Phantasy Star: Maiden’s Voyage
“Heroes’ Quests” is an ongoing diary chronicling my journey through the Dragon Quest series. We’re finished with Erdrick and his descendants and are primed to break into an all-new trilogy with Dragon Quest IV. Before we do that, though, let’s hop aboard the Luveno and steal away to the Algol star system, where an orphan named Alis is assembling a crew to slay the mad King Lassic and avenge her brother’s death. Phantasy Star was first released for the Sega Master System in Japan in December 1987; this retrospective is based on Sega Ages: Phantasy Star for the Nintendo Switch, released in 2018.
Dragon Quest’s arrival in 1986 smashed a door open to a brave new world of console RPGs. Chunsoft had not only proven that you could condense the complicated format of a role-playing game into an accessible, family-friendly console experience, but that it would sell. Sure, other role-playing games had come before it, but none had brought the broad mainstream appeal and accessibility needed to propel the genre to great heights.
Suddenly, RPGs weren’t such a risky venture anymore, and the video game industry was starting to take note. Role playing games began to surface in greater numbers. Data East created Glory of Heracles, an RPG rooted in the Greek myth of the Twelve Labors of Heracles that took many of its cues from Dragon Quest. Atlus adapted a popular series of Japanese novels into Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, a first-person dungeon crawler which would ultimately become the start of the Shin Megami Tensei series. For Square director Hironobu Sakaguchi, the explosion in popularity was a long time coming: he had dreamed of creating an RPG for years, but his pitches were shot down repeatedly because of doubts around their marketability. The success of Dragon Quest changed everything, however, and Sakaguchi soon got his opportunity to shine with Final Fantasy.
When Dragon Quest II launched in 1987, Sega knew they were leaving money on the table without an RPG of their own for their Famicom competitor, the Master System. Third-party support for the Master System was very weak compared to Nintendo’s flagship, so if they were going to capitalize on the new craze, they would need to look internally rather than rely on another developer to bring it to them. Designer Kotaro Hayashida (Alex Kidd in Miracle World) and programmer Yuji Naka (Sonic the Hedgehog) had each expressed interest in creating a role-playing game, so they were given the lead on the project. Together they built a team of about ten people and got to work.
The Master System was struggling in Japan thanks to Nintendo’s stranglehold on video game licensing within the console market, so the team wanted to bring something fresh that would make it a destination and stand out from their competition. They had a ton of freedom to make the game however they wanted, and even worked together in the same room, allowing everyone to collaborate and share ideas. There were several women on the team, too, such as lead artist Rieko Kodama and writer Chieko Aoki. Aoki had already been writing a story and script prior to development that took place in a science fiction setting and starred a female protagonist, Alis – a perfect fit for the game and a big deviation from the role-playing norm of the day. Yuji Naka pushed the Master System hardware with clever programming tricks that could render dungeons in 3D, something the Famicom wasn’t able to achieve. The game was also packed with detail and animation: it ultimately required a 4-megabit chip to hold everything, one of only four Master System titles to hold such a distinction.
In December of 1987, Phantasy Star was released to critical acclaim. It took the fledgling JRPG genre into exciting new directions, and succeeded in creating a compelling experience with the kind of scope that hadn’t yet been seen. Even compared to Dragon Quest III, an early standout that would be released just two months later, Phantasy Star feels fresh, unique, and ahead of its time. It stands as another example of a genre pioneer that would influence decades of games to come.
We All Go to Algol
Before Phantasy Star even begins, it already feels completely different from the other early RPGs I’ve played to this point. You don’t create a party and you don’t name your protagonist. When you start a new game, you’re launched immediately into an illustrated introduction depicting the death of a man named Nero at the hands of robot cops. With his dying breath, he asks his sister, Alis, to take up his work and stop King Lassic before he can follow through with a nefarious plan to destroy their world. Find a man named Odin, he says; maybe the two of you can do what I could not. Alis resolves to do just that, and we are off. In just a few short scenes, Phantasy Star has established 1) the villain, 2) the stakes, 3) your motivation, and 4) your first goal.
The game begins in your home town of Camineet. Camineet and its sister city, Parolit, are the largest towns on the planet Palma. bolstered by the adjacent starport. Ask around, and you quickly learn that this is a dangerous place for a variety of reasons. For one, none other than Medusa has been spotted in a cave to the south. Ever heard of Medusa, kid? Do you know what she is? Stone-cold, that’s what. Don’t worry about her, though – the robot cops will keep you safe. After all, the town is under martial law. King Lassic’s watching out for you, no doubt. Speaking of which: be a good citizen, stay put, and don’t leave town; it’s dangerous out there.
Of course, that won’t work for Alis, and the guards are perfectly content to let you wander off to your death actually. So, after you’ve had your fill of rumors and you’ve spent all your mesetas at the local shops, it’s time to strike out and explore. You’ll need to fight to get stronger, assemble a party, and then endeavor to end King Lassic’s tyranny once and for all.
For the first half of the game, the focus is on building up your team. Each character is introduced with a cutscene similar to the introduction at the beginning of the game. Alis is strong and determined, a hybrid fighter/spellcaster and one of only two that is able to equip the legendary end-game equipment. The other is Odin, the man that Alis’s brother asked her to find; Odin is a potent warrior, but I found that he wasn’t quite as strong as Alis and lacked all of the versatility of her spellcasting. You’ll also meet Myau, an alien space-cat extraordinaire who manages to both dole out strikingly high damage numbers in combat while also providing powerful support spells. Finally, there’s Noah, a mysterious wizard who slings offensive spells that honestly tend to cost more MP than they’re worth.
All of these folks will join you over the course of your journey, and each brings enough variety and utility to feel worth their while, even if Noah is a tad weak. Finding them is your first goal, and you’ll be traipsing about for some time before you’ve collected the whole set. Once you get the band together, the four of you will journey across three planets with one goal: kill the mad King Lassic. Apparently nobody really likes that guy very much, and so most of the people you’ll meet are just pleased as punch to help.
For the most part, Phantasy Star always stays very clear about your next objective. There’s a decent degree of freedom in the game, but your goals are relatively linear, with a short period toward the end where you can tackle a handful of tasks in any order you’d like. Certain areas are gated off until you’ve found an item you need to progress, and it’s usually pretty obvious where you should be focusing your attention. There were times that I was a little stuck, or found myself wandering more than I would’ve liked, but it wasn’t too bad – the NPCs you meet are mercifully lucid and give you good hints about the world around you. I thought the translation served them well. They’ve got that classic quality of being cryptic but to the point; informative but sometimes batshit crazy; reliably enigmatic.
Touring Motavia on Five Mesetas a Day
One of the things that really stood out to me about Phantasy Star is how immersive the game is. The perspective shifts constantly from an overhead “exploration” view on the overworld, to a first-person “investigation” view when interacting or spelunking. Any time you’re talking to a character, fighting a monster, visiting a shop, or just doing some party upkeep, the camera shifts down to ground level, offering you a close-up view of your surroundings. This is actually used to really great effect as every different locale is conveyed with a considerable amount of detail, showcasing overworld terrain and city architecture. Small towns feature muddy streets, people in rags, hollowed-out buildings. Larger cities are white and pristine with their domed domiciles and palatial accommodations. Lava fields bubble and roil at your feet. The tide rolls in and out as you battle on the beach. Every planet, place, and terrain has its own look and feel, from the lakes and trees of Palma to the sandy barrens of Motavia to the peaceful, frozen forests of Dezoris.
The planet-hopping is a cool gimmick, too. As mentioned above, you’ll spend your time on one of three planets: temperate Palma, arid Motavia, or arctic Dezoris. Each world manages to have its own distinct geography, something especially impressive in a humble 8-bit game. Palma is mostly forests and rivers, with some mountain ranges to separate a few key locations. Motavia is a desert planet, and its sun-bleached dunes are pockmarked by Ant Lions, massive arachnids whose nests impede your progress without a vehicle to protect you. Dezoris is a maze of mountains and caves, with precious few civilizations living far below the icy tundras of the surface. Here you’ll meet the Dezorians, a wily reptilian race whose knack for bending the truth will keep you on your toes.
The entire setting of the game exudes this evocative fantasy-future style that I really, really dig. It’s clearly going for “Star Wars but D&D,” pitting you against skeletons and dragons and giant spiders just as often as robed highwaymen and mutants and robots. There are guns that give you some versatility in combat, but your primary damage dealers use lightsabers and battle axes. Crystal cities and space dogfights wouldn’t be any more out of place here than would Dracula himself, or a bunch of ruffians at a tavern.
The modes of transportation you’ll find are all pretty unique, too. Lob a landlocked party into a roomful of RPGs and you’re bound to send them crashing through a boat, or a horse, or an airship. Not in Phantasy Star. Here, you’ll free an imprisoned genius and convince him to build a spaceship. Later, you’ll scour some ruins for a hovercraft to cross water, but not before you’ve bought a tank from a pawn shop. There’s even a special drilling machine straight out of Dr. Wily’s laboratory that you’ll need to pilot to plow through soft ice and uncover secret areas. At the end of the day, these vehicles all serve the same means as their contemporaries – get around faster – but they’re just so creative in Phantasy Star! It all suits the world well and continues to establish that sense of place that stayed with me long after I finished the game.
Fighting for Freedom
Combat is exactly what you’d expect it to be: a turn-based affair pitting your team of warriors against a gaggle of bad guys, wherein you’ll choose your actions from a menu and then see how they all shake out. Phantasy Star adopts the standard first-person approach, dipping again into that ground-level point-of-view and sticking enemies right atop its detailed landscapes. I use the term “enemies” loosely, though: you only ever encounter groups of the same enemy, and they’re always represented by a single depiction on your screen. This is a sharp contrast to Yuji Horii’s philosophy when designing the encounters of Dragon Quest II, wherein he felt that you should be able to see each monster that you’re facing.
The monster designs themselves are awesome – there’s a great mixture of different influences across a wide variety of enemies, and each has an animated attack action (or multiple, if they have more than one attack). The illustrations are huge and detailed, and some, like the Zombie, really pour on the retro-graphic nightmare fuel that would’ve made me pull the plug on my console as a kid and never touch the game again. When combined with the occasional animated backdrop, such as on a beach or in a magma field, battles really turn into these dynamic and eye-popping scenes. Again, the immersion is palpable. Phantasy Star always finds a way to draw you in.
Unfortunately, the monotony of battles, and the fact that you do, indeed, only ever see one monster on your screen, means that it can be pretty easy to feel detached from the combat. This is especially true of later battles against six or more enemies – each round is a slog as you watch your party members and the monsters repeat their attacks over and over and over again, with some animations dragging out longer than others. Each enemy’s HP is lined up in the top right corner of the screen, and I found myself just staring in that corner while tapping the A button to advance combat dialogues as fast as I could. There’s also never really any rhyme or reason as to which monster your crew attacks, which all too often results in the weakest enemy surviving to attack you again while your allies dump their efforts into the foes with full health.
Phantasy Star can be a stubbornly difficult game, due in equal parts to its old school sensibilities and technical limitations. As I’ve experienced with the early Dragon Quest titles, this game does not give a shit about you. Early battles are VERY tough, and enemies within a stone’s throw of the starting town can eat you alive. The encounters scale up as you add party members, too, keeping you on your toes as you build up your team. It’s very easy to find yourself deep in a dungeon with dwindling resources, overwhelmed by the gauntlet of ghouls between you and the daylight. I thought DQ was a bastard for taking half your gold and dumping you back at a nearby castle when you die; in Phantasy Star, death is a flat-out game over, thanks for playing, and hey, I hope you saved recently, champ.
That’s all just a product of the design philosophy of its day, though. I don’t mean to sound too down on Phantasy Star. Combat isn’t bad, it’s just a bit rote. Spells do give you some interesting decisions to make aside from mashing “attack,” and in a curious twist, you also get the choice of talking to your foes, with two later spells that give you even stronger communication options. You obviously can’t just chat it up with any monster, but there are a fair few intelligent enemies out there that will reward you with a clue or some encouragement. You don’t get experience or gold when talking to them, but combat does end immediately, making this a particularly useful strategy against some later baddies that you just don’t feel like hassling yourself to fight.
There is only one truly unforgivable aspect to Phantasy Star: it commits the cardinal sin of game design by not accounting for certain instances where you can get irrevocably stuck. That means that it’s fully possible to lose a key item or trap yourself in a dead end, overwrite your save, and have to start all over from the beginning. The online manual in the Sega Ages version is very clear about this at least, detailing exactly which scenarios will cause the game to be unwinnable, and none of them are too hard to avoid. Some of these feel like small design oversights, but there is at least one room in the game that can actually trap you with no means of escape unless you happened to find an optional item early on. That’s just bullshit, and it shouldn’t happen.
Dungeons are the bread and butter of any good role-playing game, and here, they bear a strong resemblance to their Western cousins: first-person labyrinths fraught with traps, monsters, and danger. Many of these caves and complexes are twisting, winding, multilevel affairs, surprisingly complicated and dense. You’ll find treasure chests (sometimes trapped), pitfalls, prisoners, hermits, shopkeepers, boss monsters, dead ends, circular passageways, secret walls, and plenty of combat. There are several on each planet, and each is either home to an important person, an item you’ll need, or access to another part of the map.
Overall, these dungeons are actually pretty enjoyable to navigate – unless, that is, you’re playing the original version of Phantasy Star, and if you are… good luck. This is the old testament of RPGs, where you don’t just need to keep notes, but also draw maps. I’m not kidding when I call them “labyrinths.” While technically impressive and certainly dense, they’re also featureless and smooth, with almost nothing in the way of landmarks to track your progress. Sprinkle in random encounters with enemies and pitfalls, and you’re sure to lose your place unless you’re keeping a steady record with pen and paper. Thankfully, there IS an item that lets you escape dungeons instantly, which I’d imagine is absolutely crucial if you’re going at this with the original game. (Or, you know, if you get stuck in the aforementioned dead end.)
One for the Ages
Luckily, there’s a better way to play these days, and its name is Sega Ages: Phantasy Star. I can confidently say that this 2018 re-release is the pinnacle of how classic games should be treated when they’re reissued. Sega Ages offers a number of quality-of-life improvements, each totally optional, to make your travels across the Algol system safer and more intuitive.
There are so many incredible improvements to the base game that it’s hard to decide where to start. The most impactful update is probably Ages Mode, which reduces the encounter rate but quadruples the spoils – making for a smoother game with far less grind. You can even bop back and forth between Ages and Original Modes using the same save file to test each cadence and see which you prefer. Fights come fast and furious in Original Mode, slowing your progress and offering little in the way of experience and gold. Ages Mode, on the other hand, has a much better balance, with fewer fights that yield far more cash. It’s a delicate tightrope to walk and I’m not sure that Ages Mode gets it quite right, as it feels overly generous at times, but I do think it’s the superior way to play the game. I played for several hours in Original Mode because I wanted to get the full experience, but once I decided to commit to Ages Mode, I enjoyed myself far more.
Arguably more important, though, is the overlay, which not only gives you a HUD that shows your party’s HP/MP, but also an automap that fills itself out as you explore each dungeon. For my money, this automap was all the difference between “impenetrably stodgy RPG relic” and “playable genre classic.” It takes so much unnecessary struggle out of the experience that it’s a wonder nobody ever lost their mind WITHOUT an automap. Much like Ages Mode, this feels slightly unfair at times, because the map will show you an impending trap floor or a hidden door and these tricks were obviously meant to be discovered through trial and error. But, then again, getting hopelessly lost without warning is rarely fun and usually just bad game design, so I chalk this up as more of a correction than a cheat.
There are other small quality of life changes, too. The pause menu acts as a complete reference guide for all items, weapons, and armor, taking all of the guesswork out of equipment upgrades and providing some much-needed context in lieu of in-game item descriptions. A “monster guide” is accessible from the main menu which catalogs the bestiary you’ve discovered so far and provides some interesting flavor and useful info about each enemy. There’s even a “fast movement” option that you can toggle on which speeds up overworld traversal.
Best of all, you can mix and match these improvements as you see fit. Lean on them all for a painless experience, or play the game as it was intended with the original difficulty and no overlays. Hell, it even includes the requisite screen filters and the option to play with the Master System FM chip for enhanced audio (which honestly improves an already great soundtrack). All things considered, this is a stellar modernization and a great way to soften an otherwise brutal adventure.
…And We Got Older
There’s been a trend for the past few years, most notably from Square Enix, to re-release classic RPGs with modern tools that speed up the game, or make it easier, or otherwise just reduce the sting of monotonous, grindy combat. I think it’s very interesting to see how our priorities have shifted over time. The expectations of the 8-bit era were longevity by way of challenge, a holdover from the coin-op arcade games that made their money by blending addictive, flashy gameplay with brutal difficulty. That has shifted as we’ve learned more about game design and tightened up the experiences accordingly, yet we continue to soften: even Final Fantasy XII, released in 2006, was improved by the 2x and 4x speed settings in its most recent release, The Zodiac Age. Why is that? Does that speak to a growing impatience among players, or a need for instant gratification in modern games? Is it an improvement because it cuts out the bullshit and lets us focus on the parts we care most about? Is it because we are revisiting these games for the second, third, or tenth times, and we just want to fast forward to the parts we remember? Maybe we’ve just learned to make moment-to-moment gameplay more meaningful and exciting, and we’re compensating for those strides by rebalancing the old titles to simulate that effect?
Whatever the reason, it fascinates me, and actually even excites me from an accessibility standpoint. I love it when a game challenges me, as long as the overall experience benefits from that challenge. I’m a huge fan of the Souls series for that reason: it (usually) uses difficulty to teach and sharpen rather than to frustrate. It has an unflinching approach to its core values that I respect. I, personally, would not change it. But what if I could soften it, just enough, so that somebody who isn’t normally into that difficulty threshold could learn to appreciate it as well? What if I could give them a second chance at those souls they just lost, or a stronger weapon to tackle that boss they’re stuck on, or a compass to point them to the nearest bonfire? If they had a feature that could make the game more playable for them and ultimately bring them to enjoy the same sense of accomplishment that I get from overcoming insurmountable odds, while still maintaining the core experience for me should I want it, isn’t that a win for everybody?
Several years ago, my wife and I played Ultima Underworld together for the first time. I controlled the game while she kept pages of notes. We still have those notes somewhere, and every time we come across that notebook, we smile and talk about how much fun it was to go through it together. I think the same thing when I come across my notes for Riven from when I was in high school: there’s such a tactile satisfaction to solving these games by bringing observations from the game into the real world and writing them down on paper. As I played Phantasy Star, I cruised through each labyrinth, observing the layout of the map and revealing one spiralling corridor after another, guessing at where paths will converge and seeing the boundaries of the playing field as I filled in each floor. I almost felt compelled to bring out the graph paper and pencil instead, turn off the automap, and crawl through those dungeons like it’s 1988. No doubt would I get a similar sense of satisfaction in keeping my own journal, coming up with my own names for each region, and referencing a stack of papers covered in mad scrawls about the gemstones of Casba and the polymaterial in Abion and some weirdo who sells cakes in a cave.
Then I think about the dark side of that process. Meticulously mapping out each individual tile of a dungeon. Collecting my bearings after falling into a pit trap. Puttering through menus and consulting a compass to make sense of which direction I’m facing in one of a thousand blank, brick hallways. Having to press against each wall in search of hidden passages based on a vague lead by a town resident. These challenges may have been a part of the original game, but the game doesn’t benefit from those challenges. They are the result of technical limitations, interface constraints, and the growing pains of a new genre in a fresh medium.
Just as a high encounter rate and artificial difficulty extends the playtime of a game, so does wanderlust and maze-trekking. By rebalancing the combat and adding quality-of-life features like the automap, Phantasy Star doesn’t just become easier – it becomes approachable. I still get to experience the terrifying retro nightmare-fuel monsters, labyrinthine dungeons, futuristic settlements, and clunky but charming turn-based combat, but I can do it without all the baggage of a bygone era. The Sega Ages release lets me see what Phantasy Star is all about without needing to recalibrate my brain to another time, and it does it without compromising the original experience for those who want it. I’d say that’s a resounding victory.
I loved my time with Phantasy Star. After bingeing on Dragon Quest over the past few months, seeing another team’s efforts was a pleasant contrast. It also helped that my wife got invested in it with me, and it was fun to have her help in tackling some of the puzzles and comparing our thoughts. We both got into it, to the point where I didn’t want to play it without her – it’s pretty cool that we were that engaged in a retro single-player RPG.
The series has always existed on my periphery, but I guess that, since I never had a Sega console as a child, I never really paid much attention to it. When I think of 8- and 16-bit RPGs, I think of Nintendo heavy hitters like Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, Super Mario RPG, Lufia, and of course, Dragon Quest, but nothing from a Sega console really comes to mind. In fact, I just looked up a list of great Genesis RPGs, and outside of Phantasy Star, I haven’t heard of any of them. That’s… kind of a shame, and it makes me want to put some effort into familiarizing myself with the likes of Beyond Oasis and Shining Force, just to see what I missed. That’s not even to speak of Phantasy Star’s own lineage: there were three sequels on the Genesis, and Phantasy Star IV in particular is said to be one of the finest 16-bit RPGs around.
All of this is to say that I came in cold and was just blindsided by how good the first game in the series is. If you’re like me and you’ve overlooked this series but enjoy classic console RPGs, then I can’t recommend Sega Ages: Phantasy Star enough. The new features serve it well, highlighting its strengths while hiding its flaws, modernizing the game while still maintaining its heart, and every one of them can be turned off if you want to experience it as it was in 1987. Sure, not everything has aged well, and there are still some frustrating artifacts in the game, but there was more than enough cool stuff here to hold my interest for the 15-20 hours I spent with it. Phantasy Star is absolutely worth your time, and I can only hope that I’ll encounter Alis and company again at some point in the future.
References & further reading
Shmuplations, “Phantasy Star 1993 Developer Interview”
Retronauts, “Akitoshi Kawazu on the origins of SaGa’s insanity” by Jeremy Parish
Wikipedia, “Phantasy Star”