire, Water, Earth, Wind, Light and Dark. Three of these can be combined to form a Fluxstone, which contains the spell itself. These Fluxstones can be attached to Adol’s current weapon, allowing him access to their magic. Unfortunately, once a Fluxstone has been attached to a weapon, it’s no longer usable on any future weapons. Also, due to the addition of various elemental weaknesses and strengths, as well as relying upon specific locations to create Fluxstones in the first place, I just ended up ignoring the magic system throughout the clear majority of the game, only really making use of it when it was first introduced. The fact that Adol levels up both his physical and magical strength separately only served to encourage this decision – for the first time, I was perfectly happy battling through the game with only Adol’s sword. Ys V also dismisses the ability to save anywhere at any time, instead using various locations such as inns to allow for saving. Players can also make quick saves, but these only last for as long as the system is left running. The game’s inventory is also slightly modified: Adol can now hold multiple healing items at one time and pause the game at any point – even during boss battles – to make use of them. I’m not sure if I would consider this a change for the better, because though the game’s poor controls make things difficult, this is a game-breaking feature. Finally, enemies no longer drop money – instead they drop gems, which can be sold, which essentially just adds another step to the process of grinding to buy new items.

Ironically, despite having terrible controls, Kefin, Lost City of Sand is significantly easier than previous Ys games, to the point where it almost makes me wish that translation patch worked on the Expert version instead of the original release. The weirdest part about the game is just how front-loaded the difficulty is. The boss fights I had the most trouble with were among the earliest in the game – particularly the fourth boss, the fire dragon from the Se-Be Ruins.  It only gave me so much trouble because I wasn’t levelled high enough. Of course, boss fights that are nearly impossible without the proper levelling are practically an Ys staple, so I can’t really say that that bothered me quite so much. On the other hand, many of the later bosses were fairly easy by comparison. It’s to the extent where I ended up beating the final boss on my first try. That’s not even the worst part: to this day, I don’t even know how I ended up doing it. I just sort of flailed around and ended up winning. Maybe this is another one of my weird opinions, but the only thing I find more annoying than losing without knowing why is winning for the same reason. I can’t really explain why, it just ticks me off.

The graphics are also an extreme departure from previous games in the series. For starters, the character sprites are significantly less “super deformed” than previous games in the series, going for slightly more realistic proportions. Personally, I’m not a fan – the realism doesn’t really go far enough, so it just ends up coming across as a half-measure in the long run. The game’s setting also suffers in the process. Graphically, everything looks just fine, to the extent where I’d say it has the best-looking in-game graphics of any Ys game up to this point by a wide margin. Some of the magic spells’ special effects are particularly impressive, especially given Falcom’s small team of artists. Unfortunately, in the process, the game loses a lot of its charm: even the traditional border from previous games in the series disappears, expanding the playing field. There is also a distinct lack of even the rudimentary cutscenes seen in the earliest releases in the series. Ys V ends up resembling a knockoff Squaresoft RPG in the worst ways, coming off less as a logical extension of the previous settings in the series and more like a generic fantasy setting, almost bordering on parody with its sheer genericity. I’ve heard various speculation as to why this was the case: some said it was an attempt at attracting a broader audience; others think this was simply Falcom’s attempt at improving the graphics. Regardless, the graphics have definitely improved since Mask of the Sun and Wanderers from Ys on Nintendo’s 16-bit powerhouse – it just happened to come at the cost of the Ys series’ unique charm.

The sound design fares similarly. Many sound effects present in previous Ys games return, effectively recreated using the Super Famicom’s hardware – but this is the only common audible thread this game shares with its predecessors. The music doesn’t really seem to match with that of the rest of the series. The soundtrack’s tone better resembles your standard SNES-era RPG, both in terms of composition but especially in instrumentation. I’ve heard many people compare it to the songs found in most Squaresoft and Enix RPGs released that generation, and I’m inclined to agree. Once again, the music found in this game isn’t necessarily bad, but I’d have to say Ys V may have among the most forgettable soundtracks in the entire franchise, simply because while deviating from the traditional tone found in the Ys series, it does so by creating a far more generic sound. The fact that this was the first game in the franchise not to receive a fully arranged album doesn’t really help matters.  Only two albums – one orchestral, the other an “image album” that contained both original recordings from the SFC version as well as a few arrangements that were standard around this era – even attempted to revisit the game’s compositions. Having said that, I do have a few tracks I enjoy: “Field of Gale”, the first overworld theme; the Evil gang’s theme “Thieves of Brotherhood”; “Turning Death Spiral” and “Bad Species”, two of the game’s boss themes and “Break into Territory”, a theme from one of the game’s later areas. It’s a shame, honestly – even black sheep of the franchise Wanderers from Ys was praised for its soundtrack, while Ys V is woefully misrepresented when even Falcom themselves reflect on the series’ most popular songs. Perhaps more of the game’s soundtrack would be better received if it had been rearranged into the Ys series’ traditional symphonic metal style. I would argue that this is another major reason why it should be remade.

Despite Ys V’s lack of polish – especially egregious given how late into the Super Famicom’s lifespan it was released – I can’t honestly say that I hold any major ill will against it. Even though I would probably consider Kefin, Lost City of Sand to be the black sheep of the entire Ys franchise, I should give it credit for at least attempting to change up the formula. While Mask of the Sun was a terrible effort at recreating the magic of previous games in the series, Ys V failed in entirely brand-new ways for the series. At the very least, one could argue that Falcom was out of their depths on this release: developing an Ys game with completely new gameplay mechanics on a platform they were unfamiliar with. More importantly, in spite of its failings, Kefin would influence later games in the series: games that would definitely handle the changes it introduced in a much more favorable way. If you look back at Ys V less as a fully-formed entry and more of a rough draft for what would follow, the game’s importance becomes clear. A backhanded compliment, I admit, but perhaps the one the game best deserves. Considering the fact that Falcom president Toshihiro Kondo has already expressed interest in making a remake of the sixth game in the series, hopefully Adol will revisit Xandria in the next project from the Ys series.

Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim

Ys V definitely took its toll on the series as a whole. Aside from a few remakes, the franchise laid dormant throughout the entirety of the fifth generation. Meanwhile, Falcom returned to PC development – mostly focusing on porting various older games to Windows with various enhancements. However, the development staff behind the Ys Eternal remakes found themselves with a sudden urge to create an entirely new title in the series. Deciding to build on the concepts present in Ys V and using the same technical knowledge they gained while creating those remakes, Falcom ended up with Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim. Ys VI would end up kicking off an entirely new trilogy of Ys games that are generally considered among the best in the series to this day. Surprisingly, it would also be the first game in the series to be released outside of Asia in over a decade.

Made in 2003, nearly 8 years after Kefin, Lost City of Sand, The Ark of Napishtim represented a true return to form for the Ys series. For starters, the original version was developed in-house by Falcom themselves for PC, something that hadn’t occurred since Wanderers from Ys was released in 1989. The game was originally released for the Windows XP OS, though later releases optimized for Vista and Windows 8 would be released in 2007 and 2013 respectively. The game also saw a couple of console releases. First, it came to the PS2 in 2005 with a few additional features, including a new 3D CG opening – which looks horrifying if you ask me – voice acting and replaces the sprite work with 3D models that end up reminding me of various pre-rendered games from the late ‘90s. These models have even more realistic proportions than the sprite work from Ys V, but given the fact that the background elements are retained from the original version, it comes across as a little awkward. This version also adds several new challenges in the form of “Alma’s Trails”, which comes with their own unique music – which doesn’t match up well with the existing tracks. There was also a PSP release in 2006 that more closely resembled the PC version, aside from a zoomed-in playing area and terrible load times, but includes the Sealed Caves, an extra dungeon with various trials. Both of these console ports were handled by Konami and managed to make it to both North America and Europe, receiving full English dubs in the process. Finally, in 2015, XSEED managed to acquire the rights to the original PC version and localized it on both Steam and GOG. They also managed to make a few additions to the game, improving the game’s resolution, adding warp points through the improved “Wing of Alma” item and the new “Catastrophe Mode”, which limits Adol from carrying healing items in his inventory, forcing him to use them as soon as he obtains them. Every version also contains the “Time Attack” Boss Rush mode – returning from Ys V Expert and Ys I & II Complete – which would be cemented as a key feature for future titles.

Taking place roughly 3 years after his previous adventure, Adol Christin has finally reunited with his old friend Dogi and the two plan on exploring more of the continent of Afroca. While planning their new adventure during a brief layover in the port city of Ediz, they encounter the pirate captain Ladoc who makes a counteroffer. The archipelago known as the “Canaan Islands” is an uncharted land shrouded in mystery due in large part to a strange weather pattern similar to the Stormwall that left Adol shipwrecked when he first travelled to Esteria. Dubbed “The Great Vortex”, little is known of it aside from two rumors: that it means certain death for anyone foolish enough to enter it and that it contains an unprecedented treasure at its center. Intrigued by the Vortex of Canaan, Adol and Dogi agree to accompany the pirate’s crew – which just so happens to include young Terra, who has grown since Adol last saw her. The group board Ladoc’s ship, the “Tres Mares” and begin their expedition. Unfortunately, the Romun Empire have also set their sights on Canaan and intend to remove any and all threats – even one as insignificant as a ragtag crew of pirates and adventurers. The Tres Mares is attacked at sea and in the process, Adol is knocked overboard into the Vortex, seemingly left for dead.

Fortunately, Adol manages to survive and washes ashore on Quatera, one of the three Canaan Islands. There, he is rescued and nursed back to health by two natives: Olha, a high priestess, and her younger sister, Isha. The two are the nieces of their tribe’s chief, Ord, who has a massive distrust for “Eresians” – the name he has given to humans. For Canaan is home to the Redha, a race of humanoid creatures with elven ears and fluffy tails. While Olha is rare among her kind in that she doesn’t mistrust humans innately, Isha is frightened by Adol’s presence, mostly due to visions of the future she’s had relating to his arrival. This all changes when Isha sneaks off and encounters Demi-Galba the Wandering Calamity, a giant monster that also happened to the one that killed Olha and Isha’s father. Adol manages to find her just in time, but despite his best efforts, he is unable to kill the monster and he breaks his sword in the process. Fortunately, Chief Ord and the other warriors of his tribe destroy the monster once and for all with one final blow. At this point, the Redha accept Adol as a friend and Ord explains that he is impressed by Adol’s strength and bravery: steel swords were incapable of killing the beast he fought, as it could only be truly destroyed by weaponry forged of Emels, the same material the monster itself was composed. Ord grants Adol Livart – a sword that is a sacred relic of the Redha and capable of utilizing the power of the wind –  and asks the red-haired swordsman a favor as he continues to explore the Canaan Islands. He is tasked with recovering another relic of the Redha, the Mirror of Zeme. The Mirror of Zeme is passed from priestess to priestess, so in addition to being an important artifact, it’s also a keepsake of Olha’s mother, the previous head priestess.

Adol also learns that he was not the only one to survive the Great Vortex and that the surviving Eresians have set up their own colony on one of the other islands. The same day the Mirror of Zeme went missing, the suspension bridge connecting the two islands was destroyed. After searching their own island thoroughly, Ord and the Redha assumed that the Eresians on “Canaan Island” had stolen the Mirror of Zeme for their own purposes: they were, after all, destroying temple ruins to gather building materials for their own village. Adol is also told that he can travel between the two islands by a subterranean tunnel unearthed in the battle with the Wandering Calamity. He sets off for Canaan Island at the chief’s behest, but there are questions still left to be asked. What happened to Dogi and Ladoc’s crew? Will he ever be able to escape from the Canaan Islands? Just what is the Great Vortex and can it be overcome?

I could easily describe Ark of Napishtim’s gameplay in a single phrase: “Ys V, done right.” Unfortunately, as the fifth game is perhaps the most obscure of the series’ mainline entries, I will go into greater detail. Ys VI maintains the attack button and the jump introduced in its direct predecessor, but manages to go about using them in far greater ways. For starters, Adol’s attack is much more responsive this time around – effectively allowing for the game’s action to reach the breakneck speeds the series was acclaimed for from its humble beginnings. The game also introduces the controversial “lunge attack” – performed by tapping forward lightly, then pausing briefly before hitting the attack button, to do a single strong thrust attack. The reason it’s controversial is because the in-game instructions detailing how to perform it are confusing at best and misleading at worst. I can confirm that with the English translations, but I can only say that I’ve heard it was merely a direct translation of the information as it was detailed in the original Japanese release. The PC versions also offer players the option to play the game on keyboard, mouse or a combination of the two. Personally, I stuck with my gamepad.

Throughout the game, Adol gains access to three different swords and unlike in previous games in the series, each has their own use throughout the entirety of the adventure. They offer different attack styles and provide Adol with both unique elemental attacks and powerful magical spells. Each sword has its own magic meter, which can be filled by attacking enemies, but can eventually gain the ability to replenish passively when equipped. As these three swords are obtained fairly early in the game, they’re also capable of being upgraded by taking them to a blacksmith and be upgraded in return for Emel, which is collected by defeating enemies and can also be found in treasure chests. The three swords are the aforementioned Livart, a wind-based sword that allows Adol to string together fast combos and allows him to summon a short-range tornado slash attack; Brillante, a heavy fire-based sword that has the strongest individual attacks and allows Adol to fire off a wave of fire, but slows down Adol’s strikes; and Ericcil, a fencing foil with electric attacks, Adol can generate a more powerful thrust attack with consistent strikes and its magic attack is a chain lightning strike that can hit multiple enemies if they’re all close enough. Some enemies are more vulnerable to one sword than the others, but fortunately, Adol can switch swords on the fly with the push of a button.

Adol’s jumping ability, on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag. The jump is far more responsive this time around and it’s easier to gauge exactly where you’re going to land this time around. The game also offers more options for Adol to attack when in the air: if he attacks while ascending he’ll slash upward, but if he attacks on the descent, he’ll do a downward stab which deals multiple hits if aimed properly. This technique ends up being important, as it affords Adol a means of escape if he gets swarmed by enemies and allows him to breach certain enemies’ defenses. Unfortunately, there’s another new technique that is substantially more complex, but fortunately isn’t quite as prominent in the game: the dash-jump. To perform a dash-jump, players must perform a lunge attack while hitting the jump and attack buttons simultaneously. While the lunge attack is easily ignored by most players as an optional technique, mastery of the dash-jump is necessary to complete the game, with one dungeon focusing a great deal on its proper application. Aside from that, the jumping mechanics have not yet entirely been perfected, though the difference from Ys V is essentially night and day and it’s easy to see that a lot of work went into rebuilding this mechanic.

While the swords in Ys VI are far more versatile than those of previous entries in the series, the armor and shields retain their traditional disposability: each can be easily discarded once the next one is found. Likewise, the blocking mechanic from Ys V has been dropped, with the game’s defensive options once again focusing entirely on dodging. The ability to equip accessories also returns from previous games, though this time it works somewhat differently. Near the beginning of the game, Adol can only equip a single accessory at a time, but additional slots can be found during gameplay, allowing multiple accessories to be equipped simultaneously. They all have passive effects that aid Adol in his journey: for example, the Thief’s Glove increased the drop rate for gold, the Starlight Medal increases the amount of experience gained and the Bloody Nail allows Adol to heal by killing enemies. There are four additional slots in total, allowing players to customize Adol’s loadout to best suit their play style. Adol is also able to set a single type of item that he can use in the heat of battle – most of these are items that either replenish HP or curse status effects. There are also three items that permanently increase Adol’s stats: the Seed of Vitality raises his HP by 5 points, the Seed of Power raises his strength by 1 and the Seed of Defense raises his defense by 1. The traditional Inventory of event-related items also returns, with the only truly perpetual item being the Wing of Alma, which allows Adol to escape from dungeons.

As with Ys V, players can no longer save their game at any point during gameplay, but instead of only allowing saves in inns, Ys VI offers a much more agreeable compromise: important areas are littered with monuments to Alma, which allow players to heal and save the game. Fortunately, the game still allows players to load saves at any point. Another difference from previous games is that Adol can no longer heal while standing still anywhere. This was likely changed to properly balance the ability to store healing items and equip them for use at any point in the game. While poison was introduced to the Ys series all the way back in both iterations of Ys IV, new status effects also join the fray: Heavy limits Adol’s speed and jumping, Confusion reverses the game’s controls and Curse drops Adol’s strength and defense significantly. While the Poison, Heavy and Confusion status effects wear off given enough time, the Curse must be cured. The game’s world is relatively small – taking place mostly across two islands – but requires an extreme amount of backtracking. As I mentioned earlier, the most recent release from XSEED gives Adol the ability to warp between any save point he previously used, which makes traversing the Canaan Islands significantly less of a chore. Therefore, I can’t really discuss this problem in-depth, it just didn’t apply to my playthrough.

As I mentioned earlier, the development team used a lot of the knowledge they gained while developing the Ys Eternal remakes when crafting Ys VI and it shows in some ways. In other ways, however, it shows just how far the art team had come. I’ve heard some fans of the series refer to Ark of Napishtim as “the first 3D Ys game”, but that just doesn’t sit well with me. At best, I’d probably consider it more of a “2.5D game”: the character sprites, most of the enemies and many of the smaller in-game objects are rendered as 2D sprites – that loosely resemble the prerendered 3D style generally seen during the transition period between the fourth and fifth generations, but are 2D all the same – while the game’s environments, bosses and larger objects are fully rendered in 3D. Sure, that description doesn’t really make the game’s aesthetic sound all that cohesive, but believe me, it manages to create a look that aged well, even when rendered in high definition for the most recent re-release. As I mentioned earlier, the PS2 replaced all the sprite work into full 3D models, but frankly I prefer the original look. The character sprites all take on a super-deformed appearance – like older games in the series – but for once, this allows the game’s cast to be much more expressive compared to previous games. The 3D models present in the PS2 version make such expressions vaguer, if even visible. Honestly, the graphical changes present in that release end up looking more stilted and pre-rendered than the original 2D sprites they replaced. I do have to give Konami credit for their version though: Adol’s current equipment is represented in his in-game model in their version, which is a nice touch all things considered.

After the admittedly generic sound present in Ys V wasn’t nearly as well received as the soundtracks from previous games, one might expect that Ark of Napishtim would revert to the more traditional symphonic metal sound associated with the Ys franchise. You may also recall that I declared that Ys VI was “Ys V, done right”. This statement also applies to the music: while it does invoke much of the theming present in the more famous soundtracks of the series, it also manages to create its own niche by incorporating a number of other genres. Napishtim’s soundtrack is the furthest thing from “generic”. The instrumentation is synthesized, but the music combines elements of techno, rock ballads, drum and bass, as well as the traditional blend of classical, metal and video game music present in the most memorable of Ys soundtracks. Even new arrangements of classic themes like “SO MUCH FOR TODAY” and the Romun Empire’s theme make their way into the game. My favorite tracks in this game would have to be the main boss theme, “MIGHTY OBSTACLE”; “WINDSLASH STEPS”, one of the overworld themes; “MOUNTAIN ZONE”, the song associated with the Grana-Vallis Mountains; “DEFEND! AND ESCAPE!” which plays while Adol in fighting with the Romun Empire and “SPREAD BLUE VIEW” which plays over the credits. Of course, my favorite song in the entire game – maybe even the entire franchise – would have to be the final dungeon’s theme: THE RUINED CITY “KISHGAL”, a song that blends genres to perfectly represent the ancient yet futuristic technology found within the game’s final area, while presenting a theme that’s upbeat, yet represents the danger found in the area. The original PC version utilized the OGG Vorbis file format, an open source audio file format. As such, both the game’s music and sound designs were far more advanced than previous games in the series, as they could utilize actual recordings as opposed to relying on on-board sound chips for anything. As such, while the sound effects do resemble those found in previous games, they also sound more realistic, a nice touch in my opinion.

What I personally find so impressive about Ys VI is just how much it manages to tie things together. While clearly not the beginning or end of Falcom’s attempts at consolidating the Ys canon, Ark of Napishtim does more than its fair share of heavy lifting – fitting given the fact that it also had to pick up the slack from the fifth game. For starters, the game expands on a lot of the mythology of the series. For example, Alma is one of the “winged ones”, properly known as the “Eldeen” – not to be confused with Eldeel, who happens to be an Eldeen. The Clan of Darkness also gets some more exposure – fully detailing just how they led to the fall of the Eldeen. Geis and Ernst also represent two different sides of the Clan, effectively cementing the dichotomy in motivations – redemption and megalomania – that Falcom still explores when portraying the tribe to this day. Even the Romun Empire gets involved in the action, effectively implying that the members of the empire we’ve seen thus far have their own motivations and don’t necessarily represent their true values. Ernst is merely using the Romuns for his own purposes, while Admiral Agares is a hedonistic moron who cares for little more than his pet, a giant frog monster. Furthermore, other elements from Ys games make subtle appearances. I already mentioned the inclusion of Terra, providing a clear reference to Ys V. The Pikkards that were first introduced in Ys Eternal make a significant appearance in a major sidequest, effectively cementing their place as a replacement to the Roos as Ys’ official cutesy animal mascot. Even more significant would be the naming conventions of two of the game’s bosses: Demi-Galba and Galba-Roa. Galba-Roa is even given the title of “The Original Galbalan”, outright referencing the final boss of Wanderers from Ys and implying that perhaps the franchise’s infamous prodigal game isn’t as far removed from the rest of the series as people were led to believe.

Some people may think that I’m being easy when looking back at Ark of Napishtim. I can completely understand why: it’s all just a matter of context. Ys VI wasn’t particularly popular during its first Western run on PS2 – the series didn’t really gain any traction in the West until XSEED began localizing games on the PSP. As such, most people played later games before getting around to Napishtim. Meanwhile, I didn’t get into the series until later than that and after getting into the series, I decided to play the rest of the games in something resembling chronological order. In retrospect, the game is obviously a step down from its follow-ups in what’s referred to as the “Felghana Trilogy” – for reasons that will be made clear later – but everything has to start somewhere. That’s the only bit of advice I would have to give to anyone looking to play it: keep the original release order in mind, even if the latest release came out in 2015.

I think that regardless of how the game’s overall quality is perceived – whether it’s compared to its predecessors or sequels – Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim is among the most important games in the entire series, perhaps even on par with the first two games. Not only did it revive the franchise, feared dead after Ys V, it also represented a shift in gameplay that would influence the series for quite some time. Having said that, the game isn’t really all that bad even if it is objectively outshone by its successors. I’m actually a little offended that Falcom’s considering remaking it: I would personally argue that Napishtim is the first game in the series that doesn’t really need one, especially given the improvements XSEED made in their most recent release. The game deviated from the original conventions of its most popular forbearers, but did manage to bring the series into modernity, eschewing the conventions that gaming itself had outgrown, but maintaining the very spirit behind these decisions. In the end, that’s what a good sequel and any good revival should do and as such, Ys VI is most certainly both.

Interlude: The Taito Remakes

These next few games aren’t exactly “canon” in any sense – Falcom doesn’t even appear to recognize them in any real capacity. Still, they’re interesting little curiosities that seemed like they were worth exploring. Now for full disclosure’s sake, I must warn you: I didn’t complete any of these versions of the games. I managed to beat the first boss in each one before calling it quits. I figured it was at least giving them a chance just to get a feel for their respective gameplay styles, but lacking any complete translation – hack or even a text file – it just doesn’t seem worth the headache of trying to play through it, since I wouldn’t be able to understand any of the game’s stories and navigating the menus by memory can be something of a chore at times. Having said that, these games were, in fact, the latest games in the series I’ve actually tried out as I’m writing this – but considering that I didn’t even bother completing them and they were never even considered official releases in the first place, they were worth just covering as a curiosity.

If you’ll recall, I mentioned that back in 2003, Falcom had Ys I & II Complete ported to the PS2 as “Ys I & II Eternal Story”, which was published by DigiCube. You’ll also recall that Konami ported Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim to the same console in 2005. This left a pretty significant gap that Taito was more than willing to bridge. As such, they licensed the rights to remake Ys III, Mask of the Sun and Ys V for PS2, which I assume Falcom was more than happy to accept because it essentially earned them money and allowed them to release games on the most popular console at the time without any effort on their part. The interesting thing is that Taito’s remake of Wanderers from Ys actually came out the same month as Konami’s Ys VI port: March 2005. Taito’s take on Ys IV, rechristened “Mask of the Sun – a new theory –“ came out two months later and the remake of Ys V, now subtitled in English as “Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand” came out in March of the following year. These releases, while essentially ignored now, are at least interesting to discuss as a curiosity – for a brief period in 2006 in Japan, the PlayStation 2 had access to every single Ys game in some form or another.

Ys III: Wanderers from Ys

Fittingly enough as the first of their three remakes, Taito’s take on Wanderers from Ys is the one that most closely resembles its source material. Ys III retains its odd gameplay, better resembling Zelda II than any previous game in the series. However, there are some changes made as well. For starters, the original town layout – which was just one straight line – has been replaced with a map. This does make navigating the area a lot easier, but also kind of cuts down the game’s immersion as now travel is essentially handled entirely by menu, which kind of takes away from any sense of exploration in a game that was already lacking in this respect.

Taito does manage to make some changes to the gameplay mechanics. For starters, the enemies can get stunned when attacked and Adol gains a brief flicker period – a short burst of invincibility after taking damage – that makes the quick deaths of the previous versions a thing of the past. The rapid-fire slash attack has been removed. In its place, Adol can now perform up to a five-slash combo, which is almost just as fun to perform. He also gains a new upward slash attack by holding up and attacking at the same time. His jumping slash is also significantly improved from the original game. Aside from that, the game’s control is roughly unchanged. The level layouts are also essentially identical to previous iterations of the game, which is a bit disappointing in retrospect: given the fact that the original game came out back in 1989 – more than a decade prior – one would expect that a full-on remake would attempt to iron out any of the flaws from the original game.

The game’s graphics are interesting to put it mildly. The in-game sprite work reminds me of various independent “doujin” PC games for some reason. That’s not meant to be an insult, but it is kind of an interesting look for the game, effectively going for something contemporary yet familiar. One flaw I do have to point out is that the game lacks the scrolling present in every other version of the game: even the original PC-88 version was capable of it to some extent. It just seems like a weird omission, especially given the fact that the PlayStation 2 is the most powerful platform the game appeared on. Many of the more ornate details in various stage’s backgrounds – particularly the parallax scrolling – are also absent in this version. A significant majority of characters are given character portraits during dialogue scenes in this game. This doesn’t add much in the grand scheme of things, but it is a nice touch that helps to differentiate the various personalities that appear throughout the game. They’re drawn with a somewhat generic anime aesthetic in mind – it’s nothing particularly special, but it does its job. Most of the game’s dialogue is also voice acting, even Adol’s. Now the oddity of Adol speaking in Wanderers from Ys is further compounded with actual voice work behind it. The soundtrack has also been rearranged, but unfortunately, they only seem to use the tracks found in the earliest versions of Ys III. The arrangements themselves are passable – nothing that impressive, but they represent the original compositions well enough.

Before playing this version of the game, I had heard some relatively positive things about this game, essentially comparing it to the Ys Eternal releases in terms of modernizing the original game. I must admit, Taito’s remake does its best to recreate the original game in an aesthetic more pleasing for modern audiences, for better or worse. If you’ve yet to play any iteration of Ys III, can understand Japanese and can obtain this version more easily than any other, I’d recommend it. Ironically, this licensed remake of Ys III would end up being blatantly overshadowed for reasons I’ll explain later.

Ys IV: Mask of the Sun – a new theory –

Even before I popped this one in, I knew I was in for a wild ride. Up to this point in time, I considered Mask of the Sun to be among the worst that the Ys series had to offer and all the things I had heard about this game seemed to imply that this was even worse. I’d even heard jokes that the only reason this game was even made was so that the Super Famicom version would no longer be considered the worst version of Ys IV. Of course, given the awkward history of Ys IV in general, it’s only fitting that Taito’s attempt at recreating it would suffer from a lot of problems.

Unlike the Wanderers from Ys remake, Taito’s take on Ys IV is more of an original product that mostly takes the source material from the Super Famicom version and does its own thing with it. As I mentioned before, I didn’t really play all that far into this one, but there are a few changes I can address. Duren, the informant that frees Adol from the Romun Prison near the start of both 16-bit versions of the game has been completely excised from this version. In fact, the beginning of the game is entirely different. The game starts with Adol travelling by ship, when he spots a message in a bottle – an action the player must take, and believe me, it’s hard to register properly. From there, the ship docks in what I assume is Promalock – the port city where the game truly begins in previous versions of Ys IV – where Dr. Flair appears to make the acquaintance of some random NPC who is willing to lead a search party: again, my inability to read Japanese sort of thwarts any attempt at understanding anything more than broad strokes. After purchasing supplies for the upcoming journey – the usual sword, shield and armor – the two set off with a search party, when they are robbed by bandits. Adol goes after them and manages to track them down to their hideout, an abandoned mine.

Upon encountering the bandit’s leader, soldiers from the Romun Empire show up to arrest them and assume that Adol is working alongside them, so he’s thrown in the stockades as well. It doesn’t take long for Dr. Flair to explain Adol’s innocence and he is freed …directly into the first boss fight. Yeah, I’m certain that even if I was fluent in Japanese, this game’s story would still be incomprehensible. After defeating the boss – a giant creature with one long hand-like claw and a giant bloodshot eye acting as its weak point – Adol meets with the Romun captain, a man by the name of Brutus – acting as a paper-thin replacement for Leo and expansion on the original Mask of the Sun’s unnamed captain – who appears to apologize for the confusion and offers Adol a new shield, some money and a healing herb as a peace offering. From there, Adol and Dr. Flair end up in an entirely new town. It was at this point that I essentially gave up on the game: I’d played enough to understand the gameplay mechanics and it didn’t enamor me enough to ignore both the language barrier and weird narrative. “a new theory” was a fitting subtitle for this game, but from what I’ve read, many of this game’s attempts at changing the Super Famicom version were ill-conceived at best.

The changes Taito made to the gameplay weren’t much better. Now, I’m not exactly going to defend the original Mask of the Sun’s mechanics, but all things considered, they worked given their environment. Taito was clearly inspired by Ys VI while making this game, so they decided to ditch the traditional “run-and-bump” for the hack-and-slash mechanics found in both Ys V and VI. As such, they decided to give Adol three different attacks: pressing square allows Adol to slash, a quick but weak attack; the X button allows Adol to stab forward, an attack that’s slightly stronger but also slightly slower than the slash; and finally hitting circle allows Adol to perform an overhead lunge with his sword, his strongest but slowest attack. Each of these attacks can be strung together into a combo in any order, but the fact that weaker and faster attacks are able to string follow-ups more easily limits what can be considered a viable combo. Having said that, the controls manage to feel less responsive than either 16-bit version of Ys IV. The other controls are somewhat odd as well. Adol walks at a snail’s pace when using the D-Pad, but is only capable of running when using the left analog stick. A single item can be set to an item slot, which can be activated by pressing the triangle button. Speaking of slow, for some reason, Adol’s ability to heal on the overworld manages to be slower in this game than even the SFC version. Also, Adol can equip three swords at a time, which he can swap between by using the L1 and R1 buttons. These last two additions are clearly an attempt to emulate Napishtim, but when juxtaposed against the more traditional menus from earlier Ys games, they come across far more awkwardly. This problem is only compounded by the game’s ridiculous load times: they appear at an alarming rate and are nearly the same length as those of many late-era PS1 games. I guess the addition of Adol doing things to pass the time is a cute touch, but I wish they’d used that effort on cutting down the load times instead. Perhaps the oddest change is the number of save slots – the game only allows for 3 in total, as opposed to the 5 found in Taito’s other two remakes. I know that’s a minor nitpick, but it just struck me as odd.

The game’s artstyle also appears to have taken inspiration from Ys VI, blending 2D sprites with 3D backgrounds and bosses. I’d argue that this didn’t quite work as well as Falcom’s take on it, but considering that this was a budget remake, I feel uncomfortable comparing the two directly. The sprites in this game take on a far more 2D appearance, rather than the pre-rendered “faux-3D” look present in Ark of Napishtim, which may have caused a bit of a clash of styles when set against the 3D backgrounds. Having said that, most of the 3D models I’ve seen in the game aren’t exactly eye-catching themselves: perhaps this game would’ve been better served if it were entirely rendered in 2D. The character portraits from Wanderers from Ys also return with the same vaguely anime art style. Likewise, this game also has voice acting, which is still a nice touch. The game’s soundtrack has also been rearranged again. The interesting part about all of this is that the PS2 takes a different assortment of tracks from the Ys IV soundtrack compared to the original Mask of the Sun, with some of my favorite omitted tracks reappearing. Not quite as good as the PC Engine version, but an objective improvement over the Super Famicom’s.

While I’m not particularly a fan of what I played from this game, it does represent something interesting regarding Falcom’s take on Ys IV in general. As I mentioned earlier, it appeared that The Dawn of Ys was generally considered the canonical version of Ys IV, simply due to the merchandising blitz it had when compared to Mask of the Sun, which made it all the more surprising when Falcom declared the latter as the version they acknowledged as canon. As such, considering they chose Mask of the Sun as the version they would allow Taito to remake for the PS2, this offers concrete evidence of their opinion.  While in most cases, official timelines and retcons are generally offered without any tangible evidence, while Falcom used a set of remakes created by an entirely different company to cement which outsourced game they held as canon. Of course, that choice would be moot in the long run. as they went and made their own iteration of Ys IV, but that’s a story for another time.

Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand

Finally, we come to the last of Taito’s remakes. I said earlier that if any Ys game needed a remake, it was the fifth in the series, so it’s kind of fitting that this one is generally considered the best of the trilogy. Unfortunately, this is essentially nothing more than a back-handed compliment: while Taito managed to fix many of the problems present in the original game, they would end up replacing them with entirely new problems that would plague the game. It’s almost like this entire remake was only developed as the result of a wish on a monkey’s paw.

Kingdom of Sand’s story seems to have found a happy medium between being an exact replica of its source material like Wanderers of Ys and completely going in its out direction like – a new theory – did. The game begins with Adol and Dogi – yes, Dogi manages to make it in this time – entering Xandria by ship. From there, the game ends up skipping Foresta Village and Foresta Cave, with Adol going to Dorman from the start and happening upon Massea’s cabin to learn magic fairly early on, before encountering Terra, pulling a scam on Adol with her two brothers. From there, the story continues almost as normal, with Adol fighting a beast in an arena. This time, however, instead of fighting a small boar, Adol ends up fighting Valtemos, the first boss from the Super Famicom version – who originally resided in the excised Foresta Cave – as opposed to the boar-like “Desert Wolf” originally found in this section. After defeating that first boss, I gave up on the game – once again, due to the language barrier. I must admit, of the three first bosses, Valtemos was definitely the most difficult to defeat, even after I understood its pattern. From what I can tell, Taito’s version of Ys V seems to excise just as much as it adds to the original game’s story. Stoker is completely absent from the game, which takes away one of the interesting plotlines from the original game. Dogi appears at the beginning of the game, but apparently for the most part, he mainly appears through letters – apparently, he decided to go off on his own adventure. While a significant amount of the material added to the game was taken from Falcom’s original design documents, it also appears that Taito also added their own spin on various story elements. The most damning information I’ve heard about this version is that Taito manages to cut so many areas and plot points that it manages to be shorter than the original SFC version, which is disappointing, all things considered.

Fortunately, the gameplay has been significantly improved in this version of the game.  Taito apparently decided to emulate Ys VI even further in this regard: a good choice given the fact that Ark of Napishtim owes a lot of its pedigree to the Super Famicom version of Ys V. The game reverts to a single attack button, which simplifies combat compared to the remake of Ys IV, but is a fair trade given how much more responsive the controls are. This game also manages to retain the somewhat awkward d-pad/analog stick dichotomy for movement. Jumping returns from the Super Famicom version, though the responsiveness of this mechanic lies somewhere between that of the SFC version of Ys V and Ys VI. The jump attacks from Ys VI have also been implemented into the game for good measure. Adol also retains his ability to block with his shield – though this time it’s mapped to the L1 button, the Triangle button brings up the equipment menu.

The magic system has been overhauled from the previous game. There are only four common elements for crafting spells this time around – fire, water, wind and earth – as well as a fifth element strictly used for upgrading Adol’s sword at a blacksmith. You can still install multiple spell orbs per weapon, but each one has their own individual meter this time around, so you can use each attack consecutively. Likewise, you can also equip far more spells to a sword, which incentivizes using the spells more often in general. Unfortunately, while the original game had multiple alchemists throughout the game map willing to craft new orbs for you, only Massea exists in this game – though there are many one-way warps that make travelling back to her easy enough, albeit at the cost of any progress you’ve made in the game. One more improvement made to this game over the original is that now, in addition to being able to save at inns, there are various save statues scattered across the land – clearly inspired by those found in Ys VI. In addition, quick saving is still an option.

Unfortunately, these improvements come at a price: the map design in this game is both generic and confusing at times. It is incredibly easy to get lost, even early in the game. When a game’s overworld is difficult to navigate, there are clearly some major design issues at work. The fact that the camera will often reorient itself at random times only manages to make matters worse when it comes to navigation, due to the lack of any distinguishing landmarks within the game. Worst of all, there’s no map – so at times, finding one’s way through the game relies upon trial and error at best or dumb luck at worst.

The graphics have also improved since the previous game – what a difference a year makes. While most of the 2D sprite work is essentially identical – literally in a few cases – to the previous game, the 3D models have improved significantly from Taito’s take on Mask of the Sun. The portrait work from the previous two games also return with the same art style. The same can be said for the voice acting, as well as the rearranged soundtrack. In fact, the soundtrack for this game is generally held in higher regard compared to the other remakes, likely due to the lack of existing arrangements for Ys V in general. The interesting thing is that the adjustments made to both the game’s artstyle and soundtrack actually end up meaning that the licensed remake actually better resembles an Ys game than the original game made by Falcom themselves.

The funny thing about Taito’s Ys V remake is that if you managed to mix its improvements with the things that the original did well, you would have a suitable game. In the end, while this remake is generally considered the best of the three, it’s more of a lateral move than an actual improvement on its predecessor. That says more about these remakes than anything else ever could. In the end, I’d only moderately recommend III and V, but only in the case where you’re unable to find any other version and are fully fluent in Japanese. Since Wanderers from Ys is available in English in several official capacities, while the Super Famicom version of Ys V has a fan-made translation, it’s hard for me to recommend either of these remakes as anything more than a curiosity. Steer clear of the Ys IV remake though – literally every other version available is superior.

Ys: The Oath in Felghana

Wanderers from Ys had always been considered the misfit of the Ys series. Despite not being the worst game in the franchise in terms of quality, its sin was absolute: it deviated too far from the series’ established formula – with two games under its belt, the style of the Ys franchise had been forever set in stone – and therefore was considered an abomination in the eyes of the fanbase. Of course, in their infinite wisdom, Falcom decided to rectify this mistake of theirs several years later – essentially transforming the pariah of the franchise into one of its most popular games – with the creation of Ys: The Oath in Felghana. Utilizing an improved version of The Ark of Napishtim’s engine, Oath in Felghana was the first Ys game of its kind: a true remake. While previous remakes – both those made by Falcom themselves and ones developed by other companies – would often try to maintain the basic framework of the original game, Felghana outright overhauled the entire concept, while somehow maintaining its spirit. Combined with the game’s relative pervasiveness – at least compared to other games in the Ys series – this led Felghana to be considered among the best games in the entire series, if not the best.

The Oath in Felghana was first released on Windows PC in Japan in early July 2005. Yes, just over 3 months after Taito’s more traditional remake of the very same game hit the PlayStation 2, Falcom blew them out of the water with their more modernized take. Originally, the game was released with a limited edition that included an 8-CD boxset dubbed Ys Premium Music CD Box in Felghana, a behemoth that included nearly every version of the Ys III soundtrack – including the prototype “pre-arrange” music used during the development of Felghana itself. A standard version that only included the game was also available. In 2007, a version updated to run on Windows Vista was released. In 2010, however, Falcom took it upon themselves to port it to Sony’s PlayStation Portable. This version added new features including voice acting, additional versions of the soundtrack – specifically the PC-88 and Sharp X68000 versions – easier difficulty options and rebalanced gameplay. Better still, later the same year, the localization firm XSEED released the game in North America, using an existing English fan translation – written by a future employee – as a base and even redubbing the dialogue for good measure. Falcom also released a new PC version of the game, this time optimized for the then-current Windows 7 operating system. In 2012, XSEED obtained the rights to release Falcom’s original PC version worldwide, utilizing their existing translation and incorporating widescreen resolutions into the game and sold it on a variety of digital storefronts, their first release on Windows PC. The following year, Falcom would release updated versions of some of their older PC games, now optimized for Windows 8: Oath in Felghana was among them.

The story essentially takes on the same framework as Wanderers. Adol and Dogi venture to his hometown of Redmont in the land of Felghana, where demons have somehow started to rampage. However, this game’s take on the story both expands and alters various plot points. For example, in Wanderers, Adol and Dogi stroll into Redmont after an uneventful voyage. In Felghana, Adol finds Elena surrounded by a pack of wolves and protects her. The game also expands on multiple characters, differentiating and fleshing out various background characters and refining the motivations of some of the more important characters. For example, Elena came across as somewhat cold in Wanderers – I’m still not sure if that was bad writing in the source material or just bad translations – but in Felghana, she clearly cares very deeply for her older brother, Chester. Likewise, the game’s first boss, Dularn, gets heavily expanded on, essentially promoted to a primary antagonist and becoming Garland’s second-in-command, challenging Adol on multiple occasions. Chester’s motivations become fleshed out, but in turn, his actions become far more villainous. Count McGuire – demoted from King – is also significantly humanized, given motivations for his actions in the form of his beloved wife and children. Meanwhile, various new characters – like Margo, the innkeeper who raised Dogi when he was an orphan; Fran, a maid from Valestein Castle and Sister Nell, a nun who has known Elena and Chester since they were young – help to flesh out the world in the same way that many of the minor characters in Ys I & II Eternal (et al.) made both Esteria and the lost continent of Ys themselves feel organic.

In addition to expanding the original story, Oath in Felghana also attempts to connect the game to the Ys mythology and setting as a whole, making various references to games that take place earlier and later in the game’s timeline. For example, now Count McGuire, his family and new character Antonio – a merchant with more ambition than common sense – hail from the Romun Empire. As an additional bonus, this continues the trend that started back in Ark of Napishtim: Falcom would begin humanizing individual members of the Empire, while still treating the Empire itself as a megalomaniacal threat. Originally, Genos’ backstory was essentially veiled in mystery in Wanderers – he was merely the legendary hero who stopped Galbalan the first time – but in Felghana, we discover that he too was chosen by the Eldeen as their champion, just like Adol was in the first two games. Likewise, the reference implied in Ark of Napishtim comes full circle, as Galbalan is confirmed as a creation of the Clan of Darkness, their ultimate weapon during their war with the Eldeen. Some weren’t particularly enamored with these attempts at integrating the game’s plot into the franchise’s wider storyline. Personally? I loved it: Ys IV’s status as a prequel and reliance on references to the first two games seemed to be a response to how poorly received Wanderers from Ys was. By extension, trying to wedge it back into the greater continuity was the only logical decision to redeem the game in the eyes of the fanbase.

Oath in Felghana used an improved version of the engine Falcom pioneered for Ys VI. The chief improvement in this game over its predecessor would have to be the jumping controls: they’re now as tight and responsive as possible given the game’s overhead/isometric perspective. The game’s combat also feels tighter, though considering how well it worked in the first place, it appears to have received only minor tweaks. The lunge attack returns – awkward instructions and all – but is entirely optional this time around. The ironic thing about choosing to work with the Napishtim engine is that it allowed Falcom to create a remake that was both faithful to Wanderers from Ys and the Ys series in general. While Wanderers was originally criticized for being effectively linear in its stage design – a definite step down from the previous game’s more labyrinthine dungeon layouts – it did offer unique obstacles for Adol to overcome, fitting with its new gameplay style. Considering Ark of Napishtim’s platforming capabilities, this allowed Oath in Felghana to recreate many of those obstacles seen in the original source material, yet incorporate them into a more complex setting. Better still, the game ditches the map found in Ys III, opting for an (admittedly small) overworld, that even manages to use the stage intro music “The Boy’s Got Wings” to a much more prominent extent than in previous versions. Likewise, the town of Redmont has been expanded beyond its incredibly linear design, feeling far more alive and expansive than any previous iteration.

Keeping with the theme of blending new and old elements into something greater than the sum of its parts, the map does still play a role in Felghana. At one point in the game, Adol acquires the Wing Talisman, an item that allows him to teleport to any save point he’s previously visited, making backtracking to previous locations less of a chore – which happens far more often than one might suspect. The game also returns to the previous method of finding new stronger equipment to replace Adol’s current sword, shield and armor – but this time around, you’re capable of upgrading your existing equipment to make it more powerful, by paying Adonis, Redmont’s blacksmith, in gold and supplying him with precious Raval Ore, which can be found by defeating enemies and mass quantities are hidden in treasure chests. Of course, the next new set of items are always more powerful than even the previous ones – even at their highest level – but it can be quite helpful when fighting strong enemies. Due to the disposability of swords in this game, magic is now contained within three bracelets: the Ignis Bracelet allows Adol to shoot fireballs from his sword; the Ventus Bracelet allows him to spin like a tornado and the Terra Bracelet, which allows him to charge into opponents at high speeds. These bracelets can be enhanced by finding gems – Rubies, Emeralds and Topazes respectively – which improve their attacks strength and allow Adol access to more powerful attacks The game also ditches the dash-jump in favor of two new power-ups: the Brocia Serum allows Adol to run at high speeds – which can be set to either be permanently on (my preference) or activated by holding a button – and the double-jump, which is exactly what it sounds like. Both of these new abilities definitely add to the overall improved movement in this game. Adol also gains the ability to charge a Boost meter by attacking enemies. Once full, it can be activated at the push of a button to increase Adol’s speed and attack power. Felghana also does away with Adol’s ability to hold healing items: while herbs and other healing items can be found throughout the game world, they’re used up immediately. In addition, enemies often drop items that improve Adol’s attack, defense, or MP regeneration for a brief period. Long combos also multiply the amount of experience points Adol receives by defeating enemies, allowing for a maximum of 199% the normal rate.

The tweaks made to Wanderers from Ys’ story also find their way into the gameplay as well. The addition of the overworld, allows Adol to perform various sidequests – including a couple (mercifully short) escort missions – adding to the depth of the game’s overworld. My favorite addition to Felghana compared to previous versions is the fact that there are boss fights against Chester in this version – not one, but two! This change rectifies a problem that always struck me as weird: in Wanderers, Chester acted as the main antagonist for most of the game and was clearly built up as Adol’s rival, yet he only really seemed to fight Adol in cutscenes, making quick work of him. I’d say that the lack of a legitimate boss fight with Chester was perhaps Wanderers from Ys’ biggest flaw – even moreso than anything else Ys III “did wrong” – so it’s great to see the new version rectify this mistake.

Meanwhile, the graphics haven’t really improved all that much from The Ark of Napishtim. Which is expected, considering the fact that this game was originally designed by a niche Japanese developer on a platform that is famously unpopular in its region of origin. The 2D sprites maintain their pre-rendered look and some of the graphics reappear from Ys VI. Surprisingly, Adol’s graphics get redesigned – most notably adding a blue scarf that becomes a common design element in later games. Even more impressive is the fact that if Adol has a matching set of equipment equipped, his in-game appearance changes to reflect his loadout – a feature previously seen in the PS2 version of Ark of Napishtim. The 3D models do seem have improved slightly, likely owed to Falcom having greater experience with the medium by this point. Overall, things haven’t really changed much since the last game.

As I mentioned earlier, the music from Wanderers from Ys was not only considered the best part of the game, but among the best soundtracks in the entire series. Likewise, the TurboGrafx-16 version was generally accepted as having the best arrangements of these songs. However, The Oath in Felghana’s music managed to at least match, if not exceed, the quality of that incarnation. It was arranged by Yukihiro Jindo, the man who previously arranged the Ys I & II Chronicles soundtrack. As such, the game combines both synth with actual instruments to bring forth a much more organic sound than is generally associated with these compositions. Better still is the fact that many tracks that were extremely situational in the original versions of Wanderers from Ys have greater presence in this version. I already mentioned how “The Boy’s Got Wings” became Felghana’s overworld theme, but “The Theme of Chester” finally lives up to its name – no longer relegated to a secret song found in only a handful of versions of the game, it instead plays when Chester appears in various cutscenes. “Behold!”, originally used in the cutscene that introduced Galbalan, also received a significant promotion: it’s now a boss theme in its own right, accompanying the fight with Garland, the game’s penultimate boss. The sound effects in general are about on par with those found in The Ark of Napishtim, which makes sense given the fact that it was developed on the same hardware. They still work within the game’s context, so this was likely a case of decided not to fix what wasn’t broken.

Of the three games that comprise what many Ys fans refer to as the “Felghana Trilogy”, it’s obvious that Oath in Felghana was the most popular. The reasons behind this are a lot more obvious than one might expect. Felghana represents the final step in the evolution the series began undertaking with Ys V. While Ark of Napishtim played a huge part in refining the gameplay to a respectable level, Felghana would take things even further, essentially perfecting this playstyle. Oath in Felghana also owes a great deal of its popularity to its Western release. While the North American release of the PS2 version of Ys VI managed to release before even the original Japanese version and the PSP release wasn’t far behind, both localizations were handled by Konami. As such, they weren’t particularly well advertised and given the state of both systems when it was released – respectively, the most popular console with an onslaught of titles and Sony’s struggling experimental handheld – it’s easy to see how games like this could’ve been lost in the shuffle. Conversely, while XSEED is a much smaller company than Konami, they put a lot more effort into advertising even their most niche releases. Furthermore, The Oath in Felghana was the second Ys game they published – allowing them to build on their previous work with the brand in their target regions. Likewise, by 2010, the PSP had finally found its footing as a home for lower-budget niche titles, especially those from smaller Japanese developers. Meanwhile, the third and final game in this trilogy – which remained a PC exclusive for many years – wasn’t released outside of Japan until after XSEED released Felghana on PC – again, two years after the international PSP release. As such, for many fans that weren’t already familiar with the classic TG-CD releases or the various fan translations, Oath in Felghana may very well have been the first Ys game they were even aware of.

The Oath in Felghana certainly earns its reputation as one of the best games in the Ys series. It redeemed one of the least popular games in the entire franchise, making it one of the best video game remakes of all-time in my opinion. It also cemented a brand-new gameplay approach for the series, effectively perfecting a concept that was first pioneered in Ys V and substantially refined in Ys VI. Finally, it was among the first Ys games to be released in any official capacity outside of Japan since the original Wanderers from Ys. While that last point didn’t have much to do with the game itself, it did give the series some well-deserved recognition outside its native region and ended up creating an entirely new generation of western fans for the series. Yet, by my own measure, the best game in the “Felghana Trilogy” was still to come.

Ys Origin

So, we come to the latest Ys game I’ve played so far. Ys Origin is more obscure than it deserves to be. The last game in the what many fans dub the “Felghana Trilogy”, Origin doesn’t particularly “improve” on its predecessor in the same way Oath in Felghana improved on Ys VI. In fact, it’s hard to truly describe what the game does better than the previous game: it’s less of a refinement of the existing engine, more taking it well beyond its logical conclusion. Imagine, if you will, if Nintendo had made Ocarina of Time using the base gameplay of A Link to the Past – but instead of creating a game that goes well beyond the technical limitations of the SNES, it instead exceeds the concept of the original game in even the most fundamental ways.

Ys Origin was originally released on Windows PCs in Japan on December 21, 2006. Likely developed as a budget title to hold over audiences until the next major release in the series, Origin was developed using the same engine as The Ark of Napishtim and Oath in Felghana. Shortly after the game was released, Falcom released a patch with a great deal of additional content: new characters, new versions of existing characters, additional difficulty levels, an entirely new game mode and various other secrets. It was so expansive that Falcom had to ship a separate expansion disc to owners of the original version – free if they provided the serial number on their original copy. The game would be optimized and re-released for both Windows Vista and 7 in 2007 and 2010, respectively. On May 31, 2012, XSEED released a localized version of the game on digital storefronts, adding widescreen support, achievements to the Steam version, improving the gamepad support and adding cloud save functionality. This would be the second game they released on the platform and the first that required its own localization effort – once again, working from an existing fan translation. The following year, Falcom released one more version of the game – optimized for Windows 8 this time. The game was unique in the sense that it was the only Ys game that was essentially totally exclusive to the PC platform, until late 2016, when it was announced that DotEmu would be porting the game to both PlayStation 4 and Vita in 2017. While both versions were originally intended to be released simultaneously on February 21, 2017, the Vita version was pushed back to May 30 of the same year. The PlayStation versions both add additional languages and revamp the game’s UI, making it more readable on consoles.

I generally like to refer to Ys Origin as “Ys 0” – or if I’m feeling particularly clever, “Ys 0rigin” – because it’s a far-flung prequel to even the first Ys game. Taking place roughly 700 years before Adol’s first adventure, Origin documents the events that took place soon after the kingdom of Ys was first launched into the sky. After escaping a continent scourged by demons, the people of Ys live peacefully, ruled by the twin goddesses Reah and Feena and the six priests of Ys. However, one day, the twin goddesses disappeared suddenly and without warning. Worried for the safety of their deities, the six priests decided in to send a group of their strongest knights and most powerful magicians in secret to search the ground, fearing the worst. On their way down, a mysterious force sabotages the magical spell meant to teleport them safely to the surface, scattering the party across the now broken and desolate land. There they converge at Darm Tower, a colossal ziggurat seemingly built by the demons themselves with the sole purpose of invading Ys. To make matters worse, the Twin Roda trees – the sole surviving remnants of the land’s once-lush woods – inform the members of the search party that find them that the goddesses are currently within the demonic structure. As the party begins to regroup, their mission becomes clear: recover the goddesses at all costs to keep their power out of the hands of these demons. But is there more to their disappearance than meets the eye?

Ys Origin is unique in the sense that it’s the first mainline game in the series where players don’t play as Adol Christin. To make up for this shortcoming, the game gives you a whopping 3 characters to play with in the main story – though only two of them are available from the start. Yunica Tovah is a young knight and the granddaughter of one of the six priests. Yunica’s father was also one of the two knights that sacrificed themselves to cover Ys’ ascent from the hordes of demons assaulting the land. Lacking any magical ability – a sad irony given the prowess of her family – Yunica instead decided she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a knight to protect the goddesses after a chance encounter with them when she was a child which led to a life-long friendship. Wielding a small axe, what Yunica lacks in combat experience, she more than makes up for in zeal. Yunica’s got average speed and attack range, effectively making her Adol’s equivalent in this game. Hugo Fact, on the other hand, lives up to his family’s legacy: he’s a powerful magician, but fairly cold. He wields both a magic staff and the Eyes of Fact: two magical orbs that triple his spellcasting ability and were passed down through his family. Unbeknownst to his comrades, Hugo was specifically chosen to determine the whereabouts of his older brother, the other knight who covered Ys’ escape into the sky and seemingly died alongside his comrade. Hugo’s playstyle is actually fairly unique for an Ys game: his long-range projectile attacks allow him to play more like a character out of a shoot-‘em-up like Ikari Warriors than the traditional melee style associated with the Ys franchise in general. To compensate for his wider range, Hugo moves slower than Yunica. Complete the game’s story with one or both characters – it depends on which version you have – and you unlock “The Claw”. The Claw is a figure mired in mystery, a former denizen of Ys who gave up everything in return for demonic powers. Working with the Darklings – the group manipulating the demonic horde into building Darm Tower – The Claw has an untold history with both of the game’s protagonists, as well as veiled motivations behind his actions. The Claw manages to be even more melee-focused than Yunica, sacrificing range for increased speed.

Aside from the new playstyles, the gameplay in Origin is mostly unchanged from Oath in Felghana. It’s to the extent where if you’re playing the game as Yunica, the game comes across as a simple graphic and level mod for Felghana, not unlike video game sequels from earlier generations. One major change made to the game is the fact that there is no overworld: after the game’s opening sequences, the entire game takes place within Darm Tower. The first floor, once cleared of the enemies that act as a tutorial, acts as the search party’s base of operations. The most impressive part about Darm Tower in this game is just how diverse the various segments of it are. While in the original Ys, most of the tower had similar theming, Origin’s reimagining includes an underwater segment, allowing swimming (which is representing by the ability to jump in mid-air perpetually) but also implementing a limited air meter; a desert temple characterized by solid gold platforms with as little traction as an ice floe and even the now-traditional lava area, now supplemented with spinning blades and other death traps. Various corrupted statues of the goddesses litter the tower, but using a Crystal given to the character near the beginning of the game, they can be purified and used as save points. These statues also allow the characters to upgrade their armor and leggings and buy other stat boosts that permanently power-up their characters by using SP, the game’s stand-in for traditional currency. Finally, as with Felghana before it, these statues can also be used as warp points from anywhere on the map by using the crystal.

That’s not to say there are no changes from the previous game. For starters, armor and leggings – replacing Adol’s traditional shield – can only be upgraded once per item. However, the weapons wielded by each character remain a constant throughout the entire game. They can be upgraded by finding Cleria ore and having their weapons tempered by Rico Gemma, a magician who resides at base camp. Likewise, the Boost system returns but acts differently depending on the character: Yunica gets a more traditional stat boost, while Hugo’s Eyes of Fact double, giving him five shots as opposed to his standard three. Three magical relics are also found throughout the Tower, granting Yunica and Hugo new magic attacks. However, the attacks differ between characters. For example, the Levinstrike Warhammer grants its user lightning magic, but while Yunica gains a powerful smash attack, Hugo gains the ability to place remote mines that he can detonate manually or automatically after a brief period. These different approaches to magical attacks generally suit their character’s playstyle, which leads to much wider diversity in gameplay. These relics can be upgraded by various gems once again – the same Emeralds, Topazes and Rubies return from Felghana to achieve this goal. There are also Roos hidden throughout the Tower, each of which offers a power-up as a reward, if you find the area’s corresponding Roda Fruit and feed it to them.

Each character has their own unique storyline, though this has little effect on the Tower’s layout. This does mean that unique bosses are fought in each story mode – not to mention bosses fought at different points – which means that there’s enough of a reason to replay the game multiple times to see how the different scenarios play out. Speaking of which, I love how Falcom handled the bosses in this game, I think they’re among the best in the entire series. Most Ys games’ bosses rely entirely on reflexes, but many of the bosses in Origin require a mild amount of strategy to damage. They’re not quite puzzles, but I’ll give an example: when fighting Nygtilger, one must first remove his entire protective shell, plate by plate, before dealing damage as the giant arthropod erratically fires off thunderbolts and poisonous orbs, requiring planning and spontaneity in equal measure to overcome. There are also additional modes that can be unlocked by completing the game. Time Attack – the Ys series’ now-traditional boss rush mode – is unlocked character-by-character upon completing the game. Beat the game with all 3 characters unlocks both the new Arena mode and a Bonus shop. The arena mode consists of arena-based combat in levels themed after areas in the main campaign, fighting against waves of enemies constantly increasing in strength and number. The Bonus Shop allows you to spend the SP you win by beating stages in Arena mode on additional content. New stages in the arena, powered up versions of the three playable characters and even unlocking Adol Christin as a playable character – albeit only in Time Attack and Arena mode. All of this additional content gives Ys Origin a level of replay value no previous game in the series could even hope to match.

As with Felghana before it, the graphics still haven’t really changed much since The Ark of Napishtim. Considering the increased amount of characters, Falcom has decided to ditch changing the graphics depending on the character’s equipment for the most part this time. There is one minor example of graphics changing based on loadout, however: when Yunica obtains the final magical relic, she’s able to switch out her axe for the Crimson Lotusblade, which changes both her appearance and fighting style in equal measure. Once again, the sprites are essentially identical in style, but the 3D models show minor improvement over even those found in Felghana. You really get the feeling that Falcom was using these games to improve their 3D modelling skills for future projects that relied entirely on them, as opposed to the mixed-media approach seen in this game and its predecessors. I think this game uses full-motion video cutscenes more often than previous games in this style, which doesn’t necessarily improve Origin’s graphical prowess, but does help to better convey the game’s environment and narrative in ways that the overhead and isometric perspectives are often limited.

Given the fact that the game takes place in the familiar Darm Tower, it’s only fitting that much of the music are new arrangements of songs that originated in both Ys I and II. For example, “TOWER OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH” appears as the first section’s theme – this time around however, it’s a much lighter theme, representing the beginning of the adventure within Darm Tower, as opposed to the conclusion of Ys I. There are also several new compositions as well, so there’s a good mixture of old and new in Origin’s soundtrack, which works out perfectly fine for me. Adding to the speculation that this game was a budget title, the game’s soundtrack generally consists of synthetic instruments, and as such, most compositions are credited to the Falcom Sound Team jdk. A few tracks do manage to see some real instruments mixed in there – most credited to Yukihiro Jindo – but honestly, at this point, Falcom’s synths are of high enough quality and it’s not really that detrimental to the compositions. My favorite returning tracks from this game are “TENSION”, “OVER DRIVE” and “SO MUCH FOR TODAY”. “PRELUDE TO THE OMEN”, the sixth section’s theme; the major boss theme “SCARS OF THE DIVINE WING” and the Darklings’ theme “THE ROOT OF DARKNESS” are my favorite original tracks from this game. As with the base gameplay and graphics, the sound effects are about on par with those from the last two games. The really interesting thing is that there isn’t a single version of Origin that had voice acting, which I was honestly fine with – listening to the voice acting from the PlayStation versions of both Ys VI and Felghana made it seem like it would have ended up distracting me in the long run.

Ys Origin’s relative obscurity is ill-deserved, but understandable. Considering that it spent 6 years as a PC exclusive game tied to a region where the platform’s gaming audience is incredibly niche, I’m surprised that the game wasn’t completely forgotten. Fortunately, as with the Ys Eternal/Complete games and Oath in Felghana, Origin was given a fan-made translation, which significantly increased the game’s profile among the niche Japanese PC gaming community in the West. Given the fact that most Japanese games are generally more popular on consoles – in both their native land and internationally – it is surprising that it took so long for Origin to hit consoles, even more amazing that Falcom had to rely on a Western company to handle this port in the first place: I would’ve expected this to have come out on the PSP around the time Oath in Felghana hit it. Better late than never though, right?

As of right now, Ys Origin is the latest game in the series I’ve played. Fitting, considering it’s a perfect place to end this retrospective: I’ve managed to cover the entire lineage of the first two styles of Ys gameplay – as well as a few curiosities worth mentioning. I hope that I’ve been able to provide an overview of the series’ history to those unfamiliar with the series and reminded long-time fans of their favorite moments in the series. As with the Zelda retrospective, I do plan on doing a follow-up in the future, likely involving everything from Ys Seven to the upcoming – at least outside of Japan – Lacrimosa of Dana, the first game in the series since Ys Seven to be localized in English by any company besides XSEED. NIS America is handling the English translation this time and while the fanbase is worried, I’m cautiously optimistic: their involvement is likely how we managed to establish a PC release – and a simultaneous one at that! – in the first place. While Ys Seven and Memories of Celceta are still exclusively available on the PlayStation Portable and Vita respectively, I’m still hoping against all logic that they’ll manage to receive PC ports before Ys VIII releases in North America. Regardless, I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.

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Retrospective: Tekken

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Logo remastered by RingoStarr39

If Double Dragon II, Mega Man 2, Contra and Sonic the Hedgehog got me interested in video games in general, then the fighting game explosion of the 1990s cemented that interest into love. Street Fighter – specifically Street Fighter II – seems like the perfect game to do a retrospective on with regards to this genre: it’s currently celebrating its 30th anniversary, Street Fighter II led to the genre’s explosion decades ago and Street Fighter IV led to the mainstream resurgence we’re enjoying to this day. The problem with discussing Street Fighter is not only has it been done to death, but there are far too many iterations of the various games, to the extent where it becomes difficult to discern what’s a revision, what’s an expansion and what’s a sequel in many cases. It doesn’t help that, bare minimum, you’re dealing with at least 3 different flavors of gameplay, possibly even more depending on who you ask.

So where does that leave us? I kind of fell out of Mortal Kombat between its original foray into 3D and the spectacular reboot. There are way too many games in the King of Fighters franchise to write a coherent article on. I’m barely versed in Guilty Gear and Blazblue’s story can be a little incoherent at times. Why not Tekken? What Street Fighter II did for me with 2D fighters, Tekken 2 did for me with their 3D counterparts. Since then, I’ve been a fan of the series: I even owned a VHS tape of “Tekken: The Motion Picture”, a movie that butchered the story of the first 2 games not unlike Mortal Kombat’s first live-action film. As such, I’m fairly well versed with the franchise in general, though admitted I’ve had my peaks and valleys when it comes to the series. Best of all, the latest game in the series – Tekken 7 – is set to hit Western shores via console today. As a bonus, Tekken will be releasing on PC (via Steam) for the first time ever with its latest entry. So, let’s look back on how we got here and delve into the grand history of the King of Iron Fist Tournament. I’ll be sticking with the mainline entries in the series: don’t expect anything on ports, spinoffs or the movies, live-action or otherwise – not even the free-to-play Tekken Revolution, which has been taken down in preparation for T7’s release. Those fall outside of my field of expertise and for the most part, the Tekken fanbase would rather disavow their existence anyway.

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Retrospective: The Legend of Zelda – Part I

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Welcome to the first in a sporadic series of retrospectives I’m planning on doing. Considering that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild releases today, it seems only fitting that I start with the Zelda franchise. This is, by no means, a complete look back on the entire series. While I do plan a follow-up in the future to round out the remainder of the series, as of right now I’ve only played through many but not all of the Zelda games. In addition to the ones listed below, I’ve also managed to play Skyward Sword and A Link Between Worlds. So, given the fact that I’ve played what could potentially be considered the first half of the Zelda franchise – a bit less, honestly – I figured I might as well cover my thoughts on the franchise’s early days in honor of its latest release. Continue reading