RETRO REVIEW: Phantasy Star

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

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Phantasy Star | oprainfall
Title Phantasy Star
Developer Sega
Publisher Sega
Release Date 1988
Genre RPG
Platform Master System, Wii Virtual Console
Age Rating E-10+

Phantasy Star is a game that I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would. I expected it to be one that is not as fun when compared to the standards of today’s games, and, to an extent I was right. However, it was a game out of which I still got a surprising amount of enjoyment. It had an overly simplistic battle system, dungeons that were basic in design, yet hard to navigate, a story that was practically nonexistent and very poor direction. Despite these flaws, however, it has its own unique charm to it, but is that enough to make it worth playing today?

The main plot of Phantasy Star begins with Alis witnessing her brother being murdered by the minions of Lassic, the evil emperor of the galaxy. Alis then sets out on a quest to slay Lassic, get revenge and save the galaxy. That is pretty much all there is to the main plot. You do meet up with other characters, but they receive no development. Neither Alis nor Lassic have any form of growth, either. Really, the only difference that this game has from Dragon Quest in terms of story is that it has a futuristic setting. This is to be expected, seeing as how it was released only one year after the first Dragon Quest. At the time, a non-medieval setting was something quite new for JRPGs, seeing as how the only previous JRPG to use that setting was the infamous train wreck (among Japanese gamers, that is) known as Hoshi Wo Miru Hito, released two months before Phantasy Star in Japan.

Phantasy Star | Sega Games

There were also a few other innovations that the story had at the time, such as having a female protagonist, and one of the most prolific uses of the “surprise final boss” trope. The way that this trope was used — especially given today’s standards — is admittedly one that most gamers may roll their eyes at. The reason for this is that said boss is only foreshadowed once, has no in-game explanation as to what it actually is and is never mentioned again afterwards. Despite this, Phantasy Star’s final boss is very well-executed atmosphere- and presentation-wise, and it is one of the more memorable boss battles I have encountered in an RPG.

Phantasy Star | Saccubbus

As for the writing, Phantasy Star is rather mixed. Predictably, the translation is sloppy, seeing as how this was before there were higher standards for localization. Some examples are having fast food shop translated as “first food shop,” misspelling succubus as “saccubus,” barbarian as “barbrian” and some grammatical nightmares such as “Alis is not need to be healed,” and “I tell you no one can do.” In addition to that, there is the fact that the character Noah is constantly referred to with both male and female pronouns, and there are some awkward translation decisions such as describing what I assume to be gas mask as “gas shield,” and probably the most awkward, translating Nightmare as Saccubus. It is already awkward enough that Succubus was misspelled, but what you are dealing with looks nothing like a succubus, and is actually supposed to be a plot-relevant boss. However, one thing I will give the localization credit for is that it tried harder to explain the game’s random final boss, although said boss still feels like it comes out of nowhere.

One of Phantasy Star’s most notable aspects was how technologically advanced it was at the time of release. What is perhaps the most notable aspect of Phantasy Star is how impressive the attack animation is. Enemy attack animation is very detailed, fluid, and every enemy in the game has their own animation. For comparison’s sake, games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, at the time, did not even have any enemy attack animation and all enemy attacks were displayed through text and sound effects, or possibly a flashing effect that does not come from the enemy itself.  It shows just how advanced this was when there were still some 16-bit JRPGs released up to 1995 that had attack animation inferior to Phantasy Star, including classics such as Final Fantasy VI, EarthBound and Lufia 2. The attacks from the main characters, however, are handled with typical slash animations on the screen, and you do not actually see your characters in battle.

Phantasy Star | Dungeon Shop

The game takes place in a first-person view while exploring dungeons that look fully 3D; something that was pretty impressive at the time. However, it is easy to tell that a lot of corners were cut in terms of design, and that it was only really advanced in its concept alone. First of all, every dungeon is made up entirely of long narrow corridors that all look exactly the same, and the only difference in the appearance of dungeons is the color palettes. This ends up turning every dungeon into a maze that, without a map, will take hours to get through, most of which will be made up of accidental backtracking due to not being able to tell where you actually are. Thankfully, the latter is slightly alleviated with the addition of a compass item, which tells you which direction you are facing when it is used.

The sound quality is another beast all its own, due to the fact that the music and sound effects needed to be changed for the US version. The reason for this was because the Japanese Sega Mk3 had a completely different sound chip than the US Master System. The soundtrack on the Sega MK3 version was much higher quality and sounded closer to Genesis-level quality. The Master System soundtrack, however, is more simplistic, seeing as how the system it was on had a soundfont that allowed even fewer sound channels than the NES. It is because of this that people often say that the music in Master System games is terrible. Despite this, the transition from the Sega Mk3 to the Master System was handled surprisingly well, and the technologically-inferior arrangements are still good on their own merits. In fact, there are a few that I thought sounded better than the originals, such as the tower theme and the final dungeon theme. The sound effects tend to sound a bit off during enemy attacks. About half of the enemy attack sound effects seem to sound like lasers, despite them occurring during physical attacks. The normal attack sound effects are generally well-placed, and there are not really any major problems there.

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