The Ys series is one of the longest running franchises in gaming — yet it’s not nearly as well known as the Final Fantasies and Zeldas of this world.
This is a shame, because not only does Ys represent developer Falcom arguably at its finest, the series as a whole has also been key in the development of the action RPG as a subgenre.
It also holds the dubious honour of being one of the most remade series of all time, refreshing and rewriting its various installments long before the concept of the HD remake ever reared its head.
Let’s take a look at the main series’ various releases in chronological order and see how it’s developed.
Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished – Omen
The first Ys game appeared in 1987 on the popular Japanese home computer platforms PC-8801, PC-9801, FM-7, X1 and MSX2. These systems were all very strong in the early years of Japanese gaming; Western systems like the Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit range of computers simply didn’t make a mark in Japan. It’s at least partly due to the popularity of what we perceive as “non-standard” PC systems here in the West that even the Japan of today seems to lag a bit behind us in the uptake of PC gaming, though this is changing with the growth of the doujin sector and the continuing popularity of visual novels worldwide, both of which seem to have accepted Windows as their platform of choice for the most part.
Although computer role-playing games had been around for a few years at this point — the Ultima series had been well underway since the beginning of the decade, for example, and Dragon Quest had come out a year earlier — Falcom took the bold decision to strip out most of the typical complexity of the genre, including turn-based battles, and make a game designed with accessibility and simplicity in mind. The game’s combat was even simpler than that found in Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda, which had first appeared a year earlier, in that it didn’t require a dedicated attack button; instead, Ys introduced what is now affectionately referred to as the “bump” system, whereby attacking enemies was an automatic process when the protagonist Adol collided with them.
The decision behind the use of this curious system was simple: it made the game easy to understand, pick up and play, even for those who might have felt daunted by the apparent complexity of more conventional role-playing games. Indeed, it gave the game a rather more “arcadey” pace than most of its contemporaries, intended to make the act of level-grinding a pleasurable rather than a tedious task.
Ys I has been remade numerous times over the years, beginning with Nintendo’s Famicom in 1988. This port, developed by Victor Musical Industries (better known as JVC Entertainment today) rather than Falcom itself, took a considerable number of liberties with the original source material, with rearranged maps for towns, field screens and dungeons alike as well as new music and a new final battle sequence.
The version for Sega’s Master System, which came out later in 1988, was much more authentic to the original, though for some curious reason some of the dungeon areas were flipped in orientation. The Master System version was noteworthy in that it marked the first time the series had come to the West, and it was enormously well-received, garnering high praise for its visuals in particular — which were understandably often compared to Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda — and its strong playability.
1989 saw the release of Ys I & II as a compilation for NEC’s PC Engine CD-ROM system, localised a year later for the PC Engine’s Western counterpart, the TurboGrafx 16. This package was a considerable enhancement on the original games, incorporating better graphics, animated cutscenes, Red Book CD audio and voice acting. For many Ys enthusiasts, this version represents one of the most fondly regarded ways to play the first two Ys games.
1997 saw the release of Ys Eternal, another remake of both Ys I & II, this time for Windows platforms, which was subsequently rereleased yet again with further improvements in 2001 as Ys I & II Complete. This latter version formed the basis of the later Chronicles and Chronicles+ versions for PSP in 2009, and Windows PCs in 2013. While authentic to the original — right down to the “bump” system — the game featured considerably enhanced graphics, roughly on a par with the sprite work seen on the 32-bit consoles of the time such as the PlayStation and Saturn, as well as animated cutscenes and an expanded storyline. Most notably, this version added new areas to explore right from the outset, since the game began with Adol washing up on the shores of a seaside town — a tradition which would be maintained and lampooned in many future installments — rather than simply arriving in the town of Minea as in the earlier versions.
The lengthy story of Ys I still doesn’t end there, though. In 2003, Japan saw a PlayStation 2 version of Ys I & II known as Eternal Story. Based on the Complete release for PC, the game added new characters, items and mechanics to the basic games, but ultimately has been mostly forgotten due to the fact that it never made it West.
2009 saw a Nintendo DS version of Ys I & II known as Legacy of Ys: Books I & II. This featured 3D graphics, new sound and, bizarrely, multiplayer. While received well on its original release, it hasn’t aged very well in comparison to the 2D versions and as such is not particularly well-regarded nowadays.
Finally, the aforementioned Ys I & II Chronicles for PSP and its subsequent Chronicles+ version for Windows PC were designed to be — until any potential future remakes, at least — the definitive ways to play Ys I & II. Based on the 2001 Complete release for PC, Chronicles allows players to pick between the original character art for Complete or brand new designs, strongly reminiscent of ’90s anime and much closer to Falcom’s distinctive style today. It also allows for the selection of three different versions of the soundtrack: that of the original PC-88 release, the music from 2001’s Complete version or a brand new arranged soundtrack produced specifically for Chronicles. The latter option features the pounding drumbeats and wailing guitars modern Falcom soundtracks are particularly fondly regarded for today, and is a wonderful reimagining of Yuzo Koshiro’s original tunes; the other two options, meanwhile, provide a lovely nostalgic feel to the game.
Ys Chronicles was also released on iOS and Android in 2015, but if you want to play Ys on a touchscreen, you’re absolutely mental, so the less said about that, the better.
Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter
Ys II’s story is a little simpler than that of Ys I, since we’ve already covered a lot of it above thanks to it usually being packed in with its predecessor from the PC-Engine version onwards. Still, there are some interesting tidbits of information along the way.
Ys II originally followed Ys I a year later in 1988, once again seeing initial release on the PC-8801 followed by ports to the PC-9801, X1turbo, FM-77AV, MSX and Famicom. Unlike Ys I, which came to the West on Sega’s Master System platform, Ys II didn’t see an official release outside Japan until the 1990 release of Ys I & II as a compilation on the TurboGrafx-CD.
Oddly enough, South Korea saw its own unique version of Ys II for MS-DOS systems, known as Ys II Special. This version of the game featured a wealth of new content, much of which was drawn from the 1992 anime adaptation Ys II: Castle in the Heavens. This particular version of the game is noteworthy for having more secret content than any other release, which makes it particularly sad we never got to see it in English.
Ys III: Wanderers from Ys
Originally released in 1989 for the PC-8801 and PC-9801 and subsequently ported to MSX2, Sharp X68000 and, two years later, TurboGrafx-CD, Famicom, Super NES and Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Ys III marked something of a departure from the previous two games. Some might say ill-advisedly adopting the side-scrolling nature of Nintendo’s Zelda II, Ys III also sees the abandonment of the “bump” system for combat, which wouldn’t really work without the multi-directional movement afforded by a top-down perspective. Instead, it adopts a much more traditional system of using an attack button to swing Adol’s sword, though a magic system similar to that found in Ys II is also used.
Ys III’s TurboGrafx-CD, Super NES and Genesis/Mega Drive ports all received English releases, and an enhanced remake for PlayStation 2 emerged in 2005; produced by Taito, this version never made it West.
Ys III isn’t a hugely well-regarded installment in the series these days for a number of reasons: the platform-action gameplay hasn’t aged all that well, the difficulty is monstrous and the much more recent Oath in Felghana tells an expanded version of the same story with considerably better gameplay. Thus, there is little reason to check out the original versions of Ys III for anything other than curiosity and completeness. You have been warned!
Ys IV is a curious beast in that there isn’t one game called Ys IV. In fact, there are two, neither of which were developed by Falcom, and both of which came out in 1993.
The first of these to begin development was subtitled Dawn of Ys and was developed by Hudson, who had previously published the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-CD ports of the earlier Ys games. Since the previous three games had all performed solidly on Hudson’s preferred platform, the company was keen to develop their own sequel and take advantage of the goodwill that had been built up so far. Falcom, having fallen on hard times due to the loss of a significant number of staff members, supplied a basic outline for the story and some music, and Hudson were subsequently left to produce their game, which came out in December of 1993.
At the same time, Falcom pitched its outline to a number of other developers to bring Ys IV to other 16-bit consoles of the era. They eventually settled on Tonkin House, who had previously developed the Super NES version of Ys III, to produce their own take on Ys IV, this time subtitled Mask of the Sun. Twelve years later, Taito would remake this version for PlayStation 2 with the new subtitle Mask of the Sun: A New Theory, though in doing so they took a number of liberties with both the gameplay systems and narrative, effectively making it a new game in its own right.
Dawn of Ys was originally intended to be the canonical installment in the series, but Falcom later decided that Mask of the Sun was closer to its original outline and thus would be considered canon. None of the three releases of Ys IV came out in the West; it would be 2013’s release of Ys: Memories of Celceta on PlayStation Vita before non-Japanese players would get to experience this important part of the overall Ys lore.
After the chaotic development of Ys IV’s various incarnations, Falcom decided to enter console development for itself with the fifth installment in the Ys series, and settled on the Super Famicom as their platform of choice. It was an understandable decision; the Super Famicom and its Western counterpart the Super NES had proven to be popular systems for role-playing game developers — particularly those who were keen to push the boundaries of interactive storytelling, thanks to the console’s superior graphics and sound capabilities over its contemporary the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive.
Ys V, originally released in 1995, is the only Ys game that, at the time of writing, hasn’t received any kind of remake or reimagining. The original Super Famicom version didn’t even make it out of Japan, so at present the only way to play it is through the fan translation patch by Aeon Genesis. Rumours abound, however, that following the upcoming release of Ys VIII for PlayStation 4 and Vita, Falcom’s next Ys project will more than likely be an Oath in Felghana/Memories of Celceta-style reimagining of Ys V.
Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim
It would be eight years before a new Ys game hit the market, though in the meantime we saw the Eternal/Complete remakes of Ys I and II. The sixth canonical installment saw the series returning to home computers as its primary platform, though by this point the Japanese PC gaming sector had fallen in line with the rest of the world and finally adopted Windows rather than continuing to rely on the proprietary operating systems of earlier Japanese computers.
Konami subsequently ported Ys VI to PlayStation 2 and PSP in 2005 and 2006 respectively, and at the same time this saw the series coming to Western territories for the first time since Ys III. The original PC version was subsequently localised and updated to support modern systems by Xseed Games and released in 2015.
Ys VI is noteworthy in that it was arguably the first game to successfully realise what Falcom was trying to do with mechanics found in Ys III and V. Rather than making use of the original “bump” system, players were provided with a much greater degree of control over Adol, with dedicated attack and jump buttons as well as the ability to equip several different types of sword, each of which handled slightly differently.
While presented from a three-quarter side-on/top down perspective for the most part, Ys VI was fully three-dimensional, with a number of areas involving exploration on all three axes. Camera angles remained fixed, however, so navigation was no more complex than it was in the top-down 2D titles; the move to 3D simply allowed for areas with more depth as well as a number of jumping puzzles, some of which required the use of Adol’s tricky new dash-jump move.
Ys VI also placed a stronger emphasis on storytelling than ever before; while the geographical area the game took place in was relatively small, the game features strong characterisation and writing for all its main cast members, supported by some excellent 2D character art during conversations that helps add a great deal of personality.
Ys: The Oath in Felghana
Realising it was on to a good thing with Ys VI, Falcom would make use of its engine in two subsequent games, the first of which was a much-needed revamp of Ys III in 2005.
The Oath in Felghana re-tells Ys III’s original story with a number of extended aspects as well as a few retcons to help it fit better with the canon established by the more recent installments in the series. Thanks to Ys VI’s solid mechanics, the game finally realised what it was trying to achieve with its original release: a combination of platforming and hack-and-slash combat with the same immediacy the series had become known for coupled with a hefty challenge for those who felt they were up to the job.
Like Ys VI, Oath in Felghana unfolds from a floating, fixed-angle isometric-style camera that allows exploration to be kept simple and straightforward while affording the opportunity for true 3D environments. The controls have been somewhat refined and made a little more friendly — gone is the awkward dash-jump, for example, to be replaced by a “wind” skill that allows Adol to spin his sword and float for a short distance after unlocking the ability to do so. The three elemental skills also act in a somewhat Metroidvania-esque manner, allowing Adol to return to earlier areas and access platforms and rooms that he was previously unable to get to. Many of the bosses also require creative use of these skills just to survive.
The Oath in Felghana is regarded by many as one of the best entries in the whole Ys series, and it’s understandable why: it’s a beautifully presented, extremely playable game with an interesting, exciting story — and an excellent localisation by Xseed — and one of the best soundtracks in the series. If you only play one Ys game, make it this one.
The third game based on the Ys VI engine, first released in 2006, would be a significant departure for the series in that it didn’t feature perpetual protagonist Adol Christin at all. Instead, it acted as a means of expanding on the background lore of Ys I & II by being set 700 years earlier and exploring the lives of three characters: Yunica Tovah, a girl incapable of using magic but with considerable martial skills; Hugo Fact, a powerful mage with a bit of an attitude problem; and a third character initially known only as “The Claw”, who acted as the game’s “true” path, and consequently could only be played as once the game had been beaten with either Yunica or Hugo.
Ys Origin is also highly unusual in that it doesn’t have an overworld at all; instead, the entire game takes place in a single dungeon. Specifically, it unfolds inside the 25-floor Darm Tower that makes up the latter half of Ys I, though here it has been split into a number of distinctive zones, each with their own theme and boss to defeat. While the layout of the tower and bosses are the same for all three characters — though Claw has a spectacular “true final boss” to defeat at the end on top of the standard one — their narratives are all substantially different, and so is the way they play. Yunica handles very much like Adol in The Oath in Felghana, complete with elemental skills, while Hugo plays almost like a shoot ’em up character, with most of his abilities being effective at range. Claw, meanwhile, is positioned as a character for “experts” due to his high speed and exclusively close-range skills.
While the confinement of the game to a single dungeon may sound unnecessarily restrictive, Ys Origin’s story certainly doesn’t suffer as a result. In fact, it gives a considerable amount of new meaning and context to the events of Ys I & II, and thus is best played immediately after them. It also represents the most refined version of Ys VI’s engine, with immensely solid gameplay including a number of new mechanics such as swimming.
Ys Seven was released on PSP in 2009, and acts as a direct follow-up to Ys VI. It also saw a much briefer delay between its original Japanese and Western releases than both The Oath in Felghana and Origin thanks to Falcom’s by now well-established partnership with Xseed Games.
Ys Seven represented another significant shakeup for the series. Having spent three games using the same engine, it was time to move on, and Ys Seven not only brought about a new engine — true 3D this time, including polygonal characters rather than the sprites overlaid on polygons from the previous three games — but also a fundamental change in the way the game was played and its overall structure.
Ys games up until Seven had all had a number of things in common: they had focused on a single character at a time (usually Adol, with the exception of Origin) and they had all been somewhat brief, typically weighing in at anywhere between 6 and 10 hours according to how thorough you were and how much difficulty you had with the series’ signature boss encounters.
Seven, meanwhile, turned all this on its head. Adol was no longer alone, this time being accompanied by a party of up to two companions who could be freely switched to and controlled at will. Longstanding fans of the series were delighted to finally see recurring character Dogi as a playable party member, and Adol’s other companions all had significant roles to play, too. Thanks to the game’s introduction of damage types — slash, strike and pierce — it became necessary to switch between characters that used different types of attack in order to defeat certain enemies. Adol’s sword slashes, for example, were best against “soft” enemies, while Dogi’s powerful punches worked well against heavily armoured foes. Piercing attacks, meanwhile, were used against aerial foes for the most part.
Seven was also a much longer affair than previous installments, weighing in at around 25 hours or so. Both the geographical scope and the scope of the narrative had a far more “epic” feel to them; instead of focusing on a single town and the surrounding environs as in previous games, here you had a whole country to explore, with a large overworld to traverse as well as some interesting dungeons to explore — though the abandonment of the jump button in favour of a dodge-roll makes said dungeons feel a bit more “flat” than before, particularly if you play Seven immediately after the games built on the Ys VI engine.
Seven expands the Metroidvania-style aspects introduced in Oath in Felghana with the use of equippable “party items” that provide various benefits ranging from the ability to walk on shallow lava to the ability to breathe underwater. Most of the game’s secrets involve backtracking to previous areas and making effective, creative use of these items to reach otherwise inaccessible regions, though the main quest often requires that you use them to progress, too.
Ys Seven is a bit of an adjustment if you’re accustomed to the previous games, but the new additions to the formula work extremely well, and it’s a solid game with an excellent story in its own right.
Ys: Memories of Celceta
It was only a matter of time before Falcom returned to Ys IV to finally do the job they always wanted to do, and 2012’s Memories of Celceta was the result. Built on the same basic party-based mechanics of Ys Seven, Memories of Celceta restructured Ys IV’s original plot outline by giving protagonist Adol amnesia at the start of the game, and focusing much of his quest on regaining his lost memories.
Memories of Celceta features probably the biggest overworld in the whole series, and fully mapping out this vast forest and the settlements and dungeons within is a key aspect of both gameplay and the narrative. Consequently, like Ys Seven, it’s a much longer game than many of its predecessors, weighing in at around 30 hours or so, and has a very strong plot. It also features some extremely important elements that tie in with overall Ys background lore as well as more in-depth mechanics such as weapon customisation, crafting and, once again, Metroidvania-style traversal abilities that allow access to previously unreachable areas.
Memories of Celceta is probably the most potent example of how far Ys has come since its earliest installments, yet it still feels consistent in tone and lore. Part of the reason for the “reimagined” releases such as Celceta and Oath in Felghana was to bring the series lore in line to be more consistent, and in doing so Falcom has succeeded admirably: over the course of the complete series, the world of Ys has become one of the most well-realised fantasy worlds in all of gaming, and there’s still plenty more left to explore.
Let’s hope we continue to get the opportunity to adventure alongside Adol Christin for many years to come.
In the next article, we’ll look in depth at how Ys’ core mechanics have evolved and changed over the years.
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