Although at the time of writing a lot of people are super-excited for the impending PC release of Phantasy Star Online 2, the series as a whole isn’t anywhere near as well-known as the heavy-hitting classics of the RPG genre.
Indeed, Phantasy Star as a whole has always been something of a niche interest series — perhaps in part due to the majority of its “golden age” being released on platforms that were not typically renowned for their role-playing games.
The first game in particular is very interesting to return to, especially when you consider its original release date as a contemporary of the first Final Fantasy and the second Dragon Quest. And the Sega Ages version for Nintendo Switch is the definitive way to experience it — so let’s explore that now!
Phantasy Star came about when Sega decided that Nintendo was hogging all the fun of the newly introduced console RPG genre with Dragon Quest, and determined that the best way to get a piece of that pie would be to do something distinctive on their 8-bit Master System platform. Rather than relying on third parties, though, they decided to develop the game in-house — the Master System had only a fraction of the support that the NES had, after all, so Sega had to do a lot of things themselves.
The company put out a call for internal employees who were interested in taking on an RPG project, and gathered together Kotaro Hayashida, who had previously worked on iconic Master System platformer Alex Kidd in Miracle World, and the man who would subsequently become the father of Sonic, Yuji Naka. The pair then went on to assemble a team that was noteworthy at the time for incorporating a larger-than-average number of female developers, with probably the most well known being character designer Rieko Kodama.
The team was given fairly free rein on how they chose to tackle the project, and as a result decided to put together something that would really stand out. Taking inspiration from the aesthetics of the classic Star Wars movies and how they combined sci-fi and fantasy influences, the team decided to eschew the typical high fantasy RPG setting in favour of an interplanetary setting that combined futuristic technology with something of a medieval fantasy feel.
The developers were also keen to show off the Master System’s capabilities over and above the Famicom. This desire manifested itself through the use of detailed, close-up event scenes for important narrative moments as well as one of Phantasy Star’s most iconic features: smoothly animated, first-person dungeon exploration.
This latter feature was believed to be impossible on the Famicom using technology of the time — but it proved to be a challenge on the Master System, too, at least without running into memory and storage constraints. Naka ended up creating a true 3D wireframe engine for the dungeons, and graphics were overlaid on top of that; Naka’s programming was apparently so efficient that the team had to deliberately slow down the dungeon rendering engine lest players got dizzy or disoriented!
The game eventually released literally two days after Square’s Final Fantasy hit the market in Japan, and was actually one of the first RPGs of Eastern origin to make it West; it predated the North American release of Dragon Warrior (the localisation of the first Dragon Quest) by a year, and Final Fantasy by two years.
It was more visually impressive than both of those games, but unfortunately the combination of Sega’s relatively small market share compared to Nintendo plus the high retail price the cartridge commanded (thanks to its then-massive four megabit capacity plus its battery backup save facility) meant that it never quite achieved the same degree of cultural penetration that Final Fantasy — and, to a lesser degree, Dragon Quest — achieved in the West.
Meanwhile, in the 21st century, you can pick it up on Nintendo Switch for £5.99. And it’s eminently worth doing so.
In Phantasy Star, you take on the role of Alis Landale, who has just witnessed her brother’s death at the hands of King Lassic’s troops. Lassic is not a very nice person, as you can probably tell, and thus Alis makes it her mission to end his reign of terror once and for all with a nice healthy bit of regicide. Unfortunately, all she has to go on is her brother’s dying words, and thus begins an interplanetary adventure that spans three worlds, a multitude of dungeons and some peculiar twists and turns.
Phantasy Star is very much an RPG in the old-school mould, heavily inspired by classic PC RPGs such as Ultima and Wizardry. By this I mean that it can be quite vague in telling you what you’re supposed to be doing, and much of your progress through the game will be through exploring the world for yourself, poking your head into places you haven’t been before and seeing what happens. This can be a daunting challenge to adjust to if you’re accustomed to more modern RPGs with clearly defined, linear main scenarios — but it’s also a rather liberating feeling. While your progress is “gated” in several places by the need to have particular items in order to progress further, there’s still a feeling of freedom in how you approach things — and a sense of immense satisfaction when you discover what feels like a “secret”.
Boiled down to its essentials, much of Phantasy Star involves setting simple goals for yourself that, more often than not in the early game, involve acquiring enough money to achieve something. You need money to acquire a road pass to reach the spaceport. You need money to obtain a passport that will let you travel to other planets. And, of course, you need money for better equipment that will allow you to survive more challenging combat encounters.
At the outset of the game, acquiring money and experience can feel excruciatingly slow, particularly as you begin with just Alis under your control, necessitating frequent runs back to town to heal up before you can get more than a few steps away.
The Nintendo Switch Sega Ages release can optionally mitigate this slow start somewhat with its new “Ages Mode”, whereby experience and money gain is considerably accelerated, allowing you to focus on exploration and simply getting through the game — but there’s a certain appeal to the more gradual process of powering up in the original version of the game if you have the time to devote to it.
Once you manage to recruit some additional party members, things get a bit easier, and even more so once you gear them up with some appropriate weapons and armour. At that point, it’s time to start exploring the game’s dungeons — and here we have one of the best ways that the Sega Ages release distinguishes itself from the original Master System version.
Yuji Naka’s 3D dungeon engine was designed to produce impressive full-screen first-person navigation, you see, but due to memory constraints there aren’t many visual “landmarks” for you to go by; everything looks the same. As a result, it was essential for players of the original game to map out the dungeons on graph paper, especially since most of them unfold across multiple levels. This has its appeal, but what with the art of scribbling things on paper becoming something of a dying art in our modern digital age, the Sega Ages version rather generously includes an automap facility.
You still have to navigate the dungeons and you still have to find your way through some fairly devious mazes — you just don’t have to do all the drawing yourself now, which is nice. It means much less in the way of getting lost in frustration, and a lot more of just being able to enjoy the game. The need for graph paper can be quite a significant barrier of entry for some modern players, so this is a very welcome inclusion; that said, if you prefer playing in the “classic” way, you can actually turn this facility off if you so desire.
Another really nice thing about the Sega Ages release is the fact that the “metagame” menus provide full information on all the items, spells, weapons and armour in the game — including their statistics, who can use them and how much they’ll cost when you find them. This is all information that was in the original Master System version’s manual, but having it immediately to hand in the game itself is extremely useful.
Combat in the game is fairly shallow, especially in the early hours — most fights consist of spamming the “Attack” option until the group of enemies falls over, but like many dungeon crawlers this is a game more about character progression and equipment than in-depth strategy.
Things do get a bit more interesting as the game progresses, with the option to outfit one of the characters with a gun that attacks all enemies in a group for a set amount of damage as well as magic spells for three of the playable characters, but for the most part this game is a fairly straightforward turn-based hack and slash. That actually has a certain amount of appeal though, particularly when playing the Switch version in handheld mode; it means you can happily grind away without having to think too hard while doing something else.
Where the game does distinguish itself somewhat is in its lightweight puzzle solving. There are various points throughout the game where you’ll encounter situations that require a particular item to progress, and actually tracking down that item is often dependent on having heard a particular piece of information from some random NPC that just happens to be milling around in a specific town.
For example, you learn that the governor of Motavia may be willing to help Alis stand against Lassic, but he won’t see anyone if they don’t bring him a present. You learn from one random NPC that the governor likes sweets, and you learn from another completely different NPC that there’s a cake shop in a cave called “Naula”, and you learn from an NPC on a whole other planet that the cave called “Naula” is north of the mountain that no-one goes near because everyone is scared of it. When you do eventually reach said cake shop, the NPC that runs it apologises for locating his establishment in such a stupid location — presumably the rent is cheap — but that doesn’t stop him charging a thousand meseta for a shortcake. Video games!
Phantasy Star is full of moments like this, and depending on what kind of player you are you’ll either find the need to deduce things for yourself based on vague clues heard in passing absolutely delightful or utterly infuriating. It’s very much a remnant of the early days of Japanese RPGs being heavily inspired by the heavy hitters of home computer RPGs such as Ultima and Wizardry, and it’s definitely an acquired taste; if you allow yourself to get into the spirit of things rather than immediately reaching for a walkthrough, though, there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had.
This first Phantasy Star won’t necessarily be for everyone — it is, at times, infuriatingly obtuse, not helped by the fact that a lot of the text in menus is abbreviated in strange ways to save precious cartridge space. But it’s an important, influential and enjoyable game from the early days of the RPG genre that is worth checking out from a historical perspective if nothing else. And this Sega Ages version makes it more accessible than ever before — so while you eagerly await the PC version of Phantasy Star Online 2 to unlock, why not check out where it all began?
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