Phantasy Star: To Boldly Play What No One Has Played Before

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Before I talk about the actual game, I feel I have to give some sort of explanation for my history of playing RPGs. You see, I’m a bit of a Johnny-Come-Lately when it comes to role playing games, at least in terms of my age. This is partly because of my early inclinations as a gamer and partly due to my systems of choice. You see, I didn’t own an 8-bit system. My next door neighbors actually owned an Atari 2600 and a NES, and my sister was friends with the girl that lived there, so sometimes I would tag along and get my fix that way. My aunt and uncle also owned a NES and I would marvel at seeing The Legend of Zelda box art. I thought it was so classy!

The first system I actually OWNED was a SEGA Genesis that my dad one day brought home with him, apropos of nothing, as far as I can tell. Wasn’t anyone’s birthday or anything! He got it when it was packaged with Altered Beast and also got us Revenge of Shinobi, Golden Axe and Forgotten Worlds to go along with it. At first the games made me really anxious because I was afraid I’d die in them and I’d only watch my sister play. But sometime around the advent of Sonic the Hedgehog, I started to really get into games, and you know the rest of the story~

As you might be aware, there was somewhat of a dearth of RPGs for the SEGA Genesis. There was the Shining series, and the Phantasy Star series, but I never really heard about them until I was much older. I guess the kids my age didn’t really talk about them. I didn’t even know what a RPG WAS. The next system I got after the Genesis was a N64, and that was even WORSE in regards to RPGs. Finally, in I think 1997 or 1998, I got a Playstation and my tastes in games were irrevocably altered.

Final Fantasy VII wasn’t the first RPG I’d ever played, but it was the first one I actually enjoyed. From there on I was Square’s bitch for most of the PS1 era. But what about those other RPGs I’d played? My awareness of role playing games was driven almost solely by the now-defunct Electronic Gaming Monthly. Not only did they have big shiny ads for the BIGGEST. GAME. EVER. Final Fantasy VII, but their seminal Top 100 Games of All Time list in their 100th issue mentioned several Genesis titles, like Shining in the Darkness and… yes, Phantasy Star II. I rented them both and was immediately turned off by their inaccessibility and lack of visual pizzazz. By that time they were already dated and I hadn’t the foggiest idea how a RPG played. So I guess it’s no surprise FFVII was able to hook me instead of those two.

But the Phantasy Star series still intrigued me, although I’d relegated it to the background; a curiosity I would never be able to appreciate. And the online aspect of the later Phantasy Star Online installments only made it even more out of reach for me. But the recent release of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection (lovingly referred to by a friend as Spinhog’s Software Pile), with its inclusion of just about every notable first-party Genesis title, including the Shining and Phantasy Star series, was my second chance to try to see what drew people to the franchises in the first place, with the eyes (and patience) of an adult.

Phantasy Star, the title that started it all, actually came out on the SEGA Master System, a console that few people remember and even fewer people actually owned and played when it originally came out. It came out fairly early in home consoles’ role playing game history, especially when it came to Japanese development of them. Dragon Quest had come out the year before and Final Fantasy mere days prior to Phantasy Star‘s Japanese release. The rules of what a Japanese RPG looked like were only just starting to be written.

Upon starting Phantasy Star, the player learns that it’s Space Century 342 on the planet of Palma. Some robot dudes are beating a man named Nero to death for meddling in someone named Lassic’s affairs. A girl, Alis, is upset by this and we learn that Nero found out that Lassic is leading the world toward destruction and Alis has to go on in Nero’s stead. He points her in the direction of someone who can help her, Odin, and promptly dies. Then the game sets you free and you have no idea what the fuck to do from there. Apparently there’s some reincarnation of Medusa for some reason and Lassic is the governor of the planet, even though everyone seems to hate his guts. It’s not really elaborated upon.

At first I thought the game simply had a really jarring opening, but only after beating the game did I find out that the original manual had most of the story that the game proper was missing. It turns out that the manual did a pretty good job setting up the story and I blame the fact that Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection lacks scans of the original manuals for this chink in enjoying the game fully. To start from the top:

It’s Space Century 342 in the Algol star system, which is deep in the Andromeda Galaxy. King Lassic was a fair ruler who provided everything his people could want and space travel, discovered 200 years prior, allowed for colonization to take place on the other two worlds in the system: Motavia and Dezoris. But with the arrival of a mysterious new religion, rumored to have come from another galaxy, things began to change. The religion’s priests promised immortality to all who joined their faith. King Lassic was getting old and immortality of course got his attention, so he converted. That’s when he started to change. His ruling became evil and corrupt, levying burdensome taxes on the people and ruling with an iron fist, causing towns on all three planets to wither and the economy to nearly disappear. As this was happening, horrific monsters began to appear and terrorize the land and, I shit you not, zombies started to appear.

Naturally, a resistance started to form. One of the resistance members was Nero, a spaceport worker, who was working to find out the truth behind Lassic; a pursuit that had also caused his father to disappear long ago. Unfortunately, Nero attracted the attention of Lassic’s Robotcops, who killed him, but not before he was able to pass his sword and quest on to his sister, Alis, who burned for revenge.

…Now isn’t that a whole lot better? Part of me is upset that the game itself doesn’t relay that information to the player, but the fact that there were unique characters (with animated cutscenes, no less!) with their own motivations and personalities and histories was immensely impressive for an 8-bit RPG. The premise is a far cry from the simplistic “defeat the Dragonlord” or “gather the crystals” plots of its contemporaries. True, there were technological limitations to how detailed SEGA was allowed to get with its storytelling, but the fact that they were the only ones hitting their heads against the ceiling in terms of trying to convey a powerful, epic story is notable.

Now, why is Phantasy Star unique from the first DQ and FF in this regard? Why didn’t it occur to them to give their protagonists powerful emotional motivations for their actions? Why did it take FF until the fourth iteration to really offer up storytelling of a more complex nature? Why did it take FF until the SIXTH iteration before actually giving the game a female protagonist? Maybe it’s because, unlike Phantasy Star, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest weren’t designed by a woman. Rieko Kodama, a curious anomaly in the usually male-dominated game design field, was the imaginative force behind the original Phantasy Star series, moving on to Skies of Arcadia years later. Her spirit can still be felt in games like Valkyria Chronicles, although lately SEGA has relegated her to low-profile Japan-only games such as the quality-challenged Altered Beast remake and a Brain Training-esque title called Mind Quiz. She recently announced a new RPG-ish project on the DS called 7th Dragon, so maybe the ol’ girl still has some spunk in her.

Story aside, the battle system is definitely reminiscent of its 8-bit brethren. It’s a completely standard turn-based affair, with some typical 8-bit RPG frustrations. For one thing, regardless of how many enemies you’re actually facing, they’re always represented by one sprite. So you have to pay close attention to the enemy list, lest you run up against odds you have no hope of winning against. And the battle system won’t let you target a specific monster on the battlefield. Instead, you just have to hope the game happens to attack the monster with the least amount of HP. Which won’t happen often since the battle system has the sadistic habit of evenly distributing damage instead of focusing attacks on the weakest monsters. This right here would probably be a deal-breaker for most people out there. There’s a rudimentary magic system, but it’s pretty much useless outside a few high-level healing spells and one character who actually has decent offensive spell options. And you’re given the useless ability to talk to monsters.

Dungeon crawling is an interesting affair, at least technologically. The SEGA Master System had a bit more horsepower than the NES and I don’t know what kind of magic wellspring of ability future Sonic designer Yuji Naka tapped into, but the game pulls off a rather convincing pseudo-3D first-person-perspective effect when traversing dungeons. This allows for a seamless integration of random battles, which caught me off guard in its forward-thinking. Of course, since the dungeons put you in first-person-perspective, the designers had to use it to fuck around witht he player. The dungeons are all mazes, usually pretty tricky ones, too, with trap doors and exploding treasure chests. If the player has a decently-leveled party and a good capacity for orientation, he or she shouldn’t get too lost. However, there are some real douchebag dungeons near the end of the game with many floors and dead ends that I couldn’t imagine navigating without GameFAQs, so I don’t even want to think of all the graph paper that had to have been used back in the day.

This is one game you should never feel guilty about using an FAQ on, and not just because of the fiendish dungeon layouts. It has what I’m told is a relatively common feature of early RPGs: the “Where Do I Go Now?” Syndrome. It gives very, very little direction on where to go and what to do next, so unless you write down every single clue that NPCs give you and go through some trial and error, you’re going to get stuck. Often. Again, I have no idea how people were supposed to progress in this back when it first was released.

Another drawback of early RPG design: grinding. This game expects you to work for every single bit of EXP in the game. You start off with ZERO party members and a very weak weapon at level 1. The simplest excursion outside of the safety of your town can result in your swift death. The level progression is very bottom heavy, with most of the grinding having to occur early in the game just to afford the meseta needed to buy equipment that will let Alis survive. Then, maybe if you can figure out how to get Alis’ next party member, you can think about moving further than a few steps out the door. For my part, I just listened to podcasts while grinding to ease the tedium. It actually settled into a rather calming rhythm. I don’t recommend anyone that plays this to play it with the same intensity that you might give, say, a Shin Megami Tensei title. There’s a lot of grinding to get out of the way early on in Phantasy Star, so just sit back and chill out to it.

So, yeah, Phantasy Star is antiquated as hell in 2009, but man, back in 1987 it was a technological marvel. Phantasy Star was FOUR TIMES larger than the average Master System game, and I’d believe it. The game itself has a huge scope compared to other games at the time. You can visit three distinct planets, each with their own climate and topography, along with several huuuuge dungeons. I’ve already mentioned the impressive pseudo-3D effects. And the enemies you encounter actually have surprisingly detailed animations when they attack. This could almost be an early Genesis title! And when it was released in the United States, it carried with it the heftiest price tag for a game at the time, with some retail outlets selling it for as high as $80.00. That’s $143.84 if you adjust for inflation.

And like any early RPG, it was also the victim of massive translation changes from the original Japanese. The U.S. release’s translation could be called… clunky. It’s certainly a far cry from Alexander O. Smith’s virtuoso Vagrant Story translation. And most of the character names were changed, e.g. Alisa Landeel in Japanese to Alis Landale in English, Tyrone (or Tylon?) to Odin (?) and Lutz to Noah (?!). And the biggest crime was the change of soundtrack. The original Japanese game used the Japanese Master System III’s Japan-only Yamaha FM sound chip to create beautiful, arcade-quality tunes that outshone anything you’d hear on a NES. The U.S. Master System, of course, lacked this functionality, so the score was downgraded to a bunch of irritating chirps and beeps that, while echoing the original score’s compositions, lacked the actual listenability of its counterpart.

Yes, Phantasy Star is very dated by today’s standards. It’s not particularly gorgeous to look at anymore, the U.S. score can be considered a slap in the face and the game mechanics are in danger of fossilization. But it’s still worth a gander. EGM listed it as the second-highest RPG on their top 200 list of video games, second only to… Phantasy Star Online. Phantasy Star was, without a doubt, far ahead of its time. It featured a radically different science fiction setting, a strong, confident female protagonist and an epic story driven by emotional character development. And hardly anyone is familiar with it in its non-online forms. And it’s a shame. If you have or are interested in the recent SEGA Genesis compilation for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, I strongly urge at least giving Phantasy Star a whirl.

If you have any fond memories of the original Phantasy Star, or memories of your beginnings playing RPGs in general, please drop a line in the comments below. :)

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16 Responses to “Phantasy Star: To Boldly Play What No One Has Played Before”

  1. Rick Says:

    Phantasy Star II was my first foray into the JRPG grindhouse of the early years, and even though I was only eight years old at the time, had no idea what I was doing, and didn’t progress very far in the game back then, it still prepared me for the love of RPGs that I still kindle today.

    Having never gotten to try Phantasy Star, I promised myself I’d buy Spinhog’s Software Pile when it came out, and then I didn’t for a variety of stupid personal reasons. I’ll like as not find it in a bargain bin in a year or two down the road and get it for $10, and THEN I’ll enjoy the hell out of the old Phantasy Stars and other Genesis games I never got to play.

    Wonderful grump, sir. Too many people who review old games seem to think it’s okay to judge an old game on the current gen’s level of sophistication and graphical prowess. While it’s nice to recognize a game’s faults, it’s completely unfair to judge its graphics by saying “Compared to PS3 it of course looks like shit, so it gets a 4 for graphics.” I’ve seen that happen a lot. You’ve struck a nice balance in cognizance of the old for comparative review, actually seeming to KNOW a thing or two about the era of games and the possibilities of the technologies of that time.

  2. KJ Says:

    Yeah, neat review. I never heard of Rieko Kodama.

    I think there was a Phantasy Star remake for the GBA? I could barely even get STARTED on that one, it was so intimidatingly antiquated. Now I kinda wish that I could get my hands on a handheld port.

  3. John Mora Says:

    Yeah, I tried to talk about Phantasy Star during your last radio podcast, but I guess there was just too much up in the air to get to me.

    There WAS a Phantasy Star collection on the GBA of 1, 2 and 3, but they weren’t remakes, just straight ports. I would’ve recommended people try out the GBA version for portability’s sake, but apparently it had a very bad glitch where the game would occasionally freeze when you tried to save.

    And you didn’t hear this from me, but apparently there’s a ROM patch out there that retranslates and restores the original soundtrack to the game. So who knows what the best way to play it is?

  4. Brian B Says:

    I was born into a house that had Dragon Warrior in it already and I spent a lot of time in my childhood playing that. I had no idea what to do and could barely read (I thought “Item” was pronounced “Team”). But as I got older and learned my alphabet in school I became determined to read the instructions to the game which actually served as a walkthrough! After a few years of trying I finally was able to play through the game, even getting all of Edrick’s equipment.

    The next RPG I ever played after that was Lunar on Sega CD (yes I had one, I begged for it too!) That game blew me away with it’s little anime rock music opening, and the cutscenes. It was the first game I’d play and get made fun of for by my siblings (who seemed to take great offense to Ramus, your rotund friend that follows you around). I didn’t listen though and would play when they weren’t home to avoid the ridicule. As the internet wasn’t around yet, I’d get stuck all the time, and really considered stuffing some cash into an envelope and mailing it to the address in the manual to order a strategy guide. There was one cave in particular that I could not get passed for a whopping seven years, by the time I got out I was level 63 and flatted everything in my path for the remainder of the game.

    Mario RPG followed after, and then I went on the typical trajectory of Final Fantasy VII onward.

  5. Toaster Says:

    While the game’s age shows, it is pretty amazing the scope of this game considering it was the first of it’s kind. Phantasy Star was truly ahead of its time. I don’t think though that it’s aged quite as gracefully as, say, Dragon Warrior 1 or 2 for the NES.

    I played though a bit of this a while ago and stopped. I got to the first sand dungeon where you recruit Noah. I apparently needed some cake for that, I can’t remember. In spite of the game’s guidance as to where the hell you should be going next, it’s been pretty enjoyable. There was a hell of a lot of grinding in the beginning though.

  6. KJ Says:

    “It was the first game I’d play and get made fun of for by my siblings (who seemed to take great offense to Ramus, your rotund friend that follows you around).”

    A lot of people HATE Ramus. I lent Lunar: SSSC to a friend, and he said he couldn’t get past the part where Ramus shows up. That means the most he did in the game was walk south.

  7. sirtmagus Says:

    RPGs were nigh impossible to navigate back in the ancient 80s, so I didn’t bother with them except for Legend of Zelda 1 and its unusual sequel. I didn’t play them often.

    I think I took slight notice of Lunar and Phantasy Star because of their pretty anime art – and felt pangs of slight Sega CD envy – but it wasn’t until the triple threat of Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1992), Secret of Mana (1993) and Final Fantasy III/VIj (1994) when the genre sunk its teeth in my arm and dragged me through the Serpent Trench and up to Kefka’s Tower.

    Then, in 1995 I rented Chrono Trigger based exclusively on the box art. Then I realized it was made by SQUARE the same guys behind SoM and FF3. Then I was hooooked~

  8. John Mora Says:

    I saw the art for Popful Mail in an EGM back in the day and was like “WOOOWWWW, I want a Sega CD!!”

  9. sirtmagus Says:

    Yeah. That two-page review of Snatcher in GameFan REALLY made me interested in a Sega CD. And Sonic CD, with its mind-blowing anime intro, got me salivating too of course.

    Although, Snatcher’s grisly violence scared me as a kid. I think the screenshot of Gillian’s decapitated body was my first exposure to that level of violence. I probably shouldn’t have been reading that mag as a lad. But I’m glad I did~

    OH HEY IT SURE WOULD BE NICE TO PLAY THOSE GAMES ON SOME SORT OF CONSOLE THAT WAS VIRTUAL

    A Snatcher DS port would be nice too. It worked like a charm for Chrono Trigger, and from what I can tell it’s a text-based Phoenix Wright-style RPG thing anyway – perfect for the handheld. These days I prefer my RPGs on handhelds. I wish, I wish, I wish Persona 3 and its variants were that way. :c

  10. John Mora Says:

    Persona 3 does just fine on a console. What’s wrong with it?

  11. Rick Says:

    He wants to take it with him everywhere?

  12. John Mora Says:

    Maybe I’m just sedentary.

  13. Michelle Says:

    Wow, never seen a contemporary playthrough of Phantasy Star explained so well, that was a very enjoyable read thank you.

    I only completed Phantasy Star for the first time a couple of years ago and came to much of the same conclusions, a game way ahead of it’s time, I only wish I had discovered it a little sooner, sadly it would have been too hard for young me, and it was a definite challenge for adult me. (I hear you on the isometric dungeons btw, especially the holes you could drop down.) Drawing maps for everywhere I went even got confusing after a while.

    Coincidentally the Master System did extremely well here over in Europe where it was fairly widely adopted even with the NES available, playing on my original one (with Sonic built in) is one of my fondest gaming memories.

  14. John Mora Says:

    Thanks for the comment! Is Pioneer Project yours?

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