BY SEGA, 1987
25 WORDS OR LESS:
A teenage girl vows to defeat an evil ruler after the death of her brother.
Ever since the original Dragon Quest was released on the Famicom in Japan in 1986, RPG’s have grown not only in the deceptively tricky art of storytelling, but also in the gameplay department as innovations bombard the genre with varying results. A year after Enix made its mark, a pair of contenders would enter the ring and bring with them the revelation that the market for these games would become fiercely competitive as developers scrambled to create the best game possible out of old fantasy cliches and complex formulae. Final Fantasy is one of these titles, a game which has had more than its share of profiles and dewey-eyed retrospectives written to laud its splendor. The other game was of an entirely different breed, ditching the medieval setting for a futuristic one and calling the underappreciated Sega Master System its home. The original Phantasy Star served as the catalyst for a wildly popular series and a string of offshoots, but the real mark of success lies in the fact that the game is still a heck of a lot of fun on the eve of its sweet sixteenth.
Our story begins in the Algol Solar System, a group of three planets that have recently come under the rule of a dark dictator named Lassic. As a result, the planets of Algol have been infested by all sorts of monsters, hindering travel and trade, but more importantly raising suspicion in the area of the system’s new ruler. On the earth-like planet Palma where the dictator resides, a boy called Nero vows to get to the root of the problem by confronting Lassic, but his efforts are in vain as the poor guy is killed off by guards while his adopted sister Alis watches in horror. Before giving up the ghost, Nero imparts his final wish to Alis, that she seek out a man called Odin in a nearby town and find a way to remove Lassic from power. In the end, Alis and Odin will find themselves fighting alongside a lithe cat-like creature and a skilled mage in their attempt to return peace to the system.
The various towns and villages of the game are populated with helpful citizens eager to give the party a hand. In fact, speaking with each and every townsperson is the only way for a player to truly complete the game in full; a man on the street might tell you where a tower is located, but the bum in the alley will clue you in to its secrets in exchange for a cup of cola. The game’s shops are all identical on the outside but can be one of three outlets: an armory, second-hand shop, or "first food" (a mistranslation on fasuto fuudo, or fast food) store. Aside from selling you a flashlight or burger, the second-hand and first food shops are also prime outlets for key plot items, encouraging the player to browse each town’s marketplace so as not to miss any required items. Players may heal up in hospitals (use up all of your curative magic beforehand to save meseta!) or revive fallen comrades and check how much experience is needed to advance to the next level at churches.
As an early sci-fi RPG, Phantasy Star admittedly owes a lot of its personality to George Lucas. Similarities like interplanetary travel are obviously out of necessity, but Sega did not hesitate to lift whatever they liked from the Star Wars films; light sabers, the Hoth-like ice planet, the presence of the Dark Force ("Falz" seems more a preemptive ass-covering on Sega’s part than a fantasy-themed villian name), and most blatant of all, the Storm Troopers that guard the Palman spaceport and surrounding towns. At no time do any of these elements decry the innate charm of the game’s universe or its style, instead serving as clever homages in a galaxy unique enough to sustain itself. The guard thing is actually pretty cool.
Phantasy Star was the first console RPG to feature a female as the main character, although the inhabitants of the Algol Solar System harbor no sexist views as far as their faith in Alis goes. No one bothers to express shock or indignation at learning that their savior is a woman, instead offering support to the party and maybe even a key item or place to rest. Alis even goes against the norm when, in an interesting turn on an old scenario, our heroine ends up saving the life of the party’s musclebound fighter in the first real dungeon of the game; the mission was in stark contrast to Dragon Quest’s mid-game damsel rescue operation and made the game feel like something different than was offered at the time.
A lot Phantasy Star’s unique feel comes from Rieko Kodama, a female designer who entered Sega in 1984 and whose past games have included the Master System’s Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Phantasy Star IV, and an arcade game with what may be the greatest title ever: Ninja Princess. In the days when game designers were expected to wear multiple hats, Rieko functioned as story planner, artist, and programmer alongside a scrappy young lad named Yuji Naka. It would be Rieko who eventually convinced Naka to create a program for flawlessly handling the game’s 3D dungeons.
Though still only an 8-bit console, the Sega Master System could put on a better visual show than the NES, a fact that Phantasy Star fans love to harp on. Each of the game’s monsters is surprisingly detailed and can fill up a sizeable portion of the screen, the downside being that only one can be displayed at a time. To signify multiple enemies, the game shows several sets of HP at the start of the battle and gives the onscreen monster the appropriate number of attacks per round. Every beast has at least one animation for attacking — sometimes two if it’s a particularly nasty one — which can range from biting and clawing to zapping and spellcasting. Like many modern RPG’s, the monsters of Phantasy Star "level up" with your party, in this case by receiving increased offensive and defensive stats.
One of the more overwhelming aspects of the game is its extreme scale. Alis and company trudge through marshes, deserts, and ice mountains over three unique planets and come face to face with a host of NPC’s including a harebrained scientist and a cat-eating local known only as Dr. Mad, a formidable adversary who proves to the party that he has truly earned his PhD in anger. A combination of decent storytelling and poor translation make the game’s characters seem even more otherworldly than intended and contribute to the game’s intangible charm, especially if your first exposure to the game is at the impressionable age of 8.
Unfortunately, Phantasy Star’s gameplay has a tendency to disregard balance and make some segments of the game ridiculously easy or mind-bogglingly difficult for the player. Random encounters occur very erratically in the game and give way to some bizarre battle algorithms when the party does engage in a fight with baddies. The window of damage varies widely from enemy to enemy, but there’s nothing to explain a fully-powered Alis doing only 2 or 3 HP of damage to a given enemy when uber-wuss Noah does five times as much in the same round. The risk of being on the bad end of an unforgiving calculation makes saving your data all the more critical, and since Phantasy Star grants players the privilege of saving wheresoever they desire, the act is frequent and can save a lot of time and effort.
In true RPG tradition, Phantasy Star is built on fetch quests. The items on the party’s scavenger hunt list range from strawberry shortcake to a rare gem and usually open up another fetch quest or line of trading with an inhabitant of a distant town or planet. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with risking your life and the lives of your friends to buy a cake to give to the governor’s robot, you eventually get the feeling that your deeds are intended more to get you out of other people’s hair and into another dungeon.
And speaking of dungeons, the game contains over two dozen areas for the party to explore, done so through a surprisingly cohesive first-person POV. This causes dungeon battles to blend more seemlessly with exploration as a result of enemies simply popping up on the current screen with no need to load a seperate one for fighting. Locked doors, treasure chests, and pitfalls dot the dungeon paths as the party makes its way into the depths of another cave or up into the dizzying heights of a hilltop tower, making maps all the more necessary for survival. Sega was even clever enough (or cruel enough, many may argue) to utilize the "blinders" of 1st person perspective to place hidden doors on some dungeon walls, invisible to the passing party only until a specific section of wall is faced. Fortunately, this tactic is only implemented twice in the entire game.
The music of Phantasy Star explores the full scope of moods between relaxed and intense with pieces like the village and tower music, respectively, as well as a host of other memorable tracks designed to lend as much vibrance to the game’s universe as possible. The eerie tones of Dezoris are as good a theme for a frozen 8-bit wasteland of a planet as you could imagine, and the standard dungeon music is nothing short of adventurous. Several of the game’s tunes have been seen fit for remixing and inclusion in modern Phantasy Star ventures, including a dungeon theme medley found in the Saturn’s Phantasy Star Collection and one of the battle themes introduced in Phantasy Star Online Ver.2. Despite all its modern remixes and incarnations, the Phantasy Star soundtrack is most impactful when experienced in its original context through the modest SMS sound chip as you stay up well past your third grade bedtime of 9:30 to find out what lies beneath the Dezorian Morgue.
Phantasy Star may also be the first RPG to make use of the now overtired "false boss" routine, unveiling the real ultimate evil and true final dungeon only after Lassic is defeated. Another popular genre convention included in the game is the battle with Lassic’s shadow, followed by the obligatory revelation that you have only defeated a false image of the dictator and not the real deal. The impact is minimized in this case, however, by the fact that the game lists the enemy’s name as "Shadow."
The game does a terrific job of instilling a sense of adventure in the player through its environments and characters. The strongest weapons and armor must be tracked down and won from the depths and heights of various caves and towers on all three planets, but the payoff comes in the form of their extraordinary offensive and defensive power in battle. Like Dragon Quest, Phantasy Star’s manual included illustrations of all its weapons and armor, giving the player some idea of what exactly they were fighting for when they set foot inside the next tower. Fighting through the final dungeon wasn’t simply the last step in reaching the boss, it was your party’s chance to showcase a mad display of power as a result of having totally cleared out the toughest areas the game had to offer and emerging victorious.
It’s obvious to anyone playing the game that Phantasy Star is one of the earliest entries in the console RPG genre, but the fact that it was Sega’s very first may come as a shock to some in consideration of how many things the game does right, even today. Exploration above and below ground is immersive and addictive, and the number of things to do and items to find outdoes other games of the era but can still keep the modern RPG fan busy. An element of nonlinearity is injected into the game once the party receives a spaceship, giving freeroaming adventurers more than enough areas to explore at their leisure. Most importantly, the game never takes itself too seriously or launches its characters into 20-page monologues detailing their evil plans or systematically destructuring the Algolian society in bitter rationalization of their actions or failed attempts to eat your cat. This is plain, simple, traditional, 8-bit roleplaying. Even if you cut your teeth on Final Fantasy VII, there are elements in Phantasy Star to keep you entertained.
And don’t think Sega doesn’t know it. The game has been rereleased as part of the Phantasy Star Collection on the Game Boy Advance alongside the second and third installments, and is currently being remade for the PS2 as the first entry in Sega’s "Generations" set to debut this August in Japan, sporting a complete 2D graphical overhaul to complement the already excellent core gameplay. A North American version isn’t entirely unlikely in the wake of Phantasy Star Online’s success, hopefully paving the way for future series endeavors on both sides of the ocean.
Phantasy Star is a lot of things — charming, varied, fun — but not quite perfect. Yet looking past the shoddy translation and the inconsistency of the battle system reveals an enjoyable title that showcases for the first time some of the genre’s most endearing traits and mainstays. The game should be required playing for any Gaming 101 course for the impressive technological and narrative approaches to storytelling of its time, and required playing for anyone interested in revisiting the birth of a popular series and the cornerstone of a rudimentary genre. —Alex Fraioli
The Phantasy Star Pages
Phantasy Star Cave
Rieko Kodama interview (Video Fenky)