History Lessons: Phantasy Star

Other History Lessons posts can be found here. This post makes many references to the entries for Dragon Quest II and Final Fantasy. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

My quest to play the early Japanese-style role-playing games continues. I failed to start at the beginning, unfortunately, playing Final Fantasy before realizing that the Dragon Quest series got there first, releasing two games before anyone else caught on. But I’ve now gone back and played both of those. Add in Final Fantasy and I’m all caught up, but there’s no time to rest on my laurels: on December 20, 1987, a mere two days after Final Fantasy was released, Phantasy Star appeared. Developed in-house by Sega, it was intended as a showcase for their Master System console, a direct competitor to Nintendo’s Famicom which ran Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. And since both the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series took their sweet time coming to the United States, Sega actually beat them to the US market, releasing an English-language version of Phantasy Star in November 1988.

I never owned a Master System, but my older cousin had one, and I occasionally got to try it out as a kid. The system appeared in the US in 1986, which was a little early for me, so I mostly played NES (the rebranded Famicom for the US market) games growing up. The Master System, then, always seemed a bit mysterious. It was apparently more powerful than the Famicom/NES, but Sega lacked Nintendo’s market share, which Nintendo ensured by requiring that third-party games be exclusive to Nintendo hardware. To compete, Sega had to develop its own games, but they were never able to garner as much success as they hoped. The financial performance of Sega’s games belied their quality, however, and many are remembered fondly today, Phantasy Star among them. While I never played the first Phantasy Star, I had a brief taste of its sequel when a friend and I rented it for his Sega Genesis (aka Mega Drive), the successor to the Master System which did a little better in the western market. I was fascinated by the science fiction setting which was so different than the traditional fantasy settings of most role-playing games, and always wanted to give the series another look.

The original Phantasy Star was consciously trying to push boundaries. With the Dragon Quest series firmly established, Sega wanted to make something different and new that would excite Dragon Quest fans. The development team opted for a mixture of fantasy and science fiction elements, inspired by Star Wars. Where Dragon Quest has swords made of copper and steel, Phantasy Star’s swords are made of titanium and ceramics. Dragon Quest II has a ship, while Phantasy Star has a hovercraft. Phantasy Star has magic, but it also has spaceships, and takes place across three different planets in the Algol star system in a distant galaxy. There are even lightsabers. I guess in 1987, developers could get away with including lightsabers in their games without getting an angry call from George Lucas’ lawyers.

Phantasy Star also features a female protagonist, a bold move for the time. Rieko Kodama, one of the first female artists in the games industry, designed protagonist Alis Landale to appeal to both female and male players. In a reversal of the usual damsel in distress or “disposable woman” tropes, Alis’ quest is motivated by the death of her brother Nero, killed by the evil King Lassic’s robotcops for fomenting rebellion. Nero’s dying wish is for Alis to seek out allies and continue the fight against the despotic Lassic. Since the player’s first clue is to find a warrior named Odin, I was worried that Alis would be a leader in name only, relying on the strong, male Odin to help her fight the oppressive regime. I was pleased to find that the reverse was true. Odin was the one who needed help, having gotten in way over his head. And, as I recruited the rest of my four-person party, Alis remained one of the strongest combatants in the many battles we faced. She is unable to use some equipment because it’s “too heavy for her” according to the manual, which is a bit patronizing, but it’s not as egregious as it is for the Princess of Moonbrooke in Dragon Quest II, and Alis is simply so good at what she does that it’s easily forgotten. Best of all, Alis manages to be a badass freedom fighter without being portrayed as overly masculine, a common problem even today when game designers strive for “strong” female characters. Alis wears her armor over a pink dress, flaunts her long hair, and fights injustice while inspiring others to join her cause. It’s odd to find such a refreshing protagonist in such an old game, but it turns out Alis’ design was far from easy. Kodama went through nearly a dozen iterations before settling on Alis’ final appearance.

Alis’ allies have strong identities as well. While Dragon Quest II technically features pre-set characters, they are nearly devoid of personality, falling into archetypal roles common to role-playing games. The party in Phantasy Star is much more interesting. The muscular Odin is the closest to a stereotypical character, but he feels like a mild mockery of such cliches: at the start of the game he’s decided to fight against Lassic all by himself, failed miserably, and needs Alis to not only get him out of the trouble he’s landed in but also to restore his confidence and convince him that it’s worth fighting on as a team. Then there’s a strange talking cat-like creature named Myau, who has a mysterious connection to the story that is revealed over time. The cast is rounded out by Noah, an esper wizard and scholarly figure who opposes Lassic’s regime on a ideological level despite having no personal stake in the outcome. The manual describes Noah as male, but there’s a moment in the game when he’s referred to as “she”; later I learned that Noah’s character was originally going to be hermaphroditic, able to become male or female as the game progressed. While that didn’t make it into the final game, he retains his original androgynous look.

The designers may have backed off from some of their most progressive ideas in the final draft, but they still wrote a cast with much more character than had been seen in the Dragon Quest games, or in Final Fantasy with its player-created party. This emphasis on pre-written characters would become standard for Japanese-style role-playing games, including the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series, and soon strong narratives starring heroes with their own backstories and character arcs would be one of the defining features of the genre. Indeed, this is one of the major departures that Japanese-style role-playing games took from their western inspirations, which emphasized player freedom, letting players imprint various personalities on their characters by choosing how they would act. As someone who mostly played the Final Fantasy series, I was surprised to find that the character-led design that defines its later entries was actually found first in Phantasy Star.

In addition to pushing boundaries with its characters, Sega wanted Phantasy Star to stand out on a technical level. The mandate from on high was to make a game that couldn’t be done on the Famicom, so the design team used the power of the Master System to its fullest. As soon as one starts the game, it’s clear that its graphical capabilities are beyond those of the Famicom games. Phantasy Star uses sprite graphics in its outdoor areas that are at least twice the size of the small sprites in the Dragon Quest games and Final Fantasy, and they’re better animated too. In fact, animation is emphasized throughout Phantasy Star’s art, including incidental animations like swelling waves on the beaches of its outdoor areas. For me, however, the outdoor sections show Phantasy Star’s art at its weakest. While undeniably more detailed than its Famicom-powered rivals, Phantasy Star’s larger sprites — mountains especially — can fit together awkwardly. The first two Dragon Quest games get away with a lot because their simple art is more symbolic than realistic, with rigid tiles that vaguely suggest mountains and forests, leaving a lot to the player’s imagination. Final Fantasy’s art instead emphasizes seamless boundaries between sprites, so its fields, forests, mountains and deserts look like large expanses rather than a bunch of repeated tiles. Phantasy Star retains distinct terrain tiles in the Dragon Quest style, but in making them larger, better shaded and more detailed, it draws attention to the boundaries between them, so the building blocks used to make the landscape stand out more.

Elsewhere, Phantasy Star’s art excels. It switches to first-person perspective often, not just for combat a la Dragon Quest, but when talking to people or indeed any time the player opens the menu. This treats players to a detailed rendering of the environment they’re in, be it a deep forest, open plain, or futuristic city, all of which are beautiful. There’s simply nothing like it in the early Famicom role-playing games. The same backdrops are used when battling enemies, who also look amazing. Whether the party faces wild beasts, robotic soldiers, fantastical monsters or alien creatures, these adversaries are larger and more detailed than anything in the two Dragon Quests or Final Fantasy, and they launch into fully fledged animations when attacking or casting spells. They’re colorful, varied, and far beyond anything the Famicom games could offer. I never tired of them.

Last but most certainly not least, there’s Phantasy Star’s headline feature: first-person, tile-based dungeons. The design team emphasized these because the Famicom couldn’t handle them, and indeed I’ve never played any games from this generation of consoles that had anything similar. I was instantly reminded of Might and Magic, released the previous year (but maybe not in Japan?), but I suspect the designers took more influence from earlier titles like the Bard’s Tale and Wizardry series, of which the latter was particularly popular in Japan. But the dungeons in Phantasy Star outshine them all. The first person view fills the entire screen, rather than a small corner as was often done in earlier games, the dungeons have fully rendered floors, walls, and ceilings, and they’re animated to boot. Walking forwards and backwards sees the corridor scroll smoothly past, and turning sees the view sweep through the 90 degree arc. It looks fantastic.

Navigating these corridors is not as complicated as it is in Might and Magic, but it’s still advised that players draw their own maps. This was actually one of my favorite parts of Might and Magic, a game where the environments themselves are just as much your enemy as the monsters you face, but not every player would appreciate the need for graph paper and a pencil in order to track their progress. When I first started playing Phantasy Star I was away from home and forgot to bring any graph paper with me, so I just muddled through the early dungeons without mapping them. That wouldn’t have been tenable for long, however, as later areas span several floors and are veritable mazes of twisting corridors, stairways, and pit traps. While such mapping challenges were central to the earlier dungeon crawler games that inspired the Phantasy Star design team, they’re a bit beyond what the Famicom designers were asking of their players. Indeed, the Dragon Quest games were conceived as a means to introduce the role-playing genre to new audiences, and were intentionally simplified for this purpose. Final Fantasy’s cleverly disguised linear path meant younger players could get through without getting lost and frustrated. If I’d played Phantasy Star as a kid, however, I’m certain I would have gotten hopelessly lost, unless I could look up maps for the dungeons.

These devious dungeon mapping challenges aren’t the only things about Phantasy Star that reminded me of PC games, rather than console games. After each battle, players find a treasure chest which usually contains money but can also be trapped, just like in Might and Magic. It took me far too long to realize that choosing “no” when asked to open it would not forfeit the chest, instead giving me a chance to check for traps with magic rather than just springing them constantly. There are several available save slots and players can save at any place, at any time (except in the middle of a fight), which is honestly impressive for any game of that era; even Might and Magic required players return to an inn to save, as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy do. But, generally speaking, PC games were able to save data more easily than console games could, so the ability to save anywhere reminded me of the PC games that would come in a few years’ time. For Phantasy Star, this saving system required a special battery pack that increased the cost of the game considerably, making it one of the most expensive console games on the market at the time.

Other details in the game itself brought PC games to mind too; the detailed but disjointed art in outdoor areas and towns that I mentioned above reminded me strongly of early VGA DOS games. Towns in Phantasy Star recalled the limited interaction of these DOS games as well, as players can only walk along pre-defined paths, and townsfolk are just stationary points of interest that automatically trigger conversations when approached. This is oddly more restrictive than the towns in Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, which don’t offer any more functionality — and the wandering citizens often get in the way — but are more believable since they can be freely explored, which occasionally allows for some secret areas to find. Phantasy Star also reminded me a little of old PC adventure games, due to the large shared inventory that players must fill with items by tracking them down and using them in the right places in order to progress. The Famicom games had a little of this, but in Phantasy Star there’s simply more stuff to find, and players are let loose to explore as they will, traveling between the three planets to piece together what they need. Much of it is optional, in fact, but recommended if players are to have a fighting chance in the finale.

The opening of Phantasy Star felt the most PC-like to me. Alis begins the game with no money and no equipment beyond the short sword her brother gives her, and only a vague hint to follow in terms of where to explore. Leaving the city to start her adventure, I immediately ran into enemies she had no chance of defeating. She did, fortunately, have time to run away, but this rough start reminded me of Might and Magic and other PC role-playing games which could be very tough in the beginning. Eventually I learned that Alis was only a match for the lowliest of foes and I had to wander until I found some, running away from everything else. A few battles later I’d earned some money and was on my way to a better equipped Alis who could survive a little longer. Structurally, Phantasy Star is not unlike Dragon Quest II, in that the early stages are focused on recruiting the rest of the party, and then the game opens up and players can wander where they will, piecing together clues about where to go and why. Phantasy Star is more committed to this open design, however, and I felt more in control of where I headed. In Dragon Quest II I often wandered without knowing what I was looking for, but in Phantasy Star I typically had several leads to follow that gave me some direction. A few details threw me on occasion, however, and I succumbed and looked up solutions at a couple points. Annoyingly, people in Phantasy Star have a habit of changing their dialog if you pester them repeatedly, which I did not realize at first. Also, they sometimes present the player with a yes or no question, and I didn’t always remember to try both answers. Often key information, and even trigger events that gate progress, are hidden behind one of the two.

Despite the early challenges, I found Phantasy Star’s fights to be manageable for the most part. They play like something between those of Dragon Quest and Dragon Quest II. Only one type of enemy can be fought at a time, but there can be several of them, and when battling groups the heroes cannot choose which individual to target. This makes groups dangerous because damage is spread out over several individuals, so each of them stays in the fight longer before they’re neutralized. Unlike the Dragon Quest games, the health for each enemy is displayed, and since total health is often an indicator of how tough an adversary is, it gives players a heads up for when they should fight and when they should run. Running is often a viable strategy, especially outdoors, but in dungeons things are a little trickier. Here battles occur directly on the first person dungeon view, rather than switching to a separate screen, and if the party retreats, they actually back away one space in the dungeon grid. If they’re backed against a wall, then running is impossible. Since there’s no option to defend, most characters will either attack or cast a spell, but there’s also a third option: to talk to the enemies. This is always available to try, and while it often won’t work, for certain types of enemies it can bypass the battle entirely, which is a nice touch. Some spells offer more powerful ways to attempt communication with creatures who don’t understand your speech. It’s risky, however, as failure means missing an entire turn of combat. I learned later that I could have communicated with a bunch of creatures I didn’t suspect using magic, which certainly would have made some sections easier.

Fortunately most fights came while exploring rather than just “grinding” for money and experience. I did need to save up money on a few occasions, but was able to do so quickly and without tedium, often while also exploring new locations. I was pleased to see that the personalities of each character are reflected in their combat options also. Odin continues to poke fun at the “muscular fighter” stereotype, as in battle he has little to do but attack since he can’t use spells. And he doesn’t even do as much damage as Alis. But he’s the only character who can use guns, which makes him more interesting. Oddly, guns deal relatively low damage, but they hit all enemies at once, and I soon learned that they have absolutely no variance in damage. When Odin fires a gun, I know exactly what will happen. Guns are fantastic for some situations, like battling tough enemies with high defenses that lets them resist damage from conventional attacks. But they’re bad in others, when doing high damage to individual enemies to eliminate them is a priority. The main decision players will make with Odin, then, is whether to equip him with a gun or a sword/axe, and when to switch between the two. Alis is a great all around fighter, with strong attacks and a good variety of magical spells that are especially useful early on when she is still recruiting the team. Myau can’t use most equipment, but makes up for it with powerful attacks and magic that can heal allies or boost their damage and defenses. Noah specializes in powerful attack magic, but he can also heal allies or use magic to communicate with the enemies, and while he’s weaker than the others in physical combat, he’s not entirely useless (unlike the Princess of Moonbrooke in Dragon Quest II). Unfortunately, his limited pool of magic points that can only be regenerated by visiting a hospital (Phantasy Star’s version of inns, where each character can be healed individually) meant I rarely used his more powerful spells, instead saving his magical reserves for healing so my party’s excursions could last longer.

In retrospect, I should have bought more healing items — which are, pleasingly, burgers and cola from the “first food shop” (I assume this was meant to be “fast food shop”) rather than the standard healing potions — to use for healing so Noah could use his magic for offense more often. Even with the large inventory, though, using items is still clunky. Not as bad as in Dragon Quest II, but not much better either. Early in the game players must use disposable flashlights in order to see in the dungeons. Later items make these obsolete, but certain enemies still drop them after fights, clogging up the inventory with junk that is tedious to drop or sell. If I’d clogged my inventory with burgers instead battles might have been more interesting, but even without items they were diverting enough. And I greatly appreciated their fast pace, which is a godsend after waiting through Dragon Quest’s incessant message windows in combat. But in the end there’s more variety and strategy in the fights in Dragon Quest II (and Final Fantasy), since they feature different types of enemies at the same time. Different combinations of monsters could generate vastly different challenges, and Dragon Quest II’s designers were free to create monsters who would be little challenge on their own but made their friends much more dangerous. In Phantasy Star, every enemy type must be able to hold its own in a fight, and most simply attack the player’s party. There are no status effects like the poison that can afflict heroes in Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, and enemies only rarely use special abilities like healing themselves or tying up members of the player’s party to make them miss a few turns. The majority of fights see adversaries simply attack, which leaves little functional distinction between enemy types beyond their overall strength, despite the beautiful art and animations for each. The simpler battles didn’t really bother me though, as they were fast and were sharing the spotlight with the nefarious first-person dungeon mapping challenge anyway. Slower but more involved combat would likely have messed with the pacing too much.

The pacing also helped me enjoy freely roaming through Phantasy Star even more than I did in Dragon Quest II. Since destinations are spread over three distinct planets, each world is a bit smaller and more manageable to explore, with much less empty space between points of interest. In Dragon Quest II there were places I didn’t find for quite some time simply because I had never actually sailed to that part of its vast ocean. This kept up the air of mystery, but made it hard to figure out where to go next, and I spent a lot of time retreading old ground as I slowly learned where to go. There’s less of this in Phantasy Star, and when finding and exploring dungeons the act of mapping them out feels more meaningful and productive than simply wandering around would.

And, as I mentioned above, I loved the science fiction flourishes in Phantasy Star. Alis and Odin are from a human-like race native to the planet Palma, which is similar to Earth, and while the Palmans have colonized the desert planet of Motavia and the icy world of Dezoris, I also met natives on both planets. I already mentioned the hovercraft which acts like Dragon Quest II’s ship, but players will also find a land rover for faster overland travel (and for bypassing certain desert hazards on Motavia), as well as an ice digger on Dezoris for cutting through ice in order to reach new areas. Speaking of Dezoris, I loved little details about its design, like how the towns are all built underground in order to stay warm, and are therefore accessed through their own little first-person “dungeons”. If anything, I wish the designers had put more emphasis on the science fiction parts of the game. The undead feature in the main storyline so I suppose I can excuse their presence, but other creatures from human mythology like centaurs and sphinxes feel odd, when the game is meant to take place in another galaxy from ours. Specific human myths are even called out by name, like Medusa and Perseus. I actually enjoyed playing the parts about Medusa, but it was weird given that my party was millions of light years away from Greece.

Phantasy Star’s story is simpler than veterans of modern Japanese-style role-playing games will be used to, but more involved than the basic premises of the Dragon Quest games and even Final Fantasy. I actually appreciated its understated style, revealing itself in bits and pieces as I explored, rather than through big scripted story points. All the wonderful details I mentioned above tie back to Lassic and his regime, which casts a shadow across all three planets. There’s a complicated relationship between Palman colonists on Motavia and the nomadic natives, and a more openly hostile one with the Dezorian natives. But there’s plenty of trouble on Palma as well, with towns isolated from each other due to closures of roads and shipping lanes, and dissidents locked away in prison. Through it all, Lassic remains a mysterius figure, who none have seen in person for some time. It wasn’t a surprise to learn that there’s more going on, but it was enjoyable uncovering what it was all the same. I love the balance struck between free exploration and story; later Japanese-style role-playing games would shift more towards story, losing some of this joyful exploration in the process. For me, Phantasy Star got the balance more or less perfect.

Overall, I was really impressed with Phantasy Star. It was meant as a showcase game that would establish the technical superiority of the Master System, and it’s a convincing one. From the detailed art to the 3D dungeons to the music, which I haven’t mentioned yet but stands up to the Famicom scores and even outshines them on occasion, with some slick crossfades to boot — it’s all far beyond what Famicom games were doing at the time. Critics loved Phantasy Star, and by all rights it should have been a smash success, taking the role-playing crown from the Dragon Quest series. But Nintendo had a huge advantage in market share at the time, with a large selection of quality games that had convinced many players to invest in a Famicom system. Sega’s Master System didn’t have as wide a catalog, and the high price of Phantasy Star didn’t help either. It was by no means a commercial failure, but Phantasy Star and its sequels were always overshadowed by the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy behemoths. Which is a shame, because my research for this article suggests that Phantasy Star’s sequels kept their forward-looking, innovative design philosophy throughout. There are fewer main entries in the series — just four — compared to Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy which are in their teens now, but each earned high praise from critics and continued to tread new ground in terms of design. After a hiatus, the series returned in 2000 with Phantasy Star Online, the first online role-playing game for consoles, a full decade before the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest franchises would attempt something in the online space. Later entries experimented with other gameplay styles and platforms as well, ever trying new things. I’m only planning to play the early main line Phantasy Star games, but I’m really looking forward to them. When I get to them, you can be sure I’ll write about them here.

Unfortunately, one area in which the Phantasy Star series did not innovate as much as I’d like is archiving its older games. Like the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games, the original Phantasy Star was re-released a few times for newer hardware, often with changes to the graphics, sound, and script, and often only in Japan. Those wishing to play the original version today must resort to emulation, as I did. I used RetroArch like I did for the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games, selecting the Genesis Plus GX emulator core to run the game (if you’re curious about the emulator name, it emulates both the Master System and the Sega Genesis). This worked great without any further tweaks. If you’re intrigued by anything I’ve written here and don’t mind a little manual mapping (or you can just look up maps easily these days), then I recommend giving Phantasy Star a try. You’re in for an epic planet-hopping adventure.

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3 Responses to History Lessons: Phantasy Star

  1. kelvingreen says:

    One of my favourite games! I have played it many times over the years and it holds a special place in my heart.

    • waltorious says:

      It’s a worthy pick as a favorite game. As you can tell from the post, I was very impressed with it. I’m looking forward to the rest of the Phantasy Star series, but it will take me a while to get there. I’m trying to follow a roughly chronological order with these, and don’t have a ton of free time to play, especially since I’m taking breaks between to play other games. But one day I’ll post about them!

      • kelvingreen says:

        I haven’t played the sequels although I keep meaning to do so. I wanted to play all four one after the other and restarted the first one, but got distracted by other things before I could finish. I need to get back to that!

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