A fresh bundle of very old games

You’d think a collection – even a Japanese one from the Nineties – containing nothing but Ys I: Ancient Ys VanishedDragon Slayer, and Xanadu: Dragon Slayer II (we’ll not go into the mind-bending rabbit hole that is Falcom’s Dragon Slayer/The Legend of Heroes series-within-series today) would be marketed as “Ys and two bonus games” but the Saturn exclusive Falcom Classics is merrily even-handed, treating all three titles as nothing less than respected equals in all regards from manual space to developer attention.

So what is this little retro pack anyway? Well… perhaps it’d be best to start with something it isn’t, and that’s a collection of emulated games. Anyone hoping to play PC-88, MSX, or any other old computer versions of these wonders of early Falcom won’t find them here even as a secret bonus, and anyone reading this hoping for easy and affordable access to the legendary company’s back catalogue would be much better off spending a few hundred yen on an old favourite over on Project EGG. What it is is a made-for-Saturn triple whammy of historically significant games, each coming with two separate play modes: Saturn and Original. Selecting Saturn takes you to an all-new (lightly) remixed version of the game in question that’s had a few modern conveniences seamlessly grafted onto these very old bones (such as full Japanese text replacing Xanadu’s broken English, kanji where there was once only kana, miscellaneous minor gameplay adjustments and additions), whereas “Original” takes the same graphics and music and then makes a more concerted effort to echo – but not reproduce – many of the delightfully rough edges of these early Eighties legends. Whether you feel this is an obviously wasted chance to include the classics you came for or a nice change from the usual “They tried their best but…” emulation efforts it does at least mean there are no inaccuracies to worry about seeing as Falcom Classics doesn’t emulate anything in the first place.

As pleasant as it is to play old-but-new titles with Saturn-grade pixel art they’re still very old games at heart, and that means if you want to know what the heck to do in Dragon Slayer or what a particular piece of equipment does in Ys you’ll need to refer to the manual for help – the actual paper-and-ink manual included in the box. This could have easily been the weak link in the package: Computer games from 1984 often contained(much) more information in their included booklets (and maps, and monster encyclopedias…) than they did in the games themselves, and flipping through them to find basic information wasn’t just expected, but required. If Saturn players were going to get not only an authentic experience but also access to everything they needed to know then Falcom Classics manual had to go further than most – and luckily for everyone buying the game it did. Included with the game is a thick full colour booklet with each title given its own section, beginning with the absolute basics and then swiftly moving on to helpful tables, illustrative screenshots, and plenty of useful hints and tips too. Alone that would have honestly been enough, but Classics also ships with a fold-out reference sheet containing key info on all three games as well – just the thing if you need to quickly check what the ring in Dragon Slayer does or why a candle might come in handy when playing Xanadu.

Having all of this advice close by gives you the space to spend less time working out what the heck these games want you to do and more time enjoying all of Falcom Classics beautiful embellishments. The pixel art on all three games really is wonderful; always immediately reminiscent of the originals while still looking like it belongs on the Saturn. Of course as these are more straightforward refreshes of older titles rather than more mechanically intrusive remakes there’s still lots of repetition in the tilesets and not a great deal of animation or fluidity to the characters, but in practise that only makes them fit in well with the endearingly choppy bump-action RPGing playing out on screen. The music is just as good, and the arranged tracks are all pleasantly hummable updates of the famous originals with nothing sticking out as inauthentic, lacking polish, or conversely having so much polish it sticks out like a sore thumb. Neither a quick rush job nor an overcooked makeover eager to prove how different and clever it is, Falcom Classics really does feel like the originals, updated, and while that does leave these games feeling a bit grindy and at times plain weird by more modern standards it’s a good balance that’s sure to leave classic Falcom fans happy with their new way to play old games, and newcomers feeling they’re getting a Saturn-quality take on titles they may have otherwise missed out on.

Included as part of the first print edition (shown in the photo at the top of the page) is a special Ys-focused bonus disc containing an Ys audio drama, Ys audio drama cast interviews, Ys art gallery (more of a slideshow, really), and “Feena’s Falcom shop visit” (a cute advert, complete with map to the shop). It’s a nice enough extra but definitely something to pop in once and then leave in the case forever – the art displayed in the gallery doesn’t have the quality, quantity, or rarity of something like Sonic Jam (you’re better off with any old Falcom art book, or even the original manuals, if you want to see pretty Ys illustrations), and the others are the sort of thing to look at/listen to once and once only.

“Classics” is a word that’s used too often, but all three games in this set honestly deserve to be described as such: They’re importance to not only to Falcom but the entire RPG genre has a whole cannot be emphasised enough – these are the foundations almost everything that came after were built on. But do they play well when compared to contemporary Saturn competitors? Yes they do. If you know Ys – and I’m sure you do – then you’ll feel as comfortable with the game’s non-stop action here as anywhere else, and Dragon Slayer as well as Xanadu are very entertaining action RPGs in their own right. You can feel Falcom working out game design through these titles, each of them a slightly different answer to a question people were only just beginning to ask. It may not be accurate in the way we think we’d want a retro compilation to be, but Falcom Classics arguably gives us something even better; an enjoyable and less intimidating way of accessing some otherwise perhaps hard to play retro games – no user discs to create, no floppies to swap, no keyboard controls – just lots of fun.

[Ko-fi supporters got to read all about this game a week early!]

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