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Phantasy Star (Sega Master System) artwork

Phantasy Star (Sega Master System) review

"Back in the day, Phantasy Star was simply amazing. This shining Star, one of the rare role-playing games for the Sega Master System, dazzled players with gorgeous graphics, monster animations and a huge quest that took brave heroine Alis and her three companions to three separate worlds in pursuit of the evilly insane Lassic. "

Back in the day, Phantasy Star was simply amazing. This shining Star, one of the rare role-playing games for the Sega Master System, dazzled players with gorgeous graphics, monster animations and a huge quest that took brave heroine Alis and her three companions to three separate worlds in pursuit of the evilly insane Lassic.

Today, Phantasy Star is.....there. While one can easily recognize that this is a gorgeous game (as good as it gets for the Master System), it is equally easy to recognize that it suffers from virtually every flaw inherent in most (if not all) of the classic RPGs. You see, an argument could be made that role-playing games have made the most dramatic alteration over the years of any class of game. The slow-paced, level-building days of yore have been replaced by a more fast-paced style that whips you from place to place with scarcely any need to stop and whack a couple hundred goblins to prepare for the next challenge. Play enough of this new breed of RPG and many of those venerable classics simply seem dull.

And sadly, Phantasy Star is one of those ďmanyĒ classics. Sure, things start out with a bang, as the lovely Alis embarks on a quest for revenge against Lassic after the evil tyrantís goons bludgeon her brother to death, but it doesnít take long for the pace to slow to a crawl. After that intro, the concept of ďget Lassic and kill him goodĒ disappears from the game until itís time to besiege his castle towards the endgame. Taking his place are an infinite number of random encounters in a seemingly-infinite amount of first-person mazes scattered over the three worlds of your quaint little solar system.

You have your green homeworld of Palma, the desert world of Motavia and the icy planet of Dezoris. While they all look very different on the surface, you can count on doing the same things on all three ó mainly going to towns and traveling to the next in this gameís series of dungeons. Some dungeons are small, some are large ó but most are confusing, even if you draw a map.

Most dungeons of note are fond of playing host to a number of invisible pitfalls that drop you to a lower level ó a tactic that caused me to clinch my fists in rage. Itís not that suffering these little setbacks is so horrible in itself, but in conjunction with this gameís encounter rate, your situation can quickly get out of control. Like most ancient RPGs, Phantasy Star operates under the random battle rule that you may get 10-15 steps without a fight....OR (and more likely) you may seemingly get engaged by foes every other step until your brain has turned to putty.

These foes really arenít tougher than the monsters encountered in the old Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy games, however they are wildly inconsistent in their attacks. Regardless of your defensive strength, you can take enough damage from a lucky hit by even the weakest foes to make you do a double-take. Late in the game, my Alis (who had all the best armor) took more damage from one attack by a single pathetic Sworm than she had while fighting those same insects over the first few hours of the game. Also, these monsters greatly benefit from your general lack of quality healing magic. Two of your characters learn a decent spell, while Alis gets a weak one, but youíll soon find out that your magic points only run so far in this game. When it costs six spell points to cast the decent healing spell and the characters that can cast it only gets 50-70 of said points (which also will likely be needed for attack spells or disarming traps), letís just say you donít really have that much time to waste in these dungeons and falling down invisible pits really can put a damper on your chances of successfully clearing a maze.

And that means youíll constantly be using spells or items to escape from dungeons, going back to town to heal and then returning to try again. And youíll be doing this for virtually every major dungeon in the game. While many of the less important mazes are reasonably short, there are enough long, grueling dungeons to make things get really tiresome after a few hours. And to stack the odds against you a bit more, instead of simply relinquishing their money and goods, defeated monsters drop a treasure chest which you must open. That wouldnít be so bad, but a certain percentage of these chests are trapped and setting off those hazards will cause more damage to your party, making it even less likely youíll get through that complex maze in one trip.

You wonít have much to break this tedium, either, as (like most classic RPGs) there isnít much of a story to keep your interest. Basically, the first half of the game involves Alis seeking her three companions and obtaining effective methods of travel between (and on) the three worlds. After all of that has been taken care of, youíll be going through dungeon after dungeon after dungeon searching for the necessary key items and legendary equipment for your confrontation with Lassic. Nothing will break this cycle, either. If you arenít up for an extended dungeon crawl, you wonít get much enjoyment out of Phantasy Star.

Which is too bad, for hidden beneath all the repetition are a few of wonderfully implemented ideas that definitely werenít seen in early NES RPGs. While the original Final Fantasy games made a stab at intertwining medieval and science-fiction themes, Phantasy Star does it in an awe-inspiring way. To open a hypothetical battle, Alis is stabbing a monster with a sword. When itís Odinís turn to step up to the plate, he then whips out a laser gun to singe the whiskers of all the enemies. After spending 30 minutes fighting Sphinxes and Centaurs while searching for Medusa, youíll be hopping into a robot-powered spaceship to visit another world populated by blaster-toting Dezorians.

Since youíll be spending so much time in battles, odds are that youíll quickly notice how beautiful and well-animated foes are. Worms explode out of sand to attack you, mages blast you with spells from their staves, nomadic races assault you with tiny guns and dragons emit gouts of flame. All in all, battles in this game are a far cry from the stale, unanimated portraits used in nearly all the NES RPGs.

And it must be said that this game is much more inclined to give you optional quests than most RPGs of its time. Many dungeons on all three worlds serve one purpose and one purpose only ó to hold a fantastic weapon or piece of armor for one of your characters. Since many of these bonus dungeons are reasonably equal in difficulty, Phantasy Star becomes a very non-linear game after youíve earned the ability to jet between the planets at will. You could hit a particular building to get a key item necessary to reach Lassicís floating castle.....or you could go through that nearby cave to earn sidekick Odinís most durable armor ó a really nice touch, since many games of this era had more of a fake sort of non-linearly (where you COULD go anywhere, but if you went to the wrong place, the first random encounter would have you for lunch).

While all those positives are very nice touches that help set Phantasy Star out from the crowd, the simple truth is that your enjoyment of the game will not be determined by the intertwining of diverse themes, gorgeous graphics or the ability to choose what order you do many dungeons. What really matters is the level of patience you possess. Phantasy Star isnít a game that will be beaten overnight, nor is it a game where great advances in the quest will be made quickly. To move forward, youíll be slowly taking the tiniest of baby steps ó repeatedly attempting to reach the end of a particularly long dungeon, enduring a constant barrage of monster encounters designed to frustrate you from surviving that dungeon and painstakingly drawing maps so you donít waste time blundering down the same dead end corridors every time you venture into a particular maze.

None of this makes Phantasy Star a bad game ó it was a wonderfully-designed RPG for its time. However, it does make the first game of Segaís immensely popular series a tedious exercise in repetition by todayís standards. As the role-playing genre has been turned upside-down to be more fast-paced and story-driven for the masses, a game such as Phantasy Star really begins to show itís age ó making me (a player who was around when games like this and Dragon Warrior were brand new) wonder how I could think games like this were the greatest thing since sliced bread and cast everything aside to play them completely through at a frenetic pace whenever a new one was released.

overdrive's avatar
Community review by overdrive (September 22, 2004)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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