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Koobert avatar 1:29 AM on 08.29.2008  (server time)
Ys Book I & II: Yet Another Game I'd Rather Play Than Zelda.

Ah, just joking, sorta. I would love to see this series handled with the polish and charm of the Zelda games. But having got A Link to the Past fairly recently, I've got to say this: it didn't hold my attention. This has. Maybe there's more than a bit of nostalgia involved, as I didn't play much of Zelda until the SNES era.

I've been as psyched as anyone really could be about the release of Ys Book I and II on the Virtual Console. Here's a rerelease of a game that I was pretty crazy about in 1989. Back. Playable in progressive scan. And it's not the 8-bit Master System version. It's the psuedo-16 bit Turbografx-16 version, with compressed redbook audio included, as well as animated cutscenes, some voice work, larger color palette, and, let's not sell this short: the sequel integrated into the same game.

So it's a slightly alien situation of continuing on with a game that I am wholly familiar with, and knowing that it's not going to end when the first one did, but continue into a whole other game. For whatever reason, I find that daunting. It would be akin to if you were a huge Zelda fan, and finally got to play A Link to the Past. Only not quite. More like if there was a Zelda 1.5...

If you're curious why I didn't run out and get a Turbografx CD at the time, the answer is this: that piece of hardware was almost found hundred bucks, definitely out of the realm of purchase.

But I'm writing today to contrast the two versions. Even though my memory of this game is about twenty years old (my brother bought this game in early 1989, if my memory serves me, making me age 9.5 at the time) playing it through again, there is the comforting similarity of what I used to play pushed up against the jarring inconsistencies of an updated release.

Pros: The incredible soundtrack is the first thing that sticks with me about the game. As much as I don't want to be someone with a favored Japanese video game soundtrack artist (Sweet Jesus, I don't want to be that guy), if I were that guy, it would be Yuzo Koshiro. And as a kid aged 9, I didn't know who he was. I only learned his name when Revenge of Shinobi came out later that year, because he put a giant copyright notice at the front of the thing, and that game music rocked. The CD audio from the updated version is almost completely synth, which coming from the 80s might mean that it wouldn't sound much better than an SNES game. Fortunately, for the most part, they are much improved renditions, with awesome guitar and baselines, and judicious use of crappy 80s synthstruments. If only they had a sax in there...

For an 8-to-sort-of-16-bit game, there is a little bit of motivation for the characters. Nothing compared to, say, the Sierra games or Origin games of the time, but in 1989, and coming translated through Japan, it was novel to have some reason to go pick up that Silver Bell, or return a ring to someone. The translation, too, is surprisingly competent. The Sega version had its inconsistencies, but the turbografx version, while humorless, is functional throughout.

I can't tell whether this is good or bad, but the difficulty has been altered markedly for this release. I'm not sure if it's due to my playing it as an adult, but I know I never really made it through the mines in Ys on the Master System. I watched my brother finish the game, so I had a good sense of what happened next, but the level grinding was just too much. Now, though, it's easy. I breezed through the first dungeon, only having to stop and level up, or purchase a new weapon, when I was on the losing side of the "running face first into a monster" battle. I'm currently at the final tower (which is about the last half-to-third of the first game) and have only died fighting the final boss of the mines, a real jerk whose vulnerable timing is tricky to perfect. One of the reasons for the difficulty decrease is that attacking is much less finicky. The steamrolling strategy wouldn't work in the the SMS version; that required you to nick the enemy repeatedly, working down its health. Coming into full contact with the enemy would quickly deplete your health.

Cons: The deeply memorable opening theme is marred by a needless voiceover on the TG CD version. The red book audio does not loop properly; hell, it doesn't loop at all. The transition to the beginning of the track is awkward at best, and usually jarring. The character models move towards a more flat-shaded look rather than the more detailed portraits of the Master System version (yeah, that's nitpicking.)

Bosses are pretty much pushovers, as I said above.

The Book I portion of the game just feels limited, even by RPG standards of the time. While this game was a great surprise after the much, much less interesting Miracle Warriors, it was nothing compared to the scope of something like Phantasy Star, which had a couple of dozen towns, three planets, and tons of uniquely weapons. It's a town, a village, and three dungeons, one of which is huge.

The teleporting puzzles which make up most of the last half of the game can be... frustrating if you aren't the type who memorizes these things easily.

And yeah, the graphics... outside of the nicely detailed cutscenes, even in this TG version, the graphics are... serviceable. The enemies are tiny, Adol is tiny, and the dungeons are repetitive hallways. While I respect its simplicity now, someone buying this and expecting the animation and skillful graphic design of A Link to the Past, or even Phantasy Star I will be disappointed.

Check out the different handling of the music between the opening of the Master System version and the TG-CD version. The main problem with the TG-CD version should be quickly obvious.

Sega Version:

Turbografx Version:

Damn you, early CD voiceovers. Just damn you.

Can someone unfamiliar with the series go back and play these? Maybe. You have to be able to look past the ugly, ugly interface, especially the tiny game screen. Consider it in some ways an advanced level Zelda. Fighting is like jousting; you run towards your enemy, there is no swing button, so it's a matter of getting the timing right. Normally if you continue to run into the enemy, you'll damage him, but the second you stop moving, you are open to attack. Let's face it: it looks stupid and takes getting used to. But it's deeper than you might think. The best way to damage an opponent is to steamroll into him and push him for as long as possible without interruption. Hit statistics, damage, and defense are based on level and equipment. You won't damage enemies at all if you are too weak.

Personally, though... it's great to be back, and I am excited as all heck to get to the brand new (to me) Book II.

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