Ys [1987/1989]

You may or may not have picked up on this if you’re a regular reader, but I’m not good at playing video games. I’m kinda bad at them, with limited exception. Most titles, I muddle through with nothing more than bloody-minded persistence to try over and over again. I don’t ever know first-hand what high-level play of any given game is like, and it’s not because I’m burning through games on an accelerated schedule for the blog. I have beaten hard games, I have even appreciated and stood up for the artistic merit of hard games, but ultimately I must say I do not enjoy hard games. They make me unhappy. Classically, the kind of emotional response they stir in me is a dull aggravation, spiking into acute frustration if it’s too intense or long-lasting, and after I’ve gotten past difficult spots I do not feel the kind of triumph I’ve heard described over and over by many other game players, but instead a mere weary relief that it’s finally done with and I don’t have to deal with it anymore. The typical antidote to this sour taste for me is to find the mature serenity to embrace the pleasures of the moment rather than focus on the obligation of accomplishment.

This is all prelude to say that Ancient Ys Vanished [1987/1989] is, with a couple small hiccups, one of the easiest games I’ve ever played. Its difficulty is similar to games for pre-schoolers like Putt-Putt Enters The Race [1999]. Indeed, it was an active priority of the designers to make this a “kinder” game. Ostensibly, this is an RPG, with stats and armor and experience points and everything, but every element of gameplay is streamlined beyond streamlining, into outright trivialization. Unless you are under-levelled or under-equipped, there is little to no friction to speak of, nothing seriously opposing or impeding the player character’s progression through the gameworld. If you ever do feel overly challenged, you can use the elite technique of “grinding” as a soft difficulty-select and simply walk back and forth for a few minutes, though thankfully this is as per usual not actually required past the opening sequence introducing you to the game’s combat and progression system. Most of the time, you just push through enemies like they’re not even there, like you’re swimming through water. Even the big evil final boss went down in like 3 or 4 strikes of my sword. You can die, but even in this case the game allows you multiple save slots and the ability to use them at any time, with no possibility to my best figuring of an unwinnable gamestate: that is, one where you needed to do something earlier on in the game, and have now saved at a later point where you can’t do that and therefore must restart from scratch, which is the traditional shape of game facilitated by a save-anywhere-anytime model.

Composer Yuzo Koshiro rearranged by Ryo Yonemitsu — Palace [1987/1989]

Ys makes an interesting comparison point for NetHack [1987-2023] from last post. They share one crucial similarity: though both are RPGs, all battling of enemies takes place on the “overworld” rather than splitting off into some kind of separate battling interface. You just walk or “bump” into enemies to attack them. Beyond that, though, they almost could not be more different. NetHack is a methodical turn-based experience with a surfeit of different approaches, including ranged attacks. Ys is an “action” RPG, emerging from the same pool as Hydlide [1984], The Legend Of Zelda [1986], or Falcom’s own Dragon Slayer [1984] and Xanadu [1985], direct ancestors of Ys. Strategy in Ys is deciding to stab ghoulies in the back or side or a little bit off-center rather square. Walking in tight circles is an excellent strategy, but most of the time you can heedlessly walk dead-on into enemies face-first and still be fine. You don’t even really have to manage resources.

Case in point, Ys has automatically regenerating health. It’s an extremely early example of this mechanic, but it’s not quite the first game to have it: at a minimum, there’s Hydlide, the cornerstone progenitor example of Ys’ genre, and there’s Punch-Out [1984]. In Punch-Out, your regenerating health is hard-earned and you have to reach out and get it — something like Doom [2016]. In Ys and Hydlide, conversely, you just stop moving and let the health roll in by itself. There’s a couple of obvious immediate implications of this.

Firstly, nigh-infinite health can be said to remove the resource management angle on health, the gamble with life-or-death stakes. In a game like Dragon Quest [1986], rather than seeking to ideally avoid all damage as in other kinds of games, you effectively trade health for experience points and money, and this is the core loop. The player has to negotiate a balancing act of seeking the most beneficial “investment” of their HP, where they push their luck chasing more and tougher dragons for bigger returns and slower losses, at the risk of losing all their gains between replenishment of their supply. Ys still has experience points and money and it has something of this dynamic, but the trade is here less a drawn-out accumulation of nicks and scrapes and more of a succeed/fail binary: if you don’t straight-up die to an encounter, then you’re fine. This is admittedly less dramatic, and its isolation of injury to single incidents does not lend itself to an experience of an accumulated saga… which is I surmise why Ys suspends its automatic replenishing health for boss battles and some of its extended dungeon crawls, especially the early ones so they feel more like a struggle to make the later ease feel like an increase in power. These dungeons are still plenty easy, though they are noticeably labyrinthine as a way to replace combat difficulty with spatial difficulty, an echo of the maze game craze of the early 80s.

Secondly, waiting for health to replenish… this can be and has been said to be the opposite of playing a video game, a kind of “unplaying.” I understand where this is coming from, but I gently object. The negative space, the rest, this too is part of a video game, its very rhythm and feel. Ys is a relaxing experience, and inviting the player to frequently pause for a short moment is congruent with that. There are some games that are all frenetic activity all the time and no rest, and though that might be the Most Video Game, I don’t think that’s an ideal all games should trend towards but an entirely different mood being aimed for, a panicked and frenetic one that I personally don’t even particularly like.

For some people out there, those who for one reason or another seek challenge, or who feel success is all the sweeter for the failure, this all might be considered a negative. To me, this is lovely. This is delightful. This is wonderful. I had a blast. I did not have to make a special effort to center myself on the pleasures of the moment, because it was simple and pleasurable to exist in Ys. I deep down wish every game I played was so trivially easy, though intellectually I recognize that would be very limiting for what the artistic medium could do.

Though you do sacrifice some artistic expressions in a thoroughgoing forgoing of friction, the gameplay that does exist does support Ys’ overall mood and storytelling, which is akin to chilling under the shade of a big tree. Ys shows us an amicable world, pleasant and pastoral. Everyone’s nice, and everything’s nice. The land is troubled and besieged, but not to an extent that society can’t carry on in a basically decent condition, and also not to an extent that can’t be managed, and then eliminated by our lone hero.

Key to Ys’ storytelling and worldbuilding is its relatively dynamic world state. To put it simply, things change as the plot progresses. In Ultima 4 [1985] or Dragon Quest, everything to be discovered in the game is actually already there when you load the game. These games still have plots that progress, but for progression it relies on two similar kludges where the player has to be actively and directly causally involved in making the machinery move forward: inventory items, and passwords. The player character collects and then schleps these keys around the world, presenting them where they make sense, at which point about one character per key says something different or one new interaction occurs. Incidentally, this makes these games trivially easy to “sequence break” by knowing passwords or the location of inventory items before the game tells you them. To my memory there’s one exception to this rule in each game: In Ultima 4, Lord British seems always appraised of your overall current game state so as to offer hints, and in Dragon Quest, there is a whole post-game segment that changes all dialogue in the game to celebrate your victory over the final boss. Broadly, this works for each game and is built-in to their flow, but it can feel uncanny and static.

Ys, on the other hand, has many things change all at once that have no obvious direct causal relationship to the player’s efforts, though they are not in actuality independent and are still transparently triggered by the player character’s advancement. Things stay the same indefinitely, but then you collect some doo-hickey from a chest in a dungeon or beat a boss battle and come back out and a couple people are saying something different and unrelated to the doo-hickey. People show up, and other people go away. There is even a moment in the game where you’re just walking down a hallway and when you hit a hot spot, some baddies suddenly and unexpected burst through the wall, leaving a permanent hole! This is exciting. The potential pitfall to this approach, like those of regenerating health, is familiar to any seasoned game player: the story may present you with an obstacle to progress, which you cannot make effort to surpass through any direct and logical means no matter how much you bash your head against it, and instead the obstacle comes down as a result of your doing something unrelated to advance the global gamestate, which can be frustrating to solve. Ys sidesteps this issue entirely, though, by being extremely simple and having no superfluous obstacles.

The actual storyline of Ys is the familiar, paper-thin, unreconstructed “defeat the evil wizard, and oh also rescue a damsel in distress” plot that Dragon Quest already used and which Ultima 4 specifically avoided because the series had used it 3 times already and thought it was tired. (Falcom’s earlier Xanadu retraced images from Ultima 3 [1983], which did use this plot structure.) The player character, Adol, steps off a boat and a dock and an oracle immediately singles him out as a kind of chosen one, the only person who can defeat Darm, and proceeds to guide his early steps towards this goal. Adol is deliberately a non-character, an empty, silent vessel for passively assumed but never explicitly outlined virtue, competence, and audience affection.

It might be the case, actually, that Adol’s suitability for defeating Darm is precisely that he is a stranger to everyone, and thus detached from their petty concerns and resignation to the status quo, which dovetails with people doing their own stuff disconnected from Adol’s efforts even though he’s the protagonist. Every human in the game besides Darm is perfectly pleasant and upright, and yet there’s a lot of distrust and theft floating around. One of the couple of optional sidequests in the game, very early on, regards a man who says he lost a sapphire ring but he’s sure it was stolen by the local gang of bandits. This ring can be found in the pawn shop in the same town, suggesting that the pawn shop operator is in cahoots with the thieves, but she too alleges that those bandits stole a silver sword from her shop. You will come to find that there’s been a rash of missing and stolen silver items, suggesting some nefarious and organized reason bigger than mere banditry, which will actually be confirmed as true. The actual guilt or innocence of the alleged bandits who are being used as scapegoats cannot actually be established, though. Sure, they admit to theft in the abstract, but no specific thefts. The door into Darm Tower is actually in the back of their hideout, suggesting some kind of connection. But they’re very happy to let you walk right in when you’re ready, suggesting… well, I can think of at least 4 reasons why they might let you, some exculpatory and some cynical, and none with any particular textual support. It’s not exactly a searing panorama of paranoia, but it does suggest how the shadowy evil figure can subtly sow discord in a community not with magic but by exploiting ambiguity and suspicion. Or these ambiguities could be the product of the mere absence of writing and thought on this subplot inside the text itself…

Over the course of the game, the player is tasked with assembling the Books of Ys, which contain a narrative on how Ancient Ys Vanished. It’s the decline-from-a-golden-past jeremiad that’s been in circulation since antiquity. Once again, what sticks out to me about this storytelling is what’s not there, how everything is ambiguous due to lack of explanation. The books are written by a collection of priests and are transparently biased, with a consistently strong editorializing and moralizing bent. Prosperity is persistently tied to evil, posited both as a breeding ground for it and a false facade borne of it. Darm summons demons and causes some kind of cataclysmic lava eruption, and the priests blame something that makes no appearance outside the books called “Cleria” for the misfortune for no reason that they feel obligated to make clear to us, and accordingly seal it away. They also seal away the things they think are good, including the books themselves. Adol proceeds to spend the entire game killing Darm and his demons, but also unsealing everything the priests sealed, and so accepting and vindicating their moral calculations but refuting their retreat. The priestly explication of what happened, how, and why is more focused on their idea of virtue than a clear-eyed accounting of factual this-then-this causality.

While the game is defined by the ample negative space in its gameplay and storytelling, it also fills that space with some important presentational pizazz. I played the 1989 Turbografx-CD/PC-Engine “Books 1 + 2” remake because it was the first English language translation (EDIT: as a commenter below helpfully points out this is not actually true!) and the 1987 PC-88 version isn’t, to my knowledge, translated, but as an added bonus, it was one of the first dozen or so video games ever released on CD (CD-Rom2, in fact, which actually confusingly predates the CD-ROM.) Remakes in general tend to seem rather pointless to my puny historicist brain, but in this case there’s an obvious reason why this game exists in this form at this time. Ys, already a hit game, is here refit for use as a dazzling showcase for new technology — like Spacewar [1962], so long ago. Sat among its 1987 and 1989 peers, and even its own 1987 version, it is immediately apparent how huge a deal the CD is going to be for video games and why.

The first thing that leaps out is the sound. After a brief title, the screen goes black and the music (“Feena”) kicks in: a powerful, typically-1980s repeatedly arpeggiated chord underscored with a low drone. Then, speech! Real human speech, not tricky hacky synthesis like in Berzerk [1980] or Skate Or Die 2 [1990] but simply a recording played back, at profligate length and high fidelity. Falcom staff composers Yuzo Koshiro and Mieko Ishikawa, who both worked on Ys, were already renowned for their music — real stand-out trailblazers in faux-symphonic chiptune who would set the standard for those who came later. Though unfortunately and maddeningly, the entire back half of the game is monotonously scored with just one track looping for literal hours on end. In 1987, Falcom was proud enough of their games’ soundtracks that they began to, for I believe the first time, release the music to their games for sale as a separate standalone listening experience. (What a far cry from the way Matthew Smith of Manic Miner [1983] just 4 years earlier had to torture the ZX Spectrum into producing a horrendous racket which he foregrounded because he was quite justifiably proud of it!) In 1988, the score to Ys was even arranged into a symphony for a live orchestrated recording. And in 1989, Ryo Yonemitsu arranged it again for the PC-Engine port.

This music is being played back off the CD like any other music on CD, according to standard Red Book protocols. It’s just cueing up tracks like hitting skip on a CD player, it’s an automated and more sophisticated take on syncing up the sides of the tapes for Deus Ex Machina [1984]. The big thing to understand is that the music isn’t being synthesized by the consumer’s home computer hardware, so the technological constraints of that unit are no longer a bottleneck. (The remaining issue is that you can hardly play two tracks at the same time in this implementation, so when it loads up a vocal line it has to have the background music baked in with the vocals and the seam as it switches between the two is quite noticeable, as it can’t be on-beat and there’s also a palpable drop in the audio quality of the music for probably technical reasons that I can’t guess.) You can use brute storage space to get around processing limitations, if you don’t need that element to be highly responsive. This is perhaps easiest to implement with music, since that’s what CDs were made for, but the principle later on applies to all forms of data. Ys’ music on CD is sort of the aural equivalent of the “pre-rendered 3D” strategy you may be familiar with from 1990s titles like Myst [1993] or Final Fantasy 7 [1997].

Point is, there can be theoretically any arbitrary sound on the disc. And yet… what’s on there is video game music. Of course it is, it’s a rearrangement of pre-existing chiptunes. But they could have redone it with live instrumentation — remember, they already did — and instead, it’s synthesizers through and through, with only just enough non-synthesized material (a sound effect here, a guitar part there, the aforementioned speech,) to demonstrate that that is an option. The sonically impressive touches are mainly fodder for audiophiles, nice high-grade synthesizers and delicate production touches like reverb to give things a much-appreciated presence, roundness, depth, and spaciousness. There’s an economic basis for this. For one thing, orchestras are not cheap. Instead of paying many session musicians, you can save money and time if you can pay just the composer(s) to do all the work, even if you splurge on nice equipment. (This is also the secret of Hans Zimmer’s career.) For another, there’s institutional inertia. Already in 1989, there’s a well-established production pipeline for video game music. Even when it’s not directly adapting prior chiptunes, the people who created chiptunes often kept their jobs into the post-chiptune era, and they naturally took their expertise and sensibilities with them. The composers of video game music therefore had much more time to develop their unique blends of symphonic music, prog rock, jazz fusion, synthpop, and into the 90s various electronic dance music styles into a coherent melange with multi-generational sticking power.

The next thing that’s apparent after the sound is the image. Dragon Quest made high virtue of its eye candy, but in the fashion of Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? [1985]: the monster designs, courtesy of the famous Akira Toriyama, are a good-looking principal attraction but also static insets. CD Ys gives us limited animation, things like pans and palette shifting and cycles of a few frames of motion, most extensively in this intro and its outro. Though it’s transparently grasping for the state of cinema what with its letterboxing, it is not, to put a fine point on it, a video in “full motion” and on closer inspection is a bit of an animated comic. Most immediately striking is its depth of color and fineness of detail, including linework, especially paired so closely with the impact of the sonic detail. Sure, you can see the hard edge of pixels, and it does not have the kind of bold art design that makes a game like The Fool’s Errand [1987] look so pretty regardless of its technical limitations… but that’s just the thing. Other than the extremely limited animation, Ys doesn’t look like it’s compromising with technical limitations at all. It’s a totally adequate recreation of contemporary anime visual style. That’s not a groundbreaking idea even for the late 80s — you can go compare it against, say, the original PC-88 Snatcher [1988] or Square’s Alpha [1986] and the most obvious difference is the lack of dithering in the colors in the 1989 remake. The art of the 1987 PC-88 original was reasonably competitive with these elite peers, but a bit flat. The artwork of this 1989 remake is top-shelf, slick and professional, a slight cut above the competition on technological grounds and well-drawn besides.

The cutting edge cuts both ways, though. For Falcom, though the company does very well for itself to this day and always basically has, and hell is probably more profitable and popular in later eras in terms of raw numbers… this era represents a kind of high water mark. Like Enix, Square, or Microcabin, Falcom was borne of Japan’s hobbyist personal computer scene in the early 80s and was initially a publisher for distributing things made by local programmers, before it hired those programmers as staff developers. Success accumulated year over year until it was an indisputable industry and genre leader, but then Falcom started hemorrhaging staff. Like, ludicrous levels of turnover. It was, by all accounts, an awful place to work under the reign of founder Masayuki Kato, one that took a pretty combative attitude towards its own employees, always fought over compensation and the mere existence of credits, and even hired underage workers. I’m inclined to almost-baseleesly speculate that internal politics around the outsourced 1989 remake itself may have been a sore point (e.g, Yuzo Kohiro on the various rearrangements he was not involved in: “It is unfortunate about the copyrights, but I am very much grateful for the Ys and Sorcerian franchises because so many people heard my music through them. I was actually not so excited about the arrange albums at the time, but now I feel differently.”)

Everyone who worked on the original Ys, save one person, left the company for one reason or another during 1989, the release year not only of the remake of the first two games but of Ys 3: Wanderers From Ys [1989], a spin-off refashioned into a sequel by Falcom’s executive decree. The exodus would continue for several years until the company had lost all the workers that had built its reputation and franchises save a handful, and naturally this loss of sheer skilled manpower (as well as, everyone says, a focus on computer games over console games which among other things made penetrating the Western market difficult,) would stymy Falcom’s ability to play keep up with the strides its close contemporary Square was making through the 1990s. After this remake, never again would the company come even close to pushing the technological envelope nor bringing to market the most impressively polished presentation available anywhere.

And they didn’t even make the remake! Hudson-Soft did. Hudson-Soft, for obvious reasons, would later be picked use the same engine to develop one of TWO wholly-outsourced Yses 4s, Ys 4: The Dawn Of Ys [1993]. Ys soldiered on (or shambled on) without any of its originating creatives, and now has possibly the most entries of any RPG series that’s not Final Fantasy. Falcom has released many more Ys remakes and they’re releasing a Ys 10 this year that will allegedly follow directly on from Ys 2. This is how franchises generally work.


3 thoughts on “Ys [1987/1989]

  1. Hi, great work here; I’ve read most of your articles. I want to make one correction, though: the Turbo CD version of Ys was not the first to be translated into English. The Sega Master System, MS-DOS, and Apple IIgs versions were all released in the US in 1989, while the Turbo CD released stateside in 1990.


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