The music of Phantasy Star IV
The Sega Genesis' best role-playing game also has a wonderful soundtrack, steeped in sounds that only its home system could produce.
This column is “The music of,” in which I’ll go into detail on the soundtrack or a piece of music from a video game. Previous entries in the series can be found through this link.
The Sega Genesis produced some weird sounds over the years. Weird does not necessarily mean bad, mind you, but that system existed at a time when the sound quality — and the sounds themselves — varied significantly from console to console. That might seem a little odd today, when things are a bit more streamlined in this regard. I’m sure a real audio expert can tell you exactly what the difference between the sound capabilities of Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft systems are each generation, but you don’t need any training or prior knowledge to understand that the Genesis, Super Nintendo, and Turbografx-16 all sounded vastly different from each other thanks to vastly different audio innards in those consoles.
Hell, back in the day, regional differences in consoles could mean different sounds, too. The NES and Famicom sound different, as the Famicom had superior sound capabilities that allowed for additional instrumentation and sounds the NES was not capable of producing — have you ever heard The Legend of Zelda’s title screen music from the Famicom Disk System version of the game? Sega’s Master System sounds different than the Japanese Mark III console, even though they played the same games, thanks to the presence of an FM sound unit in the latter. And then you get changes like those brought on the CD add-ons, like with the Turbografx-CD that allowed for Red Book audio tracks in games. That’s how games like Ys III can sound so enormously different depending on whether you’re playing the SNES version or the TG-CD one, even though it’s the same songs.
In the hands of developers who weren’t very familiar with the tech they were using, you could get some poor conversions of arcade games, sound-wise, to the various consoles. If you’ve ever thought that sometimes the Genesis produces sounds that seem… off? at too high of a volume, that’s just a thing that happened with the sound chip used in the system. The uniqueness of the Sega Genesis’ sound, though, was also a benefit when someone who knew what they were doing was utilizing it. You know a Genesis game when you hear it, and when the soundtracks were good, they were great.
One such soundtrack belongs to Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millenium, a Japanese role-playing game developed and published by Sega. Izuho Numata was the composer behind Phantasy Star IV, and she got her start with Sega converting arcade games to the Master System and Game Gear, before moving on to composing brand new soundtracks herself. Kotaku ran an interview with Numata earlier in 2021, and it’s full of information on just why Phantasy Star IV’s music works so well to enhance both the gameplay and the story. We’ll get to that, but I brought it up now mostly to just say that Phantasy Star IV had someone who knew what they were doing with the Genesis sound hardware composing the game’s tracks, and it shows.
Phantasy Star IV, like its predecessors and spinoff successors, is a blend of fantasy and sci-fi. You will equip armor and swords and attack with magic, but there are also guns, and the “aliens” are the humans, considering the Algol solar system’s history. There are fantastical creatures, there are robots, there is magic, there is technology. You need to find magic potions, you need to unearth ancient technological marvels. You will take on rogue AI systems, you will battle incomprehensibly ancient evil that predates time itself. The music, too, is a blend of sounds, just like the world Phantasy Star takes place in. There are songs that convey the biological nature of certain areas and enemies. There are songs with a much more cybernetic feel to them: there are ones that blend the two together into one, and the sound of the Genesis itself allowed this blending to occur in a way that might not have worked as well on other systems.
Many JRPGs (and games in general) begin with a laid back or stripped down title screen that gently guides you into what’s to come. Not Phantasy Star IV, though: this one hits hard and fast, showing off the kind of bass lines the Genesis was known for as well as plenty of futuristic synth, and you hear this music while staring at a view of two planets from space.
This aggressiveness carries over into the game’s primary battle theme, as well. It’s so vital to nail the battle theme for a JRPG, considering how much time you’re going to spend in battle, and Phantasy Star IV goes full-throttle with theirs so that the turn-based affair feels a little hectic and fast-paced. It fits well with the animations and menu selections, though, and helps keep battle from ever feeling like a slog, in large part thanks to the incessant drum work, which is a highlight throughout the soundtrack, really.
If you’re in a fight that lasts a particularly long time, because Phantasy Star games are ones where your end-game hit points are lower than many JRPGs starting health totals, the somewhat hectic nature of the music hits you in a different way, because you start to feel like you’re in trouble. The music does a great job of reflecting that feeling, to, as the song moves along with slightly more worrisome and haunting changes to the tune before looping back to the beginning.
Phantasy Star IV’s music isn’t just good when it’s fast-paced and driving, though. The quieter moments are noteworthy as well. The field theme eschews either a straight fantasy or sci-fi influence, with a bit of a western — like, cowboys western, not regional western — flavor to them. This comparatively neutral theme is great on its own, but that it is disconnected from the more futuristic sounds of other portions of the game help drive home just how alien the advanced technological past of the Algol Solar System is.
You see, the characters you are controlling, with a few exceptions, know less about the history of the place they live than you do, if you are familiar with previous Phantasy Star games at all. They don’t know about the highly advanced artificial intelligences that control the environmental systems of the planet. They do not know about the ancient ruins hidden by geological changes: ancient ruins full of robots, full of technology, full of secrets of the solar system’s past. They do not know that there are still, to this somewhat dystopian, attempting-to-rebuild day, things like spaceships and hovercrafts and landrovers still exist, and are usable, thanks to their being tended to by androids that only seem young in comparison to the space stations and environmental systems they maintain.
So, it is a shock to the party when they discover a cave full of mechanical creatures, a cave that leads to a laboratory that has escalators and flashing lights and computer monitors and more that boggles their very fantasy-based minds. And that shock is driven home by the change in music from the kind of western-influenced theme you hear on the field to that of this piece of the past.
Again, the drums. The futuristic synth bits obviously make this song work, but the very electronic-sounding drums really tie the whole thing together. And then there is, of course, the synthesizer solo with those same drums in the back. What a fantastic little song, one that, even more so than just seeing the laboratory, helps the player realize that you are not just playing a fantasy RPG.
As previously mentioned, one of the things that makes Phantasy Star IV’s soundtrack work so well is how tied together the music is to the game’s narrative. There is the example above with the transition from what seems like a fantasy JRPG into one that is clearly sci-fi influenced, but more generally, I’m talking about the way music is used during the game’s cutscenes. Phantasy Star IV doesn’t have animated cutscenes like 32-bit RPGs from the Playstation era did, but the 16-bit Genesis was still capable of producing some wonderfully rendered static, storyboard-style art. This kind of portraiture allowed for a level of connection with the characters that just wasn’t as possible with competing Final Fantasy games from the same time period, as you could see the pain or love or anger in the face of these characters for yourself, without having to necessarily imagine, all on your own, the tone and feeling the characters were using with their words. Games aren’t the same as books, you know: books will describe what a character is saying and how they’re saying it. Older video games often just had to hope you were reading things correctly, and given how poor some localization efforts went in translating those feelings, it’s safe to say that this hope often went unrealized.
Not Phantasy Star IV, though. Having everything pop up comic book/manga style, with musical accompaniment, made it so easy to connect with these characters and their struggles. It made the sacrifice of Alys feel more real; it made her subsequent passing and the mourning of her by her comrades that much more painful. This video flies through the text a little too quickly for my taste, but you get the idea of how the music and “cutscenes” work together in a way that other games from the same time just couldn’t pull off. It’s really a beautiful combination, and why this in-game death has stuck with me for so long when it was not the first nor the last experienced in a JRPG.
The music fits so well, despite the kind of schedule games used to be developed on, because Numata was able to work with the storyboards for these cutscenes well before the graphics for the game were completed. This allowed composition to begin in earnest and be connected to what was going to happen on-screen at the time the music would be deployed. It’s the kind of thing that sounds obvious now, in 2021, but 25-plus years ago? Phantasy Star IV was the first game where Numata was even allowed to work on the same floor as the rest of the development team, and other games weren’t using storyboards for the same purposes as Phantasy Star IV, either, so this was all relatively uncharted territory at the time.
Numata also fantastically succeeded with the game’s end cutscene, which, game from the mid-90s or not, I’m not going to embed in here. Play it and find out for yourself! But here she is from that Kotaku interview on how she put that segment together, and I can confirm that it absolutely does work in the way it was intended, with the music a driving force behind it all, even in the localized version of the game where the timing might have been ever so slightly different just because that’s how these things work:
“I looked at the storyboards over and over again, imagined the scenes, and composed,” she said. “Unlike battle sequences and walking on the overworld, the script is important in drama sequences, so I composed trying not to make my scores too dramatic. Only with the ending sequence did I wait for the graphics to be completed before I composed. This is because I had to adjust the timing of the graphics and the score to be in unison with each other. When the graphics were completed, I measured the timing of every scene and wrote them on paper. I wrote down the dialogue and explanations of each scene. I started the work by making a long, long time sheet. I thought it would be very hard to compose scores for that long ending sequence with perfect timing. To my pleasant surprise, I had little trouble. I knew the players of Phantasy Star IV must have spent a long time to reach the ending, so I composed the score to be peaceful and happy. Though saying goodbye to the characters within the game must be sad, I wanted the players to have bright feelings as the saga came to an end.”
Even if Numata’s goal was to not make the music in scripted sequences “too dramatic,” dramatic feelings are still there to be found. The pain and anger you and your characters feel over the death of Alys at the hands of Zio helps improve Zio’s own battle theme, too. You are now well-aware of how dangerous he is, how vital this fight is, and the cost of failure, both on a macro level and on a personal one. It makes the harrowing, bass-filled theme of Zio work just that much better, especially if you are at all familiar with the dark god he references in his pre-fight speech.
The fight feels as epic as it should, because the theme is spot-on, but the narrative and vital nature of the fight has also been underscored by the story telling, which was better than it would have been otherwise thanks to the music that supported it. It’s all unified into an exceptional arc, and that’s all before your party even heads to space!
Plenty of the other music in the game is great, too, be it either of the final boss themes, or the perfect blend of organic and cybernetic-themed sounds in Dark Force’s song, but the last thing I want to focus on here is in the arrangements of themes from the original Phantasy Star. Now, Phantasy Star’s songs sound different depending on whether you played the Master System version available outside of Japan, or the Mark III version of the game that was exclusive to Japan. You can debate which of those is better — the Japanese version isn’t universally better even with the presence of the FM synth chip, though, there are certainly superior tracks — but we can all agree that the Phantasy Star IV arrangements of those themes kick the most ass.
For more futuristic, sci-fi areas, “PS1 Dungeon Arrange 1” is used, as it fits in well with some of the other space-and-robots-and-sci-fi elements of Phantasy Star IV.
“PS1 Dungeon Arrange 2” is utilized in the more fantasy-based realms, like the Ladea Tower where the Psycho Wand mentioned in the gameplay video above is found, or the Air Castle, which somehow appears in orbit even though the villain living within it was destroyed back in the original Phantasy Star, and the planet it was found on was blown apart in Phantasy Star II. I… will tell you more about Phantasy Star’s love for Star Wars another time, OK? For now, just know that revisiting some of the best music the original game had to offer, in newly arranged, superior forms, works both as a treat for longtime fans of the series, as well as those who just want to hear some killer music while navigating a labyrinthian space castle.
Want to experience the music of Phantasy Star IV for yourself? Well, you can listen to the soundtrack online in full, if you want, by following any of the above embedded theme videos to the source video on YouTube, or you can play the game in any number of places. It’s part of the Sega Genesis Classics collection (as are two of its predecessors, Phantasy Star II and III) that you can buy on the digital storefront for Playstation 4 or 5, Xbox One or S/X, or the Switch. It’s also the only Phantasy Star representation on the Sega Genesis Mini console, and is in the Sonic Ultimate Genesis Collection available on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. You have all kinds of options that will get you 40-50 games for less — sometimes, significantly less — than one Phantasy Star IV cartridge for a Genesis on eBay would cost. Give it a shot sometime.
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