We tend to think of the world of video game protagonists being a boys’ club until Lara Croft came along in 1996… but female protagonists have been around for quite a while longer than that.
1987, for example, gave the world Alis Landale, protagonist of Sega’s first Phantasy Star game. Alis wasn’t a damsel in distress, she wasn’t a secondary character, she wasn’t a love interest — she was the lead. She had a mission, and she was damn well going to make sure she carried it out, come hell, high water or Dark Falz.
Being the protagonist of a 1980s 8-bit role-playing game, we don’t really learn a lot about Alis the person within the game of Phantasy Star itself. We can, however, look at the context in which she appeared, and the various ways she was presented. So let’s do that!
Let’s look at how Alis is presented on the game packaging first. Above you can see the Japanese box art, which was used for both the original Sega Mark III version and the limited Mega Drive release in Japan.
Interestingly, the art eschews an explicitly anime style, much as the game itself does; subsequent installments in the series would look distinctly more “anime” — the character portraits in Phantasy Star II are a particularly good example — but Phantasy Star, on the whole, has quite a Western look about it. This is somewhat in keeping with the game’s overall structure, which is heavily inspired by Western role-playing games such as Ultima.
The actual Western box art leans even further into this, although they stop short of taking the Alisia Dragoon approach of completely redesigning Alis’ appearance; here, her costume and hairstyle are at least recognisable, although she looks a lot older than she’s supposed to be in the game. Also Odin appears to be naked apart from a breastplate.
Canonically, she was fifteen years old when her brother joined a revolutionary group to stand against the tyrannical ruler Lassic; it’s not clear exactly how much time passed between that and his murder at the hands of Lassic’s henchmen — the event which kicks off the events of Phantasy Star — but we can assume she’s not supposed to be any older than sixteen or seventeen at most.
The back of the limited Japanese Mega Drive release shows us a different twist on Alis; this art is rather more ethereal and spiritual in feel, and in some ways is quite akin to Yoshitaka Amano’s conceptual artwork for the Final Fantasy series over the years. Alis looks at peace here, and little touches like the fact her boots look like they are made of lightweight fabric — almost making her appear shoeless — further add to the gentle feel of the image.
The title screen provides us with probably the most iconic image of Alis, giving us a good look at her distinctive getup of an armoured breastplate over a pink dress, white/yellow leggings and knee-high boots. She looks simultaneously badass and feminine, making her a broadly appealing character featuring an interesting blend of stylistic elements.
This was entirely deliberate. A significant proportion of Phantasy Star’s development staff was female, including Alis’ character designer Rieko Kodama. Kodama’s philosophy has always been to design characters that would appeal to both men and women, and specifically to avoid features that treat women unfairly. She’s always had a progressive streak in her, too — the other character she designed for the game, Lutz (aka Noah in the English version), was originally designed to be intersex; though the originally drafted narrative for them was dropped, Kodama deliberately designed them with an androgynous appearance in homage to their original incarnation.
As we can see from this concept art, Alis went through a few iterations before we reached her final design. It seems Kodama was interested in making her dress an integral part of her overall “look” — but presumably decided against the long, flowing numbers shown here because they wouldn’t have made a lot of sense in a combat situation.
Not that these sort of considerations stop many character designers, of course, but it seems Kodama at least wanted to keep things vaguely grounded in plausibility.
A Japan-only “choose your own adventure”-style gamebook based on Phantasy Star gives us a different take on Alis again; here, she’s presented in a much more “anime” style, and her outfit has been redesigned somewhat — most notably with her pink dress and white leggings being replaced by a leotard and bare legs, and her auburn-brown hair becoming blonde.
Alis had enduring popularity; this beautiful piece of fanart by artist “Immovable One” won second place in an official Sega art competition, and ended up as an in-game item in Phantasy Star Portable 2 for PSP. This image really nails the late ’80s/early ’90s anime vibe — even though the game itself wasn’t really taking aim for that aesthetic!
A form of Alis also appeared in Phantasy Star Online 2 as part of the series’ 30th anniversary celebrations. In this promotional image, she’s seen at the back right alongside her fellow heroines Nei from Phantasy Star II, and Matoi, who was an original creation for Phantasy Star Online 2. This is technically not the same Alis as the one in the original Phantasy Star, but it’s obvious that her design is intended to be a direct homage.
Meanwhile, this promotional artwork from around the time of the first game’s release looks like the best Saturday morning cartoon that never existed.
I mean come on now. Who wouldn’t have got out of bed for this? Look at Odin beating a dude over the head with a skeleton. Look at Lutz/Noah’s fabulous gladiator sandals. Look at how much of a goddamn queen Alis is.
Ahem. Sorry. Where was I?
Alis is an important part of video game history. Not only is she a cool character in her own right, she kicked off an awesome series of games that, while not quite as well known as the Final Fantasies and the Dragon Quests of the world, remains relevant to this very day — thanks in part to a longstanding, passionate fanbase, and partly due to Sega’s own acknowledgement that Phantasy Star is an important part of its history.
We salute you, Alis Landale!
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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