Just before the end of 1988 we come to the third of the three RPGs Sega unleashed on America. In this case we have a port of Falcom’s famous action/RPG title that sparked a long-running series over in Japan. Originally debuting on Japanese computers in 1987, Ys (pronounced ‘ease’) has been ported to numerous consoles and computers over the years, including more than a few rereleases. The Master System was not left out as it received a port that was mostly faithful to the original, despite a few tweaks that were thrown in for whatever reason. In fact this port was the first version of Ys to be released in the U.S., and a few others would follow on other platforms. While this SMS quest is a decent one, those who are used to large sprawling epics such as Phantasy Star will quickly see that this port doesn’t quite have as much content as you’d like, and also unfortunate is how the game tries to compensate for it.
The series centers around Adol Christian, the young red-haired swordman who constantly thirsts for adventure and all that. This first chapter of the saga finds Adol wandering into the land of Esteria, once known for its fine silver but is now plagued by evil beings. Wanting to do what all heroes do, Adol learns from a seer about the ancient Goddesses of Ys who saved the land from darkness in the past and could be called upon again should someone find and unite six magical books which supposedly contain records of their exploits. Adol decides to take up the challenge and embarks on a quest to find the six Books of Ys, but has the brave the monster-infested land and venture into the foreboding Tower of the Doomed, supposedly the source of all the trouble. In addition there are rumors floating around about a wicked sorcerer who is also after the books, looking to use their power for evil purposes.
This game can essentially be divided into two parts, and the first part unfolds like most other RPGs as you prepare Adol to enter the Tower of the Doomed by gathering the necessary items to unlock the second part of the quest, including finding the first three Books of Ys. Adol begins in the town of Minea and must meet with different characters to get important information and quest items as well as purchase weapons and armor in the shops. Once Adol leaves the town the game begins in earnest as he has to visit the other town as well as explore two ‘dungeons’, the palace and the mine. Naturally you have to kill the creatures roaming the landscape to earn experience points and gold and this game relies on real-time action instead of turn-based combat like most other RPGs. Thing is you don’t actually have an attack button, instead Adol kills enemies by simply bumping into them and draining their hit points until they’re dead a’la Hydlide. Successfully slaying an enemy nets you money and experience, and reaching certain EXP totals will automatically advance you to the next level with an increase in your stats and maximum hit points. Incidentally this is your only attack method since no ranged secondary weapons are found in this quest. You can only take a certain amount of hits yourself, but amazingly you can regenerate your health in the outdoor areas by standing still (you’ll need to equip certain items to heal yourself in the dungeons). Two of the books are obtained by defeating the bosses in the mine and palace, the third is obtained when a certain unfortunate event occurs.
While the fast-paced action of Ys is engaging since you don’t have to rely on a lot of menus, you’ll quickly see how the overworld is pretty small with only two towns to visit and two small dungeons to explore before entering the third dungeon which takes up the second half of the game. To make up for this slight shortfall the game requires you to constantly backtrack between the areas trying to fulfill a series of fetch quests to obtain what you need. You don’t actually get to use most of the items you snag during this part except at certain points. The other main issue is the game’s combat and leveling-up system which can be more frustrating than fun. Trying to hit your foe head-on or from a wrong angle will result in you getting killed before you even realize it, especially since they change directions constantly. Thing is the game requires you to be at certain levels to even damage most of them, including the bosses, and earning the necessary experience points to increase your level takes far more time than it should since enemies are often scarce and have to constantly be sought out. Not to mention they drop very little points for your trouble, forcing you to kill several dozen creepies for large chunks of time to finally power up enough. The boss fights aren’t very enjoyable either as it’s often hard to find their weak spots so you’ll be dying a lot before you can finally defeat them. You’ll be happy this game allows you to save your progress at anyplace since you’ll need more than a few quick restarts. Ironically, once you do reach the required EXP levels, you can plow through most foes and even some of the bosses without breaking a sweat.
In any case, after you obtain the first three Books of Ys and arm yourself with the necessary items, you then have to enter the Tower of the Doomed for the second half of the game. This 21-floor labyrinth is mainly you navigating through the halls and climbing up and down each floor looking for the remaining three books as well as more important quest items. A few allies have somehow made their way into the tower to help you out but more stronger enemies prowl the different floors as well as a few more bosses. However fighting the minor enemies is almost a moot point since you’re already maxed out in experience by this time (to kill the mine boss to have to raise your EXP to Level 10 and that’s as far as you go) and there are no more shops to buy anything, so worrying about money is pointless. You’re better off just ignoring these creeps when you can. It can also be extremely confusing making your way around the tower unless you make really good maps of each floor, especially since this part also requires a bit of backtracking in spots. Killing the bosses will net you two of the remaining books but waiting at the top of the tower is the evil Dark Dekt who has the last Book in his possession and the only way to wrench it from him is a fight to the death.
As far as the visuals go, the graphics are a bit simplistic, much like the game itself, but the different environments are vibrantly colored and mostly well-defined. While the sprites are on the small side, many of them do have some nice details, and when you enter buildings or talk to certain characters you’re treated to some nicely done portraits as well. The one real highlight of this cart is the background music which does an excellent job setting the tone for each area, from the heroic overworld theme to the spooky palace tune and even some decent boss music. Granted the Master System soundtrack falls slightly short when compared to other versions of Ys, but it’s still worth playing this game to check out the music.
I honestly wanted to like this Master System version of Ys, especially since the series is held in such high regard, and it certainly offers a different experience that can be fun and exciting at times. But overall this quest doesn’t quite make the cut when compared to other 8-bit RPGs like Phantasy Star, Dragon Warrior and others. The game just feels too short and leans on the constant backtracking and excessive grinding to pad out an adventure that can be completed in around five hours. Some gamers may enjoy this cart, but those looking for a better way to experience Ys should check out the excellent Y’s Book I & II on the TurboGrafx-CD, which combines the first two games in the series into one long adventure and adds many enhancements and improvements that give you far more sizzle for your steak.