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Thursday, November 5, 2020

Tiermaker Funtimes: The classic Phantasy Star games

Phantasy Star was one of the first JRPG franchises to see release in the west, and though it mostly came and went before the genre started to get big, it nonetheless attracted a considerable following.  The fourth entry on the Genesis was the first one I played, and it immediately got me interested in the rest of them (though I had to play 1 emulated and on compilations as I didn't own a Master System until many years later).  Being one of the first series I really got hooked on and one of the major factors in me becoming a huge RPG nerd in general, it holds a special place.  So it's a perfect candidate for another Tiermaker list.

Phantasy Star 1 (1988)

 The Sega Master System was a very strange case. It had more impressive specs than the NES on almost every front, but very few games seemed to take advantage of this fact; Sega seemed content to just dump mediocre ports of their popular arcade games on there and call it a day.  Phantasy Star is one of those rare cases where they actually tried to do something special, though.  One of the very first JRPGs to ever be localized, it also looked fantastic for the period, with large, detailed, colorful (and animated!) enemy sprites and even some smooth scrolling in its first person dungeon segments, making its immersion factor a cut above most.  The music is surprisingly catchy too, even with the comparatively limited hardware of the Master System; so much so that the dungeon themes from this game were remixed and used again in 4.  Gameplay-wise, it's still very much from the Era when Wizardry was king and everyone wanted to make their own version, so it's built with challenge and complexity in mind over storytelling. It broke away from the mold a bit more than most, though, working in a lot of science fiction elements (and more than a few design cues copied directly from Star Wars), letting you pilot three different vehicles around and even visit multiple planets, adding a lot of variety to the sights. It's still a fun game today, too - grinding is surprisingly minimal if you play your cards right, and it's well paced even with frequent enemy encounters in some areas. It gets an A.

Phantasy Star 2 (1990)

 Phantasy Star II was originally slated for a Master System release, but development quickly shifted to the Genesis once Sega began to focus their efforts on that console.  For this reason it doesn't feel quite like it's taking full advantage of that system's hardware, with comparatively limited sound design and animation to other early Genesis titles.  Still, they definitely didn't cut corners on the gameplay, doubling the playable cast of characters from 4 to 8 (though you can only have up to four with you at a time) and adding a much wider variety to items, equipment types and techs to use.  It even attempted to work in a relatively unique mechanic in a character who could steal items from shops (though you would have to return to the starting town to recruit her again each time, which got to be a bit annoying).  The story was what really sold it, though, showing off a comfortable but sinister future where Algo's religion is all but forgotten, a giant space-computer runs everything and mutants begin to run rampant, paving the way for a much darker sequence of events to come.  The dungeons were no longer first-person, but third, which made them considerably trickier to navigate, and much of the challenge was derived from simply enduring your way through these huge labyrinths, necessitating quite a bit more grinding and being sure to hunt down every last item along the way (particularly as several could cast powerful buffers or healing spells for free, making your life much easier in the long run).  There are comparatively few bosses, but they are tough; basically brick walls of difficulty, with one in particular that's practically a luck-based mission that will likely take several attempts to complete even if you're at the top of your game.  It's a challenging experience in every respect, but it's also surprisingly well made; it frustrates you just enough that you want to show it up and win out, not give up out of sheer irritation.  A solid RPG with an excellent story that laid the groundwork for so many other games in the genre; not the least of which were the CD-era Final Fantasy titles.  Not to mention having one of the greatest endings of all time. Another A. 

Phantasy Star II  Text Adventures (1990-1991)

A pretty obscure offshoot of the series, theses were initially released for the Sega Game Toshokan download service in Japan and later collected on a couple of Sega CD compilations (and the Sega Ages 2500 compilation for Playstation 2).  None were ever officially translated to English, but they have all since been fan-translated, so I ended up playing them eventually regardless.  They're simple little text-based adventures with minimal graphics and a very light tabletop-style combat system thrown in for a few fights - you literally see dice roll across the screen to determine damage you inflict and take.  There are eight of these games in total, each telling a short story involving one of the main cast characters, and they vary quite a bit in tone and quality - some tell a pretty good tale while others are just kind of... well, there.  (Though one touch I found amusing was that Amy, like her counterpart in the main game, is a designated healer - you spend almost all of her final fight healing another character and doing little to no damage yourself).  They're short, simple little games you can beat in about an hour apiece, so it's not really fair to judge them by the same standard as the rest of the series.  I'll say they're worth a collective B for what they are, though.

Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom (1991)

The first thing that strikes you about this one is that it's a stark departure from the first two, having been created by a completely different team within Sega.  It's not just in aesthetic style, either, but in overall design; the UI and spell system are redone once again, and the gameplay is a more straightforward, story-driven experience, not unlike Final Fantasy IV from the same year.  It's an oddball on the writing front too, being set in a completely different world from the first two games and with much more of a fantasy bent, and it's unclear how it ties in to the series at all.  Of course, it does quickly show off some high technology elements beneath the surface and the link to the main series does become clear by the end, but until then you're wondering whether it's just some kind of bizarre spinoff that was mistakenly labeled as a mainline entry.  Regardless, though, it did have some unique ideas for the time - the game features a branching story set across three generations, with your choices affecting the character you play as and which side of the overall story you see, as well as determining which of four possible endings you'll get.  Good stuff, but it also has some prominent flaws - the difficulty is very uneven throughout, several conspicuous paths can never be entered, and a lot of plot points get recycled verbatim between the final generations owing to its rushed production and limited space on the cart. Still, it's an interesting experiment that mostly works, and I enjoyed it a lot despite its faults.  I'll give it a B.

Phantasy Star Adventure (1992)

Another Japan-only offshoot of Phantasy Star II, though this time it was released on the Game Gear.  While it utilizes a similar engine to the Text Adventures (even retaining their combat system), it's a bit more sophisticated in design, becoming more akin to a graphical point-and-click adventure game.  Every scene and character is now depicted graphically, navigation is made easier with a map and there's even a password system to save your progress in the game.  It also doesn't star any of the main cast from its parent game, instead carrying the cyberpunk theme of 2 into a tale starring a handful of original characters.  It's rather short, but still a fun little game that'll keep you hooked for a couple of hours, so it gets a B.

Phantasy Star Gaiden (1992) 

Another Japan-only offshoot of the series, but unlike the rest, this one isn't a tie-in to Phantasy Star II; if anything, it ties in a bit more to 1, going back to a more fantasy-inspired world (with gnomes and magic spells explicitly named as such) and a direct link to its story late in the plot.  Sega didn't take the reigns for this one, though, instead farming it out to an obscure company named Japan Supply Systems, and the drop in quality is certainly evident.  Phantasy Star Gaiden is not just the grindiest game in the series, but one of the grindiest RPGs I've ever played, with an absurd encounter rate, enemies giving pathetically low amounts of experience and money and encounters having huge leaps in strength in each new area so you absolutely need to constantly stop and grind to have any chance at all.  Spells are unbalanced to the point of absurdity (your healing spell gives you back a whopping 5 HP!) and difficulty is very uneven, with later dungeons being easier than earlier ones and each one just being a long slog of endless fights designed to wear you down so you don't have enough resources left to beat the boss at the end (unless you hoard 99 encounter-escaping items for each one, which I did).  A lot of fans point to III as the black sheep of the series, but they obviously haven't played this one, because while that game certainly has its faults it's a vastly more well-made and enjoyable experience than this.  Some nice graphics and a cute nod or two can't save Gaiden from being an F.

Phantasy Star IV: End of the Millennium (1993/95) 

The fourth game in the series was an interesting one it began life as a Sega CD game, presumably would have had animated cutscenes and was even intended to be a throwback to the first game in a couple of ways - it bore the subtitle "the Return of Alis" and was even planned to return to the first person dungeon crawling style. However, after fan feedback and the Sega CD proving to be a commercial failure, development was moved to the Genesis, the dungeons became top-down again and the story was reworked (though the cutscenes concept was retained in a more limited form as manga-styled stills).  It was clear that they still had big plans for the series finale, though, as it came out on a massive 24-megabit cartridge that ran over $100 at launch, and they took every effort to make it worth the cost.  The game is easily the best looking and sounding in the series and ranks among the finest on the Sega Genesis as a whole - backgrounds and monster sprites are immaculately detailed and animated, and there are a huge variety of attacks and animations for the player to utilize as well. The storytelling is excellent, utilizing the manga panel style cutscenes for key plot points, putting some creative flips on genre tropes and giving the characters some genuinely interesting and fun personalities; seeing them interact throughout really got you invested in the narrative, and it was one of the first RPGs I'd played that really made them feel like actual characters and not just a collection of game mechanics.  It was a definite step up gameplay-wise too, with excellent pacing, virtually no level grinding required and a convenient Macro system that let you plan out your party's actions beforehand and execute them all at once, speeding up random battles and letting you efficiently buff up your party in boss fights. This also tied into a new mechanic; namely that using certain techniques back-to-back would combine them into one bigger, more effective one (two years before Chrono Trigger, no less), adding a new layer of strategy.  An amazing sendoff for the series, and I absolutely think it deserves to stand alongside games like Zelda and Final Fantasy and Lunar as one of the finest examples of the genre in the 90s.  Between that and how instrumental it was in making me the RPG fan I am today, it's an easy S. 

Phantasy Star Generation 1 (2003) 

Released exclusively in Japan as part of the Sega Ages 2500 budget line, this was the first proper remake the series received. It was also not developed in house by Sega, but by 3D AGES (a collaborative team comprised of Sega and D3 Publisher employees).  At a glance, they do a good job, updating the visual and audio style of the game well for the Playstation 2 hardware (still obviously a budget release, but nonetheless, it looks good) and fleshing out its story with more character dialog and story beats. Unfortunately, the game design itself isn't nearly as well done.  There are far more instances of irritatingly particular design; you have to talk to specific NPCs in a very specific order to get key items and trigger certain plot flags, which can get just a touch aggravating for those used to the original's more relaxed approach to them. It's also much more slow and grindy than the original game from well over a decade earlier; the max level is 99 now instead of 30 and enemies in later stages have been scaled up to match, forcing you into long grinding sessions between major plot beats.  I appreciate the attempt to add more to it on a story front, but if you're going to remake a beloved classic, you have to do right by it and make the gameplay better too; not worse. I'd much rather play the original, and for that reason, it gets a C. 

Phantasy Star Generation 2 (2005) 

Similar to the first Generation game, this one gives Phantasy Star II an aesthetic overhaul and attempts to expand on its characterizations with added dialog scenes. The gameplay is also reworked slightly, with the ability to to "charge" attacks to one of three levels on a meter; the higher the level, the more damage, but the greater your chance to miss.  This ultimately doesn't do much other than slow down combat, though - level 1 attacks do pitiful damage and 3's miss too often to be useful, so I almost exclusively stuck to 2's.  It also falls into the same trap the original Generation did, adding much more grinding and slowing the pace down even further. Again, I'd much rather play the original, because while Phantasy Star II does show its age and have some prominent shortcomings in design, it was a lot more impressive for the time period it came out in and still feels a lot better to play than this lackluster remake.  It's another C.