Ys book I & II for the Turbografx16 is one of my all-time favourite games, despite the fact that it isnít really all that good. Itís ugly, not particularly well made and nor is its gameplay much fun, and yet, whenever I play it I always leave with a fantastic opinion of the game, despite the fact I didnít play it until it came out on the Wii VC in around 2009/2010. Iím sure many have played Nier, an otherwise mediocre action RPG but which ended up being one of last genís most engaging and memorable games, largely through an excellently crafted world. Ys Book I & II is the same.
Combat is downright awful: the bump mechanics of the original Ys are well known, but in this version of the game they never really got the whole bumping part down. With no knock back or recovery time, and with enemies which react erratically to being hit, itís more luck than judgement whether or not you take damage from an enemy you donít instantly kill. Thankfully this is less of an issue in Ys II when you are given a ranged attack (this is also broke come the end, but this time in your favour). Hit boxes can be especially janky and there is no attempt at taking perspective into account and it is fairly clear that Adol is a rectangular hitbox sliding around the floor. This is at its most obvious in the second to last boss of Ys I, which only takes damage when hit in the ear:
This is the only video I can find of the boss itself, but this guy's too good at the game for me to proove my point. Typical.
The game is fairly linear, although you probably couldnít tell that when you play it for the first time. You are rarely explicitly told where to go next and in the mazy dungeons you can often miss items and spend ages simply pottering about. This isnít to the gameís detriment however, and the claustrophobic dungeons and emphasis on exploration are its most enjoyable aspects. There is also a lot to like about the story: it is simplistic, memorable and told using terrible voice actors, giving the entire game a real B-movie charm. The intro cinematics are also so good they are worth mentioning, these are essentially instrumental cut scenes which illustrate key plot points and really set the scene for the upcoming game.
This is the cutscene which marks the transition form Ys 1 to Ys 2. Cheesey dialogue ends at around 0:52 and begins again 2:52.†
To return to the Nier comparison, probably the strongest individual aspect of the game is its soundtrack. This is true of all versions of Ys I & II, however arguably the strongest incarnation of the soundtrack is unavailable in the more recent remakes, possibly due to this version not actually being made by Falcom. There is very little to say about Ysí music which hasnít already been said, so here's my favourite track from the game:
Ys I & II is similar to Super Metroid in that it is an extremely pure experience; everything unnecessary has been cut away leaving a game almost exclusively focused on exploration. What little remains of the combat is not fun, in fact it is virtually non-existent, enemies are dispatched by walking into them- there is no thought process. In fact they seem to exist solely to ensure that there is a persistent sense of danger in dungeons. These dungeons are often also intentionally disorientating, there is no map, corridors wind and interconnect and there is often little to orientate yourself by, if teleporters haven't already completely removed your sense of direction. One of the most effective dungeons I have ever played is in Ys I: your vision is limited to a small area around Adol and the dungeon is specifically designed so that you can't just follow the wall, as you get lower you soon encounter enemies which will easily kill you and at this point there is no access to healing apart from a single one use item which can only be replenished in town. In both this and the Solomon Shrine at the end of Ys II you are completely lost for pretty much the entire time you are in them, and there is a constant chance you will be caught off guard and die. This sense of urgency is only added to by the games soundtrack, the fast tempo and heavy base ensure that adrenaline is always flowing helping to create an atmosphere quite unlike any other game I have played.
Despite its many flaws Ys Book I & II is a game I find utterly enthralling, it manages to be greater than the sum of its parts and it really shouldnít be as fun as it is. I highly recommend any version of the game to anyone who enjoys exploration centred games, however if you can, get the TG16 version. Although in many ways worse than its more recent remakes, this version is packed with much more character and just leaves the other versions feeling sterile and somehow bland in comparison.