#62: Phantasy Star (1988 Sega)

062phantasystar

We now come to the second of the three console RPGs Sega brought to the U.S. during the latter half of 1988, but it’s the one everyone’s been waiting for. That would of course be Phantasy Star, the first entry in Sega’s long-running RPG series. In Japan with Enix’s Dragon Warrior and Square’s Final Fantasy dominating the Nintendo Famicom RPG scene, Sega decided to produce their on take on the role-playing formula DW created, only they chose to mix in some futuristic science fiction with the tradition medieval fantasy, among other things. The game was a monster hit in Japan (and eventually spawned a trio of sequels on the Genesis) which convinced Sega to bring it across the Pacific, possibly hoping it could serve as a better way to introduce American gamers to RPG’s than their first effort, Miracle Warriors. Though the game didn’t quite tip the 8-bit wars in Sega’s favor, Phantasy Star was still a minor success for Sega and has been called one of the best carts for the system, at the very┬áleast it’s one of the few reasons many American gamers even remember the SMS during Nintendo’s dominance. Now let’s see if it still deserves its lofty standing after all this time.

A gal on a mission of revenge sets the stage.

A gal on a mission of revenge sets the stage.

One of the first things you notice when you first begin the game is the game actually features a female as the main protagonist, a definite rarity at the time. In this case you’re cast as Alis Landale, a resident of the far away Algol Star System which is under the tyrannical rule of King Lassic. Once a benevolent monarch, Lassic slowly became corrputed after converting to a mysterious new religion and eventually brought the system’s three planets under his thumb, raising taxes and other evil king stuff. Alis’ brother Nero tried to stand up to Lassic and uncover his secret of this new religion but was murdered by the king’s troops, so Alis has sworn to avenge his death by somehow bringing down Lassic and ending his reign of terror.

Our merry band of heroes.

Our merry band of heroes.

Alis begins her journey in her hometown of Camineet which contains townsfolk to speak with and get clues about her journey, shops that sell items and a friendly place where she can get healed up. Once she leaves the town the gameplay unfolds much like your standard Dragon Warrior-style RPG, having you travel across an overhead-view world map to different towns and landmarks while engaging randomly encountered baddies along the way in turn-based battles to earn money (known as Meseta here) and experience. Of course you need to use your hard-earned Meseta to purchase better weapons, armor and other helpful items in the different shops. But as mentioned earlier this game adds its own spin on the forumla with the aforementioned mix of fantasy and sci-fi as you can obtain swords and shields as well as laser guns and spaceships. In fact the quest starts on the lush planet Palma but eventually spans via a spaceship to the desert planet Motavia and the ice planet Dezoris, giving you more areas to explore. Plus Alis starts her quest alone but as the game progresses she manages to recruit a trio of allies to her cause, each with their own abilities to help you out: the brutish warrior Odin who serves as the muscle and can use laser guns, the magician Noah with an array of powerful spells at his disposal, and an intelligent cat-creature named Myau who fights with a mean set of claws.

It may not look like it but this guy has some backup.

It may not look like it but this guy has some backup.

The random monster encounters also follow the DW mold, with a few additions. You get the standard “through your eyes” view of your attacker as you issue commands and see what happens. Thing is you may only see one creature on the screen but you often take on groups of up to 6 baddies, though they’re the same type of monster. Plus, unlike Miracle Warriors, all your party members get to participate and three of them (Alis, Myau and Noah) can even use magic spells during the battle if they have the MP for it. Interestingly enough there’s an option to talk to some of the enemies, either through the TALK command or by using a telepathy spell, and odds are you can negotiate your way out of an unnecessary battle instead of fighting. There’s also a number of dungeons and caves to explore but instead of using the same top-down perspective you navigate them with a nice 3D perspective searching for the special key item or major enemy to slay. Just be aware there’s no automap feature to guide you, so you could find yourself lost and unable to find your way around unless you make really good maps.

I'm glad someone does, dude.

I’m glad someone does, dude.

As you play Phantasy Star it’s easy to see how hard Sega worked to make up for the debacle that is Miracle Warriors, while at the same time managing to outshine its Nintendo contemporaries. Unlike the rather generic characters in the previously mentioned game (or for that matter Final Fantasy), this game manages to give each of the heroes different personalities to flesh them out as real characters and their abilities do complement each other very well. The graphics are bright and colorful throughout the game, though they do show their age in spots, especially the world map. The battle scenes are also nicely done, with you battling well drawn sprites in front of some good-looking backgrounds, and the creepies have some cool animations for their attacks instead of just being still pics. The dungeon scenes are cool as it features some smooth scrolling instead of just using static screens for every step, though they all look the same except for different colors. And when certain events happen during the game you’re treated to some beautifly done cutscenes. The music is also well done with good background tunes used throughout the game, including the spooky dungeon theme. Some may prefer the soundtrack from the Japanese version that uses the FM chip found in the original Mark III console, but for the most part it’s no real loss. Plus the game allows you to save your progress to the battery at anytime and offers five save slots.

This is what I think of your cookies, Girl Scouts.

This is what I think of your cookies, Girl Scouts.

Unfortunately there are a few annoyances that keep this phantasy from being perfect, especially concerning the difficulty. The game requires a good amount of grinding in the early going when you’re weak and need to build up your strength to really get anywhere, as well as acquire the funds for good equipment. Also the monster encounter rate can feel somewhat erratic at times; one moment you can pass through a region untouched, other moments you’re spammed with battles, which can get especially frustrating when you’re trying to get your weary party to the nearest town to heal up. You’ll wish the game would ease you in more gently, but once you gain a few levels the game does flow much smoother. The main sticking point is how the game forces you to follow a linear sequence of events, even as it tries to offer some freedom of exploration. Certain important items won’t appear unless you talk to the right person to activate the flags, even if you reach their location and search for them ahead of schedule. And some may have issues with the translation job Sega did which contains more than a few errors, including changing the names and even the gender of certain characters.

Forget those silly airships, spaceships are the real way to travel.

Forget those silly airships, spaceships are the real way to travel.

So overall Phantasy Star may have its issues that might annoy you, yet its many positives and innovations still outweigh its flaws and helps this cartridge still come off as an excellent 8-bit role-playing game. This title has managed to hold up over the years as a fun, well-made and well-presented quest and definitely stands its ground against other 8-bit RPGs of the era and even some of the 16-bit offerings, including its own sequels. It certainly outshines Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, which is even more interesting given those two titles wouldn’t reach the American NES until the following years after P.S. hit our shores. This phantasy is definitely worth looking into and highly recommended.

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