Did Ys Actually Steal from Metroid?

Nihon Falcom is famous for producing JRPGs that rival those of companies with 100 times more employees. Probably best-known in the west today for the interminable Kiseki/Trails franchise, they also have the action RPG series Ys as one of their cornerstones. By the way, that title short-circuits a lot of English speakers’ brains, so for clarity: it’s pronounced Īsu, like the word “east”. Initially released for the PC-8801 in June of 1987, Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished – Omen predates even Final Fantasy, and was extremely influential on the medium as a whole.

It also features Bump Attack combat, where the player automatically attacks enemies simply by running into them. They have to be mindful of their approach, though, because head-on conflicts usually favor the opponent.

Ys I had a novel blend of real-time combat and RPG-standard gear and level progression systems. Contrasted with its Famicom/NES contemporary The Legend of Zelda, its RPG elements were transparent. Together, these games wrote the blueprint for action-RPGs for a long time to come. In fact, the creators of Ys would go on to create iconic action-RPG hybrids like Actraiser, Terranigma, and Secret of Mana, albeit not under Falcom.

Additionally, its music was lauded at the time for its thrilling, upbeat nature, and for filling a different role than many soundtracks of the time. The OST was composed by Mieko Ishikawa (now a coordinator for Falcom Sound Team jdk) and Yūzō Koshiro (who went on to compose for SEGA and its sister companies, Atlus and Platinum Games).

The games are so well-known in Japan that even Neon Genesis Evangelion references songs from the vocal album based on the second game, which feature Kotono Mitsuishi—Misato Katsuragi’s voice actress—as the singer.

But of course Ys I wasn’t the first game ever made, so it, too, had its influences. Of particular debate is the origin of some of the game’s music. Despite being generally well-liked and producing great tracks, Koshiro tends to come under scrutiny for his work’s obvious inspiration from existing, popular music. People are pretty quick to throw around the terms ‘ripoff’ and ‘stealing’ to describe the similarities. A comparison brought up particularly often by newcomers to the Ys franchise is the similarity between the Ys fanfare for getting a new item and the one from Metroid:

The power-up theme from Metroid (1986)
Lucky宝箱 (Lucky Takarabako, lit. “Lucky Treasure Chest”), the item fanfare from Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished (1987)

Just from listening to them, I’d say they sound fairly similar. From a composition standpoint, both songs are two measures—each in 4/4 time—and both also resolve by moving from a flat major two chord to a major one chord. Finally, the melodies of the two tracks are rhythmically identical, and in the second measure only one note differs. Due largely to Metroid‘s mixing, the melody is more pronounced in Ys, though it would go on to be more noticeable and iconic in subsequent Metroid games. This is part of why, when this comparison is drawn, Super Metroid‘s fanfare is often used, even though Koshiro would’ve needed a time machine to reference that when composing “Lucky Takarabako.”

NOTE: If any old-timers are wondering why the Metroid tune above doesn't sound how you remember it, that's because the version you're likely familiar with was different! The Famicom Disk System had an extra sound channel not present on the NES, so the song had to be retooled for its Western release.

Taking a look at the tracks side-by-side like this, the resemblance is obvious. Does this mean that Yūzō Koshiro ripped off Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka’s score from the original Metroid? Should Nintendo sue Falcom into oblivion? Well, the answer to that question is a matter of perspective.

In English, discussion tends to match this template. Koshiro is regarded as habitually cribbing from existing music, and is generally deemed a plagiarist.
Meanwhile, Japanese discussion is usually more forgiving, often using オマージュ (omāju)—a loanward for the English ‘homage’— to describe the composition.
Rarely, Japanese discussion will describe the composition using パクる (pakuru), a mimetic verb used to evoke gobbling something up. It’s actually the source of the name Pac-Man! Used colloquially, it’s a metaphor for outright plagiarism.

I think the West tends to take a very defensive stance towards copyright, and the value of exclusive ownership of a thing one created. In particular, it’s my experience that people who do not create music are protective on behalf of those that do. On the other hand, musicians tend to hold that the limitations created by music’s mathematical nature will often result in similar songs when trying to evoke similar feelings.

Japan overall seems to hold an “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” philosophy, freely referencing other works. Some very beautiful works have come out of this type of reference, both domestically and cross-culturally. Of course, even in Japan, outright plagiarism is a moral and ethical violation. I think, in general, they feel intent is important in determining whether or not something is plagiarism. That being the case, how about we examine Koshiro’s intent? Here’s a quote from an interview with him:

Lucky Treasure Chest [Plays when opening a treasure chest]:
Since the song that plays when acquiring an item in Nintendo’s Metroid was immensely pleasant, I used that as a reference while creating this song.

Yūzō Koshiro, in an interview with MyCom BASIC Magazine, 1990

Even just a couple years after the game’s release, Koshiro was pretty transparent about his inspiration. It seems like the composition came from a place of respect, more than anything. I’d say that buys him a little leeway, and he probably didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. In fact, he may have thought it was an obvious reference, since Metroid was a first-party Nintendo title that people would be more familiar with than Ys!

So, the question “Is Ys‘ item fanfare stolen from Metroid?” has a different answer for everyone, depending on how strongly you value Koshiro’s intent. Personally, I don’t think any harm was done by it, and if I were Tanaka, I’d probably feel flattered someone like Koshiro enjoyed my work enough to be inspired by it. What do you think?

On the other hand, Cave Story features a reference to this fanfare that’s significantly less blatant. Being a freeware game made by a single person, it would’ve been excusable to make the reference more direct, but Pixel exercised restraint.

This article was a little different from my usual fare. I’m not sure what people will think about it, but I’m eager to get feedback. There’s a few other topics like this one I have an interest in delving into, but it all depends on if you want to read it! Let me know below what you think, please.

If you did like it, the most helpful thing you can do is share it to others. Word of mouth keeps the site on its feet, after all! You can also check out other articles, here. In particular, you may be interested in the Famitsu interview I translated on Monday, which goes into the origin of Final Fantasy III‘s Onion Knight, as well as other details of that setting. Or, for more slightly-technical analysis of older games, how about this exploration of why Zelda II‘s hints were often terse and vague?

Lastly, consider following me on Twitter for updates when new articles go live, as well as smaller localization-oriented posts throughout the week.

One comment

  1. For avid fans of video game music, there are far too many cases of suspiciously similar tracks to list. Melodic ideas will often just “come” to composers fully formed, and it can be hard to tell if an idea is original or just something you heard once and forgot where. For someone who writes a lot of music, it’s almost impossible to avoid having an unoriginal melodic idea end up in your work now and then. For that reason, I default to the assumption that similarities are unintentional, except for cases where it’s extremely blatant or the composer admits to the inspiration.

    Putting aside “Lucky Takarabako” due to its nature as an homage, music from the early Ys games has been very influential. In fact, Ys music has directly inspired other video game music in this manner more than once. As one example, the song “Forgotten Path” from Jim Power resembles “A Searing Struggle” from Ys III: Wanderers from Ys more than a little bit. The composer, Chris Hülsbeck, a very talented man who is well known for his work on the Turrican series, couldn’t deny the similarity when it was pointed out, but stated it wasn’t intentional.

    I’m sure it’s embarrassing for composers when such similarities are pointed out. But as a fan, it’s fun trivia that connects games from different franchises together, and makes a composer’s inspirations clear and memorable.

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