Nihon Falcom’s Ys: The Vanished Omens was originally released on a variety of Japanese home computers in 1987, and is the first entry in the long-running and still active, action-RPG series. The Sega Master System version served as the North American debut, and it came courtesy of Sega, in 1988. Although I’ve been interested in the games since discovering them many years ago, completing this version marked the first time I’ve actually played an entry, and I enjoyed the heck out of it! Narrative was light, and it proved to be a succinct and straightforward adventure, despite copious amounts of backtracking. Similarly, grinding was prevalent but it didn’t bog down the simplistic action-RPG combat. The combat was buoyed by light strategic elements and a series of fun boss fights. Now having firsthand experience with an entry, it’s easy to see why the series has stuck around.
The game began with the wandering swordsman Aron just inside the town gates of Minea. Moseying about and conversing with the townsfolk deepened my understanding of the narrative and the dire straits the Kingdom of Esteria was in. Naturally, Aron was destined to be the hero and after properly equipping him, he received quest information from the town seer, Sara. An evil wizard, Dark Dekt, was bringing darkness upon the land. In order to defeat him, Aron would need to retrieve the six Books of Ys, books that detailed a similar series of events that occurred a thousand years ago when Esteria was known as Ys. With that goal in mind, and a few notes regarding potential sidequests from Mineans, I was off to explore the kingdom.
Whereas the town of Minea was brimming with people to talk with and buildings to enter, the rest of Esteria was relatively sparse. The entire game only consisted of two towns, a connecting field, and a few dungeons, but abundant backtracking and grinding meant I eventually memorized my surroundings. Monsters roamed the field and served as an introduction to combat while traveling to Zepik, the other town. Battles were a streamlined affair, requiring me to simply walk Aron into his foes to damage them. Conversely, Aron was susceptible to their blows when attacking. In this sense, Ys had more in common with the action-oriented combat of The Legend of Zelda than the turn-based battles of Phantasy Star.
When I first came to grips with this combat system, I was intrigued by its simplicity but concerned for the long-term appeal it could hold. Thankfully, my interest held across the game’s dozen hour runtime, in part due to the gradually increasing difficulty curve. As with many RPGs of this era, grinding wasn’t just an option, it was a necessity. I had a few half-hour sessions centered solely on grinding for experience and better gear with all but one proving essential. However, the game did set itself apart from its peers by having an easily reachable, and maybe unavoidable, level cap. Regardless of this fact, each of the game’s three dungeons provided an intensifying challenge that rarely felt unfair.
As I sought out the Books of Ys and battled all sorts of beasts, simple strategic elements did appear in the combat. These were revealed primarily through passive effects granted by wearable rings, mostly granting statistical buffs. When equipped, these rings could boost Aron’s strength or defense, lower his enemies’ movement speed, or allow his health to recharge almost anywhere (as opposed to just the field and a few other areas). Despite the first two sounding inconsequential, I frequently alternated between them and found them quite useful. When skirmishes weren’t going my way, these rings gave me something else to think about, something to potentially tip the scales in my favor and in the case of boss fights, they were invaluable.
Taking out the fiends that populated Esteria was a rote process. Although their size and strength varied, they were all vanquished the same way: by ramming into and retreating from them, simultaneously eyeing the ever-present life bars for Aron and his most recent opponent at the bottom of the screen. Boss fights weren’t so simple. Each encounter forced me to recognize a unique pattern and exploit the boss’ weakness with near precision. Besides experimenting with methods of attack, I’d often switch rings and find that one was superior to another. These clashes were fun to figure out and execute successfully, especially the final bout, against Dark Dekt.
After scouring Esteria for the Books of Ys, receiving assistance from like-minded individuals, and ascending the twenty-plus floors of the Tower of the Doomed, Aron finally reached Dark Dekt. When the battle commenced, Aron was landlocked to a rectangular floating platform while Dark Dekt flew about shooting fireballs. When I landed hits against him, a piece of the platform directly beneath would disappear. If I wasn’t careful, I could box Aron in or drop him to his death. I realized that my best bet would be to limit my attacks on Dark Dekt to the edges of the platform, thereby leaving Aron ample room to walk about, and lessening the chance of plummeting him to his doom. After about a half-dozen attempts, I finally reigned supreme, proud of the challenges I’d overcome to save Esteria. The preceding boss fights weren’t this intricate or challenging, but they still required me to use my brains and my brawn to succeed.
As usual, I’m reaching the end of a review and finding it difficult to fit in anything more than a passing mention of a game’s soundtrack. That being said, I’m not missing the opportunity to praise this game’s immensely hummable music. As I backtracked through caves and towers, following memorized routes, there was little else to keep me focused than the rocking soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro and Mieko Ishikawa. This was readily evident in the let’s play I recorded, where I’m often bobbing my head and humming along with the music. Many of the tracks have stuck with me and I’ll soon begin the search for their downloadable equivalents.
Nihon Falcom helped to shape an evolutionary branch of the RPG genre with the pioneering gameplay of this game. Nearly thirty years later, it still holds up which is surely a testament to their craft. While it didn’t escape a few of the typical pitfalls common amongst its contemporaries, such as minimal narrative and necessary backtracking, these failed to diminish my enjoyment. With Ys: The Vanished Omens now complete, I’ll feel better about playing through some of the more recent entries in the series. Not that I’m going to anytime soon however, but when I do, I’m sure I’ll find improvements on the well-established groundwork laid out in this inaugural entry.
Finally, in case you missed it before, here’s the playlist for my let’s play of Ys: The Vanished Omens on the Sega Master System.