Phantasy Star II

"This is Motavia, a beautiful, beckoning jewel - gripped by madness."

“This is Motavia, a beautiful, beckoning jewel – gripped by madness.”

Year: 1989
Genre: JRPG
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Sega Mega Drive

Phantasy Star was a success for Sega. The game sold well enough for a sequel to be made quite quickly, and while one would be forgiven for expecting it to be a direct sequel again starring Alis, it turned out to be something else entirely and just as important to the growth of Japanese Role-Playing Games.

One thousand years have passed since Alis defeated Dark Force and prevented the crisis facing the Algol Star System. Since then, things have changed dramatically. Motavia has been completely terraformed into a planet not unlike Palma, and indeed Motavia is now mainly inhabited by Palmanians. Gone is the dry sand, replaced with greenery and dams that provide fresh water to the residents. This is all thanks to Mother Brain, a super-computer that controls all aspects of life for Motavia so that things can be “perfect”. Rolf (Eusis/Yushis in the Japanese version) is a government agent in Paseo. Rolf lives with Nei, a young girl who is the result of mixing Palmanian DNA with that of biomonsters.

The introduction quickly sets the mood for the rest of the game.

The introduction quickly sets the mood for the rest of the game.

As the game opens, Rolf wakes in a cold sweat after seeing a nightmare involving a girl facing down a demon, which anyone who had played Phantasy Star I quickly notes is Alis fighting Dark Force/Dark Falz. He shakes off the dream, noting that it’s childish to be worried by such things with Mother Brain around to make life perfect. That same morning, his commander sends him on a mission of his own, not one decreed by Mother Brain. The amount of biomonsters roaming the land seems to be excessive, and though the commander knows better than to question Mother Brain, he is worried. Rolf (reluctantly) ends up taking Nei with him to investigate the outbreak, thus beginning the adventure.

Once the player gains control, it’s quickly made apparent to returning players that Phantasy Star II is indeed a sequel that follows a lot of the groundwork set by the original game, but still manages to set itself apart. The science-fiction trappings are furthered much more than before and the story is immediately much more mature and complex than video game stories in general were at the time. The story keeps this mature tone throughout the game. An early event has a man blocking a tunnel, forcing anyone who wants to use it to pay a toll. As it turns out his daughter is being held ransom. Rolf rescues her, and she confronts her father with a veil on her head, to show him how stupid he is being. Unfortunately, he kills her. Immediately he realises what he has done and detonates a small bomb he had on himself, ending his life right in front of the party.

The gameplay and presentation have changed since the first game. The first person dungeons are removed – all navigation takes place from a top-down perspective. You can now see multiple enemies at once in battle, and your own characters are also shown performing their actions from a behind-the-back view, though the colourful battle backgrounds are also removed – instead replaced with a boring blue and black grid.

The character designs are quite colourful, evoking the anime style that was popular at the time. There are eight party members this time around, doubling the number from the original game. Said party members are quite creative in how you acquire and use them – as Rolf’s journey and mission progress, people hear of his exploits and travel to his home in Paseo to meet him and join up. As Rolf’s home is used as a base of operations, the player finds themselves returning there to change party members and manage items, ensuring they won’t miss newcomers to the group. Several of Rolf’s travelling companions have special skills that need to be put to use, and said abilities have story ties. Kain spent a lot of his time trying to be a mechanic, but finds that he’s only good at wrecking machinery and robots. As such, he’s an expert against mechanical enemies. Conversely, Huey is a biologist by trade, so he is needed for a part of the quest where you need to find a specific plant to progress, and is invaluable against biomonsters and biological enemies. Shir is a carefree thief, and if you take her into a shop there is a chance she will ditch the party and return to Rolf’s house with a stolen item in tow. Using Shir’s kleptomania to your advantage obviously can net you some free items, but can also give you a hidden “Visiphone” that allows you to save your game wherever you wish, as opposed to just at specific towns.

Characters going out of their way to find you was quite inventive for the time - and still is.

Characters going out of their way to find you was quite inventive for the time – and still is.

For much of the early game, Nei is somewhat of a crutch for the player. She gains levels at least twice as fast as the rest of the party, can hit two enemies for decent damage if she equips two claw-type weapons, and gains a few helpful healing techniques. Story-wise, she is like a sister to Rolf, someone he feels the need to protect. For that reason, it’s quite shocking when she actually dies as part of the early-to-mid-game story, preempting Square doing the same with Final Fantasy VII’s Aeris Gainsborough by a good eight years. Permanently losing player characters in role-playing games was not at all commonplace at the time, especially those tied so close to the protagonist, and requires the player to rethink their battle strategies to compensate for her absence.

Upon Nei’s death, biomonsters are removed entirely from Motavia. However, Mother Brain decides that Rolf and his companions are to be branded as terrorists and sends combat robots to terminate them. Rolf’s mission then changes to destroying Mother Brain and removing her grasp over Algol, not knowing what will happen without her benefits.

For the most part, the game’s development team is the same as the first game. Rieko Kodama was again the producer and Yuji Naka returned to being the lead programmer. The game’s script and scenario was written by Akinori Nishiyama, who worked as a tester on the original game. Nishiyama also did the script for Phantasy Star IV and Phantasy Star Online/version 2 and monster, map and mecha design for the former. He still works for Sega to this day as a chief producer, having a hand in several Sonic games and some third-party games such as Resonance of Fate.

Phantasy Star II’s audio was again handled by Tokuhiko Uwabo. The music is generally more upbeat and higher tempo than what was in the previous game, and sound effects no longer drown out the music as bad as they previously did. They are quite loud though, in particular Rudo’s shotgun noises are almost ear-splittingly shrill, and the noise that plays when a party member gets hit very quickly becomes annoying. The music was slightly altered for the international release, but only to lessen the volume on the snare drum notes which were much louder than the rest of a given song. Like before, several Phantasy Star II songs were remixed into one and used in Phantasy Star Online.

Sadly, Phantasy Star II’s gameplay was very ‘of the time’. The first person maze dungeons have been replaced with top-down dungeons that are just as bad, if not worse. From the very first dungeon, each place is filled with teleporter puzzles, areas where you can fall down and lose progress, long paths and corridors that lead to dead ends, and a disgustingly high encounter rate with difficult enemies. Quite a few dungeons have overlays such as pipes or water effects that make it quite hard to see. These were likely intended to show off the Mega Drive’s graphical prowess with parallaxing (where two layers of graphics move independently from each other, creating a separating effect), but in the end it does little more than obscure the player’s view.

The battle system received an overhaul too. Instead of choosing what to do every round, the player now issues commands that keep replaying. When the player presses any button during auto-battle, the game will stop at the end of the next turn for new commands to be issued, however there is no on-screen indicator that auto-battle will proceed or stop. It’s also impossible to select which enemy to attack, which makes it overall more difficult.

Enemies hit hard, the encounter rate is high and a lot of grinding is needed in order to make enough money and gain enough EXP to proceed. Also frustrating is that each character has their own inventory, but their equipment takes up a lot of that space, leaving little for supplies and quest-essential items and necessitating the player to return to Paseo to manage it quite often. The walk speed of the characters is also on the slow side. All of this adds up to make the game quite long and tiresome when it comes down to it. In 1989 this wasn’t really an issue; nobody really knew any better and a lot of games were simply that difficult because it seemed normal, but it hurts how the game holds up today.

The international versions of the game actually came with a complete strategy guide in the box, with maps for each dungeon, strategies and item lists in order to help players along, which goes to show that Sega of America/Europe felt it might have been too hard themselves.

The text adventure games are short, but sweet, and do plenty to help deepen the game's characters.

The text adventure games are short, but sweet, and do plenty to help deepen the game’s characters.

Phantasy Star II proved popular enough in Japan for Sega to create more stories based on the game, similar to the now long-standing tradition of games and anime seeing drama audio CDs and novellas that further the story or background. In this case, eight text adventure games with light RPG elements were released on the Sega Game Toshokan (lit. Sega Game Library) service, which allowed users to connect to Sega using a dial-up modem and download games to play. Each of these adventures focused on a member of the party and how they came to Paseo and join up with Rolf, with the obvious exception of Rolf himself whose story outlines his early work with the Motavian government agency.

While the stories are on the short side at about an hour each, they do flesh out the protagonists somewhat more than the game itself did, and are well-presented.
In 1994, long after the service had stopped, the games were compiled with other downloadable titles and released for the Sega Mega CD, split into two packs. Game no Kanzume (Game Pack or Game Can) Volume 1 contained the stories for Amy, Huey, Shir and Rolf, while Volume 2 had Anna, Kain, Nei and Rudo’s exploits.

In 2010, English translation patches were made for each of the games by a fan going by the name M.I.J.E.T.. The translations are of a high quality, though they did opt to use the Japanese names which can be jarring if you happen to be used to the original localised versions.

While Phantasy Star II’s English translation was produced in-house by Sega, there were official translations for South Korea and Brazil, produced by Samsung (who also rebranded and distributed the Sega Mega Drive themselves due to cultural tensions between South Korea and Japan) and Tectoy respectively.
Notable is the difference and contrast between the Japanese and US/EU covers for the game. The Japanese cover shows Rolf standing in a city, with Dark Force looking over the skyline. The rear has an illustration of Nei holding a rifle, surrounded by a detailed background laden with futuristic looking pipes and wires. It also sports a single, in-battle screenshot, along with some text that essentially translates to “1000 years have passed in the Algol System.. a new sci-fi adventure begins!”.
The international version of the cover instead has an airbrushed and very unfortunate looking Rolf and Nei, surrounded by biomonsters. The back cover features no art, instead several screenshots and descriptions of various items, enemies and outright spoilers about the game’s events.
While it doesn’t change the game in any way, it’s certainly an interesting perspective on how games were viewed between different cultures at the time. While the Japanese version focuses on character art and story hooks to bring players in, the other version instead relies on dropping the names of cool things the player will see and do.

One other change between versions involves a part of the main quest where a character has to learn to play the piano in order to proceed through a dungeon. An NPC will teach the skill to any character you wish, for a price. In the Japanese version he is openly homosexual and gives any male characters a discount, mentioning that they are “pretty cute”. The international version changed this to him giving male characters a discount for “looking smart”, undoing any progressiveness shown and almost insulting the female characters at the same time.

Much like its predecessor, Phantasy Star II saw its fair share of ports as time went on, the first of which was for the Sega Saturn’s Phantasy Star Collection in 1998. Like Phantasy Star, the colours tend to be a little different due to the differences in hardware, and this version also adds an option to play the game in either hiragana or katakana alphabets, whereas the original release was only in katakana.

In 1999, a collection of Sega Mega Drive games was released for the PC, called Sega Smash Pack Vol. 1, of which Phantasy Star II was a part of. This collection ran on an officially licensed version of Steve Snake’s KGen98 emulator and is mostly accurate though the music suffers due to bad sound reproduction and there are colour palette issues when running the game on newer versions of Windows.

A collection for the Sega Dreamcast also named Sega Smash Pack Vol. 1 was released in 2001. Sadly the emulation in this collection is quite bad, suffering from frame rate issues and poor sound emulation that makes the music sound as if it had been remixed for the Nintendo Game Boy Colour.

Following the trend of compilations with the same name, Phantasy Star II was also a part of the 2002 Nintendo Game Boy Advance release of Phantasy Star Collection. Due to the platform’s smaller screen size, the viewable area of the game is much smaller, making the user interface cramped, especially in battle, and reducing the amount of the map you can see at any given time. Sadly this has the unintended effect of causing the already troublesome to navigate dungeons even harder. Like so many of the ports mentioned, the sound reproduction is also incorrect and lacking. It also has a high tendency to crash when saving the game, erasing all progress.

Like Phantasy Star before it, in 2005 there was a remake for the Sony PlayStation 2 as part of the Sega Ages series, Sega Ages 2500 Series Vol. 17: Phantasy Star Generation: 2, which never left Japan. Generation 2 provides a full graphical and audio overhaul, as expected, but also makes quite a few changes to the game itself. The level cap is now 99 instead of 50, though it ends up making little difference as the statistic progression is evened out to be roughly the same. Two systems were added to battles – normal attacks now have three different speeds and strength. Weak/fast, medium/regular and strong/slow. Hitting harder will do more damage, but also push your turn order back and have a higher chance of missing. When you get attacked, there’s a small timing window where you can hit a button to decrease the amount of damage you take, but it’s quite difficult to pull off.
Also added the battle is the ability to select which enemy a character attacks, and a form of “limit break” super attack for each combatant. Your battle performance is also graded at the end of each fight, and doing better/finishing in less turns gives you more EXP.
The story and dialogue are extrapolated upon and full-screen drawings are added for some story moments. However some of these graphics tend to be quite odd, namely Nei’s introduction where her face simply looks “off”.
For whatever reason, party members left back at Rolf’s house can be tasked with creating items, weapons, armour, etc. They can also train themselves instead to earn a bit of EXP, and the higher level they are the better items they can make.
If you have a completed save from the remake of the first Phantasy Star on your memory card, you can go through a long chain of events to resurrect Nei, almost in mockery of the thousands of rumoured ways to resurrect Final Fantasy VII’s Aeris that permeated the early days of the internet. Unfortunately, alongside requiring a cleared save from Generation 1, you also need to be on a New Game Plus for Generation 2 and go through a series of steps that is considered long and convoluted even in the game’s original language, and ultimately it doesn’t end up changing the story to any real length.
This remake would have also been a great opportunity to rebalance the game and make it easier, but even with the changed level scaling the difficulty remains about the same and the dungeon layouts have not changed. The additional dialogue does help you find out where to go next, but that is lost unless you are capable of reading Japanese.
While not a bad remake, Generation 2 could have been much more. The disc also contains the original version of the game, with some slight sound issues.

Phantasy Star II was included in 2006’s Sega Mega Drive Collection/Sega Genesis Collection for the Sony PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable, featuring no enhancements outside of save states. Booting the game on the PSP version can take a small amount of time and saving/loading states on the PlayStation 2 version takes a while due to the slow read/write speed of its memory card, but otherwise it is perfectly serviceable. This collection also features Phantasy Star III and Phantasy Star IV.

Sega Ages 2500 Series Vol. 32: Phantasy Star Complete Collection, released in 2008 for the Sony PlayStation 2, goes a step further than most compilations. It includes the original Japanese version and the US English version as well as all of the text adventure games, naturally still in Japanese. The Collection also provides a number of optional enhancements that can be mixed-and-matched, such as sharply increasing the amount of EXP and meseta acquired while reducing the encounter rate and walk speed. Save states are included, as is an art gallery and music player. In 2012, this collection was released as a downloadable title for the PlayStation 3 via PlayStation Network for a budget price. While a Japanese account and funding option would be required, this remains an incredibly accessible option to play the game without many of its inherent frustrations.

2008 also saw the game made available worldwide on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service for the Wii. This release offers a single save-state that is made whenever you quit the game to the Home menu, and is patched on-the-fly to change the colour of the medical center’s logo to green due to infringement on the Red Cross logo. This version is also available on the Wii U by means of its Virtual Wii system, though at time of writing, this still limits you to controlling the game with a Wii controller and not the Wii U’s Gamepad itself.

Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection/Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection for the Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360 was released in early 2009 and contains Phantasy Star II alongside Phantasy Star I, III and IV. This port is essentially the same as the PS2/PSP compilation, but with an optional bilinear filter and widescreen cropping function for playing the game on large, high definition displays.

Phantasy Star II was released as a standalone game for the Xbox 360 via the Xbox Live Arcade service later in 2009. While similar to the Ultimate Collection release earlier in the year, for some reason it eschews the game’s normal main menu screen for its own front-end and bizarrely has an online leaderboard for total experience points. A trial version is available, covering the first few areas in the game.

In 2010, a fairly straightforward port for Apple iOS devices was released. You are given a ‘virtual gamepad’ on the screen, which works well enough as the game doesn’t have any tight timing elements, being turn-based. It also automatically saves your progress as you go, though you can still make manual saves at Data Memory or by using the Visiphone. There are apparently some bugs that snuck through, such as getting stuck on the equipment screen (and due to autosaving, this could end your game) and the game crashes if you try to use the Neisword as an item.

Sega released a Sega Genesis/Mega Drive Collection game for PCs via Steam in 2011/2012, where you could buy various games in a collection piecemeal, or in packs to save money. Volume 5 of these packs contains Phantasy Star II, III and IV. The emulation on this collection is fairly simple, offering save states and a scanline option to simulate an older TV set, though the sound reproduction is lacking in areas. This collection also saw a stand-alone retail release, named Sega Mega Drive Classic Collection Gold Edition.

Phantasy Star II’s influence can be felt in role-playing games today, particularly in the case of protagonist death and twist endings, as well as science fiction settings. Nei’s race ended up becoming somewhat of a series mainstay, another like her appears in Phantasy Star IV and in Phantasy Star Online, Universe and Online 2 a playable race called Newmans appears with Nei’s signature ears.
Roe R. Adams III, who was a driving force on contemporary early western RPGs such as Wizardry, Ultima and The Bard’s Tale, complemented it at the time, saying that it was one of the greatest examples of a role playing game, with great animation and graphics, a fun plot and challenging gameplay. As such, it is a shame that it hasn’t aged particularly well. Newcomers wishing to experience the game in the current day should not feel bad about using cheats, or the tweaks that appear in some releases, as to play it normally is an exercise in frustration that only those with a high amount of patience should attempt.

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