Ys – Developer Interview Collection (1987-1998)

Ys – Developer Interviews (1987-1998)

This special collection of Ys interviews and liner notes from the late 80s give a glimpse into the early days of the Ys series at Nihon Falcom. Especially interesting is the special report and interview for the 1987 “Adventure Games and RPG III” book. It's an “on the scene” report of the Nihon Falcom offices, which had recently moved to a larger space. The two interviews were found at Saruman’s Gardens, a Japanese fan site.

Nihon Falcom – Ys Developer Interview

Featured in the 1987 “AVG & RPGIII” book

Did you know, in August of this year (1987) Nihon Falcom moved their offices? Well, it wasn’t a very far move: they’re still near the same southern exit of the Tachikawa Station, on the Chuuou line. They’re now on the first floor of a magnificent building, not very far from their old office. Today, as part of a special feature for this book, I’m taking my first trip to their new offices.

After getting a sanpachitrio for lunch at the nearby Lotteria, I headed right over to Nihon Falcom’s office. Damn, this place is huge! Its got to be 1.5~2x larger than their previous space. The desks are lined up next to each other, with computers on each.

At a glance, it feels like they’ve hired more employees too. Perhaps they had too many people for their last place, and that’s why they moved?

In the past Falcom was famous as a software distributor, and their new office also retains a space for a shop. You can mainly buy Falcom related goods and games, so stop by if you’re in the area. Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of those two famous programmers, Kiya and Hashimoto!

The Nihon Falcom offices, 1987.

After walking about and taking in the new interior, I was introduced to Nihon Falcom President Katou and the Ys main programmer Masaya Hashimoto. Yes, finally! I’ve waited so long, I think I’ll start with a question I’ve been wondering about for some time: why was the company named “Nihon Falcom” ?

Katou: Ah, I see you’ve started with a difficult question! Long ago I spent several years in Thailand managing the computer research division of an international aid project. Ever since then, it was my dream to own my own computer shop and make games. But when it actually came time to create a company, I chose the name with very little fuss. Its a play on the word “Falcon.” I was also thinking of the Millenium Falcon from Star Wars, and at that time the “~com” suffix was very popular in the industry… so it just had a nice ring to it. But it felt like something was missing with just “Falcom”, so I added Nihon to the front. Lately it seems that the Nihon part is getting left behind and “Falcom” is standing on its own in the public’s mind.

I see… so the Nihon Falcom name comes from quite an unexpected place. Well, anyway, we mustn’t overconcern ourselves with such things. Today I came to talk about Ys! With no time to drink the coffee brought to me by a beautiful employee, I hurriedly got up and was led by Hashimoto to a corner of the office where the Ys development team was waiting!

My first question was kindly answered by Hashimoto: where did the concept for Ys come from?

Hashimoto: Recent RPGs have been very difficult, and it takes a lot of willpower to finish them. So eventually we came to have our doubts: was this really “fun”? With Ys, therefore, we set out to create the opposite kind of game, something that would be accessible, easy to play, and not geared toward hardcore RPG maniacs.

That’s true–the uncomplicated Ys is definitely different from most RPGs, where you start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you for obsessively spending so much time on it. Hashimoto then continued to the next point:

Hashimoto: In our advertisments for Ys we prominently featured the word “Kindness.” That word signals that, as developers, we assumed the perspective of players, always asking ourselves how to make a game that would be more enjoyable from the player’s perspective. One example would be the way you can save your game anywhere. Games that limit your ability to save end up wasting a lot of the player’s effort. In addition, we also avoided the experience grinding that has been an annoying feature of RPGs. If something feels like work, you’ll quickly tire of it. Anyway, the driving idea behind Ys was thinking from the player’s perspective.

The Ys development area.

As I learned later in our conversation, Hashimoto plays quite a lot of games himself. He regularly declares his love for Darius, saying he’d buy it even if it was 300,000 yen. Lately he’s cleared Gandhara, Psychic War, Simon’s Quest, and Faxanadu. I was amazed he had that much time to play games, but I suppose that only by playing so many games can one deeply understand how players themselves feel. My honest impression of Hashimoto? He’s almost as much of a gamer as he is a programmer.

Another surprising fact I learned is that the development team had barely 5 months to make Ys! These days its common for games to take a year in development, so I wanted to know the secret behind how the Falcom team was able to create such a polished game in so short a time.

Hashimoto: I can only call it a victory of teamwork. We were able to say what we wanted to say to each other, and talk things through until accord was reached. Because of that, the development that followed went at a very quick speed. I should say, however, that during those 5 months no one on the team could do anything in their lives but Ys.

As the interview turned to teamwork, each member of the team leaned forward, eager to share. The first to start things off was Tomoo Yamane, known in the Falcom office as the “storyteller.” Those who played Xanadu Scenario II may know him as the letter-shaped monster who wields a Vorpal Sword. For Ys, Yamane worked mainly on the background data and title graphics.

Yamane: The Ys map data took an incredible amount of effort to complete. For example, take a single tree. It took two characters worth of data: the right side reflecting the sun, and the the left side shaded dark. The graphics for the apex of the tree also differed depending on the terrain, be it forest, plains, desert, or beach. In that case, there were a further two patterns for trees behind each other, depending on whether the light part or the shaded part was facing the screen. In the end we had over 16 patterns for trees, and the map designer lost track of what was what, resulting in some shoddy maps at first, hah.

Feena, from the PC-88 Ys manual.

After that, map designer Kurata, as a last resort, created an “auto-tree populator” program. Whenever a treetop tile was placed, it would examine the character beneath it and put the right character there. When I heard about this I thought it’d be super convenient. However, you had to learn how to use the program itself, and learning all the parameters took forever. I guess you could call it a kind of artificial intelligence, in a sense! At final count we had 300 map tiles, and as a matter of fact, all the forests on the plains were completed by Kurata’s program.

Next up I heard from Kurata, the creator of that difficult program. In addition to creating the maps, he also handled the FM-7 and AV ports of Ys.

Kurata: Yeah, I was making use of that auto-populator program, putting trees all over the map, but when the map scrolled it created problems, so I tearfully had to scale back the number of trees. Also, during mapping, I frequently argued with the scenario writer, Tomoyoshi Miyazaki. For example, I’d be told to do something like put a person here and here inside a tower, but I’d start wondering why we were putting people there. “How is this guy surviving in this tower?! What exactly is he supposed to be eating!” I often picked fights like that. Maybe I just wanted to give him a hard time.

I understand that the first program Kurata made for Nihon Falcom was the FM-7 adventure game Ijigen kara no Dasshutsu.1 Actually, I remember wanting to play that game, but a PC-88 version never came out… Today games are ported to a variety of systems right away. Its a good era.

Next I talked with another map designer, Oketani, who also managed to port Ys to the PC-98 in only two weeks.

Oketani: The visual perspective for Ys is a top-down horizontal screen, so you can only place doors in north-south directions. That meant it was very difficult to make the Palace and Mine maps feel properly labyrinthine. Another challenge I had was with the PC-98 port. We had to convert the music to speaker beeps, for users that didn’t have the FM expansion sound board installed. But we could only add 2 songs, so the music when Lea hands you the harmonica, and the Corridor of Evil music are the only songs included. Later I wondered regretfully if it would have been better not to include them at all. (laughs)

Tomoyoshi Miyazaki, the scenario writer and programmer of the MSX2 port, told me about his struggles next.

Miyazaki: Hmmm, let’s see… the single biggest challenge when I was writing the Ys story was that the text had to be entirely in hiragana. So 廃坑 (haikou), although easy to read with kanji, you couldn’t tell what it meant in plain hiragana. I really want to use kanji the next time I write a game scenario.

The character editor used to make Ys sprites.

Everyone on the Ys development team is quite a show-off! Even without my asking, they all volunteered interesting stories. In that vein, the now-famous character designer for Ys (and writer for the BASIC language magazine Bemaga under the penname “kopiron”), Ayano Koshiro, shared her struggles.

A. Koshiro: I really wanted to make larger characters. I tried and tried, but couldn’t do what I wanted within the framework we had… well, there’s always next time. Right, Hashimoto?

Now I understand what she means. Its Hashimoto’s job, as a programmer, to artfully field and manage the various requests he gets from other team members (I’m intrigued by what “next time” could mean!). Ah–that reminds me–we can’t forget the music programmers! First, I talked with the creator of almost all the PSG versions of the Ys songs, Mieko Ishikawa, who also happens to be my same age.

Ishikawa: The Ys songs were originally completed using FM and 6 PSG voices. Arranging them for just 3 PSG voices was incredibly difficult work. We received some complaints from X1 users saying we’d done shoddy, hasty work, but I assure you, we didn’t! We didn’t just lazily take the melody, sub melody, and bass line from the FM version and transpose it for 3 PSG voices. Instead, we worked hard to retain the personality of the original compositions so that X1 users wouldn’t feel anything was lacking compared with the PC-88… we really put our all into these arrangements!

I think so too. I actually think the Ys songs for the X1 might be the best PSG music ever done. In fact, on the Pasokon Sunday tv show, when Okura and Takahashi heard the X1 versions, they were so amazed by the quality they proclaimed “Wait… this has to be FM, right?” To all X1 users, its unfortunate you can’t do FM sound, but the PSG versions are nothing to be ashamed about!

Well, last up I talked with Yuzo Koshiro, who it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call the foremost composer in the computer music world today. I asked him what were some of his challenges with Ys.

Y. Koshiro: When I wrote the music for Ys I created my own sound drivers, doing all the programming for them myself, too. But as I worked with them, I started to become unsatisfied with the quality of the sounds. So I took it upon myself to improve the drivers, and the person this really caused problems for was our programmer, Hashimoto. I kept compiling new drivers, until we finally had 3 different music drivers in the code. And yes, the poor souls doing the ports also had a hard time.

The Sharp X1 version of the Ys OST. Nowhere as grandiose as the original PC-88 music, but impressive for being made with just three PSG channels.

Improving the drivers… it sounds simple enough when he says it that way, but it undoubtedly takes incredible effort. Hearing that the polished music of Ys was born from such an uncompromising creativity gave me a newfound respect for it.

Thus concluded my interviews with the Ys development staff. I had one final question for President Katou: what kind of things will Nihon Falcom be working on in the future?

Katou: You know, to be honest, that’s something I want to ask the team about. Regardless of whether or not we’ll be making more Dragon Slayer sequels, I do want to try some new things. I’ve also wanted to do some educational software… games can let people experience new things and feel that their lives have been somehow broadened. I want to create a game that does that for people.

Today, in fact, games still have a reputation as something that’s not very good for you. I wonder if several hundred years ago, when adventure stories were new to the world, if they were thought of as “good”? But today adventure stories are widely read and no one would say they’re somehow bad for you. In other words, in the near future, I think there’s a very good chance that games will be established on a more respectable footing. Whether those things will be called games or not, I can’t say, but I want to create software that helps contribute to that future.

L-R: Interviewer, Katou, Hashimoto.

Such sensible thoughts are exactly what I’d expect from the President of one of the top computer software companies. I also believe the day is coming when games will break free of the simple limits of “play.” Whether they’ll become like novels or movies, I don’t know, but nothing would make me happier than to see them evolve and become recognized as a cultural medium. Leaving the Nihon Falcom offices, I thought to myself how lucky we are to be born in these times, as eyewitnesses to the ongoing evolution of games.

Finally, I’ll note here what you all already probably know: Hashimoto is currently making steady progress on the programming of a new game (for release in February or March of next year, he says!).

Ys I & II Developer Interview

Featured in 1988 Strategy Guide “Book of Ys”.

Tomoyoshi Miyazaki – Writer
Masaya Hashimoto – Programmer
Seigo Oketani Graphics

Takahiro Ooura Graphics
Mieko Ishikawa – Music

—What made you decide to develop Ys?

Miyazaki: Well, Ys I was so long ago I don’t clearly remember the exact occasion, but it came into focus during one of our discussions where everyone was talking excitedly, throwing ideas out. Most of our ideas for games at Nihon Falcom start that way.

—In the original plans, what kind of game was Ys?

Miyazaki: From the beginning, the idea was that, as you played, you would gradually uncover the history of this kingdom called Ys. We also wanted to explore themes of human nature and trust between people.

—And what kind of game was Ys II planned to be?

Miyazaki: Taken together, there’s really a lot of characters in Ys I and II. And Adol is helped by many people on his journey, so while it seems that he travels alone, in reality there’s an invisible party he’s been forming. That’s how we want players to think of it. As for the theme of Ys II, its all hidden there in the last scene, so I will leave that for everyone to see for themselves when they actually play the game.

—Hashimoto, as a programmer, what things did you focus on during the development of Ys?

Hashimoto: My work is all on the internal side, so I guess I try as much as possible to make my programming consistent and readily usable by any of the developers. As for the player’s experience, I try to reduce the disk access time as much as possible. But regardless of whether I’m thinking as a player or as a developer, my job is to minimize constraints and impediments.

During the Ys development, I was also always aware of the gap between what I wanted to do and what was possible. For example, in Ys the chracter sprites are very small. You can’t show any facial expressions directly, so we couldn’t convey their emotion that way. That was very difficult.

—In Ys II, the animated flames in the background during the fight with Darm looked awesome!

Hashimoto: (blushing) Yeah, we had a lot of positive responses about that. In Ys II we really wanted to push the cinematic quality of the game, so I think those flames were fitting for the words “final battle.”

The battle with Darm in Ys II.

—My next question is a little detailed, but… I assume that the events in the game normally follow the scenario that Miyazaki wrote, but as a programmer do you ever propose to them things you’d like to add to the game?

Hashimoto: It does happen. In Ys II, for example, with the slippery platforms in the ice world, having the background scroll outside the windows of the palace was one of the programmer’s ideas. You know, I think its good that everyone in the staff can exchange ideas even if it means more conflict. No matter how much we argue, there’s trust between us, so we respect each other’s feelings and ideas.

—It almost sounds like an RPG!

Hashimoto: It really is like that. Everyone works together, and through that trust we’re able to rely on each other and make progress toward our goals.

—I’d now like to ask some questions of the art director Oketani, who plays the important role of creating the visual world of Ys. How did you go about creating the graphics?

Oketani: My work was creating the maps and giving guidance on other issues related to graphics. The development of the story was very important to us, as was making sure that story felt dynamic. For example, we paid special attention to the transitional scenes between stages (like the ice world to the volcanic area). Coming up with the map designs was very difficult too.

—Did you also work on the ending and opening animations?

Oketani: I did the storyboarding for them. In the ending we show Adol and Feena’s faces, and I remember really struggling with how they should look.

—Ooura, as a graphic designer you also worked on creating the maps–specifically, the smallest unit of a map, called a “chip.” What were some of the pleasures and challenges of this work?

Ooura: Basically, since its pixel art, it never comes out quite like you imagined it. There was a lot of arguing over the Sacred Area, in particular. My intention when I made it was to give it a holy and sacred atmosphere, but everyone told me it looked like a sewer. So cruel. My process for creating the maps sometimes ended up being different than I had expected, too.

—How many “chips” did you use for the maps?

Ooura: There was a limit of 2048 (128 x 16), so it sometimes happened that we would run out of available space.

—Ishikawa, you and Yuzo Koshiro composed the awesome music in Ys II. What was your image of Ys II?

Ishikawa: Something boyish, with the feel of a historical drama.

—How many songs are there in total?

Ishikawa: 25 songs. I didn’t count, but we actually wrote more than double that, and carefully selected those 25 for the game. Players lately have been really vocal about the quality of music in games, so just reusing the same melodies will quickly get boring. I took extra care to try and make the songs enjoyable despite the limited memory available to me.

—Thank you everyone for your time today!

The Nihon Falcom staff in the fall of 1988.
Ys Liner Notes – Mieko Ishikawa

“Music From Ys” May 1989

Today is May 5th in the first year of Heisei. This cd was originally released in 1987, five months after Ys itself was released. How time flies.

It was only two years ago, but it already feels like an old game–the first Ys. I just can’t forget it. Games that remain in your heart like this are so exceedingly rare.

With books, records, and anything really, you can find many interesting things if you look. However, although they might excite us with some quality, be it cuteness, style, or what-have-you, those things you encounter which truly engross you are rare indeed. Its like a fated encounter… if I may exaggerate a little.

Anyway, Ys is like that to me. I can’t put it into words very well, but I felt like Bastian, the protagonist of the movie The Neverending Story, when he actually experiences a fantasy world. In this way, the memories I have of my adventures in Ys with Adol are like real memories to me. Like photos of some field trip or vacation, I wouldn’t be surprised to open my desk and find pictures of Adol and me.

Yes, I understand now… it doesn’t matter how many words I use. I can’t really convey that feeling. Please enjoy listening to Music from Ys. If you are someone who travelled with Adol on his adventures, your cup will surely be filled to the brim with nostlagia.

“Shining Star”, an unused track from Ys by Mieko Ishikawa.
Ys II Liner Notes – Mieko Ishikawa

“Music From Ys II,” June 1988

Ys II is a sequel to Ys. Yes, that Ys… which means our hero is none other than the red-haired Adol. Amnesiac Feena, the poet Reah, and that wall-smashing Dogi are all there too. So you know its almost certain that Adol and Feena will be reunited, hand in hand as they greet a new dawn of peace. It gets your heart running!

That’s why we chose a melody for the opening theme that would get players exicted: “Ahhh, I can’t take it! I’m gonna play straight through to the end!”

And the music that accompanies Lilia’s smiling face was meant to amplify her cuteness. But I predicted that many people would experience the opposite on hearing that theme, a sense of betrayal, as they think back to the title theme and Feena: “Could it be, Adol will end up with Lilia, not Feena…?”

That’s right, the Ys soundtrack is no ordinary soundtrack.

It predicts the development of the narrative, and it may even provide some hints for some of the puzzles. It has a lot of depth and is very closely connected to the story.

It really was amazing. Putting his hand on the shoulder of a staff member who had become overhwlemed by emotion after hearing the super arrange versions, our Supreme Commander President Katou said softly: “I don’t think you can say you’ve finished Ys if you haven’t heard these songs.”

In the actual game, you can hear MissPSG’s beautiful voice on the “Lance no Mura” track. For the super arrange version, Fumi Hirano sang it for us. Its the love song of Adol and Lilia, I suppose. A gift from the goddess, after Adol finishes his difficult battle. And maybe…

For you, dear player, who have adventured together through this world, maybe it is the voice of Adol and all of Ys.

Ys II, Too Full With Love, vocal version.
Ys PC-88 Soundtrack – Yuzo Koshiro Interview

From Used Games Vol. 6, 2/98.

—The PC-88 series had FM sound starting with the SR series, right?

Koshiro: Yeah. Thanks to that and a minor graphics upgrade, its had a very long life. Its release also coincided with the rise of Game Arts as a developer. Their games Thexder and Silpheed had a big impact. They represented the pinnacle of STG on the PC-88.

—They had good music too.

Koshiro: Yeah, it provoked something in me when I was writing the music for Ys. I thought, “I’m going to make music better than Thexder!”

—What are some of the differences between FM and PCM?

Koshiro: FM sound doesn’t require an overwhelming amount of memory, but in turn, it doesn’t sound realistic. PCM is more suited for strings, brass, and other real instruments like those used in Actraiser. But I like FM more because I love how much personality the sound has. PCM was really made to imitate accoustic instruments. Of course we did the same with FM back in the days when memory limitations were an issue, but in the end the FM chip came to be appreciated for its unique sound.

—I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but the music and sounds on the PC-88 sound “harder”, more “solid” than the CD releases.

Koshiro: There’s various historical reasons for that… we had CDs back then in the early 80s, but the recording process was mainly analog. CDs have only really started to sound good in these last 2-3 years. The sound engineers then had an analog mindset, and they would make sounds very thick and round, with a narrow dynamic range. In comparison, game music originally comes directly from digital hardware, a so-called “live electronic instrument.” So they always sound cold and hard in their native form. To put it simply, when FM sounds are recorded on CD their sound changes. They become much softer.

Yuzo Koshiro and Mieko Ishikawa's rightly famous, majestic FM soundtrack to Ys for the PC-88.

—I guess if you want to hear these sounds as they were intended, you had better not throw away your PC-88. (laughs)

Koshiro: That’s true. (laughs) You can think of it as a live instrument, as it puts out the original version of these sounds.

—Ys has since been ported to many other consoles, but how do you feel about those ports?

Koshiro: To me, the music on them are really more like remixes. I’ve been saying this for the last 7-8 years, but the songs on Ys were expressly written for the PC-88, and musically, I didn’t compose it with the idea that it would end up being remixed and ported to other systems. The hardware, memory, and FM chip specs of the PC-88 were all part of the composition process. By porting those songs their essence gets very distorted, so I can only see them as entirely different entities.

Of course, I think remixes are a good thing, but what I want people to remember is that these songs were composed for the musical instrument known as the PC-88. Nothing more and nothing less. As their creator, that’s what I want people to know. The game Ys itself was created specifically for the PC-88, after all. Even the speed of the floppy disc read-write access was taken into consideration when designing the tempo of the game. So its the same with the music: it can be ported, but it will inevitably be changed in doing so.

—We don’t see many game soundtracks composed with that perspective nowadays, do we?

Koshiro: Today composers start with a character in mind, or something like that. Whether its interesting or not is a matter of one’s own taste, but its true that the conceptual starting point is different. There are still brilliant releases that really place importance on the hardware, but they’re easily buried and overlooked… its kind of sad. I hope the trend of all these cheap, mass-produced games changes soon.

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  1. A Nihon Falcom adventure game from the mid 80s. At that time they were known for their bizarre adventure games, including Demon’s Ring and the Asuteka series.

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