Platform: Sega Master System
Phantasy Star has an odd legacy. The series is generally remembered for its (admittedly amazing) online outings. The original games Phantasy Star Online was spun-off from, however, are secretly very important to the evolution of Japanese Role-Playing Games as they are today – for better or worse.
On December 20, 1987 – just two days after SquareSoft bet the future of their company on a little game called Final Fantasy – Sega released Phantasy Star for their Mark III console, which would later come to other territories as the Master System. Phantasy Star begins on planet Palma (sometimes localized as Palm due to character limits) in the Algol star system. The heroine, Alis Landale, watches as her brother is left bloodied and dying on the pavement by Stormtrooper look-a-likes for attempting to meddle in the ruler, King Lassic’s affairs. With his last breath, Nero tells Alis to seek out a man named Odin and put an end to Lassic’s tyranny. The intro alone has a narrative both more in-depth and prominent that the contemporaries of the time, Dragon Quest I and II, which hardly had plots outside of “there is an evil thing, please end it”. Also notable is its use of a female protagonist. There had been a couple up to this point, namely Metroid‘s Samus Aran, but it was still rare.
While RPGs of the time had little reason for your party to exist outside of the main character – that is generally you started with a full party of characters you named after your friends and they had nothing to do with the story – Phantasy Star had the rest of your party be important to the plot. Odin was a friend of Nero’s, but was turned to stone by Medusa. Myau, a ‘musk cat’, has a vial containing the cure for Odin but can’t open it due to not having any thumbs. Noah is a reclusive, socially inept magic user that just wants to see the world and learn new things. This focus on having a plot with actual characters, though still shallow, was a fairly new thing at the time, especially on a console.
As soon as you gain control of your character, it’s clear that Phantasy Star‘s setting is an interesting mix of science-fiction and fantasy – vastly different from anything else available at the time. While you roam around green plains and explore caves like you would in Dragon Quest or Ultima, you’re also exploring abandoned warehouses, driving ATVs instead of using boats and making your way to other planets in the system by space shuttle. You use swords and magic to attack enemies, but also guns.
Walking around in towns and across the countryside takes place from a standard, top-down perspective. When you enter a dungeon, the perspective shifts to first person. These smooth, 3D scrolling dungeons were programmed by Yuji Naka, who later went on to become a driving force in the creation of Sonic the Hedgehog. It wasn’t without its faults, of course. While you could see turns and junctions coming up, objects such as doors, stairs and treasure chests tended to pop into existence once your movement was completed, making it somewhat disorienting. Each dungeon also has the exact same brick pattern, just in a different colour, which tends to make them all very similar and tiring. Elsewhere, however, the amount of colour and detail is impressive, especially in enemy encounters in beach areas. During said encounters, you only fight one type of enemy at a time, but there can be a few of that type. However, you only see one on-screen, the rest are listed off to the side. The enemy graphics themselves are large and detailed, even animated. This does have the unfortunate side-effect of a lot of palette-swapped enemy re-use.
The game’s battle system is fairly straightforward – your characters and the enemies you encounter take turns hitting each other with weapons or spells. Later on, Alis and Noah can communicate with certain enemy types, either to avoid battle or collect information. A similar feature was also seen just one month prior in Atlus‘ Megami Tensei, where you could talk to demons and convince them to join your side, but it was still a very new concept at the time. Battles tend to be quite swift, with animations playing out quickly and damage being dealt fast and hard. Initially, your party is likely to fall more often than the enemies do, especially when you only have Alis. Levelling up rectifies this, but sometimes you have to fight a lot of battles to do so. Thankfully healing supplies (hilariously translated as burgers and cola) are plentiful and cheap, so stocking up to take on a lengthy dungeon isn’t too hard on your wallet.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with older games but especially RPGs, it can be fairly unintuitive. There’s often very little hint of how to progress at a given time unless you visit every town available to you and speak to every citizen at least twice – the manual even went so far as to note this to players. Dungeons have complex layouts, often full of traps and dead ends. There was no form of in-game mapping, either, so drawing your own on some graph paper is practically a necessity.
The game’s music was composed by Tokuhiko Uwabo, who went by the name “BO” in the credits of games he worked on. The Japanese Sega Master System had a built-in Yamaha FM synthesis chip, the same used in the PSR-6 keyboard, which provided crisp and clear tones to the game’s songs. The US Master System and the original Japanese Sega Mark III systems however, did not have the FM chip and instead relied on a pulse sound generator to provide audio, which made most games music sound quite wretched. Phantasy Star‘s music doesn’t suffer a lot from the conversion, but during battle enemies make a noise when they attack that sounds similar to a vuvuzela and tends to drown out the melody. Phantasy Star‘s three dungeon melodies ended up being remixed and reused in Phantasy Star IV, as well as one of the tracks being used as part of a song in Phantasy Star Online Episode 2.
The design of Phantasy Star was led by Rieko Kodama, who used the moniker “Phoenix Rie“. Kodama had previously worked on games such as Alex Kidd in Miracle World and Quartet as a graphic designer, but Phantasy Star was her big breakthrough. Reportedly, she was also responsible for having the protagonist be female – almost unheard of at the time – and reportedly had to fight Sega to do so. Kodama would later go on to work on the much-loved Skies of Arcadia and more recently, 7th Dragon.
Over the years, Phantasy Star received several ports to other systems. Chronologically, its first port was to the Sega Mega Drive in Japan only. Due to its hardware design, the Mega Drive could play Master System games – the only restriction was the cartridge size and pinout, which is what the Power Base Converter accessory ‘solved’. This port, titled Phantasy Star Fukkokuban (literally, Phantasy Star Reprint) was simply the Master System game with a different cartridge layout so it could plug into a Mega Drive without the need for the converter. However, it lacks the FM sound and had a limited release, making it fairly pricey to acquire now and more of a curio than anything else.
It next saw release in 1998, as part of the Phantasy Star Collection for the Sega Saturn, along with the three Mega Drive games. The FM sound is present, though it sounds a little off-key due to emulation issues. The colours are also washed out and the game doesn’t take up the entirety of the screen due to the Master System having an odd video resolution; the rest of the screen is covered by a star-filled background. Again, this port only saw a release in Japan.
2002 saw the game arrive on the Gameboy Advance as a part of Phantasy Star Collection. While being able to play the game on the go is nice, the port has quite a few technical issues. Colour is over-saturated, graphics tend to flicker and there’s a horrific bug that deletes your saved game on a regular basis. As such, this version should be avoided.
In 2003, Phantasy Star was remade for the PlayStation 2 as the first entry in Sega‘s “Sega Ages 2500 Series“; named so for costing ¥2500. This remake included an all-new presentation – new graphics, remixes of the existing music and changes to the battle system to make it more similar to later entries in the series. The story was also extrapolated upon, giving more characterization to Alis and her companions. Unfortunately, there’s still no mapping system in dungeons and the game is still as difficult as ever. It would have been good to have some more accessibility, even if it was relegated to an “easy mode”. Still, it’s a solid remake of the game and probably a new player’s best option. Once again this is a Japan-only release, however in 2012 an English patch was released, for use with modified PlayStation 2 systems or emulators.
Volume 32 of the Sega Ages 2500 Series, released in 2008, was Phantasy Star Complete Collection. Yet again only released in Japan, though it has both the Japanese Mark III version with optional FM sound and the English Master System version. It also contains a myriad of optional tweaks, such as walking speed, overall difficulty, sprite limit (to get rid of any flickering due to too many objects being drawn at once) and the CPU clock (which makes the dungeons animate faster). As such, this is probably the best way of experiencing the game as it originally existed, and is very import-friendly.
In 2009 Phantasy Star was released on the Wii‘s Virtual Console download service, and as a part of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection/Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Both are straight-up emulations of the original game, with the Collection version having save states, but also having to be unlocked by playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and defeating the first boss with two players.
Phantasy Star II is the natural continuation of the Phantasy Star story, taking place one thousand years later, however the Sega Game Gear saw a ‘side-game’ focusing on two orphans that Alis adopted sometime after her adventure. Phantasy Star Gaiden is a fairly by-the-numbers portable RPG, but if you like the Phantasy Star world as it’s presented in Phantasy Star I then it’s would be in your interest to give it a look. It was a Japan-only release, though it received an English translation patch.
While Phantasy Star is certainly very dated, its importance to the evolution of JRPGs is not to be understated, nor is the path it provided for the rest of the Phantasy Star and Phantasy Star Online games. If you have any interest in Phantasy Star Online or older JRPGs, Phantasy Star is absolutely worth at least trying out.