2012 marked the 20th or 25th anniversaries for lots of big franchises: Nintendo’s Kirby turned 20, Capcom’s beloved but oft-neglected Mega Man turned 25, as did Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy franchise. You can find plenty of retrospectives and features on these series’ big anniversaries online, but there was one franchise that turned 25 in 2012 that sadly didn’t get the fanfare and celebration that it deserved: Sega’s long running and amazingly influential Phantasy Star series.
The original Phantasy Star came out for the Sega Master System a few months after the first Dragon Quest was released on the NES/Famicom, and it hit store shelves in Japan just a few days after the original Final Fantasy came out. Yet despite being contemporaries with the two franchises that people most closely associate with Japanese RPG’s, Phantasy Star has never managed to become quite as popular as either of those games. It’s a shame too, because the original Phantasy Star arguably has more in common with modern J-RPG design than the original DQ or FF do.
While the playable characters in the original Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were little more than generic avatars for the player to project themselves onto, the characters in the original Phantasy Star all had pre-defined personalities and back stories. The game’s story, which centered around heroine Alys’s quest to avenge the death of her brother at the hands of the tyrannical King Lassic, was also told via 2D, hand-drawn cutscenes (think the NES Ninja Gaidens, even though PS predates those games,) giving the game a cinematic focus that would also go on to become a hallmark of the genre. Phantasy Star’s cutscenes and story may seem simplistic by today’s standards, but at the time, they were revolutionary.
Phantasy Star was directed by the woefully under-appreciated Rieko Kodama, who would later go on to direct fan favorites like the Dreamcast’s Skies of Arcadia and the Japan exclusive dungeon crawler, 7th Dragon. One of the game’s programmers was none other than Yuji Naka, the man who would later be credited with creating Sonic the Hedgehog. Naka’s major addition to Phantasy Star was the game’s first person 3D dungeons, which remain an impressive technical feat to this day, especially when you consider that the Master System isn’t that much more powerful than a NES.
I love my old Sega consoles, but let’s face it, RPGs aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Sega, and that’s probably why Phantasy Star never caught on in the same way that Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest did — while the NES and SNES would eventually become known for their RPGs and would cultivate an audience that gladly ate up the latest releases in the genre, Phantasy Star (and Shining Force as well,) were basically left to cultivate a niche on the less popular (at least in Japan) Sega consoles. Had Phantasy Star been released for a more popular console, I can almost guarantee you that it would be just as beloved and celebrated as any of Square-Enix’s big franchises. Unfortunately (as is the case with many of Sega’s best games,) Phantasy Star seems destined to merely have a cult following, but that doesn’t diminish its historical importance, or the quality of the game itself. While the game is somewhat grind heavy (as are all RPGs from the time,) Phantasy Star is still worth going back to and playing, if only to see just how forward thinking and innovative it was.
Phantasy Star II
Thankfully, the original Phantasy Star was successful enough to warrant a sequel, and that sequel manages to outdo its predecessor in every way. Phantasy Star II took everything about the original Phantasy Star — the cinematic presentation, the melodramatic story, the memorable cast of characters — and made them substantially better, adding in further refinements to the series’ battle system and one of the bleakest and most depressing stories to ever grace a J-RPG.
As with the original, PS2’s story may seem simplistic by modern standards, but at the time, Phantasy Star broke new ground in terms of narrative in games: long before Aeris got shanked by Sephiroth, Phantasy Star 2 gave gamers a heroine that we all collectively fell in love with, and then the game proceeded to kill her off rather non-chalantly. Likewise, the finale’s pyrrhic victory is still one of gaming’s most haunting and shocking endings. Like the original game, important scenes in PSII are depicted using hand-drawn, comic book like panels, and thanks to the increased horsepower of the Genesis/Megadrive, PSII’s cutscenes look substantially better than the original’s.
Phantasy Star II did away with the original game’s first person 3D dungeons in favor of a more traditional 2D overhead perspective, but that didn’t make them any easier to navigate: PSII is home to some of the most elaborate (some would say convoluted and confusing,) dungeons to ever grace an RPG, and newbies will definitely want to keep a guide handy: some of the dungeons are so complex that Sega even felt the need to package the game with a strategy guide when it was originally released in the US. As with the original game, the game is quite grind heavy and is far more difficult that modern RPG’s, so modern gamers might not be able to see why RPG veterans hold PSII up with such high regard, but PSII is still worth revisiting if you don’t mind a challenge or if you simply want to see where a lot of modern J-RPG tropes started.
Phantasy Star III
Phantasy Star III is often regarded as the black sheep of the series, and that reputation isn’t unwarranted: PSIII was developed by a different team and the game’s story isn’t as important and doesn’t quite tie-in with the series’ overarching narrative as well as the other titles in the original Genesis quintet. In fact, when you first start PSIII, it’s hard to tell that it’s even related to the previous games in anyway at all: instead of the sci-fi settings of previous Phantasy Stars, PSIII starts you off in a rather generic medieval kingdom, and it isn’t until you get pretty far into the game that its (still tenuous) connection to the Phantasy Star setting becomes clear.
PSIII’s most notable innovation is its story, which spans three generations of the main character’s family: at some point in each generation the player can choose a love interest for their character, and this effects which child they’ll play as in later generations. Dragon Quest V would co-opt this idea two years later, and while PSIII definitely deserves credit for coming up with the idea, I have to admit that DQV uses the idea of generational shifts in a much more memorable and emotionally touching way, despite having fewer options in the number of ladies you can court. As much as it pains me to say it, there’s just not much about PSIII that’s memorable: while the game isn’t outright terrible, it’s setting, cast, and overall game design are just pretty bland, and that’s really disappointing when you consider how innovative and creative the rest of the series is.
Phantasy Star IV
Phantasy Star IV marks a return to form for the series: PSIV was once again developed by the same team that created the original two games, and from the start, it was envisioned as the grand finale to the series that was supposed to blow all previous entries in the franchise out of the water: and amazingly enough, it manages to do just that.
Originally released in Japan in 1993, Phantasy Star IV represents a huge jump in quality for the series: in the years in between PSII and PSIV game developers really learned how to push the Genesis/Mega Drive’s hardware, and PSIV is proof of that. The animated cut-scenes are more elaborate and feature more animation, the in-game backgrounds are filled with detail, and the game’s battles now feature amazingly smooth animation. The gameplay has also aged the best out of all of the original Phantasy Star games; modern gamers should be able to jump into PSIV without having to adjust too much, as the game features a far fairer difficulty curve and much less grinding that the older entries in the series.
It may sound like hyperbole when I say this, but Phantasy Star IV is truly one of the best RPG’s of the 16-bit era, and it’s comparable in quality with deified SNES classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6. I’m hesitant to recommend earlier games in the series to newbies (despite my love for them,) because of their slightly archaic gameplay and brutal difficulty, but that isn’t the case with Phantasy Star IV — it’s still just as fun to play and it’s as accessible today as it was when it was originally released, and amazingly, its graphics, music, and story have all aged just as gracefully. Phantasy Star IV is truly a timeless classic, and if you are or ever were a fan of J-RPG’s, you owe it to yourself to go back and play it.
Phantasy Star Online
If you’ve read this blog before, you’re probably well aware of my obsession with Phantasy Star Online. While it’s technically not part of the “main” Phantasy Star series, it was the game that defined the future direction of the series, and in true Phantasy Star tradition, it was an innovative, brilliant game that was far ahead of its time.
After a nearly seven year hiatus, Sega decided to resurrect Phantasy Star on the Dreamcast, but instead of creating another story focused, turn-based RPG, Sega and developer Sonic Team (helmed by Yuji Naka, who had worked on the original Phantasy Star,) looked to PC hit Diablo for inspiration, and they decided to turn Phantasy Star into a multiplayer action RPG. The result was one of the best games of all time: Phantasy Star Online managed to recapture Diablo’s addictive formula of fighting mobs and collecting loot and blended it with beautiful 3D graphics (which are still pretty to this day, due to the game’s streamlined and classy art direction,) a timing based combo system, and the Phantasy Star series’ trademark sci-fi anime style and setting. In my opinion, PSO was even more addictive and more fun than the games that inspired it, and I’m not alone in that feeling: there are still plenty of people playing PSO today, more than ten years later, via fan run private servers.
Like the original Phantasy Star, PSO would end up greatly influencing the generation of Japanese RPG’s that came after it: while PSO’s own direct sequels left something to be desired, modern, mega-popular multiplayer action-RPG’s like Capcom’s Monster Hunter and Namco’s Gods Eater Burst both blatantly co-opted PSO’s addictive multiplayer and loot-driven formula. I can’t shake the feeling that if PSO had been released for a more popular system or at a different time, it would definitely have become a multi-million dollar franchise like Monster Hunter has… but I suppose that’s the tradition of the Phantasy Star series: create an innovative, revolutionary, quality product that no one takes notice of, only to have somebody else use those same ideas years later and make millions off of it.
Now, that’s not intended as a slight against Monster Hunter or Final Fantasy (I love both franchises, and god knows Monster Hunter is more fun to play than any of the PSO pseudo-sequels that Sega has churned out over the last few years,) but as a fan of the series, it’s hard to not feel like Phantasy Star has been short-changed throughout the history of games: it’s never been as popular as it’s deserved to be, and gamers, even games journalists who should know better, often credit many of the series’ innovations to other games. Phantasy Star is a series that deserves to be celebrated as much as Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, and its characters should be as widely recognized as Cloud, Sonic, or even Mario and Link. While it’s tragic that none of the Phantasy Star’s will probably never get the mainstream recognition that they deserve, that doesn’t change the fact that Phantasy Star has left an indelible mark on Japanese game design, and most importantly, has given gamers 25 years of some of the best games ever created.