Year: 1989 |Publisher: Nihon Falcom|Developer: Nihon Falcom
Original format: PC-88/98 | Version played: MSX2
I have a feeling that in each of my Ys write-ups so far, I’ve used the word “luxurious”, and I think I initially got that impression from the amazing packaging to Wanderers From Ys on the MSX. Japanese computer games generally had great packaging, at least compared to their UK equivalents. Your average Amiga release was typically presented with about the same level of care as your local chip shop might wrap a battered cod. Less greasy perhaps, but a generic cardboard box with a printed sleeve, a black & white photocopied manual and a single floppy disk rattling around inside, doesn’t exactly scream quality.
By contrast, when I first received an ancient copy of Wanderers From Ys in the post a few months ago, I was amazed and delighted by the level of effort Falcom clearly put in to its packaging design. The full colour plastic box, complete with poetic English language copy, almost looks like one of those VHS cases you might buy in the Eighties to make your tapes look like classic, leather-bound books. The front cover doesn’t feature the classic hero pose you might expect to see in other releases. In fact, neither Adol nor anyone else is featured anywhere but in the screenshots on the back. Instead you’re treated to a picturesque landscape of the game’s world, Felghana, and, under the logo in cursive font, the proud statement… “By Falcom”.
To me, the box oozed class before it had even been opened and told me that Falcom is a developer who take immense pride in their work. Inside there’s no photocopied instructions but a hardcover book, not just containing the manual but also a fully illustrated short story, a bestiary and even sheet music for some of the in-game tracks. Something I’m certain I have never seen a game do before.
The packaging isn’t just something you’d proudly display on your shelves. It’s an experience, separate from and complementary to the game itself. It’s the sort of thing that reminds me why I prefer the real deal to emulation. The option to hold a piece of history in your hands and feel a connection through this artefact to a time and place it is no longer possible to go. Every time I looked at it, it practically begged me to play. Which I guess is the whole point.
I’m a good boy, of course, so before creating some fan translation patched versions of the floppies and diving in, I at least waited until I’d finished Ys Book I & II. By this point, my expectation of what a definitive Ys game is and should be was just about the same as any other fan of the series – all ready to be subverted by the side-scrolling Ys III.
Created in the wake of, and inspired by 1987’s Zelda II, Wanderers From Ys actually began life within Falcom as an entirely original IP, according to an interview with Kouji Yokota in The Untold History Of Japanese Game Developers. It’s said that Adol was used as a placeholder character during prototyping but that when the designer came on board, he assumed this was intentional and kept him in, leaving Falcom little option but to developer the title into Ys III. Perhaps there never would have been a continuing Ys series at all without this happy little accident, and it certainly explains why Wanderers From Ys remains unique among its brethren.
Intermission… I tend not to use emulators, so I’m afraid that when I play a game on a system that can’t take its own screenshots, I have to make do with off-screen photos. Every photo was taken while playing on this diddy little PVM, and some of the shots are naturally better than others. I hope you can forgive me!
Despite the differences, I was also struck by certain unexpected similarities. While bump combat is no longer present, replaced by a direct action system, you can just hold down the attack button to make Adol repeatedly slash, even as you jump around, dive from above or crawl along the floor. It gives you the confidence to still charge headlong or pounce onto most enemies without breaking Adol’s momentum and, especially as you reach the optimal levels, the system very much captures that same thrill of frictionless movement that made Ys I & II so satisfying to play.
This direct action system truly comes into its own in the boss battles, each of which require a different strategy to beat and demand the player make use of every direction Adol can attack from. In this respect, I found the boss battles to be far superior to those found in Ys I & II, which all basically follow the same conventions.
With the wider range of directions from which Adol can attack, also comes a greater emphasis on level design. Falcom’s designers did a great job of creating spaces and arranging monsters so that you’re constantly adjusting your positioning as you go. Sometimes you even need to move very quickly between stances. Jumping, sprinting, crawling, while always attacking, to ensure Adol doesn’t come a cropper. Every area of Felghana feels perfectly designed to keep Adol on his toes, but also doubly functions as a space to explore. Often with great care taken to inject some challenge outside of combat, such as the final, maze-like dungeon draped in total darkness except for an ever-moving searchlight that offers fleeting visibility as quickly as it takes it away.
Even though it wasn’t an intentional change to the series, or perhaps even because it wasn’t, the side-scrolling perspective breathes new life into Ys, and not just in the gameplay. This is also a very pretty game to behold. The switch in viewpoint affords Falcom the canvass on which to paint some beautiful backgrounds, with impressive parallax scrolling thrown in just to show off a little bit more. I’m not sure I’ve played an MSX2 game that looks quite as gorgeous as this does. It even challenges that commonly held notion that the MSX cannot handle smooth scrolling. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t notice a little bit of jerkiness here and there, but on the whole I think Falcom pulled off a little miracle with this conversion to create one of the most polished games on the platform.
As Falcom’s perfect pixel-art credits sequence rolled by and the sun set on another of Adol’s adventures – now three played and three loved – I found myself looking forward to which entry I might play next, and anticipating that feeling of luxury I’ve now come to expect from Falcom. Yet I’m also acutely aware that when I do so, I’ll be returning to a traditional top-down view and that no other entry will feel quite like Ys III.
I find it fascinating that Falcom, years later, remade Wanderers From Ys in a more traditional style with The Oath In Felghana. It’s easy to speculate that without a simple misunderstanding, Ys III would and should always have been a top-down RPG, and maybe that’s the way modern Falcom would prefer it to be canonically remembered. Whatever their feelings, I’m glad that my attraction to MSX games with special packaging led me to play what might otherwise have been easily overlooked. That affection now extends to Ys III: Wanderers From Ys, and its luxurious packaging will indeed be proudly displayed on the shelf for years to come.
FOUR LITTLE THINGS ABOUT YS III: WANDERERS FROM YS THAT I RATHER LIKED
1. This statue of Jesus on the crucifix. The Ys series has a very distinct mythology of its own, so is this Christian imagery a leftover from before the side scroller officially became Ys III?
2. The intricate background details of the clocktower area, which looks particularly impressive in motion. You can jump on some of the gears in the foreground, while the layered background creates a nice illusion of depth.
3. This bit where Adol sails to an island near the end of the game. I love the dramatic chibi action that somehow communicates climactic drama while also remaining adorably cute.
4. Getting invited to a party by this guy who looks like almost every other bloke in the town! Don’t think I’ll be going to that one…