I'm a Phan of Their Old Stuff...

by Arthur B

Being an appreciation of the early Phantasy Star games.
During the console wars of the 1980s and 1990s, different companies soon developed different specialisations, based in part on the limitations of the hardware they produced, in part on the developers they could lure to work for them, and in part on the way they wanted to target the marketing of the console. Perhaps this so many of the console RPGs of the era we remember fondly hailed from the NES or SNES - Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Chrono Trigger, Shin Megami Tensei, all the major series from the major developers were Nintendo-exclusives.

The major exception was the Phantasy Star series, the most famous CRPG to appear on Sega systems. In particular, the first four games in the series craft a saga telling the long-term history of a particular star system which in terms of its plot was as ambitious as anything other CRPG series were producing at the time, if not more so - and also had a science fantasy aesthetic that set it apart. Thankfully, in these days of widespread emulation and companies cashing in on their back catalogues by releasing cheap downloads or compilations of their old games, it’s now eminently possible to experience the early Phantasy Star series again - but is it worth it?

Phantasy Star

Released on the Sega Master System at the end of 1987, Phantasy Star was amongst the first clutch of JRPGs developed in response to the first Dragon Quest game launched the genre - it came out in the same month as the first Final Fantasy game, and a few months after the first Megami Tensei game, and like all of them it draws a lot on the Dragon Quest formula but also updates it in its own fashion.

The setting for the game is the Algol star system, the habitable planets of which are the verdant world of Palma, the ice world Dezoris, and the desert world of Motavia (yes, you do get to fight sandworms on Motavia). Palma and its colonies on Dezoris and Motavia is ruled by King Lassic, a formerly benevolent ruler who has become more and more tyrannical as the years have passed after coming under the influence of a sinister cult who promise immortality to their followers. At the start of the game Nero, who’s the brother of the protagonist Alis, is murdered by Lassic’s goons (who are, of course, dressed like Imperial Stormtroopers) as a warning to others not to meddle in Lassic’s affairs. Enraged by the death of her brother, Alis takes up his sword and vows bloody revenge against Lassic, a quest she is soon joined on by the warrior Odin, the psyker Noah, and the cuddly cat thingy Myah.

One of the many impressive aspects of the first Phantasy Star game is that as far as I can tell it is the first JRPG ever to have a female protagonist - and it does nothing to undermine Alis’s status as the absolute leader of the group. She’s in the lead whenever you’re on the overhead town or wilderness maps, there isn’t a cut scene where she breaks down under the burden of responsibility, there’s no bit where one of her male companions (or possibly-male companionss - Noah is described as being a dude in the manual but a woman in the game itself) has to rescue her, there’s no romance plot which results in someone effectively taking over co-leadership on the group by virtue of getting to kiss Alis, when you beat the game it’s Alis that gets the awesome rewards, and the first thing you see on the title screen when you boot up the game is Alis bearing her sword and striking her dynamic pose. Even her costume, whilst distressingly pink at points, is of a sensible design providing coverage and protection for most of her body. This is pretty good going when you consider how much computer game companies struggle even today to provide strong, effective female protagonists, and how often they end up undermining them after establishing them. For 1987, it’s pretty incredible.

What also impresses about Phantasy Star is the high quality of the graphics, which takes advantage of the Master System’s superior capabilities to present a game which is much prettier than the first Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy or Megami Tensei games, all of which came out on the NES. The smooth monster attack animations and 3D first-person dungeons are obvious highlights, but the game also stands out in the amount of thought put into the design of the locations. In keeping with the perfect blend of science fiction and fantasy elements the designers were aiming for, most of the Palmans of the Algol system live in bright, shining metropolises with futuristic domed buildings and dress like they’ve stepped out of a Jack Vance novel. It is genuinely shocking when Alis first visits one of the outlying villages on Palma, the visuals instantly communicating a degree of poverty and deprivation that doesn’t need to be put into words.

In terms of gameplay, the basics differ little from Dragon Quest - where things really change is in the specifics, with the science fantasy setting allowing travel on a range of vehicles from land rovers and hovercraft to flying winged cat thingies, and weapons from sword to light sabres to laser guns. Dungeon exploration becomes significantly more immersive with the first-person viewpoint, though you’d be well recommended to have some squared paper handy to map things out by hand. A mild quirk means that important objects in dungeons like objects and treasure chests and NPCs don’t appear until you’re stood right next to them, but once you get used to that exploring the various towers and caves of the Algol system becomes a hoot.

If Phantasy Star has one flaw, it’s the way the game doesn’t offer much in the way of explanations. It seems the designers didn’t have space to include in-game descriptions of what your various spells and bits of equipment do, so having the manual to hand whilst playing to look these things up is a good idea. More troublingly, the English translation is pretty bad, so it can sometimes be a little tricky to work out what the various clues you pick up from NPCs actually mean. For example, “Fast Food” is translated as “First Food”, and the Dark Force which was operating behind the scenes is referred to as “Dark Falz”. The translation is good enough to give you a good introduction to the setting and its basic concepts, but the ending seems a bit abrupt - OK, this dark force was possessing people, shouldn’t we try to work out what’s up with that? (Yes, we should, but we have to wait for a sequel to do so...)

Aside from linguistic issues, however, Phantasy Star is absolutely superb. In terms of gameplay, it compares favourably to even recent releases, and in terms of setting and atmosphere it’s a fascinating throwback to a time when throwing SF elements into a fantasy story or vice versa wasn’t considered to be such a big deal. I certainly found it far more interesting and rewarding to play than, say, the first Final Fantasy game - and in terms of combining technological and magical elements in its setting, it was far ahead of its time, especially when you consider that the Final Fantasy series didn’t decisively embrace science fantasy until Final Fantasy VI. Anyone with even a mild interest in JRPGs would be well-advised to seek it out.

Phantasy Star II

The first Phantasy Star game on the Mega Drive advances the timeline by a thousand years, with the setting and plot leaning further towards the science fiction end of the science fantasy genre. The protagonist (his default name is Rolf) lives on Motavia, now known as Mota - most of the location names have been truncated, presumably by some sort of linguistic shift. Whilst in the first game Mota was an arid desert planet, in the intervening years it has been terraformed to become a verdant paradise. This technological miracle has been made possible by the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful Mother Brain, the artificial intelligence that controls the weather and ecological control systems for the entire Algo star system.

Mother Brain and its legions of robots have made hard work and toil a thing of the past, but something’s up; not only has Mother Brain banned both sea travel and space travel over safety concerns, but the biosystems control plant on Mota has gone on the fritz, spawning legions of twisted biomonsters that are rampaging across the countryside. As a troubleshooter for the government, Rolf is tasked with investigating the matter, and eventually finds himself coming into conflict with Mother Brain itself. The true nature of Mother Brain seems to be bound up with Rolf’s recurring dreams of Alis battling the Dark Force - and behind both Mother Brain and the Dark Force lurk Mother Brain’s true creators.

It’s a good concept, but unfortunately I found Phantasy Star II a letdown as far as gameplay goes. Whilst it adds some more complexity to the formula established in the first game, it doesn’t improve the interface alongside it, so whilst the controls first time around were fairly basic but entirely functional, this time they’re actually kind of cumbersome. As with the first game, there really isn’t anything in the way of item descriptions in the game itself, so you really need the manual to hand whilst you’re playing. Unlike most other JRPGs of its vintage, it doesn’t stop at the end of a combat round by default to allow you to issue new orders to the party, so if you need to change your tactics and you miss pushing the right button at the right time you have to play through a whole combat round before you can change them up - which is often fatal. New companions join the party at level 1, and whilst you’ll eventually have a party of 8 characters you can only use 4 at a time (and have to use Rolf and - when she is available - Nei, his pet catgirl who I’ll be ranting about later). I actually found that I barely used the last few characters to join my party simply because I couldn’t bring myself to do the amount of grinding I’d have had to do to bring them up to par with the rest of the group. It’s even more of a chore when you consider that you can’t switch out party members anywhere except Rolf’s house on Mota.

Along with all of these little irritations, which soon build up into a big lump of dissatisfaction with the game, comes some serious deficiencies with the plot. A lot of this comes with the extremely sloppy translation job, which goes beyond the mediocrity of the first game’s translation and at points is almost incomprehensible. Worse still, the bad translation on the first game ends up having knock-on effects this time around: the change of the name of Alis’s psychic companion from “Lutz” to “Noah” when the first game was translated means that when you meet Lutz in II (or interact with one of his later incarnations in IV) you might not even realise he’s meant to be the same guy. But translation issues aren’t all that’s to blame. Particularly galling is the way new companions join your group; unlike in the last game, when new party members were encountered during the progress of your quest and recruited along the way, this time you just have to regularly visit Rolf’s house and when you’ve progressed enough they’ll just show up. Despite having more detailed biographies provided in-game than your companions in the first game did, the party members seem like less interesting characters because you haven’t experienced any of their backstory in recruiting them.

This feels like a huge leap back compared with the first game, and it isn’t the only one. Remember, the first game had the lead party member be a female character who wasn’t depicted as a sex object and whose authority wasn’t undermined by the other party members. This time the lead character is a dude, Rolf, and the first party member you get is Nei, Rolf’s catgirl “roommate” who dresses in a skimpy costume and whose boobs are a major feature of her profile picture in the party selection screen. What’s more, Nei pretty much begs Rolf desperately to let her come along in a completely undignified way (though it’s hard to tell how this was supposed to come across with the dodgy translation), and apparently Rolf looks after her because she’s some sort of weird human/biomonster fusion who shows more intelligence than other biomonsters. Whilst you do eventually get some capable female party members, it’s pretty galling that the first one of any significance is some sort of creepy clingy sex pet.

In terms of presentation, the graphics are improved but not hugely, and the game disappointingly abandons the first-person 3D dungeons for a more traditional third-person top-down view. The designers appear to have wanted to go for a slightly less cartoonish art style than the first game’s (which was already significantly less cartoonish than, say, any Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest game at the time), but the art style this time around feels kind of soulless and empty. The music is alright, but no better than alright. Occasionally you’ll get graphical glitches (on the PSP version from the Mega Drive compilation at least), including one unforgivable one which mangles one of Lutz’s most important bits of dialogue.

To be honest, playing this one - and even writing this section of the review - felt like a chore to me. I only kept playing as long as I did because the PSP version lets you save anywhere (like I said, you pretty much have to, actually, if you want to keep your save games). If I’d been forced to only save in towns, which is the default in this game, I’d have probably lost patience long before I did. As things stood, I got to Dark Force and found that whilst my party clearly wasn’t powerful enough to take it on, I couldn’t be bothered to do the grinding I’d need to actually beat the thing. It’s a shame, but I don’t feel like I lost out - the game finishes on a disappointing cliffhanger anyway.

Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom

Like Dragon Quest IV, which came out at around the same time, 1990’s Generations of Doom presents its story in an episodic format; like Dragon Quest V, which it almost certainly influenced, the game presents a story spanning decades in which several generations of one heroic family end up contributing to the story (hence the title!).

The story starts out with the tale of Rhys, prince of the kingdom of Landen. Rhys’s world appears, at first, to be a typical medieval fantasy setting, in which the Orakians, descendants of the great warrior Orakio and his followers, fight a constant battle against the forces of the Layans, who likewise follow the doctrines of the sorceress Laya. Orakio and Laya reputedly killed each other in an epic conflict 1000 years ago, but before they left they both made their respective disciples swear not to harm other living creatures. This has led to centuries of conflict in which Orakians and Layans do not by and large try to slay each other directly but find loopholes in their religious beliefs which allow them to continue the war - for example, the Layans create horrifying monsters to send after the Orakians.

Rhys, an Orakian, is due to marry the mysterious Maia, a shipwrecked amnesiac he rescued some time ago. However, on their wedding day Maia is snatched away by a flying beast - clearly some sort of Layan-crafted creature - and Rhys has to set off on a dangerous mission into Layan territory to recover her, as his children and grandchildren after him will eventually sally forth on vitally important missions of their own. Each journey will reveal new information which, piece by piece, reveals the secret past of Rhys’s world and the truth behind the deaths of Orakio and Laya, as well as explanations for the bizarre inconsistencies most players will notice whilst playing through Rhys’s quest. Why, for example, do the Orakians, a people with an apparently medieval understanding of technology, send advanced cyborgs to fight the Layans as their response to the Layan’s creation of terrible beasts? Why are the seven “worlds” that the Orakians and Layans occupy perfectly circular and linked by strange service corridors stuffed with electronic and cybernetic control systems? And who’s this Dark Force guy anyway?

Possibly the most striking thing about Generations of Doom is the way the multi-generational mechanics affect the storyline. At the end of each of the first two episodes, Rhys/Rhys’s son has the choice of marrying one of two individuals, one of whom is usually the damsel in distress he’s been trying to rescue, the other of whom is a capable party member who’s had far more actual screen time. This both determines the identity of the next party leader (who will be the relevant character’s son), and changes the details of the plot in the subsequent episode. These changes are usually only a matter of aesthetic - episode 2 is always about a renegade Layan or Orakian (Lune or Siren) showing up from one of the world’s two moons and invading, and episode 3 is always about Dark Force trying to destroy the world in some manner - but the writers do by and large put some thought into the effects of the player’s decisions and respond accordingly.

That said, there are downsides to the approach. Some aspects of the third episode will make little sense to players who haven’t gone through both versions of the second episode - for example, I played through the Lune scenario so I had no idea who the hell Siren was. And towards the end the game can get repetitive as you revisit the same location for the third time (or more!) in order to advance the plot. Still, the storyline is compelling enough to draw you on, even though the translation is once again a little shaky, and it’s kind of a shame that the party leadership is inherited along patrilineal lines with a male sword-wielding warrior as default party head in all iterations of all generations - especially considering that the first game made such good use of its female protagonist.

A particularly nice touch are the cyborg characters, Mieu and Wren, who join Rhys in the first mission and then are assigned to accompany his sons and grandsons on their adventures in the subsequent episodes. The fact that you get to keep two party members and level them up over the course of the entire game really helps to foster a sense of continuity, and allows the plot to properly sprawl - Rhys retires from adventuring after episode 1 and, it seems, dies at some point after episode 2, whereas the main character of Dragon Quest V is still an active adventurer by the end of the game.

In terms of presentation and gameplay, it’s a very clear step up from Phantasy Star II; the graphics are better, the character sheets and menu system is less confusing, and in general the game is easier to get to grips with. The gameplay is, in fact, greatly simplified, to the point where some may find it too simple - I found no use for any forms of magic other than healing spells, for example. I do, though, like the way that characters get access to the whole of a school of magic at once (so if a character casts healing spells they have access to all four healing spells), and you can adjust how many points from your power pools are assigned to each spell. (So if you have 12 points assigned to “heal everyone” it’ll be more effective when you cast it than if you had 7 - but those extra 5 points have to come from other spells.) Still, as something to fiddle about with in idle moments on a handheld it does the job more than adequately.

Also, Wren is a Transformer and can turn into a plane and a boat and a submarine, that’s got to count for something.

Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium

Phantasy Star IV makes a bid to tie in all the preceding games, though you have to squint to work out where III fits in. The premise is, in fact, remarkably like that of II, in that the player starts out as part of a team of troubleshooters who in the course of their ordinary duties stumble across an existential crisis provoked by Dark Force. Specifically, the main character is Chaz, an apprentice bounty hunter under the tutelage of Alys on the desert world of Motavia. In your first mission you discover that some nefarious villains are spawning bio-monsters to plague the world, and soon enough you are accumulating companions, exploring the world, and eventually jetting around the Algo star system trying to defeat Dark Force's latest plot - and in the course of doing so, discover Dark Force's true nature and origins.

In terms of the plot and writing IV feels like a step backwards. There's no experimentation with the JRPG format to compare with the family-based structure in III, and the general features of the plot (environmental control systems malfunctioning, robots and genetically engineered beasties running rampant, etc.) are so familiar from II that deja vu is inevitable. On top of that, several major companions are either literally identical copies of characters from previous games (Wren, being an android, is generally considered to not be the same one as in III but merely the same model), or are reincarnations of previous characters (Rune is a reincarnation of Lutz from the first game), or are simply uncreative pastiches of characters from previous games (Chaz is basically a very whiny and childish version of Rolf from II, sexy cloned catgirl Rika is essentially sexy cloned catgirl Nei from II with a happier ending, and so on).

Although sometimes, as in Rune's case, this allows for some mildly interesting plot tangents, on the whole the impression given is of the designers running out of ideas for stuff to do with the Algo system. (It doesn't help that the more original NPC companions like the owlbear Gryz or the healer Kyra only join your party temporarily, so the majority of your party will usually consist of reskins of old characters from previous games). Perhaps this lack of ideas explains the extra-apocalyptic tone of the story; by the end of the tale, the ultimate secret of the Algo system is revealed, and the source of evil has been destroyed, so it feels as though the potential of the setting has been exhausted - there aren't any comparably major stories left to tell in the system without tossing in a new villain from out of nowhere.

Another problem with the party is Chaz, the main PC, who is completely insufferable. It's possible that his dialogue loses something in translation, but he's constantly moaning and complaining about things, the height of this coming when, after being given a mission to go to another dimension to put a final end to ultimate baddie The Profound Darkness, he throws a babyish tantrum and refuses to do it. This makes him look astonishingly petulant, and also feels rather pointless - all it does is trigger an incredibly brief side-quest where you go and within 5 minutes obtain a better sword which gives you mild bonuses in conbat (with, admittedly, a small chance of insta-killing foes) and which triggers a cut scene when you first collect it to give the designers a chance to shoehorn in uninformative and not very interesting pictures of the previous protagonists in the series.

Gameplay has also changed little. Some effort is made to offer side quests through the medium of the bounty hunter agency Chaz and Alys work for, though the side quests aren't very involved or interesting, and combat remains not very interesting - yet again, there's little reason to do anything in combat beyond basic attacks and healing unless you are in a boss fight. As is often the case in JRPGs, there doesn't quite seem to be enough to spend your money on, which means that it ends up accumulating to a silly extent.

To its credit, the game does give you an awful lot of main quest, so it ought to keep you occupied for a while, but I actually think the main quest is a little too long - by the end of it I'd forgotten most of the first two thirds or so of the story. To be fair, this may be in part due to the way I approached the story - because I was playing it on the PSP and could therefore save anywhere I liked, I tended to pay it in little chunks before going to sleep at night, so it took me over four months to actually complete the damn thing. On the other hand, I hit enough points where I had to do some grinding before I could beat the next boss that I probably wouldn't have had the patience to complete the game if I'd played it in any other way.

Phantasy Star IV was the last game in the series to be set in the Algo system, and with good reason: the potential of the setting is clearly exhausted by this point. If you were a major fan of the second game in the series but were upset by the abrupt ending it may well be worth your time, otherwise I don't think it's an especially necessary addition to the series.

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Comments (go to latest)
Robinson L at 02:00 on 2016-11-01
the Final Fantasy series didn’t decisively embrace science fantasy until Final Fantasy VII.

Really? I only played a bit of Final Fantasy VI—I think they renamed it Final Fantasy III here in the U.S., just to make things confusing—but what I remember of that was the beginning where you had the main character and two redshirts walking around in personal mech tanks.
Arthur B at 11:56 on 2016-11-01
I hadn't played VI either, to be fair. Most of the aesthetic I have seen associated with it tends towards fantasy but a quick google shows a lot of tank and mecha-based opponents, so I will edit accordingly. (I don't think it undermines my point that much, because it came out in 1994 whereas Phantasy Star had been ploughing this furrow since 1987.)
Robinson L at 00:00 on 2016-11-03
Oh sure, I'm happy to concede Phantasy Star was years ahead of Final Fantasy in jumping on the science fantasy bandwagon.
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