When December 20th rolled around, Sega didn’t seem too concerned with their RPG’s 30th anniversary. At least someone was, though.
Phantasy Star debuted on the Sega Master System that day back in 1987 (1988 in North America), and like many others here in the States, I didn’t own the console. I didn’t even know the Master System existed until a high school friend unearthed his in the late 90s. That being said, I never got around to playing Phantasy Star until… yesterday?
I was a SNES kid when it came to role-playing games, although I did use my Genesis for things like Sonic the Hedgehog, Ghouls n’ Ghosts, and De-cap Attack (shout-out to Chuck D. Head). What I’m getting at, I guess, is that the Phantasy Star series is mostly foreign to me, despite owning a console where three of its numbered entries existed. I played quite a bit of Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast and Gamecube, but that’s where my familiarity ends.
With Phantasy Star recently celebrating its 30th anniversary, I finally decided to sate my curiosity. However, just like when I was a kid, I don’t own a Sega Master System. I do own the cartridge, though, so I used the RetroArch emulator to legally play the ROM. Three hours later, the emulator froze and I lost all of my progress. I guess I should have sprung for a Master System while I was out shopping in Seattle, yeah?
Although I was upset, I wasn’t discouraged. I had a better idea of what to do and where to go, so catching up took a fraction of the time.
Here we have Alis, a teenage girl, witnessing the death of her brother, Nero, at the hands of King Lassic’s robot cops. King Lassic was once a good guy, but after converting to a new religion he began ruling with an iron fist. This becomes more apparent to the player as they visit the decaying rubble of some of the surrounding cities. With Nero’s dying breath he guides Alis to Odin, a fierce warrior and member of his rebel faction; who just so happens to have recently been turned to stone in his battle with Medusa. Alis meets up with the aptly named Myau, a talking cat and Odin’s companion, and together they free the beefcake warrior from his stone prison. The fourth and final party member, Noah, is an irritable magic user who refuses to join your cause until Alis meets up with the governor of Paseo and receives a letter of recommendation. I found it interesting that Noah was accidentally referred to as “she” in the North American translation of the game, due to his feminine appearance. Oops?
I’ve spent quite a bit of time with the game over the last two days and I must say that it holds up incredibly well. The 8-bit pixel art is superb, which is highly influenced by 1980s anime. It has this rad blend of fantasy and sci-fi, which spans three different planets and splits its time between 2D exploration and first-person dungeon crawling. Though most of the enemies I’ve encountered are just reskinned variants of the ones I faced earlier in the game (most notably the Owl Bear, which is neither owl nor bear), their designs and animations are far beyond what I’d imagine an RPG of the era was capable of. I’ve played Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, but Phantasy Star is on a whole different level.
Now that I have all four party members and seem to be nearing the end of the game’s 2nd planet (the desert planet of Motavia), I’m curious to see where the story goes from here. I’ve helped an imprisoned scientist rebuild a spaceship, repaired a hovercraft to travel over water, and finally found the helpful Mirror Shield thanks to a quick Google search, so tomorrow should bring about more interesting adventures.
Phantasy Star features its own spin on traditional turn-based combat. You can decide how each of the four party members act, choosing between basic physical attacks, magic spells, item usage, and fleeing the encounter, but you can’t manually target the enemies if more than one is present. I actually love how the game conserves resources while in combat — if more than one of the same enemy type appears in battle, you only see one of their sprites, but each one makes a different sound when it attacks. For example, if three Owl Bears “appear,” only one is visible. There’s a monster list in the upper-right corner during combat that displays how many of what you’re fighting, though. If Owl Bear #1 attacks, you’ll hear a “brrrrr,” followed by a “BRrrr” for #2, and “BRRRRR!!” for number three. It may sound a little silly, but for a game in 1987 it’s a fucking BRRRRRILLIANT way (shut up, it’s a good joke) to conserve its resources and apply them to other areas of the game; again, a game on an 8-bit console had a fully functioning first-person dungeon crawling mode. How rad is that?
It’s also pretty well balanced, in terms of character focus and economy. I’m never earning too many mesetas (the series’ currency), so I always have to go out of my way if I want to grind enough for higher-end weapons and armor. As for “class” roles, Alis fits the jack of all trades route with above average physical attacks and a variety of offensive, restorative, and utility spells. Noah acts as the mage-type, while Myau dishes out fast attacks and superior healing magic. Unlike everyone else, Odin can’t use magic. Instead, he can equip weapons that nobody else can, like guns and axes. I’ve been able to run from tough encounters on the first try (and before the enemies have a chance to attack), so I’m not sure if it’s possible to fail a flee attempt. There’s a fair amount of grinding required, but not an asinine quantity once you get the ball rolling. I’ve been using the Dragon Quest method of grinding out mesetas until I can afford the best weapons, which (so far) has allowed me to quickly dispatch most random encounters without much trouble. This, in turn, lets me farm even more mesetas at an efficient pace.
Although I’ve mostly had a great time with Phantasy Star, it does fall into some expected issues that are just par for the course when it comes to old-school RPGs. I don’t own the instruction booklet, so I’m missing out on a lot of item, spell, weapon, and armor details. I’m using a spreadsheet for this, though, so three cheers for the internet! It also bombards you with random encounters; sometimes every one or two steps. I’m always in need of XP and gold, so they’re pretty necessary. It can just be a major nuisance when I’m backtracking through labyrinthine dungeons for the second or third time.
Another standout is Phantasy Star’s phenomenal soundtrack. I’m a huge sucker for 8-bit tunes and Phantasy Star delivers in spades. The overworld, dungeon, town, and battle themes are excellent, but the track that plays within the Paseo Governor’s manor just fucking SLAYS (and is apparently reused for the final dungeon). Seriously, I had to put the controller down and let it run looping in the background for 15-20 minutes just to soak it all in. Check it out!
Needless to say, I’m glad I finally dove into Sega’s 30-year-old RPG. It’s a super rad sci-fi/fantasy setting with insanely good pixel art and a rockin’ soundtrack, but it’s also expectedly old-school and kind of gives me a headache at times with its absurd random encounter rate. It’s all part of the experience, though, and I can’t wait to continue on tomorrow evening.
Chances are that I’ll follow suit and continue on with the series since I never got around to the trio of games that followed on the Sega Genesis. I’ve always heard so much great stuff about the Phantasy Star series and so far it’s all true. I’m sold.
Have you experienced Phantasy Star before? If so, what did you think? If not, fellow WordPress games blogger and all around swell lady HungryGoriya has a full Let’s Play up on her YouTube channel. You should check it out!