Welcome to the second installment of Hidden Treasures of 16-Bit! Today, I'll be looking at another RPG, this time for the Turbografx-16 CD ROM add on. It's Ys Books I & II, a game that was truly ahead of its time when it was released in the early 90s, and can probably be singled out as being the first console game that truly showed what CD technology could do. Despite strong critical acclaim at the time, the game was largely ignored by players, most likely due to the system it was on.
I always kind of felt sorry for the Turbografx-16. It was a system with a lot of potential and a strong library of games, but it never really caught on in the US. In Japan, it was a different story. The system over there (known as the PC Engine) was an immediate smash hit when it was launched over there in October 1987, and even managed to give King Nintendo a run for its money. When both the Turbografx and the Sega Genesis launched in America around the same time in August 1989, a lot of analysts expected it would be the same story. After all, Sega's 8-bit Master System never really took off over here, so hopes for the Genesis were shaky early on. Not only that, the Turbografx-16 had strong support in Japan, and would eventually be releasing the first CD-ROM system for a console, which excited a lot of gamers.
An early commercial for the system
However, as we all know, the Sega Genesis went on to be a surprise hit, thanks to its strong line up of Arcade ports and quality titles. Despite some great games early on, the Turbografx never caught on, largely due to some poor choices on the part of NEC (the publisher of the console), and a lack of marketing. While the Turbografx-16 did have a pretty good run over here of about 4 years, it constantly struggled, and was basically seen as being in the back of the pack in terms of sales for its entire cycle.
I never owned a Turbografx-16 back in the day, but I did eventually track one down and some games, and have found it to be an underrated system that definitely should have gotten better treatment. Unfortunately, a lot of these games went unnoticed, due to the fact everybody was mostly focused on Nintendo and Sega at the time. My favorite game that I have uncovered thus far is Ys Books I & II, an early CD-ROM title that was seen as revolutionary by the gaming press at the time, but due to the reaction to the system it was on, few got to play. And while it is fairly dated if you go back and play it today, there is still so much to enjoy, including fantastic music, professional voice acting, and strong storytelling and writing.
YS BOOKS I & II RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 21, 1989 (JAPAN), 1990 (US)
Before I begin, I feel I should explain something important - How to pronounce the title. Ys is actually pronounced "eese", kind of like the word "geese", only without the g, obviously. So, with that out of the way, let's take a look.
Ys was a series of RPGs developed by a small company called Falcom, and originated on the NEC PC-8801, a popular gaming computer in Japan, in 1987. As the title of this game suggests, Ys Books I & II contained the first two games in the series. This was to show off the storage power of CD ROM, as it was new technology at the time. Not only could a CD hold two complete games on one disc, but they were visually and aurally enhanced, with new graphics, anime-style cutscenes with voice acting, and a completely remixed soundtrack featuring live instruments that blew gamers away back in the day, and still stands as one of the greatest game soundtracks ever.
More than any other game, it was Ys that ushered in the "next generation", and showed the advantages that CDs had over cartridges. It certainly helped that when the game came to the US one year after its Japanese release, NEC went all out with the English translation. Not only was the dialogue well written, but they hired professional voice talent for the game, including Alan Oppenheimer (the voice of Skeletor in the original He-Man cartoon, as well as the voice of Falcor in the first Neverending Story movie), Jim Cummings (the voice of Darkwing Duck, Winnie the Pooh, and way too many cartoon characters to mention), Michael Bell (Transformers, Smurfs, Rugrats, and again way too many cartoons to mention), and a young unknown actor named Thomas Haden Church, who would go on to a respectable acting career, appearing in films like the indie hit Sideways, to blockbusters like Spider-Man 3. You have to remember, a lot of early CD ROM titles did not have the best voice acting, usually using whoever happened to be in the office at the time to record the dialogue. So, having professional voice talent was a big deal back then.
They look simple now, but these anime-style cut scenes with professional voice acting blew minds back in the day.
Ys Books I & II are essentially action RPGs, and fairly basic ones at that. But the presentation, effort and attention to detail that went into this update still shows through after all this time. And while the games have been remade various times over the years, and for multiple systems, this version still usually stands out in fans' minds as the definitive version of the first two games. So, let's stop beating around the bush, and take a look at the game, starting with the story.
The land of Ys, in happier times...
The story behind the game tells of a utopian paradise that existed eons ago and was called Ys. Under the watchful eye of six priests and two goddesses, Ys prospered for years thanks to the help of a mysterious magical artifact known as the Dark Pearl. Without warning, the land of Ys mysteriously vanished, and to this day, no one knows what happened to it, or of its current location.
Our hero, Adol Christin.
Flash forward 800 years later. The land of Esteria (a kingdom that once neighbored the land of Ys) is now being overrun by monsters. Heroic, red-headed swordsman, Adol, travels to Esteria to aid the people with their problem. What he does not realize is that his quest will evolve into something much bigger. He will go on a quest for the 6 books of Ys, mythical scriptures that have been sought for years that are told to hold the secrets behind the land's mysterious disappearance, and possibly its current location.
When Ys Books I & II were originally launched for the NEC PC-8801, it was originally intended to be one large game, but due to the developers running out of time and needing to meet a deadline, it was split into two chapters. So, having both games on one disc with the Turbografx-16 version actually is closer to the original vision for the game. While it's still divided into two, there is more of a continuous flow, as the game is kind of presented as one large game, with cinematic intermissions filling in the gaps between the two titles. You have to play through the whole story from beginning to end, as the game does not give you the option of choosing which game you would like to start on. And while neither game is all that long, having them combined together into one experience does kind of help make you feel like you're getting your money's worth.
And since this game is a product of the late 80s, don't expect the deepest of storylines. Adol is essentially a do-gooder, who goes around helping other people with their problems, while not having much of a personality of his own. Fortunately, the other characters he meets along the way help strengthen the experience. These include Dogi, a thief who happens to be extremely strong (as in punching holes in walls in order to save his friends strong), and would go on to become Adol's best friend, sidekick and fellow adventurer in future titles in the series. There is also Dark Fact, who serves as the first major antagonist Adol faces in his adventure, and is attempting to discover what happened to Ys for his own purposes.
All of these helped set the stage for future games in the franchise, as each title basically revolved around Adol and Dogi roaming the land, looking for adventure and people in need. And while the story does get more involved at some point (including learning the ancient history of Ys, and meeting its protective goddesses), this is fairly lightweight stuff for an RPG, free from a lot of the melodrama that the genre is known for. The developers are not trying to reinvent the genre here. They just want to tell a fun adventure story, and that's what Ys has been about from the beginning - Exploring the land, and learning the history behind the places you visit. Rather than complex scenarios or intricate backstories, Ys Books I & II is all about the spirit of adventure.
When you are brought into the game itself, it seems like your standard 2D Legend of Zelda-style adventure, with one main difference - there's no attack button in this game. Instead of hitting a button repeatedly to hack away at monsters, Adol utilizes a simpler, though somewhat odd, method of ramming into enemies with his sword. The amount of damage that either you or your enemy takes is determined by the strength of Adol and his opponent. Just like a standard RPG, Adol gains levels with experience points, and will become stronger against certain enemies as he builds levels. There is some strategy involved, as you can't just run head onto a monster, and expect to win. It's best to either attack an enemy from the side or from behind. It does seem a bit weird, being weaned on Zelda-style hacking and slashing, but you quickly get the hang of it, and I must admit, it does speed up the gameplay a little. Aside from his ramming attack, Adol can also call upon simple attack spells, like fireballs, to attack from a distance.
Other than the bizarre fighting system, Ys should not be too alien for anyone with past RPG experience. You visit towns to gather information, explore long, complex, maze-like dungeons, and face off against a boss at the end in order to move on. The game moves by at a fairly brisk pace, thanks to its challenging yet fair gameplay that keeps you interested but never frustrated. Some of the boss battles can be very difficult until you discover the best strategy at hitting them without taking damage yourself. A big part of Ys charm is just how well designed and fun the dungeons are. They are never overly taxing or boring, and many contain puzzle elements such as guessing the correct order to use teleportation statues, or using a magical mirror to combat illusions that would lead you off the correct course to the end. With its fast-paced gameplay, challenging puzzles, and involving story, Ys Book I and II is some of the most fun you can have playing an RPG, and the gameplay still stands strong. The only fault I can possibly think of is the fact that Adol can only move in four directions, instead of eight, but even this is livable.
During the early years of CD-ROM, developers would trumpet that due to its increased amount of storage space on the format, gamers would notice an incredible amount of detail that was impossible to achieve on a cartridge. Ys doesn't quite back up this statement, thanks to fairly small character sprites and some limited animation, but that doesn't mean they're bad - they're actually very good for its time. The backgrounds and areas that Adol explores are very detailed and well drawn, even if they do lack a little bit of color, thanks to the limited palette of the Turbografx system. The game has obviously been surpassed in graphic quality, but it still is a good looking game due to the fact that the artists have created a very detailed game world. There are a number of memorable graphic scenes, especially late in the game. My favorite moment occurs when Adol must climb a cathedral bell tower lined with stained glass windows and flickering torches that gives a very impressive lighting effect. Your race to the top of the tower is rewarded by a view of some beautiful scenery, complete with a setting sun off in the distance. It successfully creates the illusion of looking down at the world from your character's high vantage point. Ys was also one of the first games to use anime cinemas featured during major story points, which would later be popularized in Game Arts' series of Lunar RPGs. Although these cinemas lack animation, they are very well drawn, and the character designs are top notch.
The graphics may have not truly made us believe that the CD format was the future, but the sound definitely did. Besides the previously mentioned professional voice acting, this game is also graced with one of the most stunning soundtracks ever recorded for a video game. Not even many of today's best game music can stand up to the Ys compositions. The reason for this high praise is quite simple - Redbook Audio, aka true digital sound. This is a process that allows for actual orchestrations performed by real instruments. It is a costly process (not to mention it eats up a lot of game memory), and is not used often, which is a real shame. Anyone who has heard the soundtrack to this game praises it to the skies. From the driving guitar rock that fuels you with the inspiration to keep going, to grand symphonies performed by a full orchestra, the music in Ys always impresses. The only slight downside is that for some strange reason, the game's town themes did not use this feature, and are instead synthesized. They still sound very good, but there is a huge difference in quality between the town themes and the rest of the soundtrack. The sound effects are good, but tend to often get drowned out by the overpowering live music accompaniments. Still, this is a small price to pay for such aural bliss.
I mean seriously, listen to some of this music. I've included a few selections here, and I find it stands up to some of the soundtracks of today...
"First Steps Toward War" - The overworld theme of the game, which is almost guaranteed to get your blood pumping.
"Palace" has a kind of soothing, yet mysterious feel to it, perfect to create the feeling that you are in an unknown place, and don't know what's ahead.
"Tower of the Shadow of Death" plays when you are conquering one of the longest dungeons in the entire game. Good thing the song is good, because you'll be hearing it for quite a while while tackling this place. You have to love the very 80s electric guitar that kicks in around the 1:10 mark.
"Holders of Power", one of the best boss music tracks ever recorded.
"The Last Moment of the Dark", the music that plays when you face down Dark Fact. Really sets the mood so well for what's to come.
"See You Again", the music that plays during the end credits. Not only is this a great song, but the programmers did something really cute, by having the different character sprites appear now and then, and start dancing to the music.
I could probably talk about the soundtrack all day, but I will seize the moment and stop. Time to move on to what makes this game a Hidden Treasure of 16-Bit.
WHY I CONSIDER IT A HIDDEN TREASURE:
If I had played or seen this game back in its initial release, I probably would have gone to the Turbografx-16 and never looked back. With its professionally voiced dialogue, live music, and incredibly fun gameplay, it must have felt like a glimpse into the future of gaming at the time. While the basic play mechanics of ramming into enemies sounds weird, it really does work in this game. It's an interesting alternative to the Zelda gameplay, and while it takes a while to get used to, it's worth the effort to learn.
And remember what I said earlier about the spirit of adventure? This game has it in spades. While you are trying to save the world, there is just a sense of fun here. Solving puzzles, exploring ancient ruins, discovering lost lands...It kind of takes me back to my childhood, and the adventures my friends and I would dream up when we would play outside. This is a fairly simplistic game overall, but there is just such a sense of fun and discovery. It can be deceptively simple, while also challenging you mentally in certain areas. You are driven to continue both by the soundtrack, and by the storytelling.
And speaking of storytelling, this game really does stand out in that aspect, thanks to the strong translation for its time and the fantastic voice acting. I truly mean it when I said this game was ahead of its time, as it was one of the first CD titles, and also one of the first to truly use the medium as a storytelling device for console games. At the time it came out, the game was revolutionary. Today, it's a very fun blast from the past that has earned its place in video game history, even if few have played it.
This particular version of Ys I and II was released on the Wii Virtual Console a few years ago, and there have also been numerous ports on various consoles, ranging from the PSP to the PS2. If you have the means to track down this little gem, please do so. It's a fascinating beginning to one of the better and more overlooked (in the US, anyway) RPG franchises out there.
And that concludes this installment of Hidden Treasures of 16-Bit. So, I've done two RPGs in a row. Time to mix things up a bit. Next time, I'll be looking at one of the more underrated action titles available for the Sega Genesis.
Until next time, Retro Junkers, keep the past alive.