I’ve long wanted to give the Phantasy Star series a go. And when I say “long,” I mean it. Gaming magazines of the early ’90s are how I first became aware of Sega’s premier take on the turn-based RPG. I was fascinated by their colorful blending of sword & sorcery iconography with the spaceships and laser guns of pulp science fiction. This same genre-bending approach is what kept my eyes glued to cartoons like He-Man and the Master of the Universe and Thundercats for much of the ’80s. Cool as the games looked, however, they were never quite enough to get me to defect to non-Nintendo hardware at a time when most young gamers were expected to settle on a single machine and stick with it for the long haul. No way was I rolling any dice when my Mario and Zelda were on the line.
That accounts for the lack of Phantasy Star goodness in my now depressingly distant childhood. What about the current century? Well, there’s no sense in sugar-coating it: I was avoiding having to map the original Phantasy Star’s dungeons. One thing I knew was that this game is packed with dozens of those old-school Wizardry style first-person mazes where everything looks alike and there’s no built-in map. Since my preferred approach to older games is to dive in with nothing but the original instruction booklet by my side and figure the rest out on my own, there was no way around having to meticulously fill a notebook with hand-drawn floor plans for these suckers. So I put it off, year after year.
No more! I finally took the plunge, and I must have fifty pages of twisted little corridors set down in ink to prove it. What I discovered was a technical marvel on the Master System and a respectable start to a legendary fantasy saga, albeit one with gameplay that’s best described as archaic, even by the standards of 1987.
Phantasy Star is a straightforward revenge story at heart. The opening cutscene introduces us to heroine Alis Landale, whose brother, Nero, is murdered in the streets by troops under the command of the tyrant Lassic. Alis swears on the spot to avenge Nero and overthrow Lassic. What follows is an extended multi-planet scavenger hunt for the allies and equipment needed to take down the most powerful man in the Algol star system, which I only learned today is a real place situated approximately 93 light years from Earth. I suppose this gives Phantasy Star the edge over its contemporaries in terms of realism. I defy you to point out Dragon Quest’s Alefgard on a star chart.
Any RPG fan will recognize the broad strokes of Phantasy Star. Town and wilderness exploration uses the customary zoomed-out overhead perspective, while the dungeons are depicted exclusively in first-person. Alis and friends are subject to a steady stream of random monster encounters whenever they venture outside town walls. These clashes serve as your primary source of the money and experience pointed needed to power-up the group. Leveling up, talking to NPCs, acquiring key items, and solving ever larger and more convoluted dungeons will eventually see the party ready to take on Lassic himself.
One thing this dry rundown doesn’t account for is just how utterly spectacular everything here looks relative to other 8-bit RPGs of the period. Sega assigned a virtual dream team of top talent to this project and it shows on each and every screen of the finished game. Some of this stuff could pass for early PC Engine graphics. The first time you approach one of the squat NPC sprites to initiate a conversation and the screen transitions into a detailed full-body portrait of the speaker instead of displaying a basic text box, you know you’re not playing Dragon Quest anymore. An even more striking effect for the time was the monsters having attack animations. Seeing a colossal squid-like enemy flailing its tentacles at the party or one of the dragons breathing fire would have been jaw-dropping to players on launch day. The crowning glory in this regard has to be the dungeons themselves, which feature stone corridors that appear to smoothy scroll around you as you traverse them. It took the programming genius of none other than future Sonic Team leader Yuji Naka to pull off a 3-D effect of this caliber on the Master System. In its own way, Phantasy Star is part of the same flashy Sega tradition as Hang-On, Afterburner, and other high-octane “super scaler” arcade cabinets of its era. It may be slow and menu-driven, but it still manages to showboat like nobody’s business.
The game’s setting also does a lot to set it apart from its more traditional fantasy peers. There are swords here, yes, but also laser swords! The Star Wars influence is obvious from the opening sequence, which depicts Lassic’s soldiers clad in some very familiar white armor. One of the three inhabited planets you’ll visit, Motavia, is a desert teeming with hostile Jawa analogues (alongside some Dune sandworms for good measure). These little flourishes are largely cosmetic. You don’t actually get to pilot any spaceships, for example. They merely act as fixed warp points from one self-contained section of overworld (“planet”) to another. That said, strong visual design like this can do a lot to engage the player’s imagination and make the whole affair feel far less generic. Phantasy Star absolutely succeeds on that front.
I’m glad I love Phantasy Star’s aesthetics so much, because its moment-to-moment combat and exploration is honestly kind of a drag. Ironically, this seems to be a direct side effect of the design team’s overarching emphasis on visual flair. Those cool animated monsters I mentioned? There’s no way the Master System was going to be up to the task of rendering more than one of them at a time. Thus, every encounter consists of your party squaring off against a single enemy type. This one limitation hinders the game’s combat system tremendously. Phantasy Star’s most prominent competitors, Dragon Quest II and Final Fantasy, both allowed for countless enemy formations made up of multiple monster types. Some baddies had abilities specifically designed to compliment those of their allies, echoing your own party’s dynamics and giving you more to consider over the course of the average battle. Combat in Phantasy Star gets old fast. Once you’ve fought a given monster, you’ve fought it. Nothing new is going to come along to recontextualize that same fight the second, third, or fiftieth time.
Similarly, smooth-scrolling 3-D dungeons that looked better than anything the competition could muster were a great selling point. Are they any fun, though? I certainly didn’t think so, especially since I was expected to conquer dozens of them. Even as a D&D lover who enjoys drawing a map or two on occasion, that’s way too much to ask. If you’ve seen one of Phantasy Star’s bare stone corridors, you’ve seen them all. Unless you find altering the shade of the masonry from blue to green to be truly transformative, that is. With everything looking the same, getting hopelessly lost is inevitable unless you’re either mapping every square of every maze religiously or you’re content to cheat and use somebody else’s guide. The thing is, you wouldn’t need to resort to either of these unpleasant alternatives if only the game’s designers had gone with the plain old utilitarian overhead view for dungeons. They opted to turned heads rather than prevent headaches.
I can definitely see how Phantasy Star won so many Master System players’ hearts with its offbeat setting and sheer presentational pizzazz. Sega pushed the hardware big time with this one, producing one of the foundational Japanese console RPGs. As for me, I’d much rather play one of its higher tier NES rivals. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy are dowdier, sure, but at least they don’t bore me to tears or give me hand cramps. Looks aren’t everything. Thankfully, I feel like I’ve gotten my series homework out of the way and am now fully equipped to one day move on to the trio of Phantasy Star sequels on the Genesis, all of which feature more robust combat mechanics and easier to navigate dungeons. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?