The first Ys game has subtle differences between the versions. However, it’s pretty much a defining game for that genre of action RPGs.
I’d say one interesting thing about the series is that the various ports tend to keep the game play fairly similar from game to game. Specific NPCs may be in a new house, but you need to talk to the same ones to progress the game. Various bits of foreshadowing may be added here and there, but largely the steps to the early game are the same. Dragon Quest ports, on the other hand, seem a lot more willing to preserve the look and layout of the game no matter the graphical changes.
In Ys, you start out the game in a small town. A man in black has been around buying silver equipment. There’s thieves troubling a nearby town. A fortuneteller is worried. Someone talks about the item shopkeeper stealing a ring.
Largely, every game starts with the same procedure. You have exactly enough cash to buy the ring from the shopkeeper. You give the ring to a man in a bar to get a profit when he rewards you. The money is enough to buy everything but a shield. The fortuneteller won’t talk to you until you have a shield. So you go out and fight. Assuming you forget to equip your weaponry, it’s usually about sixteen enemies to get enough money for the shield.
This is about when you hit the old school nature of Ys. It’s not that hard to find the next town. It’s not that hard to find where you need to fight the boss. However, a rough guess is that you need to kill about sixty or so monsters to get near enough money for your next upgrade. Maybe twice that to get a good enough level for the boss. It’s not that hard to fight once you understand how the bumping system works. It’s merely tedious.
However, it’s not that hard to see why the game series survived. There’s something addicting about pushing for one more fight before you stop to heal. While dying is easy, it’s also not that hard to pick yourself up and keep going. I think modern Action RPGs can learn from Ys.
First of all, Ys doesn’t put much in your way from letting you go out and fight. Secondly, Ys provides some concrete feelings of power as you level up. Thirdly, staying where you’re supposed to be working tends to not give you stuff you can’t handle. Finally, the game understands that you’ll be spending a lot of time fighting. The music is quite catchy, and there’s usually varied terrain to provide tactics and visual interest. A good example of this could be the way there’s the impression of trees getting smaller as you climb up the mountain near Darm Tower. Another example could be that your player sprite changes with equipment.
Would a modern gamer love a very early early port of Ys? I suspect it would be interesting, but the difficulty curve may be tedious.