Posted on June 17, 2020
Ys is an Action RPG series that has been around for more than 30 years now. While it stayed relatively unknown in the West until very recently, the Ys series has been influencing Action RPGs in Japan since the very beginning. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone in Japan who’s an RPG fan that hasn’t at least heard of the series before.
Ys I was originally released on the PC-88 in 1987 and then ported to the PC-Engine (Turbografx-16 for westerners) in 1989. Ys I was known back in the day for its extremely unique take on Action RPG combat in the earlier games. With its “Bump Combat”, the earlier Ys games let you damage enemies simply by running into them!
Not only was Ys I one of the first Action RPGs ever created, the PC-Engine version is also one of the first games in history to use actual CD audio! In 1989! To put that into perspective, Ys had Playstation 1 levels of audio, 6 years before games with legendary OSTs like Chrono Trigger/クロノ・トリガー and Seiken Densetsu 3/聖剣伝説３! Once you hear this game’s OST and realize that this game came out an entire year before the Super Nintendo was released in the West, you’ll start to understand just how much of a groundbreaking game Ys I was!
Ys I might have been a groundbreaking game, but how does it fair all around as an actual game? Let’s find out!
Score – 35/40
Story – 7/10
Gameplay – 9/10
Graphics – 9/10
Music – 10/10
Style: Japanese Role-playing Game (Action)
Release Date: JP: December 21st, 1989
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: Hudson Soft
Length: 5～15 Hours
Table of Contents
Ys I PCE Review
Ys is a series I wish I got into much earlier than I did. I originally downloaded the first game probably 13 or 14 years ago for PC while looking at old freeware DOS RPGs, but sadly never gave it much of a chance because it wasn’t really the kind of game I was looking for back then. I’ve been kicking myself in the ass over that ever since I booted up Ys I last month on my newly acquired PC-Engine Duo-RX! Hopefully by the end of this review i’ll have you kickin’ yourself for not trying out the game yet, either!
Ever since the release of Ys VIII a few years ago, the series has seen an abrupt explosion of popularity outside of Japan, but before that the Ys series was extremely niche in the West if you didn’t have a chance to play Ys I and II when they originally came out on the not very popular western version of the PC-Engine, the Turbografx-16. You might have heard of the team behind Ys, Nihon Falcom, from some of their more popular “Trails” games instead. In Japan however, Nihon Falcom is a name that any RPG fan will recognize in an instant.
The Ys series is known for a few things. The overly fun and easy to pick up combat, the re-occuring red-headed main character Adol, and absolutely amazing sountracks – we’re talking competing with the likes of Final Fantasy games here. Nihon Falcom takes their music so seriously that they have their own in-house band that strictly makes and plays all of the music for their games, that goes by the name Falcom Sound Team JDK!
The version of Ys I i’ll be reviewing here is actually a “remake” (the old meaning of it which basically means a remastered port by today’s standards). This version for the PCE was created around 2 years after the original PC-88 version, and even though there’s only a 2 year difference, the change in gameplay, performance and art/sound quality is almost unbelievable. Without a doubt, the PCE version of Ys I is absolutely the definitive version of the game!
As if that isn’t enough already, the best thing about the PCE version is that the game is bundled together with Ys II on a single disc, so after you finish the amazing first game, you’re treated to the second game right away! You honestly can’t ask for more than that – and trust me, after beating the first game you’ll be dying to play the next one!
Ys I is a fairly short and simple game, however, so there shouldn’t be too much to actually cover in the review. Clocking in at around anywhere from 5-15 hours depending on how often you get stuck on the puzzles, Ys I is short and sweet and gets right to the point. Let’s dive into the review and see what Ys I is all about!
Ys I doesn’t have too deep of a story. The game begins with the main character, Adol, sailing towards the island of Esteria to investigate the “Stormwall” that has recently appeared around the island. Adol’s ship gets destroyed enroute at sea and Adol eventually washes up on the shores of Esteria. After collecting himself, Adol heads out to Minea Village to gather some information about what’s been going on recently.
Upon reaching Minea Village, word gets around that a fortune teller in town is looking for Adol. When they finally meet, the fortune teller warns Adol about a powerful evil sweeping over the land of Esteria. Adol learns that the secret to ridding Esteria of evil is hidden in the 6 Books of Ys, books containing knowledge about the ancient civilization of Ys which mysteriously vanished centuries ago. With that, Adol sets out across the land of Esteria in search of the 6 Books of Ys on his quest to rid the land of evil.
As you can probably tell, there isn’t a whole lot to the story in Ys I. Considering Ys I came out just a year after the original Dragon Quest, which literally had a “stop the big bad (Dragon Lord) just because” story, Ys I’s story was pretty common for the time. Nowadays the whole “Young sword-wielding adventurer suddenly having to save the world” story is always made fun of and seen as low effort, but in 1987 that was still pretty exciting stuff!
Overall, i’d compare the story in Ys I to your average 8-bit JRPG. That’s mostly due to the length of the game and of course its age. Stories in the late 80’s were still extremely barebones, but they saw an exponential jump as soon as stuff like FFIV came out in 1991. Considering an “average” playthrough of Ys takes up to around 10 hours max, there just isn’t a whole lot of time to really flesh things out, whereas in 16-bit JRPGs, you almost always had 15-30 hours to a lot more with the story.
While I haven’t played too many other Ys games yet, I do believe the story builds and continues with each new game, so while the foundation might be fairly simple, chances are the story will keep getting better as you progress through the series.
Since there isn’t a whole lot going on in the story, that means there also aren’t really many “important” characters either, therefore the Characters section of the guide will be pretty brief too.
Considering Ys I is a fairly short game, there aren’t a lot of characters to talk about. Of course there are a few different “important” characters that you’ll run into during your adventure in Ys I, but as I usually do, i’ll only include the characters that are introduced in the game’s instruction manual. The manual actually includes 4 different characters, but one of them is in Ys II, so this section will be pretty brief…
アドル・クリスティン (Adoru Kurisutin, Adol Christin) – Adol is the main character in Ys I (and I believe throughout the rest of the series except for a single game). Adol is a courageous 16 year old adventurer who’s travelling around the world.
レア (Rea, Leah/Reah) – Reah (according to the English version of the game) is a young poet who lives in Minea Village. She asks Adol for help after her treasured Silver Harmonica is stolen by a thief.
フィーナ (Fiina, Feena) – Feena is a young girl who’s found trapped inside of a cell deep inside the maze in the Temple’s basement. She seems to have lost all memory up until then.
I know at first glance the small amount of characters and very brief descriptions might seem like I didn’t put a lot of effort into this section. The truth is, depending on how often you get stuck or lost during the game, i’d say the can be beaten in around 7-8 hours assuming you don’t get lost very often. Most of that is spent outside of towns traversing dungeons and leveling up, so the actual amount of times you’ll interactive with the 2 characters mentioned above can be counted on one hand.
Not only that, as you’d probably imagine, since Ys I is the first game in the series, there isn’t really a whole lot of backstory or world-building to work off of. Unlike newer games nowadays that have tons of lore right off the bat, games from this era (the original was from 1987) were lucky to have any sort of story or any resemblance of character depth. So while the characters in Ys I might seem barebones by today’s standards, at the time this would have been considered just fine.
Ys I might not have to deepest characters ever, but it definitely had some amazing graphics for its time. Just as a reminder, what you’re about to see is a game that came out in 1989, which is a full year before the SFC/SNES released in Japan and 2 years before it released in the West!
Ys I had absolutely mind-blowing graphics when it was first released. Ys I was competing with stuff like Dragon Quest IV on the original Famicom/Nintendo, to put things into perspective. To go even further into the future, the earliest graphical powerhouse JRPG for the SFC/SNES would have been something like Final Fantasy IV/ファイナルファンタジーIV which wasn’t released until the middle of 1991. While I still think FF4 is a beautiful game, both the graphical quality and in-game performance of Ys I easily takes the cake. Ys I is just jaw-dropping for something made 31 years ago at the time of this review!
As soon as you boot up the game, you’ll see an animated cutscene (!!!) showing off the PC-Engine’s outstanding 2d graphical capabilities. Things like this began popping up more and more as CD-based games started getting released on the PC-Engine, but this kind of stuff just didn’t happen on consoles like the Genesis and Super Nintendo. Not only that, there are a few in-game cutscenes that happen in-engine too, which is crazy to see!
Heading into the game, the first thing you’ll notice is the colorful characters and environments. Right away you’ll be heading out into wide open fields with multiple different types of monsters running around, all fully animated. You see a large sprawling field, an ocean, shore, river, bridge, trees, and a cave all on the first explorable map in the game!
You’ll wander into a few different types of environments in Ys I, which is pretty nice considering it’s a game you can finish no problem in a single decent length gaming session. Aside from the open plains at the beginning, you’ll delve into dark caves, maze-like labyrinths, and even stone towers. There are also a couple of towns you’ll be able to hit, with lots of NPCs running around to talk to and various buildings to check out.
The towns in Ys I were at the very least on par with what you’d find in a lot of SNES JRPGs. Most buildings would basically look the same but they had varying shapes and sizes. Even though Ys I is an over-head game, the buildings had a fairly 3d look to them, something that wouldn’t become common until MUCH later into the 16-bit era. Again, how Nihon Falcom managed to do all this in 1989 on a system that sat right inbetween the original Famicom/NES and Super Famicom/SNES is beyond me…
Hopefully from the screenshots alone you were able to understand what i’m talking about when I say Ys I was leagues ahead of pretty much everything else available at the time. If not, there will be some gameplay videos in the “Gameplay” section that’s coming up that should do the game some justice! Not only does Ys I look great, it’s extremely simple and fun to play!
To be absolutely honest, Ys I is a fairly straightforward game. As I mentioned above, Ys I is famous for its “Bump Combat”, which is literally what it sounds like – you damage enemies by “bumping” into them until their HP meter (under your health meter) runs out. That’s right, unlike basically every other Action RPG in existence, you don’t hit a button to swing your weapon while trying to dodge enemy attacks. In this game, you run straight into your enemies! Well, you can but you should actually aim for their shoulders, more on that in a bit.
In Ys I Adol gains EXP and Gold from defeating enemies, which can be used to buy new equipment in town (as well as a few select items). Getting gold is very important early on in Ys I, because gear is really strong in this game – a new weapon or piece of armor is usually the equivalent of gaining 2 or 3 levels worth of Strength/Defense. To most RPG players, “2 or 3 levels worth of Strength/Defense” probably doesn’t sound like much, especially if you’re used to Final Fantasy-type games. In Ys I, and actually just in the series in general, a single level is HUGE.
In Ys I, your main stats are HP (goes up by 5 per level if I remember right), Strength and Defense, which both go up by around 2 or 3 points per level. Ys I is balanced in such a way that you could be fighting a boss and getting hit for 10 damage a hit, die, go outside and get a single level, and then go back and the boss’ attacks won’t even be able to damage you. The closest thing i’d be able to compare the importance of levels in Ys to would probably be D&D. Even then, levels in Ys I might play an even bigger role in overall power gain.
So just from that explanation alone, you could see how buying a new shield in town might essentially nullify damage from an upcoming boss. After hearing this, you might be worried about having to constantly grind to get the best gear. Luckily (based on your preference, I guess), the gear you’re able to buy caps out fairly early, so to be honest you’d only have to grind an extra little bit at the start of the game. The rest of the gear will be found during your adventures later on, so more than anything the buyable gear is just there for those early powergamers. Regular players will eventually amass enough gold to grab everything without needing to specifically focus on farming up enough gold to buy everything.
In the same way that levels help with boss damage, you can also get to the point where certain regular enemies won’t be able to damage you. You’ll know when enemies are unable to damage you from the beep sound that’ll happen each time they attack you. Enemies can only damage you if you run into the center of them, however! If you run into the side of an enemy – imagine running your shoulder into their shoulder – you’ll actually be able to damage them without getting hit, regardless of your Defense stat! This is the one area in Ys I where player-skill actually matters! Sadly, most bosses have very specific spots where you’re able to damage them, so you gotta rely on just brute-force attacking them head-on.
Another interesting thing about levels in Ys I is that EXP gain is relative to your level. While most games give a static EXP amount to each monster (a spider will always give 100 EXP, just your required EXP to level keeps going up and up), in Ys I for example a spider might give you 500 EXP at level 3, 350 EXP at level 4, and 1 EXP at level 5. This might sound extreme, but that’s how leveling works in Ys I – you gain levels extremely fast upon entering a new area, sometimes you even get a level every minute or two. Then, after hitting the “expected” level of that area, everything starts giving you 1 EXP to prevent over-leveling and just stomping every boss in the game on your first try.
This makes it so there’s really never a need to “grind” levels. Usually if you’re having trouble with a boss, you can grind out a single level or two before you end up getting 1 EXP from everything. This means that even in the worst case scenario, if you get stuck on a boss you can just go kill monsters for 5 or 10 minutes and you’ll almost always be able to go back and beat whatever boss you were having trouble with with very little effort. This is a great system for people who don’t like running circles for hours leveling up, especially since Ys I is so short to begin with, the leveling system really accelerates the pacing!
Aside from weapons and armor, Adol is also able to equip rings. Rings give passive bonuses such as increased attack damage, increased defense, HP regen while standing still, and a screen-wide ability that reduces the movement speed of monsters by 50%. In Ys I, you only naturally regenerate HP outside, so I assume most players will have the HP regen ring equipped while in dungeons, especially since some of the dungeons can be pretty long and confusing.
Outside of equipment, there are story related items that you’ll find throughout your journey. These items actually have to be selected in the inventory and then used with the “Cancel” button. This is never actually explained in-game at all, so definitely make sure to select the item you want to use because there are several spots in the game where you’ll need to use specific items in order to progress.
Before we finish talking about the gameplay, since Ys I is an Action RPG I feel I have to touch up on the level/map design. While environments look good and are decently sized, pretty much every dungeon is a maze. I’m sure that’s on purpose since a lot of old RPGs opted out of having in-game maps in favor of the player drawing their own. Back in the day, dungeons being difficult to navigate was just seen as part of the difficulty.
While you can still find your way around most maps, there still are a lot of dead-ends and pathways hidden out of view (sometimes you just have to keep walking into every wall you see because there aren’t any tell-tale signs that there’s something behind a wall). I only raged in one dungeon though, so it’s not enough to dock gameplay points, but it is something I thought people should know beforehand (Ys II has purposely annoying map design, it’ll lose a few points for that…)
That pretty much covers the gameplay in Ys I. The gameloop is even more basic than something like the original Dragon Quest – you honestly just keep running into monsters and buying/finding new gear all while leveling up. Though it is very simplistic, it’s definitely a ton of fun, and considering the game has 2 speed options – Normal and Fast – the game can get pretty hectic at higher speeds near the end of the game when monsters start doing lots of damage! The 8 or so hours you’ll be spending in Ys I will fly right by before you know it!
I’ll post a gameplay video below so you can get a general idea of what it’s like to play Ys I on the PC-Engine (you’ll notice some of the map criticism I mentioned above). In terms of combat and running around, you basically do what i’m doing in the video for the entire game, so if you like what you see then you definitely gotta give Ys I a shot!
Next up we’ll check out the Music in Ys I. This is definitely a section of the review that I want everyone to check out, you won’t be disappointed. Let’s see what Ys I has to offer musically!
Ys I has an OST that you won’t believe came out in 1989. Nihon Falcom really took the CD format and ran with it. With the vastly superior storage space compared to cartridges of the time, Nihon Falcom was able to pack longer songs into the game’s OST, littered with various different instruments and high quality sound. Not only that, do you remember the cutscenes I talked about up in the Graphics section? Those are fully voiced. VOICED. Ys I, a game from 1989, had VOICE ACTING in it. Voice Acting didn’t even become a common thing until the later half of the PS2 era, more than 11 years after Ys I came out!!
I haven’t played the Western version of Ys I (or II), but i’ve heard the voice acting is really bad. Of course, that’s to be expected of Western Voice Acting back in 1989 (it’s still not even really that good today…), but voice acting was already “serious business” in Japan since the late 70’s at least, so while the sound quality of the voices themselves isn’t the best (the voices sound like they’re kind of far away), the actual voice acting is your typical late 80’s Japanese anime stuff, which means it’s nothing to scoff at!
Here’s another quick gameplay video that has some of the voice acting in the beginning. If you’re interested how the sound quality of the voice acting is, you can check it out below!
Now let’s actually get on to the music. Since Ys I is a short game with just a handful of different areas, the OST isn’t the longest by any means. What it lacks in quantity it definitely make up in quality. Ys I has that “retro Japanese sound” that I always gush about. If you’re into that kind of style like I am, you’re gonna love all of the early Ys games really. If you’re not into that style, then you might be by the time you’re done listening to Ys I’s OST! Let’s jump right into it!
First up, we have the theme for the main character in the Ys series, Adol! Just within the first 2 seconds i’m sure you’re able to understand what I mean when I say the OST and sound quality in this game is just lightyears ahead of anything else available at the time. While this isn’t a typical “get pumped” style of song, it definitely got me excited to hear what other awesome stuff the OST had to offer!
Next up is the first song you’ll hear as soon as you leave Minea Village at the start of the game. Some people might complain about having to grind some money at the start of the game, but man I didn’t have a single issue having to farm money with this song on loop!
Since Ys I is a fairly short game, I don’t wanna post too much of the OST because then you’ll have nothing left to surprise you when you play. So for the last song, i’ll choose one of Ys I’s “metal” sounding songs! I know I said the Ys series is famous for that cool 1980’s Japanese pop/anime sound, but it’s also famous for having what’s essentially Progressive Metal, Power Metal, and even Shred sounding stuff too. Best of both worlds! Just pretend that the synth in this song is a guitar and you’ll see what I mean!
Pretty awesome, huh? The Ys I soundtrack by itself is only around 30 minutes long, but chances are you’re always gonna find it bundled with the Ys II OST. Even then you’re looking at a little over an hour or so of great stuff from Nihon Falcom. You definitely gotta give it a listen at least once!
One cool thing that i’m still not quite sure is true or not, but supposedly unlike PS1 games, since PC-Engine Super CD games used actual generic CDs, they can be put into a PC or CD player and act as the official OST! I was always wondering why I couldn’t find PC-Engine game OSTs over here…so maybe it’s true! If it is, i’ll definitely upload the OST myself and post about it!
East vs. West
Ys I (and II) actually seem to be one of the very few games that didn’t really lose much in translation, which is really shocking since most games all the way up until the end of the PS2-era had botched translations yet a game from basically the original NES-era was somehow able to pull of such a good translation. While I haven’t played the English version of Ys I, just from checking character names and story summaries online, everything seems be on point!
The only thing that will be different of course is the voice acting. Everywhere I look people are complaining about the English voice acting, which again can be understood pretty easily since voice acting didn’t even exist in games yet (and not “seriously” for another 10+ years at that). Anime was still extremely underground at the time too, so nobody really had any experience doing voice acting outside of western cartoons, which is not even comparable. The voiced sections are very few and far between, so I personally wouldn’t take that into too much consideration when picking a version to play.
Should you play it?
I absolutely have to recommend playing Ys I for yourself. Not only is it a piece of all around RPG history, it’s also a technical marvel if you decide to play the PCE version. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be your favorite game, chances are you’ll have it finished in less than 10 hours, so even if you’re on the fence about it you can finish it over the course of 3 or 4 weeknights.
On the other hand, if you like everything you’ve seen but you’re more of an OG Turn-Based kind of guy and are a bit reluctant to get into an ARPG, you definitely don’t need to worry. Besides the puzzles, Ys is almost so simple that a 2 or 3 year old kid who can pick up a controller and push on the D-pad can play it. My daughter who is 2 years and 3 months was able to run around and kill stuff – so you won’t have to worry about modern day “i-frames” and “animation cancelling” and all that scary sounding ARPG mechanical stuff.
Which version should you play?
If you’re looking for the original top-down style, then Ys I for the PC-Engine is the absolute definitive version of the game. It has the smoothest gameplay, the best sound quality, and it honestly isn’t THAT hard to find physical copies of the game, both the Japanese PC-Engine version and the western Turbografx-16 version.
One thing you should be aware of is that Turbografx-16 consoles that can either play CDs or have the CD attachment are way more expensive than PC-Engine consoles (even the PC-Engine Duo R/RX which can play CDs by default), so if you’re looking at grabbing a physical copy of the game and don’t have any hardware yet, you might be better off buying a PC-Engine and a Japanese copy of the game.
Like I said in the story section, there isn’t much actual story in-game, which means there isn’t a whole lot of dialog to worry about. While I don’t think you could brute-force your way through Ys II without being able to read what you have to do, Ys I seems like it could be possible.
If you’re more interested in isometric 3-d games, Ys I did get an English remake on the PC later down the road, which I believe is also available on Steam, called Ys I & II Chronicles. I haven’t played it yet, but it seems pretty faithful to the original games. If you’re on this website chances are you don’t mind old graphics/old games, but if you “prefer” remakes and remasters when available, Ys I & II Chronicles might be a bit more up your alley! You’ll just kind of miss out on the “wow” factor you’d have by playing the PCE version.
That’s about it for Ys I! Now, for the final score – it’s gonna be high!
Final Score – 35/40
Story – 7/10
Gameplay – 9/10
Graphics – 9/10
Music – 10/10