26 August 2008 | jpvarga5
A trailblazer for a cinematic games to come
Some of you may have played the original Ys on the Sega Master System, or Ys 3 on the Genesis, SNES, or The Ark of Napishtim on the PS2, PSP (technically the 6th in the series), but the best - and sadly underplayed - release in the West was Ys Book I & II on the first console to use a CD-ROM - the TurboGrafx-16/CD. Ys originally appeared as a 2 part/2 game story for Japanese PC back in the 80s. The game itself is actually a remake of those first two Ys games merged into one narrative (it works well, since the first game basically ends "to be continued") While at its heart, the game is basically a Zelda-style game, what set this particular version apart was its groundbreaking presentation.
Strange as it sounds, what defines Ys more then anything is the music, but not because the rest of it isn't up to par - the music actually enhances the whole experience - it TELLS the game's story and gives the whole quest this evocative quality. Perhaps it was the shock of going from NES music to REAL music that made such an impression on me, but even many latter-day J-RPG soundtracks don't even compare (as good as the compositions in Final Fantasy VII are, for example, the sound quality still sounds like a goofy wavetable set for Sound Blaster 16 by comparison). The only music in Ys that could be called "ordinary" would be the town music. To fit both games on one CD-ROM, the designers opted to give the towns standard TG synth music. It actually works well, strangely, enough, since you feel safe when you are not being bombarded with violins and electric guitars. The original music was composed by Yuzo Koshiro, of Actraiser and Streets of Rage fame. His original compositions were re-arranged for this version, but you can still hear his style in the pieces. Ys music is so popular in Japan, that the amount of arranged soundtracks and OSTs for the games easily rivals Final Fantasy's catalog.
On top of the epic music, you get a voice cast consisting of Alan Oppenheimer, Jim Cummings, and Michael Bell - all of whom have done voice acting for countless cartoons, video games, and movies (He-Man, Neverending Story, Lost Odyssey, you name it) - and even Thomas Haden Church (Sideways, Spider-Man 3). Story-wise, don't expect the bloated philosophical pondering of Xenogears, but it does go beyond the standard kill-the-evil-demon plot. You essentially play part hero/part archaeologist as you investigate the legends surrounding an Atlantis-esqe civilization known as Ys (pronounced "ease"). The "uncovering" part actually gives the game some of its mystique (captured greatly by the music as well) since you feel like you are doing much more then simply killing a bad guy.
The only part of the game that might considered detracting to some is the combat system. It's real-time like Zelda, but what sets apart is its lack of an attack button. Basically, you equip a sword and you literally ram into the enemies. Depending on the your stats, equipment, and the angle of attack, you will either damage the enemy and send it reeling back or it will do the same to you. While I've noticed its been an initial turn-off to some gamers since we're all weened to strike our sword with an attack button, it actually feels very succinct and intuitive once you get used to it. The boss battles usually require trickier strategies and you'll eventually be introduced to magic attacks, but the combat system is rather unique. The actual in-game graphics stray somewhere between 8-bit and 16-bit. They're effective and do the job, but I get the impression the designers let the cut-scenes and music "tell the story". Its effective in that it you really don't "notice" the in-game graphics being rather mundane.
To those who have never played Ys in 1990 and were to do so now, I imagine it may not instill the same amount of awe and wonder that it did for a 12 year old gamer just weened off of the NES. Even the series' contemporary remakes and sequels can only add so much more polish to a formula that looks pretty run-of-the-mill by today's standards. However, to those who download it, I think most can appreciate that it represented something unique back in 1990, at least. Today's games may have pushed cinematic quality and narration far beyond Ys, but when I experienced this game for the first time, it was a shocking revelation. It was a fortune-teller showing me that games would soon no longer consist of contrived settings and mindless hand-eye coordination tests. You could convey emotion and grandeur in a video game on a level every bit as good as cinema. To me, many aspects of modern games - certainly Japanese games - owe a debt paved by Ys on the Turbo. Seeing it re-emerge after so many years of obscurity has really helped me appreciate what it showed me all those years ago.
(Small Note: One reviewer mentioned that "Book II" is actually a more challenging version of "Book I". This incorrect. II is a direct sequel to I.)