Much like its gameplay, the overall aesthetic of the Ys series has evolved considerably over time.
As technology has improved with each new generation of games consoles and computer hardware, the Ys series has adapted and changed. And with its longstanding nature — not to mention its numerous remakes over the years — it’s fascinating not only from the perspective of examining how Falcom has improved the series over time, but as a means of showing how games in general have grown and changed.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the sights and sounds of the series have changed over time, and their relevance to gaming’s evolution as a whole.
Ys’ birth on the PC-88, one of the dominant Japanese home computer systems at the time, set in place the basic look for the series that would be maintained for quite some time, though it wasn’t a look that was entirely unique to Ys.
In particular, the use of an ornately decorated border around the main “action” area of the screen was very common in Japanese games at the time — be they more action-oriented titles like Ys or story-heavy visual novels — and remained a common approach to presentation for quite some time, largely due to its effectiveness at drawing the eye to the important parts of the screen.
Here, for example, is a shot from visual novel Nocturnal Illusion, which came out in 1995, eight years after Ancient Ys Vanished first appeared on the scene, with its ornate but subdued border drawing attention to the bright colours of the main window and giving the game its own distinctive visual identity:
Similarly, the persistence of important, game-relevant stats on the screen — in particular health bars marked “PLAYER” and “ENEMY” — was a common sight in Japanese games for many years, with the most iconic example for many people being Konami’s Castlevania series, which kept the format well into the 16-bit era, although unlike Ys, which gave every enemy in the game a health bar, Castlevania only used it for boss encounters:
Ys I and II, of course, have undergone numerous reboots over the years. The first time Western gamers would have encountered it in their native territory would have likely been the Sega Master system version, which kept much the same look and feel of the PC-88 version, albeit with less dithering in the colours and the removal of the decorative screen border. The two health bars were, however, present and correct:
While the Master System version represented the series’ first foray into the West, it’s the TurboGrafx-CD edition that is, for many players, one of the most fondly regarded incarnations of the original two games. While the increased graphical oomph of NEC’s system — not to mention the increased storage capacity of the CD format — allowed for more detailed pixel art with more colours and a higher resolution, the overall look and feel of the game remained remarkably true to the original PC-88 version thanks to the reinstatement of the graphical border and the additional stats in the status area:
While Ys III made its notorious shift to a side-on perspective for its gameplay, it nonetheless maintained the same overall style of presentation as its predecessors, complete with the persistent health bars and the additional stats displayed in the status area. Interestingly, the different releases of Ys III on the various platforms of the time all made minor changes to the screen layout:
Despite the similarities in screen layout to the original two Ys games, Ys III’s different perspective on the action gave us a new way to experience the game’s story. The side-on perspective allows us to see Adol and his foes at much closer range and in greater detail than before, though this comes at the expense of the relative freedom of movement and tactical positioning aspect of the original top-down view. Ultimately, the side-on perspective had something of a lukewarm reception from fans of the series, and consequently the two different incarnations of Ys IV returned to a look and feel somewhat closer to the TurboGrafx versions of Ys I and II.
Note the minor interface differences between the two versions: Dawn of Ys replaces the “PLAYER” text on the health bars with Adol’s name, putting more emphasis on Adol as a distinct (albeit silent) character in his own right rather than him acting as a straightforward cipher for the player, while Mask of the Sun keeps the traditional “PLAYER/ENEMY” format. Dawn of Ys also focuses on the current values of stats such as HP and MP rather than displaying the maximum values as Mask of the Sun did, and Dawn of Ys also features an experience point display that counts down to the next level rather than being represented as a fraction of a whole as in Mask of the Sun.
The ornate, decorative borders are still present and correct, however, although this would be their last appearance for a little while, as Ys V abandoned them in favour of a full-screen, rather minimalist interface:
Ys V also saw a jump in graphical fidelity, putting its appearance somewhat closer to (although some would argue not quite matching) its contemporaries Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, both regarded as some of the best-looking games on the SNES. Some have argued that the change in graphical style for Ys V actually made it less distinctive than its predecessors, as it now looked very much like many of the other RPGs available on the SNES at the time. Certainly with its lack of decorative border and persistent health bars, it’s less immediately identifiable as an Ys game, but one could also make the argument that a series has to move on from its roots at some point.
That said, having moved on from its roots with Ys V, the series promptly went right on back to those roots with the 2001 release of the Complete incarnation of Ys I & II.
Ys I & II Complete represents an interesting hybrid of old and new. On the one hand, the high-resolution pixel art is among some of the most beautiful in the whole series, bringing the lands of Esteria and Ys into sharp focus and providing an astonishing level of attention to detail if you look closely. On the other, the decorative border and persistent interface is back, combining the original “leafy” border pattern with all-new statuesque depictions of major characters Feena and Reah in the status area. This version — along with its subsequent minor update to its Chronicles+ incarnation in 2013 — also made the curiously retro decision to display the game’s title as part of the interface, just in case you happened to forget what you were playing while you were still playing it. Still, it certainly makes these versions of Ys I & II immediately identifiable.
Unless you’re playing the PSP version of Chronicles, of course, which forgoes the decorative border due to the widescreen aspect ratio of the handheld’s screen — the border effectively allowed a “widescreen” game to be displayed on a 4:3 aspect ratio monitor, as was more common in the early days of gaming — instead replacing it with an interface somewhat more integrated with the game screen.
The 2013 PC version Chronicles+, meanwhile, offered a choice between the two versions: the ornately bordered look of Ys Complete, or the screen-filling spectacle of Chronicles. It even offered two different versions of the character art, depending on which “look” you preferred, making it if not the definitive version of Ys I & II, then certainly the most customisable.
Chronicles’ approach to integrating the interface with the game screen formed the basis for what the Ys series would come to look like from hereon, with its next appearance being Ys VI on PlayStation 2 in 2003.
There’s a bit of a blend of old and new going on here. While the decorative border of the original games is long gone, the interface itself is still rather ornate and attractive to look at. Ys VI also feels the need to remind us that the character we’re playing as is called “Adol”, and that the health bar on the left side of the screen belongs to him. Meanwhile, the old “Enemy” health bar now only makes an appearance in boss fights, though it does rather helpfully show us not only the proportion of HP the boss has remaining, but the exact value of our foes’ health. This, coupled with the damage numbers that now pop out whenever Adol attacks something, allows us to calculate whether or not we’re in a decent position to be able to defeat the boss, or whether levelling up a bit and/or upgrading our equipment would be a good idea.
Ys VI also marked the series’ first shift from pure 2D pixel art to the blend of 2D and 3D that would continue through The Oath in Felghana and Origin. Ys VI had a distinctive style for its sprites, basing them on rendered 3D models of the characters rather than being purely hand-drawn. The reasoning behind this was presumably to try and make them blend in a little better with the polygonal backgrounds and larger enemies, although from a modern perspective, this actually makes the sprites look rather more dated than they perhaps otherwise would have; prerendered graphics in general have not aged all that well, particularly when modern displays allow us to see them in a lot more detail than when we would have originally seen them through the somewhat blurry lens of 480i/576i TV screens.
The spritework seen in The Oath in Felghana, meanwhile, seems to have aged a little better than that of Ys VI. While there’s still a slight touch of “old-school CG” about it at times, the sprites are overall less “shiny”, for want of a better description, and blend in rather more nicely with their backdrops. The Oath in Felghana in general looks very similar to its contemporary and stablemate The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, and represented an overall look and feel that Falcom seemed very comfortable with for quite a while.
Ys Origin, while making use of the same basic engine as Ys VI and The Oath in Felghana, benefited considerably from being specifically designed for PC rather than a hybrid PSP/PC work. Its 2D artwork was top-notch, featuring high-resolution, detailed character portraits during dialogue as well as some lovely, well-animated spritework, and its 3D graphics rank among the most impressive of this particular era of the Ys series as a whole.
Origin keeps the “integrated interface” approach from Ys VI and The Oath in Felghana, but adds a couple of twists. Perhaps the most significant addition is the inclusion of the character’s portrait in the lower corner of the screen, with their Boost bar circling around them and their currently selected skill sitting comfortably next to them. This addition to the interface was primarily due to the fact that Origin had three playable characters, none of which were Adol due to its nature as a prequel to Ys I & II.
The boss health bar was also shifted to the upper part of the screen to make it distinct from the rest of the interface and highlight the fact that a boss encounter was a significant battle, though by this point we had lost the numeric reading of the boss’ current and maximum HP, with the length of the bar instead reflecting how much damage we needed to do to the boss. In many ways, however, due to the phase-based design of Origin’s bosses, the exact amount of HP a boss had remaining was irrelevant, since dealing with them usually involved surviving a learnable pattern of attacks, then attacking them during lulls in the onslaught; assuming you took full advantage of these lulls, phase transitions would occur at predictably timed moments in the fight rather than at explicit HP boundaries.
Ys Seven, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, represented a significant shift for the series in gameplay terms, and its presentation reflected that. Gone were the sprite-based characters and enemies; we were now in a fully polygonal world which, while low-resolution and suffering somewhat from the PSP’s limited colour palette, which necessitated a heavy amount of dithering on pretty much everything in the game, managed to look pretty good thanks to some solid art direction, with different areas being obviously themed around different colours to give them noticeable themes.
The character portraits returned on the interface, too, though in this case they served a different purpose to in Ys Origin: thanks to Ys Seven’s addition of party-based combat, they were now essential to show the player who they were currently in control of at any given moment. Each character was given a very distinctive silhouette both in their portrait and their polygonal character model, meaning it wasn’t necessary to look closely at the bottom of the screen to see who you were in charge of at the time — a good thing, given the rather frenetic nature of Seven’s combat encounters.
There was a slight shift in the depiction of Adol, too; his rather more mature, grim-looking portrait is a reflection of the overall darker tone of Ys Seven’s narrative compared to its joyfully adventurous predecessors. Given that, at the time of writing, Ys Seven represents Adol at the oldest we’ve seen him in the series, this slightly more world-weary depiction made perfect sense, particularly considering all the crap he has to put up with during his exploration of Altago.
While Memories of Celceta is the most recently released Ys title (in English, anyway) at the time of writing, canonically speaking, it’s quite early in Adol’s adventuring career, actually unfolding between Ys II and III. Consequently, although the game is built around the same basic presentational principles of Ys Seven — a 3D world with movement closest to the top-down perspective of the earliest Ys titles — the character art is presented in a much less grim fashion than that of Ys Seven. Adol in particular looks younger and more bright-eyed since he’s still relatively early in his adventuring career, and many of his companions are presented as similarly youthful, with the exception of Ozma, who is a grim-faced youth with an expression of someone who has had to grow up far too soon, and Duren, who is extremely well depicted both visually and in the game’s writing as someone who is physically older, but rather immature in terms of attitude.
So that’s a relatively whistle-stop tour of the visuals of the Ys series and how they’ve evolved over time… but what about the other aspect of game aesthetics, which is to say, the sound? Well, that, too, has gone through quite a few changes over the years.
The early installments of the Ys series were scored by prolific maestro Yuzo Koshiro, perhaps best known for his work on the Streets of Rage/Bare Knuckle series of beat ’em ups. He made effective use of the relatively limited sound capabilities of the PC-88 hardware to produce some extremely effective, memorable and catchy melodies, many of which have either been outright re-used or at least had homage paid to in later installments or remakes of the series. Take the Darm Tower theme heard above, for example; this has been remixed several times in different incarnations of the Ys series over the years.
Here’s the version from Ys I Complete, which is pretty much the same composition with more sophisticated synthesised sounds at work:
Here’s the version from the TurboGrafx-CD version, meanwhile, which maintains the original structure and texture, but reorchestrates the whole thing in a distinctly twangy, syncopated funk style:
And here’s the version from Ys I Chronicles, which is a good representation of the modern Falcom sound in general, making use of even more realistic synthesis as well as real instruments such as electric guitars:
This piece even made an appearance in Ys Origin for its first zone; fitting, since the entirety of Origin unfolds within a version of Darm Tower from 700 years prior to Ys I:
This version is pretty similar to the one from Chronicles, with a bit less in the way of electric guitar and a more traditionally orchestral feel.
Speaking of Ys Origin, that game also features arguably the series’ best use of leitmotif, with the main intro theme…
…later being reused in considerably more dramatic form to highlight the “things are getting real” nature of the game’s final stretch:
In Yunica’s story route in particular, this music making its pulse-pounding return is more than enough to send shivers down the spine.
The other remakes in the Ys series remain largely true to their source material, too. Here’s a piece from the SNES version of Ys III:
Here’s its PC Engine incarnation:
And here’s the version from The Oath in Felghana, which is remarkably true to the PC Engine version in particular, albeit with considerably more realistic instrument sounds, especially for the main melodic violin line:
What about Ys IV? Well, given that the music was one of the few things that Falcom actually did design for the game’s original form, it’s fitting that it’s been reimagined several times. Here’s the Promalock theme from Dawn of Ys:
Here’s the same piece from Mask of the Sun:
And again from Memories of Celceta, which drops the tempo a bit, changes the key and reorchestrates it, perhaps as a quiet acknowledgement that the theme had been transplanted from the town of Promalock (which you no longer visit in Memories of Celceta) to Casnan:
There are numerous more examples of this sort of thing throughout the whole series, but in the interests of time we’ll leave it there for now. You will hopefully agree, however, that Ys is a series that both evolves considerably over time and acknowledges its history and heritage, and its changing aesthetic over the years has reflected that rather well, both through its visuals and audio.
It truly remains one of the most remarkable, fascinating series in all of gaming — and it looks set to continue for many glorious years yet. Here’s hoping the upcoming Ys VIII is just the first of many brand new adventures for Adol and his friends.
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