Retro Round-Up is a weekly article (that’s a few days late this week, sorry) that takes a look at the world of retro gaming. This week, I talk about one of my all time favorite games, the pioneering Dreamcast classic Phantasy Star Online, its history, and why I’m both excited and worried about the future of the franchise.
Phantasy Star Online 2 is set to enter open beta this week in Japan, and as hype for the much anticpated sequel grows, I find myself drawn back to the original PSO. Originally released for the Dreamcast in 2001, Phantasy Star Online has since cultivated a cult following and a near legendary reputation from gamers and the gaming press alike. Nearly everyone who bought the game back in ’01 has stories of spending a hundred hours leveling up their character to the cap, or about how their team got wiped out during a particularly brutal boss battle against Dark Falz or De Rol Le on Very Hard Mode. Hardcore fans of the game continue to play on unofficial, fan run servers like SCHTHACK. I myself get together with a few friends every now and then to play split-screen PSO on the Gamecube version.
What is it about Phantasy Star Online that has kept people playing for longer than a decade? It’s hard to say, really. Objectively speaking, the game definitely has its flaws, but as far as millions of PSO addicts like myself are concerned, the game is as close to perfect as a game can get. Sure, the game’s awkward line of sight based targeting system takes some time to get used to, and the game doesn’t exactly go out of its way to explain things like weapon percentages or the importance of Section ID’s to you, but the general opinion about Phantasy Star Online is this: once you get over the initial learning curve, the game is simply one of the most addictive experiences to ever hit a console.
News of PSO2’s beta got me thinking about how great the original game was, so I indulged myself a little and wrote the following: a three-part essay on Phantasy Star Online, explaining its development, why I love it, and why it matters in the grander scale of gaming as a whole.
How It Was Made:
Phantasy Star Online was developed during Sega’s creative golden age at the turn of the century, when the company had split its various internal development teams off into independent, autonomous companies. While each company still had to take direct orders from Sega management, they were given the general freedom to create games without any managerial oversight or executive influence. It was in this environment that Sega flourished (creatively at least,) creating games like Rez and Jet Set Radio.
Sega chairman Isao Okawa approached one of these Sega studios, Sonic Team (best known for their work on the Sonic the Hedgehog series, obviously, as well as Saturn sleeper hit NiGHTS,) and tasked them with creating an online game for the Dreamcast. Sonic Team was given the chance to create whatever game they wanted, provided it had an online focus. Despite the freedom that they were allowed, the team initially had a hard time figuring out how to make and market an online game for consoles. In an interview with Games TM, Sonic Team head Yuji Naka recounted the issues that the team faced while designing PSO: “Nobody knew what online gaming meant in 2000. While PC online gaming had been around for decades, and truly exploded in the mid-Nineties, the PC-free game culture of Japan had never shown much interest. Not only did the team have to create a new genre, it had to sell online gaming to a country of console gamers. It wasn’t going to be an easy sell, given that the internet service providers in Japan charged a per-minute fee for dial-up, and broadband was almost unheard of at the time.”
Yuji Naka, posing with people who probably aren’t part of Sonic Team.
Naka and his team tossed around ideas for a few months, eventually coming up with an idea for a 3D action game entitled “Third World.” At the time, online games usually had to use low-poly or 2D graphics to compensate for the era’s low bandwidth speeds, but Naka and his team were determined to change that: using a team comprised of both artists and online engineers, Sonic Team created an engine that was capable of providing smooth gameplay over dial-up without compromising the quality of the graphics. After seeing some of the concept art that his team had cooked up, Naka had the idea of associating their new project with Sega’s classic Phantasy Star series, which hadn’t received a sequel since Phantasy Star IV hit the Genesis in 1995.
In terms of gameplay, PSO drew direct inspiration from Blizzard’s Diablo, which by that time had already proven itself to be an addictive, online hit for the PC. In that same Games TM interview, Naka spoke of Diablo’s influence on PSO, saying ” We wanted a game with Dreamcast graphics and the same level of gameplay as Diablo.” He even admits that members of the game’s development staff were hardcore Diablo addicts.
Phantasy Star Online was eventually released in December of 2000 in Japan, and it hit America just a month later. The game was released around the time that Sega announced it was discontinuing support for the Dreamcast in favor of becoming a third party, but despite the end of the Dreamcast era, Sega still threw their full support behind PSO. In Japan, the game came with a free year of online service, an offer which was financed out of pocket by Chairman Okawa himself, and the gamble paid off — despite being on what was for all intensive purposes a dead system, Phantasy Star Online introduced a new generation of console gamers to the benefits of online connectivity, and the game spawned a dedicated community that continues to actively play the game today.
Why it was special:
Phantasy Star Online was more than just a prettier 3D Diablo for consoles. While the game certainly wore its inspiration on its sleeve, PSO had a number of elements that helped it carve out its own unique place in history, separate from Blizzard’s iconic hack and slash.
For one, the game looked absolutely amazing. While the game’s Dreamcast-era graphics may no longer represent the height of cutting edge technology, classy art direction and clean texture work have ensured that the game has aged far better than many of its peers. The game’s unique art, which blends elements of 80’s sci-fi anime with a modern edge, remains iconic to this day; anyone who played PSO probably spent hours agonizing over the look of their character, and the game’s cast of gigantic bosses remains impressive, even in the face of more bombastic modern titles. Japanese collectible manufacturers even continue to make model kits and action figures of characters from the game.
But as pretty as PSO was and continues to be, it’s PSO’s gameplay that truly makes it special. Like I said earlier, there’s a definite learning curve to PSO: the targeting system isn’t exactly intuitive, and it usually takes newbies a bit of time to learn to stop button mashing and get the timing of combos down, but once you get into it it’s literally hard to stop playing. PSO’s addictive qualities are well known among Dreamcast fans, and it achieves this unique quality thanks to its impeccable balance.
Loot-driven action RPGs like PSO and Diablo live and die by how they balance grinding with reward. Even though I’m a big fan of Diablo-style games,even I have to admit that the combat in most of these games isn’t exactly Devil May Cry or God of War: you’re fighting the same generic mobs over and over again using the same attacks and abilities for hours at a time. I wouldn’t say that the combat in PSO or Diablo is bad per se, but killing hundreds of mindless canon fodder enemies isn’t exactly a thrilling prospect on its own.
What keeps games in this genre from feeling repetitive are the loot drops: every enemy you slay has the potential to drop a new piece of gear — a fancy new weapon, an item that can teach you a new magic spell, or simply something that you can trade it for something else that you really need — that you could use to kill even more enemies and earn even more pieces of legendary loot. Like a jockey dangling a carrot in front of horse’s nose, PSO keeps you playing by dangling the possibility that an awesome piece of gear could drop at any moment. Sure, sometimes you’ll go through a whole level without finding anything, but when you finally get that particular weapon or piece of armor that you were searching for, the sense of accomplishment is immense. This is an aspect that all games in the genre share, but PSO managed to balance things out particularly well: the game doles out unique, rare pieces of gear at a regular enough rate that you never feel like you spent hours grinding without a reward, but it also makes sure that you have to put some genuine work into earning the best equipment.
PSO also does a good job of making you feel like you’re always making progress, whether you’ve played for fifteen minutes or spent all night grinding for a particular drop. Level-ups happen fairly quickly by genre standards, and the game becomes even harder to put down when you check your stats and see that your next level-up is only a few mobs worth of enemies away.
If I sound a little over enthusiastic about PSO, I apologize, but it’s hard to not be a little biased about a game that I’ve been playing on-and-off for more than a decade. Between the two versions on Dreamcast, and the enhanced port on the Gamecube (which added new levels, new character classes, and lots and lots of new gear for loot whores like me to collect,) I’ve probably sunk more than a thousand hours into PSO at this point. I hate trying to name one specific game as my all time favorite when there are so many fantastic games out there, but I suppose if I was asked “What one game would you play for the rest of my life if you were only allowed to play one game?,” I would have to answer PSO. It’s just simply so addictive, so rich in content, and so filled with art that is simply cool and charming, that I don’t think I will ever grow tired of it. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but let’s put it this way — it’s been ten years since this game originally came out, and just writing about PSO is enough to make me giddy like a schoolgirl. I can’t think of any other game that would illicit that response from me.
Why it continues to matter to this day:
Well, if you didn’t like all that shameless love I just spooged out for PSO, good news! Here’s the part of the article where I turn back into my usual jaded, snarky self.
You see, while PSO’s brilliance continues to be apparent to this day, the same cannot be said of how Sega has handled the franchise since then. The success of PSO on Gamecube inspired Sonic Team to release a card-based strategy spin-off on the same system, and while that wasn’t a bad game in its own right, it definitely wasn’t the real sequel that most PSO fans were hoping for. Sonic Team would eventually create a real successor to PSO in the form of Phantasy Star Universe, but unfortunately, it wasn’t very good.
On paper, Phantasy Star Universe sounds like it should be better than PSO in every way: the game featured more options to customize your character, it had bigger levels, new gear to collect, and a deeper battle system… but despite all that, it’s a far worse game than PSO. Why? You remember all those qualities I talked about earlier that made PSO so special? The classy art, the finely tuned balance, and that constant sense that you were always making progress? Well, those are the core elements that Phantasy Star Universe completely missed the mark on.
Take for instance, the character designs: the guy on the left is a ranger from PSO, while the guy on the right is Phantasy Star Universe’s main character, Ethan Waber. The ranger looks like a soldier: sure, he’s wearing bright blue, but his character design lets you know right away that he’s a capable fighter, and he fits right in with PSO’s 80’s anime-inspired aesthetic. Meanwhile, Ethan Waber looks like a reject from a late 90’s Korean boy band — the big puffy jacket with the day-glo colors, the bare midriff, that annoying JC Chasez haircut — everything about the way he looks makes me want to commit a hate crime, and trust me, you’ll hate him even more after you hear him talk. To make matters worse, he’s not even the worst character design in the game (that title collectively belongs to these… uh, guys.) PSU’s art style is somehow both gaudy and bland at the same time: in sharp contrast to PSO’s memorable levels and iconic enemies, most of PSU’s stages are bland forests or empty caves, and the enemies are so forgettable that I’m having a hard time even thinking of one to use as an example… and I just played this game again a few hours ago as part of research for this article.
One of Phantasy Star Universe’s biggest “additions” to the series was a dedicated story mode. PSO had a pretty bare-bones story, but it didn’t matter, because nobody played it for the story. In contrast, Phantasy Star Universe’s story is lengthy and will probably take you dozens of hours to complete, which would be great if not for one caveat — the story completely and utterly sucks. The characters are all annoying (especially Waber,) and the story itself is cliched, predictable, and free of any sort of dramatic tension. When PSU originally came out, I forced myself to play through the entire story mode, with the hope that maybe it would get better as the story progressed. It doesn’t. Imagine the worst shonen anime you’ve ever watched, and that’ll give you a rough idea of what Phantasy Star Universe’s story mode is like.
But of course, that’s not PSU’s biggest failing. No, the main reason why PSU isn’t as good as PSO is how its balanced: as I stated before, PSO hit the perfect sweet spot between work and reward, and the way it drip-fed players just enough rare loot to keep them playing is often cited as the main reason why the game was so addictive. Phantasy Star Universe screws this balance over in favor of trying to make you grind as much as possible: it takes absolutely forever to do anything in this game, and you’ll have to grind for weeks — not hours or days — to get to any of the interesting content in PSU. When the game was originally released, Sonic Team even had to the nerve to lock players out of certain parts of the game — parts of the game that were already on the disc — in order to keep them playing (and paying the game’s subscription fees) until a few months later, when the full game would be “released.”
Oh, and the music sucks too.
Originally released for the PS2, PC and the Xbox 360 (which was still a relatively new system at the time,) Phantasy Star Universe had the potential to capitalize on the foundation laid by PSO and turn the franchise into the mega-hit that it always deserved to be. Obviously, it didn’t — the game received tepid reviews because of its repetitive nature, its annoying story, and its tacky art, and even the most hardcore of PSO fanboys (including myself) couldn’t bare to stick with the game beyond its first month of service. The game has a small, dedicated cult following and despite a lot of pre-launch hype (the game was even featured on the covers of several major US gaming magazines,) most people quickly abandoned the game and it never managed to match the popularity of its predecessor.
Phantasy Star Universe was eventually repackaged as Phantasy Star Portable and re-released in a series of enhanced ports for the PSP. A lot of the content that Sonic Team added to these games — costumes, levels, enemies, and even a few game mechanics lifted directly from the original PSO — seem like Sonic Team’s way of tacitly admitting that everyone liked PSO more than Phantasy Star Universe. With that said, the PSP ports of PSU do make enough fixes to PSU’s core gameplay that I’d say that they’re good games in their own right, but still not quite on par with PSO: the balance is still off, and there’s even more of that terrible story that nobody asked for. Ditto those sentiments for the DS exclusive Phantasy Star Zero, which, again, despite some minor improvements, still has too many problems to be a worthy replacement for PSO; the game once again has a terrible story that you’re forced to endure if you’re playing solo, and the game is once again severely unbalanced (this time, certain character classes are completely useless at higher difficulty levels, most notably the HUnewm.)
But despite the fact that Sega hasn’t been able to recapture PSO’s magic (yet,) the game’s legacy lives on with Japan’s new found love of multiplayer action RPG’s. You can sure as hell bet that Capcom’s mega popular (and equally addictive) Monster Hunter series wouldn’t exist if Phantasy Star Online didn’t originally introduce console and Japanese audiences to the wonders of loot-based dungeon hacks. Japan is currently infatuated with PSO-esque action RPGs like MH, God Eater Burst, and Ragnarok Odyssey, and it’s those games, not any of the pseudo-sequels that Sega has made themselves, that most truly represent PSO’s real legacy. In terms of Western audiences, I don’t think it’s too presumptuous to say that dungeon hacks like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath would’ve found a home on consoles if PSO hadn’t cultivated an audience for them first.
Of course, Phantasy Star Online is getting a true sequel soon. I’m still not quite sure what to think of it: the footage we’ve seen so far is promising, but then again, PSU looked great in trailers too. Sonic Team recently figured out how to get Sonic the Hedgehog back on track with fantastic games like Sonic Colors and Generations, so I’m starting to get cautiously optimistic about PSO2’s chances. The new art style is great, the combat looks like fun, and some of the things that members of the dev. team have said in interviews leads me to believe they understand where they went wrong with PSU, but then again, there are a few elements of PSO2 that make me nervous as well: it’s going to be a free-to-play game, and a lot of F2P games require a lot of grinding for not a lot of reward, which could potentially once again ruin the experience, and it seems like Sonic Team is going to once again try to shoe-horn a (probably terrible) story into the game.
Still, even if Phantasy Star Online 2 sucks, it’ll never take away from how great the original game was. The original Phantasy Star Online was a great game that was ahead of its time (on a system that itself was ahead of its time,) and it is perhaps the one game that I will never get tired of. There’s a simple brilliance to it that not even time or even Sega’s post-Dreamcast incompetence can sully. Phantasy Star Online is gaming crack, and I’m always jonesing for another hit.