I was playing the PC-88 version of Ys II the other day — the version released back in 1988 — and it’s still a shameless showoff despite its choppy scrolling. During the final battle, Adol the redhaired swordsman runs around stabbing a teleporting warlord while flames impressively swirl in the pit below. Energetic music, full of flourishes that reveal the composers to be better than their instruments allowed, make the scene feel like more than one sprite chasing after another sprite. It felt like a battle, and it was hard.
That’s not the version I grew up on. Most of Ys’ North American fans — I’m one of them — first met the wandering do-gooder Adol through Hudson’s supercharged TurboGrafx port. With its vibrant musical arrangement, smooth scrolling, and hyperactive cinematic interludes, Ys Book I & II set high expectations for every CD-based system to follow. More recently, we Westerners played Legacy of Ys on the DS. That port introduced stylus control and (optional) button-based fighting that made some parts of the game too easy, and other parts too frustrating. The DS version also included larger-than-expected character sprites — which looked pretty cool — and a lame new dungeon, which was not cool.
In contrast to the DS version’s feeble efforts at innovation, Ys I & II Chronicles is a faithful and sensible port: a port full of impressive artwork, simple “bump into enemies to hurt them” fighting, and ridiculously cool music. When I first booted up Chronicles, I listened to the lilting title melody for a bit, then picked up the PSP to actually play the game. Just as I was about to hit “start”, an unexpected brass chorus rose from the background, overpowering the familiar melody. I set the PSP back down and kept listening. JDK Band has outdone themselves; the new soundtrack for Chronicles is beautifully arranged — with live instruments this time. As a nostalgia blast, two other, older variations of the soundtrack can be selected on the fly. That’s not the only option Falcom has provided: players can also select either the new (cuter) artwork, or they can retain the older (elegant) character portraits from Ys Eternal.
In short, this is Ys with nice art and amazing music. Ys has always had nice art and amazing music, so there are no surprises — but it’s the best version yet. Moments that didn’t seem particularly impressive on Turbo CD stand out due to subtle tweaks. In the first town, I enjoyed stupid stuff like running around in a vain effort to keep up with the seagulls flying overhead. In the caverns, after establishing a trend of “what you see is what you fight”, Adol is ambushed by hidden fire-flinging magma men when he grabs the magical black pearl. Against the drab brown floor, his colorful assailants almost pop right out of the screen. The icy mountains are a spectacle of beauty and energetic JDK-rock, leading up to an impressive and challenging beast that forced me to repeatedly run from one corner of the screen to another. This felt like a throwaway boss in earlier incarnations; now it feels like a struggle.
Ys is an adventure full of memorable scenes. There’s only so far developers can take a classic battle, such as the rockin’ first boss fight; that moment has been great since 1987, so the best they could do is not screw it up. They didn’t screw it up — and after two decades of revisions, Falcom has brought other scenes to that same level, which is a worthy accomplishment. This port exemplifies the value of refinement: the visuals are sharper than they were on PS2, and the analog nub manages the action better than arrow keys ever could.
I love this game. Never mind that I played through Ys I & II not so long ago on the DS. Never mind that I played through Ys I & II on the PS2 before that. Let others drool over “narrative progression” and half-baked “innovation”; those traits are fleeting. I savor stimulating games that are so fun they’re worth playing over and over and over again. Falcom has released a dozen different versions of Ys, but it works, because this is one of the most replayable adventures in this grand hobby we call “gaming”. Aside from the surprising soundtrack, it’s exactly what one would expect from a Falcom-developed port of Ys I & II.
In other words, it’s amazing.