Some time around 1999 or 2000, I purchased an Official Dreamcast Magazine and saw a multi-page spread on on a game called Phantasy Star Online. Being exclusively a console gamer, I was absolutely blown away by the next-gen graphics and the ability to play with strangers online. I read and re-read the article innumerable times, until I finally got the game as a gift from my parents. Though they would not agree to the recurring payment for Dreamcast’s online service, I spent 100’s of hours in solo mode and considered the game one of my favorite of all-time.
With the game, I purchased a strategy guide that had a history of the Phantasy Star series in the back, and I was intrigued. This directly lead to my exploration of these games that I had missed in my SEGA Genesis days, due to a lack of perceived interest in RPGs.
By the time I had experienced PSO, I had already been thoroughly indoctrinated in RPGs, my new favorite genre, and was ready to partake in the founding entries of the series. The obvious starting point was the game that laid the foundation for the series, a game that was truly ahead of its time; that game was Phantasy Star for the SEGA Master System, a console I had previously known nothing about.
What the creators of Phantasy Star were able to do with 8-bit hardware is simply astounding. The game opens with an anime style cutscene, something nearly unheard of at the time, to set the stage for the interplanetary revenge drama that is Phantasy Star. The art style of the cutscene is spectacular, with highly detailed images that help express the emotion of the scene in a way no 8-bit sprite could ever convey.
After the cutscene the player is treated to a colorful 8-bit overworld that truly appears lush, even on the 8-bit Master System. At first glance, it is just a more colorful version of other console RPGs, but when the player experiences their first random battle everything changes. The battle view is from the first-person perspective, making room for the incredibly detailed enemy sprites. These monster’s have attack animations, biting, clawing, and even spewing gastric contents on the party. These sprites honestly outshine even some 16-bit enemy sprites in RPGs.
The enemy sprites are complimented by gorgeously detailed backgrounds that coincide with the player’s location. If the party is attacked in the field, a sprawling green plain is the locale, if they do battle on the beach, an animated shore with rolling waves is the backdrop, if enemies attack in a forest, there is foliage aplenty. I was in near disbelief the first time I played this game, and that was in the early 2000’s.
Probably the most unique aspect to Phantasy Star’s gameplay AND visual style are the 3D first-person dungeons. The psuedo-3D effect is absolutely amazing. The perspective is perfectly executed; giving the impression of actually traversing dark, dank dungeon halls.
Though all the dungeons appear similar, with the exception of a color palette swap, the intricate and diverse layouts and sheer ingenuity involved in crafting such an impressive 3D effect on an 8-bit console make the similarity negligible. I cannot imagine how mind blowing this was in 1987-88, considering how my expectations were blown away when I first played the game in the early 2000s.
Overall, the graphics in Phantasy Star are unparalleled by any of its 8-bit contemporaries, and really set the stage for the future, when RPGs became synonymous with top tier visuals.
The music in the game is near perfect, with the title, battle and dungeon themes being particularly well composed. The tracks as a whole contain a level of complexity that trumps that of many other 8-bit OSTs. The quality of the dungeon and battle themes are particularly well appreciated due to the grind-heavy nature of the early portion of the adventure and the labyrinthine layouts of the endgame dungeons.
Also of note is the availability of the tracks in FM quality sound. This is available by playing the game’s Japanese version on a Japanese Mark III, which had an FM sound chip, or by playing a fan re-translation that also restores the original FM tracks. Though this is the objectively better audio option, it is very hard for me to say I prefer it over the original North American release. I have grown so accustomed to the chip-tunes that they have become hard to separate from the game in my mind. Despite my preference, true audiophiles should definitely experience the FM version.
With regards to the music as a whole, though perhaps not better than the Final Fantasy (NES) soundtrack, it is damn close and easily one of the best 8-bit JRPG soundtracks of all time.
Despite the high-quality musical composition, the sound effects in the game are thoroughly generic, and at times, just plain weird. They detract from an otherwise stellar presentation and are my only audio-visual complaint about the entire game.
Overall, the sound perfectly compliments the game’s visuals to create one of the best, if not the best presentations on the SEGA Master System.
The best place to start when trying to establish the unique nature of Phantasy Star, is with a description of its plot. Rather than setting off on an adventure to save a princess and a kingdom from the clutches of an evil emperor, Phantasy Star’s female protagonist begins her journey to avenge her fallen brother, and carry on the resistance against the evil King Lassic. This sort of gynocentric tale is a rarity in RPGs even today, and Phantasy Star certainly was the only game of its kind to star a female in the lead role.
Further breaking convention, the narrative does not take place in a high-fantasy, medieval setting, but rather is an interplanetary adventure, sprawling three thematically unique worlds. This unique approach blends the prevalent medieval themes and conventions of the day with the futuristic tech and sense of wonder associated with a low-science fiction space opera. Though the story is limited by the capabilities of the Master System and the poor English translation, the worlds of Palma, Motavia, and Dezoris, so perfectly capture the imagination, that the world itself helps weave the tale. These worlds can be traversed on foot, in a landrover, a hovercraft, and the mountain-leveling, but Dezoris exclusive, ice digger. Oh… and Alis and party get their own personal ship for space travel further amplifying this game’s already unique approach to the genre.
Though the plot is important to the enjoyment of this, or any JRPG, the true test of a game’s worth is the gameplay. Phantasy Star does not disappoint on this front, the battles are classic turn-based fare, which is more than acceptable considering this game was one of the pioneers of the genre on console. The battle system has all the classic tropes of RPGs, including basic attacks, magic, the ability to use items, and the option to flee from battle. Interestingly, there is also the option to talk with intelligent monsters to gather gameplay hints. The battle system is what should be expected for a game of its age, and is absolutely playable and fun, despite being somewhat basic.
Where Phantasy Star really differentiates itself from its contemporaries however, are with the aforementioned 3D, first person dungeons; something I have never experienced in a console RPG up to the point I played it in the early 2000s. Besides looking absolutely incredible for an 8-bit rendition of 3D, they provide a completely unique experience and an added layer of challenge. Navigating these dungeons up until the mid-game are fairly easy, but the last few dungeons are absolute labyrinths that may require a plethora of trial and error, with the aid of graph paper to map out routes, traps, and stairways. This really adds to the experience, upping the tension and making the final stretch feel like the greatest trial of the protagonist’s life.
Speaking of challenge, the game has a fair difficulty curve, but can definitely get difficult. Early on grinding is an absolute must, but the preparations will pay dividends, as the game provides plenty of opportunity for organic battling in dungeons to replace dedicated grind sessions. After my starting grind session, I never grinded again for the remainder of the game, instead relying on the multitude of random encounters experienced in the field and dungeons to power up my party. With the exceptions of the rare occasion I was lost in dungeons for a prolonged period, I was always able to defeat bosses on my first try without dying, though in a few cases I lost all but one party member and simply clutched it out. Where the game really becomes difficult is the final large dungeon in the game, which is an absolute nightmare to navigate, and has some of the game’s strongest enemies. The final boss is also incredibly tough, especially if the player is unfamiliar with the proper spells and weapons needed for the encounter.
This leads to a discussion of some of the games flaws, namely lack of convenience. Though common among older RPGs, it still is a major inconvenience to have no idea how a weapon effects a character’s stats before purchase or equipping it. This ambiguity extends into story progression as well; often it is not always clear what the player must do to further the plot, despite the help of the NPC’s, who hold all the information the player needs, but are vague as hell. This may tempt players into using walkthroughs, which I certainly did during my first playthrough. I remember a few times that I required such help, specifically two instances, one with regards to opening a certain door and another with regards to a certain tree. The re-translation certainly helps, so that may be an avenue worth exploring.
Overall, Phantasy Star provides a pure and unadulterated JRPG battle system, unique first-person dungeon crawling, and a true sense of wonder to the player, nestled comfortably within a beautiful, and truly timeless audiovisual presentation. The game is certainly intended for hardcore JRPG fans, but I believe it should be experienced at least once by all serious gamers.
The SMS Power re-translation is Phantasy Star as it was meant to be played. Much of the translation errors and poor English are repaired and character names are translated correctly to better match appearances later in the series. Alisa rather than Alis, Lutz rather than Noah, and Tylon rather than Odin. Since the translation is applied to the Japanese ROM, the original FM sound is also restored. It really makes the NPC dialogue and the story much more coherent, resulting in easier progression in the game.
Tips and Tricks:
- Talk to every NPC and write down what they say. They provide somewhat vague tips that are crucial in the games progression. In some cases items won’t appear until certain NPCs are talked to.
- Don’t be afraid to break out graph paper and map out the dungeons. This will make the experience much easier, especially mid- to late-game.
- Dedicate time to grinding early in the game, this will make the rest of the game more tolerable and prevent the need to break the action with dedicated grinding sessions later on.
- When in doubt there is no shame in using a walkthrough or map if all other options are exhausted.
Most Useful Fan Sites
- Phantasy Star Cave (http://pscave.com/): One of the first Phantasy Star fan sites I ever came across. A great resource for the entire series with multiple item and enemy guides for each game, as well as comprehensive walkthroughs.
- The Phantasy Star Pages (http://www.phantasy-star.net/): another incredibly comprehensive resource for the Phantasy Star series. Literally has everything needed to enjoy the series.
You May Also Like: