Ys: the ideal utopia. Once a country so peaceful and prosperous, a country where children were as free as the wind, a country where harmony blew through the hearts of all men.
Ys: a kingdom ruled by the wisdom and charity of its six powerful priests, an empire watched over and blessed by the enchanting aura of its two beautiful goddesses.
Ys: the seemingly tranquil paradise, suddenly pulled from the height of its civilization to the empty abyss of infinite isolation. How could such a land of promise simply vanish from the face of the planet? How could such prosperity be forgotten? The legend has been silenced for over seven hundred years.
And now … the mystery unfolds.
The NEC Turbo Grafx-16 was released in 1989 to a resounding shrug of the shoulders by the general population of the United States of America. In retrospect it’s easy to understand why: the system was poorly marketed, had a terrible name, had practically zero third party support (partly thanks to Nintendo’s restrictive, anti-competitive practices), and on top of that lacked the “killer app” that might have moved enough systems to keep the platform afloat through the end of the 16-bit console generation.
And yet, for some reason I barely remember today, that was my first home console. I remember home entertainment retailer Video Concepts really pushing the Turbo Grafx for some reason; they were next door to Camelot Music at Joplin, Missouri’s Northpark Mall, and I recall eyeing up games there in their showcase after rifling through the selection at Babbage’s halfway back that wing of the mall. I can’t remember which of those two stores we bought the system at, but it was certainly one of the two; likewise, I’m not sure which got my parents’ money when it came time to acquire the CD-ROM attachment for the system for Christmas 1991.
That was the TG-16’s big claim to fame; it was the first video game console to move from the cartridge format up to optical media. This was amazing, cutting-edge stuff at the dawn of the 1990s, but it came at a hefty cost: the add-on’s initial list price was $400. It also didn’t seem to have an immediate appreciable effect on the games: the earliest efforts to see release in the U.S. were Fighting Street, a reasonable port of the truly terrible original 1987 Street Fighter, and Monster Lair, a strange cutesy arcade hybrid side-scrolling platformer and shooter. Both games seemed like games that could have been released on the system’s card-like cartridge format if not for the fact that they featured Red Book standard CD audio streaming from the spinning disc as the game played. Both games trump their arcade counterparts in this area; in particular, the Turbo Grafx Fighting Street‘s soundtrack really is phenomenally good, a strongly atmospheric improvement over the original arcade cabinet’s chiptunes. Once actual instruments are added to the soundtrack’s repertoire it becomes far easier to evoke each of the countries that Ryu travels to in his Street Fighting travels. Meanwhile, for some bizarre reason I always have an overwhelming urge to crank up Monster Lair‘s boppy tropical themes; the fact that it has proper CD audio always seems hilariously out of place given that it looks like any number of other 16-bit side-scrollers, and the incongruous depth of sound is probably what gives me that urge to play it loud. That, and the awesome electric guitars that eventually kick in out of nowhere.
Mercifully, NEC realized that the gimmick of genuine CD-quality sound wasn’t going to sell $400 units and chose some better examples of what you could do with the new technology for their next wave of games. Overhead action games Final Zone II and Last Alert and side-scrolling action/adventure Valis II added voice acted story-building sequences. Naturally, given the gaming system’s origins, these were drawn in a turn-of-the-decade anime style, featuring mechanized battle armor, crazy violence, cyborgs, and teenage schoolgirls in metal bikinis. ROBOTECH, Voltron, and other TV imports had already primed me for this iconography, and when these games appeared on shelves and in gaming magazines, I drank in these visuals like a young man dying of thirst. And yet, the games themselves were still arcade fare; the voices and enhanced soundtracks were just set dressing for experiences not too far removed from what was possible on a cart. Worse, the English versions of all three games featured laughable voice acting. Last Alert in particular is regarded as one of the all-time classics of poor video game acting. While these games had just enough flash around the edges to “wow” gamers of the day, they still didn’t necessarily justify the tech upgrade.
And then, along came Ys Books I & II.
Japanese role playing games weren’t a tired, rote genre in 1990, especially in the west. Phantasy Star II had just been released for the Sega Genesis, and Dragon Warrior for the NES not long before that. Ys: The Vanished Omens, the first of the two “books” of the game’s title, had actually been released for the Sega Master System the year prior, but like the console it had been released for, it didn’t make that much of an impression. However, Ys Books I & II made much more of a mark on the video game press of the time, and on the gamers who were lucky enough to play it. It opens with a triumphant, then tender orchestral score that announces, loudly, that this is something different and, again, for the time, unprecedented. It’s like the film strip at the beginning of the ROBOTECH opening theme: it’s a mission statement. Over that tender music we hear remarkably good narration laying out hints of backstory, that this peaceful country mysteriously vanished from the world hundreds of years ago.
When the player starts a new game, he or she is then treated to another bombastic theme of adventure, overlaid with a series of awesome anime-style images that don’t yet make a whole lot of sense, but provide sneak peeks at characters, creatures, and places to come. It was over the course of this sequence that I think I truly fell fully in love with the anime aesthetic. It was one thing to see screen shots in video game magazines; it was another thing entirely to see these images moving, married to mysterious woodwinds, a thumping drum beat and a rocking guitar solo.
The game is an overhead view action RPG with a curious battle mechanic borrowed from one of the earliest Japanese computer RPGs, Hydlide. Red-haired swordsman Adol attacks his foes simply by running into them. Not head-on, mind you; that’s a good way to get killed immediately. You have to approach them slightly offset to the right or left. It’s tricky at first; certainly by now, of course, I can do this without even thinking about it. While it’s sometimes derided as a silly mechanic, it makes combat a fast-paced affair; once you’ve leveled up considerably it’s a lot of fun to just run around and mow down chains of foes without stopping for a breath.
Adol’s quest at the outset is to find and acquire the six Books of Ys, which tell the history of the lost country. The first is located in an ancient shrine. While exploring the shrine and acquiring useful quest items and treasure, Adol finds a mysterious, big-eyed, blue-haired girl locked up down there. Astonishingly — again, for the time — as Adol approaches her, the girl’s image becomes large on the screen and she speaks aloud, asking if Adol is here to rescue her and introducing herself as Feena. Where earlier games had provided story sequences with acting, here the story and the characters are the point of the thing, and by having moments like this, the player gets a better bead on the characters, makes a closer connection with them. Feena is the first character you meet who is voice acted, and is one of the most important characters in the game; she is also, as I recall, the last character to speak aloud across the two quests of the game, and her final speech to Adol always gets to me, perhaps for that reason.
And while Feena’s actress, Debi Berryberry, isn’t great, she’s certainly a far cry better than anyone in Last Alert or even Valis II. In years to come she would go on to play the cute mascot animal/living space ship Ryo-Ohki in the English language version of the long-running anime series Tenchi Muyo and would also provide the voice of Nickelodeon’s Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius over many movies, TV shows, and video games. That’s what sets this game apart from the earlier Turbo Grafx-16 CD-ROM games; it has proper actors in it, with actual credits and everything. Michael Bell, who you may know as Lance from Voltron and Duke from the original G.I. Joe, lends some attitude to the first quest’s villain, Dark Fact. The opening narration and the deep, sandpaper-like voice of the game’s final boss, Darm, are provided by Skeletor himself, Alan Oppenheimer. And remarkably, the roguish bandit Goban Toba is played by TV and film star Thomas Haden Church; it’s one of his earliest credited roles. The presence of so much talent coming in for sometimes just a couple of lines to better define these characters enriched the overall experience of the game; Goban only shows up a couple of times, but between his shaggy-haired character design and Church’s line delivery, he makes enough of an impression early on that when he returns at the game’s end it’s like seeing an old friend again.
Ys Books I & II is one of the cornerstones of the pop culture experience of my life; I’ve played through the Turbo Grafx-16 version in its entirety at least a half dozen times, and I’ve also played through it on several other gaming platforms, including my old Sanyo flip phone, the Sega Saturn, the Nintendo DS, and the Sony PSP. I also have the Nintendo Famicom (the Japanese NES) version, though I don’t think I’ve played much of that version. The game had a sequel, Wanderers From Ys, that would turn up on all the 16-bit gaming consoles; not only wasn’t it quite as good as the earlier game, having switched to a side-scrolling setup with the kind of awkward controls you get when a team who makes role playing games tries their hand at action, the Turbo Grafx version suffered from stilted, unprofessional voice acting, only shades better than the original game’s predecessors. The story isn’t quite as good either, pitting Adol against a corrupt royal court that’s being manipulated into reviving an ancient evil; it lacks the feeling of exploration and discovery that the original two games had. The final game for the console, The Dawn of Ys, was never released in the U.S., though I did get my hands on it in the late 1990s and dutifully marched my way through it with an FAQ printout in hand to get me through the sections I couldn’t guess my way through. While I couldn’t exactly follow the story, the graphics and animation are a cut above anything I’d seen for the Turbo Grafx up to that point, and the music is in typical rocking, fine form. (If you get nothing else from this article, go to YouTube and look up the music of Ys. It’s all really good stuff.)
Not only did Ys Books I & II forever warp my sense of aesthetics to the point that I’ll sit through mediocre 1990s direct-to-video features just to taste the look of anime in the early 1990s again, but my loyalty is such that it is the only series of video games I’ll actually buy gaming hardware for; series publisher Falcom revived the series in the mid-2000s, and while the sixth game in the series, The Ark of Napishtim, came out for the Sony PlayStation 2, which I already owned, 2010’s Ys Seven was exclusive to the PSP handheld gaming system. Guess what I talked myself into buying that holiday season. More recently, this past November a reworking of the fourth game under the title Memories of Celceta has been released for the PlayStation Vita handheld. Is it any wonder that I find myself checking how much one of those costs these days? While none of these games offer the same kind of experience, the same sense of discovery and newness, to me today they offer a sort of comfort; even though the Turbo Grafx never caught on in America, the flame-haired hero of its greatest game can live on, continuing his journey in new countries and on modern gaming hardware. It also makes me feel that whatever possessed me to ask for a Turbo Grafx, I probably made the right call. Good job, young Jonathan. You actually did something right.