Retro Spotlight: Phantasy Star

The original Phantasy Star is very much an old-school JRPG even in its more updated forms, but it remains a piece of genre history worth experiencing.

This column is “Retro spotlight,” which exists mostly so I can write about whatever game I feel like even if it doesn’t fit into one of the other topics you find in this newsletter. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.

It might be difficult to appreciate now, 34 years after its original release, but the original Phantasy Star was a highly ambitious Japanese role-playing game that helped direct and evolve the genre in its early days. In Japan, it released in the same month as the inaugural Final Fantasy, and its North American release came two years before Squaresoft brought the first FF there, and arrived before even the North American release of the original Dragon Quest, originally known as Dragon Warrior.

Of course, Phantasy Star released on the Sega Master System, which didn’t have much household name value in either North America or Japan, so it didn’t explode in popularity like Final Fantasy did, despite it being a game that holds up much better to this day. Final Fantasy (and Dragon Quest/Warrior) both released on the Famicom and NES consoles, which dominated the day, and helped lead to the kind of success that would eventually see the publishers responsible for those games merge into a mega publisher. While Phantasy Star, like, well, every JRPG for a while there, was clearly influenced by Dragon Quest in the way its battles work, it branched off into kind of its own ideas about what a JRPG should be, in the same way the work of Square’s Hironobu Sakaguchi did with Final Fantasy.

It didn’t take long for Phantasy Star to separate itself from its peers, either: one of the first things you see in the game is a series of Stormtrooper-looking guards threatening the death of the protagonist, Alis, if she so much as exits the residential area. I don’t know which of those items your eyes were drawn to the most in the previous sentence, whether it was “Stormtrooper-looking” or “she,” but the emphasis on a blend of science fiction and fantasy, along with a woman as the protagonist of what was already a traditionally male-focused genre, both helped Phantasy Star to stand out. The game takes place on three different planets in the Algo solar system — Palma, Motavia, and Dezolis — and your party is made up of Alis, an ax-and-gun-toting muscled dude named Odin, a talking space cat named Myau with sharp claws and healing magic, and the mage Noah, who is named Lutz in the Japanese release and had their name regrettably changed for the North America edition of Phantasy Star. Regrettably, because Lutz, to a degree, ends up playing a role in future Phantasy Star titles, so the whole “Noah” thing isn’t helpful.

The game is clearly in love with Star Wars, between the look of those enemy guards and its emphasis on rebelling to kill a tyrant, as well as with your encounters with native tribes on the desert planet. A key difference between Phantasy Star and original trilogy Star Wars, though, is that these “sand people” are given space to explain that they don’t like colonizers coming to their planet and acting like they own it, while you are given space to go “oh, sorry, I’m just here to kill the king of space, who sucks.” Motavia’s indigenous inhabitants, who you will find are sorry they interrupted your important business of killing Lassic, are then fine with you flying to their planet and checking out their caves. You don’t have to use the “Talk” function in battle, but it’s worth doing, so you can avoid scrapping with locals who are used to Palmans (humans native to the planet Palma) being colonizing jerks.

As for Alis, she was a surprising addition to a video game cast at this time, as games were very much in a damsel-in-distress phase. The team behind Phantasy Star wanted to put a woman in a more prominent, leading role, however, so they did! No one in the game is ever commenting about how Alis is a woman and that it’s surprising to see a woman leading this party of would-be heroes: it’s just a naturally accepted thing that happens in this game’s universe, and they didn’t even make her wear a pixelated bikini or anything to “justify” having a woman at the center of things, either. Her rage and purpose are justified before you even take control of the character, and she already knows how to wield a sword. The rest is up to you.

One of my favorite things about the original Phantasy Star is how much everyone hates the king of space, Lassic (known as Lashiec in a later game — there are a lot of localization updates between Phantasy Star and Phantasy Star IV). The game begins with a cutscene — oh yeah, this 1988 JRPG had static cutscenes with detailed character art, not just sprites with text boxes, and it also has enemy battle animations and some killer large-scale enemy art, too — where Alis has discovered her brother has been murdered by the government for sticking his nose in their business. Alis essentially stands up and goes, “I am going to kill the president of space now,” and almost everyone she meets in her journey from that point forward is like, “Oh, I’ve heard about you, you must be the people planning to kill the space president. I hate that guy, good luck!” Occasionally, someone will even say, “Hey, I heard this other guy also wants to kill the king of space, maybe you two should meet up and kill him together!” Whether it’s about someone else who wants to put an ax in his head or simply some kind of item you should retrieve, talking to NPCs is how you’re going to find out what you’re supposed to do next in Phantasy Star.

That’s pretty typical of the time, but what was not typical is that you were traveling between three planets to do it. Some allies and items and obstacles and bosses can only be found on the other planets, not the one you start on, so you’ll have to travel there. An early segment of the game has you figuring out how to get a passport so you can board a commercial flight to another planet, to retrieve an item you need to be able to recruit another ally, and later on, when your passport is revoked because the government realizes you are going to be trouble, you have to figure out a way to get your own spaceship so you can move freely between planets without being hassled by the man. You’ll have to do a lot of talking to NPCs and checking out hidden paths and shops in order to find everything you need to be doing.

Phantasy Star might have borrowed the Stormtrooper look so well that Star Wars went back and borrowed the Phantasy Star look for their clone armies in the second trilogy.

While the bulk of your movement is going to be done in towns and an overworld where you direct your party of 8-bit sprites around, dungeons are another story entirely. Dungeons are traversed in a first-person view: they’re scrolling and rotating pseudo-3D spaces, often designed as labyrinths, where you’ll bump into enemies, find hidden NPCs, and obtain key items that will help you progress in your quest to rid the solar system of Lassic. Now, this is either the kind of thing that is going to make you love Phantasy Star, or despise it. This released at a time when it was kind of expected that if you needed a map, that you’d draw your own on graph paper. And as said, these dungeons were labyrinths, mazes meant to test you and to trap you inside before you could find your goal or the exit. They look great, though, and fans of retro-style RPGs are sure to take a liking to a system that, when combined with the Dragon Quest-inspired battle mechanics, kind of married western and Japanese RPGs together into one package. One that also blended overt sci-fi and fantasy elements together before that itself became a normal thing for video games to be doing.

You’re going to do a whole lot of turn-based fighting in random encounters, whether you’re in the overworld or in a dungeon, but luckily, modern releases of Phantasy Star have done away with some of the more extreme 1988 features without compromising or changing the core of the game in any way. The Sega Ages series has existed for decades now, but in recent years, has been a wonderful way for Sega to update and re-release classic titles with some modern conveniences attached to them. Phantasy Star has its own Sega Ages release on the Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4, and it made some subtle tweaks and quality of life updates that make it playable even for those with more of an aversion to old-school RPGs than myself.

For one, the extra real estate on the screen that you get from playing a game designed for a 4:3 resolution on a 16:9 television is used to draw maps of the dungeons as you go through them. You don’t need to remember exactly where you are within the dungeon’s walls, or look online to see that you need to go left at the first fork, right at the next fork, straight past the next three forks, then left, left, left, right in order to get to the treasure chest that is on the opposite side of the dungeon from your destination. Now you can see the dungeon’s dimensions mapped out for you automatically as you travel, letting you more easily figure out where it is you’re going and where you’ve already been.

An example of the look of the dungeons you’ll be crawling, as well as the addition of the map in the Sega Ages version of Phantasy Star.

The Sega Ages release also speeds up the game a bit, both by letting you increase your walking speed and, even more effectively, by creating an “Ages Mode” that modifies the gameplay slightly. All it does is lower the enemy encounter rate while increasing how much experience and gold you receive from the enemies you do fight: it lets you reduce the amount of time you’ll spend stuck in turn-based random encounters, without removing the core of the gameplay itself, which is, you know, turn-based random encounters.

The Sega Ages release also lets you choose to listen to the Japan-only FM Synth version of the Phantasy Star soundtrack. I’ll admit that not every FM Synth song is better than what the North American variant was able to produce, but it’s still wild to hear that video games could sound the way Phantasy Star did all the way back in 1987. Listen to this battle theme, with all the more sci-fi-sounding elements in it, for instance, and compare it in your head with what you know Final Fantasy sounded like at the same time:

Just a massive difference, and another of the elements that helped Phantasy Star stand out and head in its own direction. The series doesn’t exist anymore, at least not in the traditional sense: there would be four Phantasy Star games before the switch to Phantasy Star Online, but it has only gone harder in the sci-fi direction since it first launched.

I wouldn’t be doing my job here if I didn’t mention that Phantasy Star, even in its visually lessened North American form, has one of the best (if not the best) Master System boxes out there. I have described Master System box art as “the most inherently funny box art,” as they basically look like someone described elements of the game contained within to an artist who had 30 seconds to submit their interpretation of that description, to the point that the in-game art often far outstrips the promotional art! Phantasy Star’s box, however, looks like something the artists were actually given time to work on:

Is it perfect? No, the Japanese version is better, of course, but the gap between the North American box and the Japanese box is at its narrowest when you’re talking the original Phantasy Star, at least:

Phantasy Star is by no means the standout of the entire four-game series, but it’s also sufficiently different enough from its successors that it’s worth playing even today. The Sega Ages version of the game does away with some of the tedium that has been introduced to the concept of turn-based random encounters and drawing your own maps — hell, even Phantasy Star II came with maps in the box, so this isn’t a newly learned lesson for Sega — but even without that, the first adventure in the Algo system is still a worthy one. You just, and I cannot stress this enough, need to be into the idea of what JRPGs were like back when Phantasy Star released. It’s more advanced and intriguing in a lot of ways than your typical JRPG of the time, but it’s still, at its core, a JRPG from 1987. And yet, the president of space does need to die, so you should get on that. Take care of the ancient, malevolent force guiding his actions, too, while you’re at it, or else the Dark Forces are going to just start piling up around here.

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