The average Sega Master System cartridge weighs 1.85 ounces. The cartridge for Ys: Vanished Omens weights 2.15 oz. The extra .3 ounces? Memory. Though Ys is not a lengthy adventure (consisting of only three dungeons), the weighty five save slots will save you a lot of grief, turning what could have been a merciless experience into a true pleasure as you snake your way through circuitous, indistinct caverns and dungeons to restore peace to a troubled land.
In this version of Ys (more on the title later), you play as Aron Christian, a young seafaring adventurer who washes up on the shores of a land desperately in need of your help. It has been a millennium since the two goddesses of "Ys" saved their kingdom by hiding six powerful magic books before launching their citadel into the sky to escape the dark forces below. Now, a dark magician, Dark Dekt, is looking for these powerful tomes that could unleash great destructive power onto the land of Esteria and you must race the sorcerer to find all six.
Despite its familiar item-driven premise, Ys is unconventional in many ways. It's an action-RPG that escapes the oppressive influence of the Zelda franchise and therefore remains a fresh and unique experience even by today's standards. Its most distinctive feature is its combat system that does away with traditional sword slashing, special attacks, or button pressing of any kind. Combat can perhaps be best described as a jousting contest. When equipped, your sword is constantly drawn forward, and all you need do is run into enemies to inflict damage. While this method of attack seems a bit brainless at first, you will need to quickly develop a strategy to successfully vanquish your foes. Run head on, you will likely get hit. Make an off-centered approach, and you will succeed. Since buttons are not required for battle, you can play most of Ys with one hand; sip a cup of coffee with your right and accumulate experience points with your left. When you consider the large amounts experience points you will need to farm, this one-handed approach is most appreciated.
Some have criticized Ys for being too uneven in regard to its layout and objectives, but its unevenness makes it more memorable. The old dungeon-boss-reward formula gives way to a seemingly random, organic design. The first three magic books are scattered across several locales, while the last three reside in one tower. The game is therefore broken up in two halves: the first is more open to exploration while the second is more linear. The second half limits you two a 25 floor tower that requires a good amount of short term memory and backtracking. There are very few landmarks - no paintings, plants, or color variations - to mark your progress. In short, you will get lost. Since the tower has undergone little revision in modernized versions of the game, it seems that the confusion is intentional and meant to add to the overall challenge.
Years after its initial release, Ys remains something of a mystery to even well-versed gamers. Even though the original has been ported to almost every popular game console of the last three decades and has spawned countless sequels, it remains a relatively obscure adventure series.
Another mystery of the game is the title itself, heretofore misspelled in this review as "Ys" because that is how the American branch of Sega misspelled it in 1988. The misplaced apostrophe (whether possessive or not), would cause readers to pronounce the title like the letter "Y" rather than the intended pronunciation of Ys ["EECE"]. This seems like such a niggling issue, but you may be surprised how many gamers on forums and blogs get indignant if you mispronounce or misspell their beloved RPG franchise. (Everyone needs a cause, I guess.)
The pronunciation of "Y's" or "Ys" is not entirely trivial. In northern western France, a local legend of a lost city, that of Ker-Ys or Ys does share a few similarities with the game. This tale details how an entire walled city and its central tower vanished after years of excess and debauchery on part of its citizens and rulers - sort of like the Tower of Babel story. In the legend, however, the city sinks beneath the Atlantic. In Ys: Vanished Omens, the mythical city goes in the opposite direction, into the sky, ripped asunder from the land, not as punishment for decadence but as protection from it. Both the legend and the game have similar seaside settings and shipwrecked sailors that wash up on shores, but the connections are mostly tenuous. So while not an exact retelling of an actual legend, its designers at Falcom clearly did some research, however light, to inspire its own tale. After all, Falcom had already done something similar with their earlier foray into adventure gaming with Xanadu (aka Dragon Slayer II) in 1985. Like Ys, Xanadu is the name of a destroyed city of legend, so someone at Falcom was plainly interested in crypto-archeology. (One of the Xanadu games even ends with a verbatim scroll of the 21st verse from the Book of Revelations which tells of the founding New Jerusalem, the city of God rumored to be hidden somewhere here on earth.)
All Ys enthusiasts should feel somewhat indebted to Sega for being the first to port the beloved Falcom classic from Japanese computers. Sega may have missed a few detail (the names of people and places changed; Adol Christin became Aron Christian; the box art depicts a blonde swordsman despite Aron's clearly red dome; the apostrophe in the title caused confusion in pronunciation), but all this can be easily forgiven since they gave Americans their first chance to play an Ys title. Even today, there are too many Ys sequels that remain untranslated and thereby unappreciated in the West. Ys: Vanished Omens is the mustard seed that would slowly grow into one of the most beloved cult franchises in gaming history. It may not the best rendition of the game, but it is a good place to start if only to appreciate how well the game has evolved on the TurboDuo, the Saturn, and PlayStation 2.