Celebrating 30 Years of Phantasy Star by Playing it for the First Time!

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!

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19 thoughts on “Celebrating 30 Years of Phantasy Star by Playing it for the First Time!

  1. I’m so glad you’re finally getting around to playing this game. I had many of the same thoughts as you here about the sprite style and how good the music is, and I am really interested to know what your thoughts are on the last half of the game as you wander through. And thanks for linking to my LP :D

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Np! I just finished the game and really dug it, aside from the insane frequency of random encounters lol. Myau rules! I loved that bit so much! Since I don’t have the instruction booklet, I was pretty lost as to who Darkfalz was, and I needed to use a walk through to figure out what I was supposed to do after killing Lassic, since I couldn’t remember how to get back to Paseo lol. Good stuff, though! I look forward to jumping into 2 soon.

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      1. Yeah, I think even with the manual, Darkfalz is still pretty mysterious. I just always imagined him as the embodiment of the evil priest spirits that were controlling Lassic, but I thought the priests were human and not a malevolent force. I also completely forgot how to find Paseo as well toward the end of the game. It’s so well hidden in plain sight that it wasn’t funny for very long. I found the stupid lake with the stupid poisonous gas cloud about 345098203 times, but couldn’t track down Paseo!! Ugh. I’ll be excited to know what you think of the rest of the series. I’m still in Ultima IV with several other SMS RPGs to run through after that, so no PSII for me for a little while.

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        1. Yeah, that’s a good assumption. My guess was that Darkfalz possessed Lassic and when Lassic died it possessed Paseo’s governor… or… something.

          In my hunt for Paseo, I swear I hit random encounters every 1 or 2 steps. It was awwwfuulllll.

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  2. I didn’t play Phantasy Star until two decades after it’s release but I was thoroughly impressed by how advanced it’s storytelling techniques were. Final Fantasy was the first RPG that I owned and, while it had it’s own strengths, it wasn’t nearly as evocative as Phantasy Star. As I noted in my own 30th Anniversary tribute, I’ve often wondered what would have happened to the series if it had launched on a more popular console than the Master (i.e. NES or Genesis).

    Phantasy Star 4 has great synergy with the first and second games in the series, it also gives a nod to the third game which is the black sheep of the original series. It’s worth playing them in order (though, in Phantasy Star 3’s case not necessarily worth playing to completion) as the narrative of the fourth game (which is already a masterpiece on it’s own) takes on a greater level of significance. I would caution that Phantasy Star 2 has many things going for it (including a powerful narrative and fun battle system) the overly complex dungeons slow down the game’s pacing to a snail’s crawl.

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    1. Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior were my first RPGs, but Phantasy Star made them feel pretty basic by comparison (outside of FF’s job system, of course). So much color and character, with some truly excellent sprite work and music.

      I just finished the 1st PS so I’ll either jump straight into 2 or break it up with something smaller, but I’m definitely in for the long haul.

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  3. Phantasy Star is my favorite JRPG series. Phantasy Star II being my favorite and I think it’s one of the best RPGs ever made. If you want a more modern taste of Phantasy Star I and II you can play them on the PS2, but they’re only in Japanese.I got around that by downloading an English patch. As the comment above already said Phantasy Star III is the black sheep of the series, but totally worth playing through at least once. This entire series is amazing. Play them all!

    I chuckled a little at your corny ass joke up there so good job :).

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    1. I just finished the 1st game, so I’ll either jump into the sequel tomorrow or take a break with something shorter. It was good! The old-school frequent random encounters wore on me near the end, though lol. Usually I don’t mind random battles, but every 2 steps is insane!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s an issue with some of those older games lol. Part 2 is just as bad… maybe even worse in some areas, but it’s fantastic. A little hint before you jump into part 2. Go back home every once in a while :).

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  4. Phantasy Star games are pretty great JRPGs. They basically were Sega’s answer to Square, Enix, and even Origin. True, most didn’t experience it in the States, as the Sega Master System was running neck, and neck with the Atari 7800 for a distant second place in terms of market share when it came out here. It eventually did take the second spot, but that’s neither here nor there. The series really got attention when the sequel hit the Genesis, and I suspect some Power Base Converters likely sold because of it. I never owned them personally, as when they were new I was still rocking the Commodore 64, and would finally get an NES in 89. But I had a couple of friends with the SMS, and many with the Genesis so I did experience some of them.

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  5. I was so happy that Hungry Goriya did an LP for this AND a Star Wars comparative video, too! I freaking love the Lassic fight music. It’s like jazzy with a sweet beat, and I’m about to go listen to it again right now. I’m definitely going to check out that Sonic game you recommended to see if I can play the other Phantasy Stars. Like you I had no idea the Sega Master System even existed until recently; Genesis was the first system of theirs I heard of, and the first one we owned was a Dreamcast and how I played Grandia II. It’s funny because the SMS has much better graphics than the NES, and the latter won the console wars! Phantasy Star’s still hold up pretty well. Those zombies are so gross haha.

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