PS Collection Review
Phantasy Star was released in Japan on December 20, 1987; about a year after the original Dragon Quest, and precisely two days after Final Fantasy 1 was put on the shelves.
One year later, in 1988, the game was (poorly) translated and released in the US by Sega's then-distributor, Tonka toys (now owned by Hasbro, allowing for Transformer / Go-Bot crossover FEVER). It would be another two years after this Western unveiling before Nintendo would see fit to risk either Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy on American audiences.
Due in part to this conservatism, Phantasy Star was the first traditional console RPG to be released outside of Japan -- and indeed the only major traditional RPG to exist until a year later, with the release of Phantasy Star II for the Sega Genesis.
Armed with the design skills of Rieko "Phoenix Rie" Kodama and the programming ingenuity of famed Sonic Team president-to-be "Muuuu" Yuji Naka, Phantasy Star outshines the other, more obvious RPGs of its day with a startling ease and grace. One could say that Enix and Square are both put solidly to shame by the extent of what Sega achieved in their first RPG.
Graphically, there is little competition. Large, well-drawn cutscenes dot Phantasy Star's plotline during key events. Battles are fought from a first-person perspective with large, fluidly-animated monsters, against colourful and varied backdrops. Naka's clever, smoothly-scrolling 3-D dungeons are some of the greatest technical marvels of the 8-bit era -- and are still impressive to this day.
Aside from the visuals, Tokuhiko Uwabo's remarkable musical score consists of some of the most engaging and memorable compositions of the time, easily standing beside the best of Koji Kondo or Hip Tanaka. The Japanese had it even better, though.
Due to cost issues, the Western Sega Master System lacks the high-powered FM music chip found inside its sister Japanese Mark III console. As a result, whereas the US and European versions of Phantasy Star contain a chirpy modulated soundtrack of the typical 8-bit variety, the original Japanese release is blessed with an arcade-quality, high-resolution aural experience unlike anything else that could be found on the home consoles of the day.
In every technical sense, Phantasy Star looks and feels more like an early Genesis game than its exact contemporary (within two days!) Final Fantasy. To witness this game on the Gameboy Advance screen is to marvel at how little out-of-place it feels next to its younger, and more -- well, advanced, brethren.
Packaging can only go so far, however. As impressive as its presentation might be, Phantasy Star's true appeal lies hardly in its glamour -- but rather in its personality, and in its heart. Whereas Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest contain faceless heroes set off around generic fantasy worlds with only the faintest excuse of a plot as motivation, Phantasy Star is from the outset a personal game -- and, indeed, series.
Phantasy Star begins simply enough; ostensibly it tells the tale of a young woman named (in the American version) Alis Landale, as she sets off to avenge the savage death of her brother. The game continues through her perspective, as the player interacts with well-defined, memorable characters and travels across the three distinct planets of the Algol star system.
Establishing a breathing world -- a character in its own right -- and setting up what will become the mythology for all subsequent games in the series, Phantasy Star's relatively deep plot and character-driven approach to storytelling is -- surprisingly -- also a few years ahead of its time.
Even now, as static and consistent a game universe as Algol is a rare find. Taken as a whole, the Phantasy Star series forms a dramatic epic unlike anything yet to be created within the medium.
This first game also wins brownie points for its heroine, Alis; one of the first strong female leads in any videogame, alongside Nintendo's Samus Aran. Although each game in the series takes place in a different time period and contains a distinct cast, Alis will return again and again throughout future games, in flashbacks and as an object of legend.
With all of its charms, Phantasy Star is probably more accessible to today's audiences than one might rightfully expect. Where the game fails to stand up as well to modern scrutiny, lies mostly in the mechanical elements of gameplay. We have obviously come far since 1987, in terms of RPG systems.
Although arguably more immediately appealing, and less of a hassle to get into, than Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star does contain its share of frustrations and just plain strange elements of game design:
- Monster balance, especially at the start of the game, is peculiar.
- No matter how many enemies you're faced against, only one will be shown graphically.
- Within a given battle, there is no choosing what monster to attack, in which order.
- For some reason, there is no walking on the grass within town borders.
- Townspeople are comprised of identical, immobile background elements.
- The game is not immune to the classic 8-bit "so where do I go now?" syndrome.
Battles in particular can be troublesome when one first starts off. Generally, Alis will trade blows with monsters. Fighting a single battle with the weakest of enemies will drain nearly all of the player's life, forcing a retreat to town after each encounter. After the player has gone up a few levels and bought a more powerful weapon, this becomes less of an issue.
A further complication, however, is the placement of monsters around the overworld. Venturing far in any direction will invariably lead Alis into highly unbalanced encounters, for which it is unlikely the player is well-prepared.
Further, the inattentive player is likely to get caught up into battles far above his or her current ability due to the technical issue where only one large, fully-animated monster sprite can be shown on the screen at a time. What the player will often see is, say, a single scorpion with four life counters hovering above and to the right of its head.
Even in the cases where the player might logically be able to win such a battle, there is an added complication. Not only is the player unable to choose which enemy to strike, but the computer doing the choosing is invariably programmed to make the stupidest decisions possible.
Rather than finish off one enemy at a time, the computer will want to average out the damage one deals across all of the monsters in a given battle. As such, the player can -- and generally will -- take far more blows than should really be necessary.
The only other really major problem with Phantasy Star is hardly a unique one for games of its age. To put it simply, if you don't know what to do, you probably don't know what to do from one moment to the next. Phantasy Star comes from an era before our current standard of obvious linear direction from location to location and from task to task.
Although there are often cues given as to the player's next general goal, there is rarely any plan set out for how to get there from here. A lot of experimentation and patience is required in order to progress through the game the first time -- although arguably less so than in those other early console RPGs.
If comparing Phantasy Star to its contemporaries shows nothing else, it does suggest one tantalizing idea: we need more women designing our videogames. From the outset, Phantasy Star has, as a series, been blessed with a more sophisticated and emotionally-involved outlook than what has been common in the games around it.
But even considering the relative merits of the original Phantasy Star, there is almost no precedent for what Kodama and her team delivered two years later.
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