bomba's House Of Flancakes

Posted on Dec 23rd 2019 at 08:00:00 AM by (bombatomba)
Posted under Retro Remake, automap, Master System, SMS, classic JRPG

It's been quite a year for retro game remakes, ports, and compilations, during which I have played well over one hundred different games, many for the first time.  Now, I have to admit that I am burnt out a bit and in need of some gaming R&R, but before I do so there is one more title that I need to play, one which has garnered a reputation for pushing the envelope on port quality. That game is Sega AGES: Phantasy Star on the Nintendo Switch.

The first Phantasy Star is often considered a landmark title in the JRPG genre.  It was released in 1987 to the Sega Mark III in Japan and later in 1988, notably before both Dragon Quest/Warrior and Final Fantasy saw official Western releases.  I've always felt that this gives Sega apologists from the West a boost in arguments of superiority (real and perceived) for their 8-bit platform.  Regardless, it is generally considered first for an RPG in a gaming console to have a female protagonist as well as a melding of science-fiction and fantasy (and the crazy-smooth 3D mazes) and is still lauded to this day for having these elements, especially in the West, where console RPGs were largely unheard of.

Despite the timing of this review, I've had my eye on it for quite a while now, since around Christmas of 2018 in fact.  Due to the nostalgic-tinted reviews and ramblings of such people as Joe Redifer on YouTube channel, GameSack, I've kept Phantasy Star on my radar, but never jumped on it due to the hardcore difficulty and the fact that I no longer enjoy mapping on graph paper.  But once I saw that the game automaps dungeons, I immediately created a new tab in my "Games to Buy" spreadsheet for the Nintendo Switch, and picked the game up less thirty days of getting the Switch for Father's Day.

The primary features that attracted me to the game (and what got me to plunk down the money to buy it) are easily the most visible: The inclusion of character stats and an auto-map visible at all times.  I had read and watched a smattering of reviews, but didn't dive too deeply into them given that I wanted to formulate my own opinion, so many of the features were a surprise.  The first you will no doubt see is the two different modes: AGES and original.  Original is exactly what you would think, that being the original Phantasy Star in all its brutal glory, with the inclusion of the map and stats.  The AGES mode (which is how I finished the game) mostly takes away the grinding aspect of the game by toning down the often insane encounter rate of the original, giving you more XP and money per encounter while also, and also increasing your walking speed.  This results in a kind of weird "grindless" JRPG (a little like FInal Fantasy IX) that feels like it moves at a breakneck pace.  Still pretty hard though, as even with reduced encounter rates you can (and likely will) at times hit enemies every few steps.

Something to consider is the included digital "manual" (squint and you see the button in the screenshot above) which is nothing more than an online link to "manuals" for all of the AGES games (just click on the one you want to read) that provides the bare basics.  On the positive side since it is pretty much useless, it won't matter when the website that hosts this is eventually taken down.  Balancing that is the usefulness of the pause screen, which allows you to access details regarding weapons, armor, items, and magic.  This is such a wonderful thing to have, as the alternative would have been to print out a list and keep it near, possibly folded up in Switch carrying case.  Now when I want to know how much of a defense stat difference there is between Diamond and Laconian armor, it can be checked without having to put down my Switch.  Personally speaking, I would have loved to see a reproduction of the original manual with the game, as it contains some seriously helpful hints, as well as tiny (but useful) maps of the planets you will be visiting, in which one could have manually entered location names and points of interest.  Now that we are on the subject, I really wish the Switch could have used the same model as the 3DS/2DS for digital manuals:  Easily accessible from the main menu without closing the game and most importantly, local and not dependent on an internet site.

The "pause" screen, highlighting one of the spell-lists

A very nice thing is that they didn't change the graphics for either the AGES or Original versions.  This is important to me because Phantasy Star has some amazingly bright and colorful graphics.  Personally I am not opposed to the graphics of the PS2 remake, but I feel that the original has so much more charm, and this is coming from someone who didn't play any SMS games until the late early 00's.  I had loved the generally dull color seen in the NES Final Fantasy, holding up only the first Dragon Quest/Warrior as a standard for vivid colors on the NES.  As far as I am concerned, Phantasy Star blows DQ out of the water, featuring pretty, almost saturated graphics in both the overworld and the battle sequences.  In fact, this kind of left me feeling underwhelmed when I started playing Phantasy Star II on the Sega Genesis Classics on my PS Vita.  What happened to my colors?  Who knows.

For gamers in Japan (and those that imported from that country), when playing the original Phantasy Star on the Sega Mark III, you had the choice between two great soundtracks; PSG and FM (assuming you had the FM module).  In the West we had to "settle" for the PSG soundtrack only.  Now this isn't bad at all, as I said the PSG soundtrack is quite good and delightfully "crunchy" in its execution.  But the FM...  I will concede that as a frequent listener of video game music and soundtracks that the FM module on the SMS isn't always used to its potential.  Altered Beast comes immediately to mind.  But the FM soundtrack for Phantasy Star is quite excellent, and most of the songs are listenable (to these ears) most of the time, (with maybe the title screen song) I found the PSG soundtrack inferior to the FM soundtrack.  For the record,  "Tower," "Motavia," and "Vehicle" are my favorites.

As mentioned before, Phantasy Star is a challenging game regardless of which mode you play it in, but AGES mode is noticeably easier.  For a comparison, I took some time around the starting city (Camineet on planet Palma) and did some grinding.  In original mode, after about ten minutes Alis (the primary protagonist) was level -- and had -- mesetas.  In contrast, AGES mode Alis was level -- and had -- mesetas!  This means that the entire game could be finished (assuming you know where you are going and what to do) in a little over ten hours (which is about how long I played).   This begs another question; does this make the game too easy?  Personally I would have to say no, as I still took notes for each town (which ultimately didn't help as much as it does in other games) but I think those that are nostalgic for this game might not like the changes, though I imagine most would enjoy the inclusion of the automap.

Overall this experience was very positive, but I still ended up with a slight sense of longing.  Will I pick this up again?  Likely in the future, though perhaps just to play it through on Original mode with PSG sound only.  But, there are things that I found annoying that could be chalked up to being an older JRPG, or maybe just chalked up to me.  The primary issue I had was with the lack of direction.  I don't expect in any game to be given cardinal directions, but I would love to at least know where I am located at any given moment.  In Phantasy Star you cannot count on this, and more often than not having walked into a town with no idea which one it was, there will be nobody to tell you the towns name.  Sometimes this was down to the story, as in one instance there was only one person left, who could only lament that King Lassic destroyed the rest of the town and (presumably) killed everyone else, but sometimes talking just gets you hints.  Or your passport confiscated (which was annoying but still kind of funny).  The item screen is also a bit cumbersome, as it clutters up you will often have to sift through the three screens to find recently picked up items.  Not terrible or anything, but kind of annoying when you have to unlock five locked doors with the dungeon key and it is on the last spot on the second page of the list.

I think this leads to an important question:  To who is this game primarily meant to be appealing?  Personally, I think it is first for those that hold up Phantasy Star as a wonderful and nostalgic experience, with the "needs to play every classics JRPG" gamer as a second.  Generic RPG'ers will likely find the game to be fun, but might not last to the end due to the general lack of direction, but I am convinced will make it much further because of the AGES mode.  My recommendation is if you are interested and don't have an aversion to digital games, get it!  While I cannot speak for other territories, it can be purchased in the Nintendo Switch store for $7.99 USD, which is pretty affordable.

Thanks for reading!

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I replayed it on the Switch, really enjoyed playing a bit easier and with FM sound.

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So I'm an odd ball. So I am usually the last to post on a blog/forum. So I only post about weird games on weird platforms. So I have a strange relationship with commas and parenthesis. So what? Hey, at least you don't have to car pool with me to work, right? So have a heart, eat a blueberry, and don't forget to drop the empties in the box on the way out. I get deposit on those.
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