The rise of RPG-enthusiasm in Japan can be traced back to how Dragon Quest took influences from Wizardry and Ultima, but altered them to create a more accessible RPG. After this, more titles were to follow that would signify the controversial, yet appropriate term: J-RPG, such as Final Fantasy, Ys I, and Earthbound. Though Ys 1 would get ported to the Master System, before that and about when Dragon Quest 2 was about to be released, Sega wanted one RPG of their own to compete against the other consoles. Thus, with designer Kotaro Hayashida and programmer Yuji Naka on board, they decided to make something similar, yet different to their counterparts.
This led to creating a “nega”-Dragon Quest if you will, in the form of Phantasy Star. Both titles included turn-based combat with an overworld and dungeons to explore, and a style that turned a western take on fantasy into eastern. However, Phantasy Star took the setting into the distant future with lightsabers and cola, included a strong characterised protagonist, and had first-person dungeon-crawling to name a few differences. Phantasy Star is a series that is close to my heart, probably on the same level as Enix’s Dragon Quest. While I still go back to the original entry on the Master System, Sega has released a version for the AGES-series, with neat upgrades that enhances the experience. Seems like the best opportunity to go back to this classic, especially with the Switch making it easy to play on the go.
A cute story about revenge
In the distant star system known as Algol and on its green planet Palma, lives our heroine and playable character, Alis, in the small town known as Camineet. The king of the star system, Lassic, has been harassing the good people of the three planets, and now rules the world with an iron fist. Rebels are fighting against him and trying to figure out a way to stop him. Tragedies unfold from this attempt, with your brother Nero, working as a spy for the rebels, being killed off by Lassic’s soldiers on the open street. With his dying breath, he pleads Alis to stop Lassic and save their universe, and tells about a man known as Odin, whom will be able to help. Alis swears to take him down, enraged and heartbroken by her brother’s passing.
It is easy to look at this setup and say “this story is quite impressive for its time”, which it honestly is. Having a relative killed with depiction of him in distress and scars over his body, leaves a strong and emotional impression visually, without going overboard with dialogue. Our female heroine is also quite the contrast from the traditional damsel in distress, and written as a strong role-model. This also goes for the rest of the cast, such as Odin who, while is the fighter of the group, he is created without being too muscular and depicted as a kind man with a code of honour that he follows. It is actually quite refreshing to be taken through a simple, but nice setup with characters that are relatable and personal, without having to resort to a bunch of unnecessary dialogue and exposition, and instead get to the point.
While it is quite the improvement over other RPG’s at the time, the story still holds up today thanks to the characters being strong individuals, and dialogues providing you with enough subtle hints to know what your next destination should be. All subtle progressions have a purpose in order to defeat Lassic and save the world, such as another companion, Noah, testing his strength to prove himself worthy to his master. What also makes this adventure exciting, are the diverse areas that are personal and easy to remember. One town will be in ruins with unclear constructions, another had a giant harbour with people enjoying the town’s economical growth, and one was inhabited by a completely different race.
These differences makes each town memorable and easy to get invested in. Even better is how the game utilises its sci-fi setup, by providing possibilities to fly between different planets, bizarre robots and abnormal creatures to fight against, and hospitals to visit for gaining health, just to name a few. These changes from fantasy-setting goes a long way to make the world believable, while still having its own take on it with varied cultures and animals.
That is not to say that Phantasy Star has not aged with its story, because it has, but not terribly so. The biggest issue is really the simple dialogue. While I love how easy it makes things to follow and the short sentences that give you the insight you need, they are direct on what they want to tell and not much more, unless it is accompanied by an important event. There are no interesting translations with accents or cultural ways of speaking. This does make some events less intriguing than what they should be.
However, it never bothered me much as the tone of Phantasy Star and the progression of the story was always at a good flow. While Phantasy Star can deal with grim situations, like having a town being covered in poisonous gas, it does not shy away from making the player laugh, such as one scientist you must annoy until he finally decides to help you, or how coke and burger can heal a party-member. Just like a good tabletop-session, while the dialogue is not always at a top, you will definitely care about the characters, the world and the events leading up to saving the day.
Story Score: 8/10
A sci-fi RPG upgraded to modern days
Phantasy Star is one of the earliest examples of J-RPGs, but despite that it is a simplified version of what we in the west had with Ultima and Wizardry, there is a lot to go over when it comes to its mechanics. First off, you have the overworld to traverse through, where you can always check your status, items, use magic, and save the game. This is nice, as wherever you are, you can save the game, making it important to always be careful since your next death could be around any corner. Magic is also used for more than just healing, and can have overworld applications, such as checking floors or chests for traps, or open locked doors. It is nice to see diversity with magic this early on, and with townspeople giving helpful hints that are worth writing down, such as interesting lore or telling about current events, you are always nudged towards what might be your next destination.
This is also something Phantasy Star does really well: you are given options on what to do. Sure, maybe you want to search for Odin, or perhaps you are more curious on where a rocketship will take you? Perhaps you want to gather equipment for a hovercraft to travel on water as soon as possible, or check out what a dungeon might hold. The variety of what to do is always at a high, and while some dungeons can give you a hard time, you will be rewarded for your curiosity. Just be careful, as you can save anywhere for a reason.
Speaking of dungeons, these are incredibly engaging mazes where they will always contain hints on where you should go or what to do. Even those that are massive, have a believable structure and pathways that are memorable, and none goes on for too long. While before we had to draw our own grid-map to know their layouts (unless you had a guide-book), the AGES-version adds the option for an auto-map. It does show pits and hidden walls more easily, but since you can move fast inside these areas, you can easily find yourself falling into a pit due to share carelessness. This in my opinion, is a nice way to make the dungeons more entertaining to navigate through, especially since finding hidden walls could be a blind hunt. You can always turn off this option though, should you feel the need to go completely old-school.
Though while you will have to explore and get invested with note-taking and such, there is of course combat within this title, which is turn-based. With the four warriors already showcased on the boxart, it is hard to not get a spoiler on who will join in the party, but the cast is strong and diverse to be memorable. Alisa is the jack of all trades, Myau is a type of a monk with spells, Odin is the hard-hitting warrior, and Noah is the strongest spellcaster. All fall in familiar categories, but balances the cast out to make all members important, and fun to create strategies within battles.
The combat is also strengthened by enemies that are diverse and comes in huge variety. Minor Owl Bears that come in packs, Giants that can pummel you, horsemen that uses both magical and physical attacks to name a few, makes each fight fun and unique. Then there are the healthy amount of different bossfights that will by one another, test your skills and strength to the max with different setups, such as the Green dragon with a fierce fire-attack that can leave one party-member with one-digit HP.
You are never overwhelmed with diversity in one fight though, as enemies only attack in packs with their same kind, making it easier to know what to do. This is probably also done due to the fact that you cannot choose whom of the enemies to attack first. Yes, it is random whether you take out the one golem with 7 HP or the one with 109, but this leaves some interesting strategies alongside it, impressively enough. Since you will always attack one type of fiends, you will go with one strategy as main, but due to never being sure on how many times they will attack, there are things to take in consideration. Is it better to put up a magical shield for more defence as cure is expensive to use? Maybe you should pummel on with physical attacks to save MP or try to communicate with the enemy instead? Because of this, normal fights are engaging and while some can be devastating, I always had a good and challenging ride throughout this journey.
Towns will, with a few exceptions, be the best places to rest at. Although hospitals take individual pay for each patient to heal, it is a nice take on the traditional inn. It is not cheap to heal one party-member if their health is low and max HP is high, and there is a healthy option for items and equipment that could be more worthwhile for your hard-earned cash. You can buy flash for lighting up caves and healing some members, or maybe you want to save up for a magical lamp instead? The diverse equipment and second-hand stores that might offer something unique, will constantly make you ponder on what to go for, which provides great strategies for how to prepare for your journey. This is especially true if you play the original version, as it offers a strong challenge with less money and XP to gain, forcing you to consider if you should even go with the second best equipment.
As for the AGES-mode, you are given twice the amount of XP and more gold, making the ride more comfortable. Not that it is any easier, as the enemies are still forces to be reckoned with. What is also nice with this version, is how descriptions of all items, spells and equipment are easy to access from the optional menu, which is just a fantastic way to get better insight. It even gives temporary saves if you just quit the game and an option for running to be toggled on. I do wish there was an easy access to the overworld map, as you will be travelling through three different planets, but they are easy to remember and AGES does include the original manual, which has the map of this world. Being able to see your party’s health and MP pool at all times is also nice.
With the fantastic enhancements that pleases both veterans and newcomers, Phantasy Star has elevated from a strong RPG from the 80’s into something timeless. It is hard to really find much faults with this title, as those that exist, are just minor ones. AGES shows that old-school can age like fine wine, and Phantasy Star shows how this is possible.
Gameplay Score: 9/10
80s anime RPG in the future
I am thrilled that we can have RPGs that are not overly grim and darker than a sewer, or have such ridiculous armour you wonder if it is either a fanfic or hentai. Phantasy Star is a fantastic example of this and how it uses inspirations from sci-fi universes like Star Wars, to make something of its own in a more eastern style, without going overboard to please either culture, and instead create something unique and iconic.
First off, characters are designed with a simple, yet intriguing artstyle, giving an anime-style to them, but focuses more on shades for lighting and facial-features, rather than overblown hairstyles. One of the reasons they are simpler, is due to the artist making the uniforms resemble those found by judo-practitioners, creating a uncomplicated style that still has a lot of decorations due to adding colours and emblems. Because of the simple yet strong attires, the character-designs also needed similar attention to details. This is just a few of the examples on how everything is distinct and artistically pleasing in terms of looks. This is especially showcased through the cutscenes dictating important events, and through interactions with specific characters in first person, which are of high and impressive quality. Impressive what you can do within an 8-bit hardware’s limitation.
The world and its setup is also eye-catching with globe-houses, vehicles with huge machineries to create a unique futuristic world. Phantasy Star goes even further with the inclusion of variety within its world. The planets are thematic with one planet growing green grass, another being a wasteland and the last being an ice-world. A great take within these planets are the different setups within them to make them feel like actual worlds like an oasis, or ice-towns that need a tunnel to be reached. This creativity is everywhere and enhanced by the environmental subtle changes. Characters in the overworld are small in design, with talking to anyone shifting the perspective to first person where you see them in great detail with gorgeous backgrounds. It is a nice nod to Ultima, but also helps to give focus to the FP-mode where you see the landscape and NPCs to interact with. There is a diversity in their looks and attires, which is a nice touch to not make conversations repetitive.
You will fight monsters in the same FP perspective and they are as well impressively creative, be they creepy insects, a metallic construction, or indescribable bosses, all fit this fantasy universe with strong colours and animated backgrounds creating a living, breathing world. In fact, the animations from the monsters, different attacks and spells, and even the overworld are impressive and smooth, to give life to any action or exploration you partake in. Everything contain strong and diverse colours with the only time some form of darkness is presented being inside the 3D caves. These dungeons are not diverse in looks except for different colours, but the impressive and smooth first-person perspective makes them atmospheric and inviting, yet claustrophobic and uncomfortable.
Then there is the soundtrack, which is on par with the visuals. Just to clarify, I will be mainly talking about the FM-version which was originally only for the Japanese Mark 3. While I am nostalgic to the PSG-sound chips with clear clangs and plings, the FM contains smoother and higher quality notes that are easier on the ears. Somewhat comparable to SNES vs GBA audio-quality. Either way, both versions do enhance the magnificent track, being a mix of Japanese rock and folk-instruments with focus on base-instruments, creating calm setups for towns, and more tension when fighting monsters or engaging in combat. All are long songs with a great amount of variety, and give each planet their own feel. Sound-effects are also enchanting and strong, with chimes of healing and gaining items being iconic, while casting spells or attacking creates fantastic sense of power. Rieko Kodama and Tokuhiko Uwabo should be more than just proud by their work on this game’s presentation.
Presentation Score: 10/10
While the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy-games for the NES has had their fantastic remakes, it was about time we in the west got one for Phantasy Star. With a huge and diverse world that is engaging to explore, simple and intriguing plot, engaging combat and decision making, all packaged in with stellar soundtrack and visuals, you really should not miss this. It is no wonder it took a 4 MB chip to create this title in the 80s and the upgrades from the AGES-version sweetens the deal.
There was a remake released for the PlayStation 2 and while I do enjoy the say-function giving you hints on where to go and the updated music, the presentation leaves a lot to be desired, and I am not impressed with the dialogue being expanded with poor text and exposition. Bottom line, everyone who is even intrigued by the concept of RPG should get this, especially, the AGES-version. With this, Sega was not just reaching for the stars. They were touching them.