“It’s kind of like the Adventure of Link, but…” would be an adequate way to describe the experience of playing Ys III on the SNES. We tend to look back on the SNES fondly when it comes to RPGs; there were a limited number of them, and those few games are not only still talked about today but in many cases their clones are still being made and receiving great reception decades later. Ys III is likely one of those games you have not heard of when people talk about the great RPGs of the SNES, and here’s why.
The story is incredibly sparse and unimaginative. In fairness, for the time, having a story that can be spoiled by saying “It’s a cliche fantasy story” wasn’t overly uncommon and while the game has a town hub it has so few people it can avoid the problem with games like Zelda II and Castlevania II wherein you face hordes of useless villagers saying nothing useful at all. One or two may say something you need to know to progress but they will do so in such a cryptic way they may well be just as useless as the others. With such a flimsy story though, it may come as a relief to know you won’t have to spend much time out of dungeons. The few story related cut scenes there are however can’t be skipped and the dialogue s-l-o-w-l-y crawls at a pace seemingly designed to allow those who do not speak English to pop out their translation dictionary and look up each word while still having time to file their taxes and enjoy a cup of tea.
We know that story doesn’t make a game. Zelda I is a classic, but not because an old man tells you to save a princess from a pig with a wooden sword. It is the game play that kept us interested in NES and SNES era games, or in many cases, made games legendary for how atrocious they were.
I will start with the good. The music of Ys III, while not always appropriate, is quite the rocking little soundtrack with tunes that one could easily mistake for something from a Mega Man game. The music for dungeons and bosses is quick paced, occasionally shrill and not the most memorable SNES original soundtrack but can still be enjoyable. The game looks good, though doesn’t excel and is outshone by later SNES games.
Actually playing the game is where it is almost good, but not quite, and where it starts to remind a player of Zelda II. Much like Zelda II, Ys III took a departure from what came before it. Ys I and II were top down games not unlike Zelda I, wherein you ran into and through your enemy to deal damage while trying to avoid projectiles. Ys III is a side scrolling action adventure game, much like Zelda II. You can duck and attack, jump and do an upwards swing, and spam your sword attack at the speed of light. The controls themselves are not a problem, being quite solid and thankfully reliable, which is a relief because the game is considered to be fairly difficult.
The difficulty doesn’t come from the challenge of combat, but the challenge of knowing what does damage to you. Enemy attacks, whether they be fireballs, lightning strikes or the swing of a sword, whittle tiny bits from your health bar. Standing in an enemy is another story; your health will plummet by massive chunks multiple times per second that you spend within its hit box. This will force you to slowly crawl along, hoping to get into the sweet spot where your tiny range sword can hit minor enemies but just outside where they will turn you into goo within the blink of an eye. Those solid controls are necessary in battle as you are constantly spamming your sword in one direction while trying to back up at the same time- but not too far, or else you’ll find that enemy you just downed has re-spawned again off screen. There’s rarely anything like a shield or sweet spot for enemies, and no knock back on your attack which removes any of the strategy or skill that was needed Zelda II. You can charge through or jump over some enemies for no reason but their hit box and appearance gives you no indication of that. You are forced to rely more on trial and error than on what you actually see. The traps are the worst for this, including armour suits in the background which regularly plunge a spear at the ground. Even moving against the spear while it is down will instantly kill you. That’s right- you touch the side of a spear, the non pointy bit, and it’s simply game over for you.
You are limited to one of each item and while you have a ring with many affects, it quickly degrades while being used. Unfortunately with the only way to heal back at the start of the dungeon you may find a single bad move will force you to retrace your steps, making you somewhat thankful for the unnatural speed at which you can run. Normally, you get all your health back from killing a boss, the exception however being the second last boss in the game who naturally comes immediately before the final boss. Who needs consistency anyway?
The dungeons themselves are fairly linear for the most part and while few in number are of a decent enough length to make the game itself perhaps four hours long. The final dungeon possesses the most annoying mechanic of putting you in utter darkness with only a small beam of light that wobbles back and forth across the screen. While this is not an overly uncommon mechanic to put in a game towards the end, what is uncommon is putting the only path to the final boss in a place where you can never actually see it. You have to know to move in the right direction while falling after a screen transition and since this screen transitions resets the light beam you will never actually find this corridor if you don’t already know it is there.
Is the game difficult? Not really- once you figure out where not to be if you don’t want to be destroyed by an enemy’s cape it is more about being precise in where you stand. While projectile attacks can add up given the lack of healing, once you’re inside an enemy the reality is you don’t have to be overly worried about them. Bosses seem like they could be cool, but suffer from the same problem- so while you can move quite quickly, you end up being very stationary for fear of being just a hair out of place, which either spells instant death or your sword simply swinging into the air harmlessly.
If I were to use one phrase to sum up Ys III, it would be “stand in the right place.” It is difficult for the wrong reasons. It has few redeeming qualities so at the end of the day it isn’t a horrible game. If you do get to the end, at least unlike many games of the time, the ending isn’t one screen- it’s a full ten minutes of dialogue. Is it a satisfactory and fulfilling ending sequence? No. Would I recommend playing Ys III? No.