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Phantasy Star (Sega Master System) artwork

Phantasy Star (Sega Master System) review

"Often hailed as one of the greatest RPGs of all time I ask has Phantasy star stood the test of time or has 25 years of progress simply left this game behind."

We go back in our time machine to the mid-late 1980’s. Whilst we are putting money into Apple computer stocks we notice that Nintendo is riding high on its blockbuster success whilst Sega is having difficulty getting respect in the home console market outside of Europe and brazil. Action games and platformers roam the land and RPG’s are relegated to a minor following on home computers and experiments on consoles in Japan. Out of this video gaming landscape came one of the “big three” in my opinion of the first JRPG’s that laid the groundwork for what was to come: Phantasy Star (the others are Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy).

Developed by an internal team at Sega containing future legends Yuji Naka and Rieko Kodama (later of Sonic Team Fame) Phantasy star was released in 1987 in Japan and 1988 in the rest of the world. Phantasy star was distinguished at the time for its technical prowess: it was an astounding FOUR MEGA POWER!!!...about 512 kilobytes which at the time was amazingly huge for an 8-bit game and the still impressive 3D first person dungeons…as well as for its price, roughly 80 American dollars, in fact when the master system 2 was released the reduced price wasn’t much more than the price of the game itself.

Phantasy star is set in the Algol Star System, a solar system made up of three planets: Palma the world of green, a planet of lush fields, forests and monsters and home to the human analogue Palmans, Motavia the desert world, an arid land where rain is almost non-existent and home to the Jawa like Motavians and finally Dezolis the world of ice, a frozen wasteland inhabited by the Dezolisians, a tall green skinned race.

All is not well in the Algol system however, on Palma King Lassic: a once benevolent ruler has over the years become a complete despot; he has enforced martial law, clad himself in dark armours and hidden his castle behind a magical barrier that renders him completely invisible. In this world the 15 year old Alis Landale is watching as her brother Nero lies beaten and broken on the streets of Camineet (a city on Palma), apparently asking questions about the cruel and corrupt government gets you beaten to death by the police. In his dying words Nero tells Alis about Odin, an incredibly strong man who may be able to help, Alis takes these words to heart and vows to put a sword in King Lassic’s.

It’s a great set-up and is much darker and more mature than what you’d find in most games of the time, even more astounding is the fact that Alis Landale is the protagonist of the story, a female character whose motivation is stone cold revenge, not love, not destiny or even for the glory, but so that she can shiv King Lassic in the kidney in revenge for the death of her loved ones.

The game starts and now we grind…I’m not kidding, you see it wasn’t until the 90’s that RPGs started to refine themselves into what they are today, back in the 80’s they were fairly primitive grind fests, partially that and also because most of these games were fairly short, you begin the game at level one with the weakest sword in the game and basically no armour, if you try to leave the small strip of land outside the local (enemy free) area you will die.

Continuing your quest you will explore all three planets in Algol as well as meet three companions:
Myau the musk cat, a talking magical cat that casts some good defence magic and fights with claws.
Odin, the physical fighter, no magic but fights with axes and guns.
And finally Noah the esper, weak physically, he casts the most powerful offensive magic in the game.
Alis herself is the well rounded character, capable physically, can cast some decent defensive and offensive magic as well as being able to use tele to talk to intelligent monsters.

One common trope of RPGs of the time was the “high fantasy setting”, the medieval castle under siege with knights and wizards banding together to fight a dragon. Phantasy star distinguishes itself from these by adding In a sci-fi element, swords and sorcery are all there, however in addition to the magic and swordplay there are guns and spaceships in the game, with many shoutouts to other sci-fi franchises like star wars with the Jawa like Motavians and the stormtrooper like robotcops.

The battles in the game (where you will be spending a lot of time due to the huge random encounter rate) are performed in a first person view with one huge animated enemy on screen, this doesn’t mean that there’s only one enemy though, depending on how many characters you have you can have up to 8 enemies to fight against at once. In battle you have several options, to attack, to use magic, to use an item, to talk and to run. Talking is an interesting mechanic, some enemies are actually intelligent and will talk to you if you try to make the connection, ending the battle and sometimes giving you an important hint in the bargain. Attacking unfortunately is annoying, it’s impossibly to actually choose who to attack, for example you are fighting 3 enemies, one of them has 2HP, the other 2 have 20, you want to attack the first enemy but the game is likely to attack the other 2 instead.

Dungeons are another big draw of this game, they are labyrinths navigated in first person, some hit 8 or 10 levels deep (or tall) even better they have hidden passages and trap floors, they were a real technical achievement at the time and are difficult as hell to navigate, either find a map online or get some graph paper because it’s the only way you’ll get out the other end of the dungeon…if you even get out at all.

The story of the game is really good still but it tends not to be told very well (think this review), something that was a very common problem in old RPGs, mainly due to the fact that there was rarely enough memory in these old carts to hold the huge amounts of text that would be required to really make the storytelling work. But this game has 4 MEGA POWER…what is all the memory being used for?

The graphics. This game has some pretty amazing graphics, each of the 3 Algol planet overworlds looks different and even better everywhere on each overworld has a first person view available, for example if you access the menu or enter a battle you are switched to the first person view available for that area, coastal areas have animated beaches, forests have trees and erupting volcanoes have red bubbling lakes of lava. Enemies are also beautifully drawn, taking up much of the screen and having both idle and attack animations. Seriously considering the tech available the graphics still hold up admirably today and are a big draw of the game.

Sound is usually very good with a couple of weird sound effects here and there specifically the enemy attack sound effect that sounds a little like it’s glitching. However there are 2 sides to this story, in Japan their version of the master system had some upgrades that we never saw, specifically the FM sound module that provided (you guessed it) FM sound synthesis that many would say sounds better than the PSG chiptune music in the international versions.

At the end of it all the question is “is Phantasy Star 1 a good game” personally I would say it has a lot going for it, the sci-fi twist on a traditionally fantasy oriented genre (at the time), the incredible graphics and sprawling dungeons make the game really fun to play and Phantasy Star’s place as one of the first major JRPG’s out there (and one with a well rounded strong female protagonist no less) make it a must play, unfortunately you have to deal with the fact that the game is a product of its time: the storytelling is bare with it being quite difficult to tell where to go sometimes, the grinding is painful and the battle system- while having some good ideas- is incredibly unpolished. I would say that for a die hard RPG fan who wants to see how far we’ve come in nearly 20 years or for a fan of the other Phantasy star games the game is a no-brainer, but for other people time has simply passed this game by, for fans it’s a solid 8/10 but for anyone else it’s a 4-5/10


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Community review by maboroshi (August 11, 2013)

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