20th Anniversary Tribute to the Ys Series

About once a week I visit Falcom.com. Not entirely sure why, I can't read Japanese so I have no idea what the site is saying. I guess I just go to download wallpapers and see screenshots of new games that will likely never be released in the US.

On a recent visit I saw a new wallpaper commemorating the 20th anniversary of the original Ys game. Suddenly I felt quite old. Yeah I've seen several favorites turn 20 this decade but this one struck me differently. I suppose it's because I associate it with the 16-bit gaming generation and forget that Ys started on the PC in 1987 (and the Sega Master System shortly thereafter). Although I was oblivious to the game prior to 1990, it has since been one of my favorites.

I wanted to find some way, any way, to say "Happy 20th Birthday Ys!" On my mile long "to do" list is an entry to create a site with maps of Ys Book I & II, but that ain't happening any time soon. Instead, I'll pay tribute by simply sharing my experiences with the Ys series...

Ys for Sega Master System

From 1987-1998 I could only be described as an NES fanboy. As far as I was concerned there was no other game system on earth (Nintendo's market share at the time practically made that a reality though). OK, I owned an Intellivision and Atari 7800 that were collecting dust and I knew there was something called the "Sega Master System" out there but the NES was the only system I cared about. I wasn't much of PC gamer, the only computer my family owned was an Apple ][+ clone that once in a while I'd write a BASIC program for. I had virtually no chance of discovering the original Ys game. Even if I saw it, I probably would have shrugged it off. That 1987 version didn't hold a candle to something like Legend of Zelda.

By 1990 I saved whatever money a 15 year-old could and bought a Sega Genesis. I wasn't enough of a Nintendo fanboy to wait for a 16-bit system from the "big N". Along with it came a rebate for a free Power Base Converter (don't ask what store was running this promotion at the time, I totally forgot). Back then the only Sega Master System game I was remotely interested in was Phantasy Star, hadn't even heard of Ys: The Vanished Omens.

A friend of mine, who was evidently a better saver than I, bought a TurboGrafx-16 CD that same year. The first CD game in his collection was something called "Ys Book I&II".

Ys for TurboGrafx-16 CD

One day, in a moment of uber-nerdiness, my friend gave me a cassette containing the Ys Book I&II soundtrack copied from the CD. He was adamant that this was the greatest game soundtrack ever recorded, years ahead of anything else. I wasn't sure about the whole idea of listening to a game soundtrack. Yeah, game soundtracks had come a long way since the early 80s but I never would have considered listening to one.

When I popped the cassette into my Walkman my entire perspective changed. I was simply awed by the music that was playing. Despite not playing the game, I could visualize what atmosphere each track represented. Few games, even today, have that ability to paint a vivid image with only the background music. From that moment, my entire attitude towards game music changed. It went from noise to something that could be enjoyed all on its own.

I ended-up spending many evenings at his house playing Ys Book I&II. The game itself matched the outstanding audio. I've often described it as a game that paid attention to detail. Strictly speaking, the graphics weren't necessarily better than the average 16-bit game. However, unlike most games they were not repetitive. Every inch of the world seemed to have its own unique look. No "cookie cutter" villages or dungeons in this game. The cut scenes were well above and beyond anything else at the time. Prior to that I thought the Phantasy Star II ending had the best scenes of any game, now it was a distant second. It was also the first time I recall voice acting in a game, and unlike countless future CD games, it was done exceptionally well.

In 1992 I was working at an Electronics Boutique store when the TurboDuo was released for $299.99. Ys Book I&II was a pack-in game. I bought one of the first systems on our shelves. To this day it remains my favorite console despite having precious little time to play it. Needless to say, I had an Ys marathon the day I took it home.

Ys III for TurboGrafx-16 CD

Later I'd pick-up Ys III: Wanderers from Ys when it went on clearance. I'd heard it didn't hold a candle to the original which was largely true. The control was awkward but the soundtrack was outstanding. It was heavier than the original, a bit too much at times, but still among the best ever recorded. I even managed to score a used copy of Ys: The Vanished Omens for the Sega Master System dirt cheap. I found it humorous listening to the chiptune versions of the songs but an enjoyable game nonetheless. The level cap made it significantly more difficult than the TurboGrafx-16 edition.

I read about Ys IV being released in Japan but it was not to grace American shelves. The Ys series looked to be dead in the US by the time the TurboGrafx-16 CD was discontinued. Yeah, the Genesis and Super Nintendo received versions of Ys III but neither were wildly successful. I'd continue to play Ys Book I&II from time to time, but my interest in the series waned.

Falcom.com in the 90s

That changed in late 1995 when I got my first internet connection, 14,000 bits per second of bliss. It didn't take long to start searching for pages about Ys. In no time I rediscovered excitement for the series. Falcom's site was amazing, they offered free Ys-related downloads like screen savers, wallpapers, stationery, and MIDI files. It was beyond what the average company was doing then, even what most are doing now.

I also found sites selling imported soundtracks from the Ys series. Ys Symphony 95 and The Very Best of Ys were two I ordered immediately. Yes, I'll admit I also downloaded many soundtracks from web sites and usenet (although if the US version of iTunes sold Falcom soundtracks I would gladly purchase them). Yes, I even downloaded a copy of Ys for DOS. This all got me playing the couple Ys games I had again while wishing that new ones would someday cross the ocean.

One site I sorely miss is the Ys Library (https://reiver.net/yslibrary/ - don't bother visiting, it's an ad portal now). Roughly ten years ago it was the ultimate Ys site. The volume, and quality, of content was staggering. My personal favorite was the comprehensive listing of all Ys soundtracks produced by Falcom. All the other Ys sites on the internet combined didn't compare to the Ys library.

I exchanged emails with the site owner several times but don't know what happened to him. One day the site was just plain gone, I hope all is well.

From late 1996-1999 I took a hiatus from gaming to focus on finishing college. The Ys soundtracks kept me going through many cram sessions. Overall though I didn't spend much time on video games in that period. Post-college I downloaded a copy of Ys Eternal (which I would also purchase if available) and played it the best I could without being able to read anything. It was nice to see the series evolve.

On spring break in 1997, while trying to teach myself Visual Basic, I attempted to create an Ys fan game. Turns out I wasn't exactly qualified and the project didn't get much farther than a crude map of the first town. I suppose I'll try again someday.

Over the next few years the Ys series would be a constant background item for me. I'd check the Falcom page and see the new titles being developed, download the wallpapers, and generally pine for them to be translated. I took the time to hack the free Ys screensavers and post them on my new web page. And of course, I still listened to the soundtracks regularly.

Ys IV for TurboGrafx-16 CD

In 2004 there was a surprise Christmas present for Ys - an English translation of Ys IV for the TurboGrafx-16 CD. It didn't take long for a patched copy to appear on usenet (did I mention I would happily pay for all of the Ys games/soundtracks if they were officially released in the US?) I played through it immediately. It was simultaneously a happy and sad experience. Ys IV is an amazing game, debatably better than Ys Book I&II, so finally being able to play it was wonderful. However, seeing the lost potential was disappointing. I'm not saying this would have turned the fortunes of the TurboGrafx-16 CD, but it could have been a bright spot in its library, a true must-have game. The Sega CD faired only slightly better than the TurboGrafx-16 CD, but if Ys I-IV were ported to it the series may have survived in the US. After all, the Lunar series began its life on that doomed platform.

In the last three years I've added a couple ounces of Ys content to this site. I gave it some props in a Virtual Console article. Even created a nifty wallpaper for Desktopgaming.com. I still pay a weekly visit over to Falcom.com to see if there's any news I can't read. My iPod seems to always have at least one of the many Ys soundtracks on it at any given time. Seventeen years have passed since being introduced to Ys yet I haven't grown tired of it, the list of games with that effect is short.

Ys ending

Last week I was in GameStop and saw Ys: The Ark of Napishtim (PS2) for $14.99 and immediately grabbed it. I didn't own a PS2 when it came out and somehow I forgot about it when I finally bought the console (I'm a very late adopter of the PS2). I even recall being excited when I read it would be the first Ys game in over a decade to be Americanized. Years of Ys games not being released in the US must have somehow conditioned me to forget about this game. I'm thrilled the Ys series has once again returned to the western hemisphere. I can only hope Ys: The Oath in Felghana makes its way over too. Virtual Console releases would be more than welcome, giving millions a chance to discover this niche series.

Happy 20th birthday Ys, thanks for the good times.