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Phantasy Star (Sega Master System) artwork

Phantasy Star (Sega Master System) review

"Venerable, yet dated."

Console RPGs have come a long way since the '80s. Despite realizing that, I am occasionally beckoned by nostalgia to return to older role-playing titles that spin minimalist yarns and tend to jack the jaws of any ill-prepared adventurers. Most who hear this call pine for Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, sadly ignoring a once-magnificent Master System piece called Phantasy Star.

"Once-magnificent?" you might ask. Yes, sadly... As you likely know, games age. I'm not only talking about visually and aurally, either. Genres evolve and developers abandon elements and tropes as they become played out, or they seek to meet new standards set by groundbreaking titles. The absence of certain modern principles in older games is usually noticeable, and perhaps unfortunately so.

If I were to say that Phantasy Star aged incredibly well, I'd be lying through my teeth. Just a quick glance at a YouTube playthrough would tell you as much, as the sound design smacks heavily of antiquated hardware. Thanks to the Master System's limited sound card, ancient, grating sound effects pop up fairly often and remind one of the Atari 2600. Basic, shrill cries emanate from your speakers during combat, as well as dull, monotone notes that stir memories of the electronic game "Simon."

However, the game's 8-bit visuals surprisingly still hold up, especially in comparison to its aforementioned contemporaries. The bestiary, for instance, displays some hellishly detailed monster, consisting of vicious dragons, snarling vampires and a variety head nods to other science fiction works (man-eating plants that resemble triffids, sea life that looks like it wandered off the set of a Roger Corman film, etc). There's even an immense octopus striking a pretentious, judgmental pose. Meanwhile, these beasts rest in front of decently rendered backgrounds rather than a plain, black backdrop. Whole mountain ranges and show fields sit behind them, reminding you the worlds that inhabit this RPG are more expansive than their non-battle sprites let on.

Though combat backgrounds appear to be immense and open, roaming segments are still fairly diminutive. However, the campaign makes up for this deficit by eschewing an obvious rail. Rather than seeking out dungeons in a set order, usually as a means to advance a "storyline," this adventure allows you to explore and conquer such areas pretty much at your leisure. Unfortunately, the goal for each stage is identical: enter, wander around until you locate a treasure chest/boss/NPC, profit. Exit stage left, repeat the process. With such a loose rail and narrative, though, the objective serves as the only factor tying a dungeon to the campaign. Your only reason for entering a specific tunnel is that it holds something for you, and many of them end up coming off as contrived as a result.

To make matters worse, you can only access certain items after speaking to particular characters. For instance, you cannot recover a much needed hovercraft until you've spoken to someone who mentions that it was left in a specific city. The same goes for some items hidden in dungeons. As an example, the dungeon found in the first town holds a necessary event item that you cannot receive when you initially explore the place. After speaking with an NPC about four towns later, you'll discover that there's a dungeon key hidden in a warehouse around that introductory burg. That's when you might think, "Well, surely it can't be the dungeon actually in the town. I explored that." As it turns out, your conversation with this man spawns a chest in that dungeon holding the key.

Thankfully, this issue seldom arises. A fair number of the game's conversation-reliant items are found outside of dungeons anyway, so you won't run afoul of many instances of delving deep into a labyrinth only to find a dead end that later holds a useful piece of equipment. That should come as a relief, since these levels are immense and quite convoluted. On top of that, they house some really tough, resource-sapping foes and terrific challenges. Needless to say, you'll have to wisely conserve money, items and magic in order to survive, not to mention occasionally grind for experience and cash to stay ahead of the curve.

At the same time, dungeon complexity is practically wasted thanks to an unbalanced risk/reward system. Most RPGs reward exploration by stuffing remote corners and hidden passageways with goodies and secrets. Rather than abiding this principle, Phantasy Star crams its corridors with an abundance of dead ends and lackluster loot. For instance, you seldom obtain more than a handful of cash from a chest. Even in later dungeons, you'll find numerous boxes that contain less than one-hundred mesetas (in-game currency), when a single random encounter at the time could net you many times more coinage. Chests with items similarly disappoint, as they tend to offer outdated equipment and unnecessary consumables. Even slain foes don't give much in the way of benefits. You might encounter powerful mages that can easily wipe out your party, but leave behind little experience. On the flip side, an ice planet's gun-toting enemies drop with little effort, but yield quite the monetary bounty. Because of this phenomenon, I wound up running from a large number of late-game encounters during my playthrough. They just weren't worth fighting.

Exploration is not as exhausting as it is in other RPGs from the same era, though, mostly because you can save anywhere. While that dulls the challenge factor, it's also great for people like myself, who don't always have hours to donate to trudging through a long dungeon, then making a lengthy pilgrimage back to an inn or a certain NPC just to save. It also helps that you have a fairly streamlined, turn-based battle system on offer, which allows you to cut through combat sequences with ease. Of course, you still need to pay attention to your characters' HP, lest your allies perish. Trust me, you don't want to pad all the way back to the nearest church and plop down a huge wad of credits to revive them. Still, random encounters thankfully are not bogged down by loads of sluggish, unnecessary text or irritating quirks and/or animations that slow battles to a crawl.

Phantasy Star is almost mediocre by today's standards. I say "almost," because the game finds true redemption in one of the genre's sadly lost concepts: it doesn't put you to sleep with a "deep," silly tale, as it would rather leave you to your devices. Ultimately, you are the one who decides where to go and what to do next. Phantasy Star is a great, rustic experience for people who aren't big on modern RPGs. Those of us who enjoy dipping into both retro and contemporary pools, though, might find that the campaign isn't what it used to be, though it can lightly entertain.


JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (February 04, 2019)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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CptRetroBlue posted February 04, 2019:

It is quite a compelling game wit ha compelling story and great gameplay mechanics like the 3D dungeons and the addition of flying to three different planets with equally different atmospheres. My nitpick would be that even in the remake, not much had changed besides the graphical update. The dungeons while innovative, are quite plain looking and you would go on drawing maps just to make it through. If there would be yet another remake on the series I would like if it had a choice to make it into a top down view instead, but this is just wishful fulfillment from my part.
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hastypixels posted February 04, 2019:

I had a very good friend who swore by the Phantasy Star series - the third and fourth entries to the series, specifically - but when I introduced him to Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest, was enthralled. Admittedly the strangely named skills, magic and abilities threw me for a loop.

Of course at the time he owned a Sega Genesis and I the Super Nintendo, so we weren't about to trade games. I do recall rather liking the artistic style of the series, though it didn't have the story to draw me in... just as you mention. I come from the opposite end of that spectrum: Story first, mechanics second.

A clear, concise read as always, Joe. Thank you.
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LeVar_Ravel posted February 06, 2019:

A very well-written review, Joe!

I liked your overview of how games get outdated. I can appreciate old graphics and sound, but when the game design itself is too "rustic" as you put it, for me that's when a retro game loses interest.

That's why I didn't get far with Phantasy Star 2 and 3, when I tried them years after they came out. (And those were made *after* the one you just reviewed, and for a superior system!)
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JoeTheDestroyer posted February 12, 2019:

I wounldn't mind a remake of this game, but maybe with improved balancing. They don't need to make it easier, necessarily, but make some of the tougher battles worth fighting. I do like the dungeon designs, so hopefully they keep those, if spirit if nothing else.

I could go either way with story or mechanics. The earliest RPGs tend not to have much in regards to story, so I mainly hope that the non-narrative aspects of their campaigns click. Unfortunately, it's difficult to find a much older RPG that still completely holds up.

I tried to play Phantasy Star 2 and rage quit. I'll probably pick it back up eventually, because so many people swear by it. I did play the fourth entry and enjoyed that one quite a bit, though.

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