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Posted on Jan 25th 2022 at 01:00:00 PM by (SirPsycho)
Posted under RPG, sega, master system, mark iii, mark 3, science fiction, sci fi, science fantasy


Title: Phantasy Star
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platforms: Sega Mark III/Master System
Release Years: 1987 JP, 1988 NA/EU

In the now rather long history of role playing games there have been a surprisingly small number of examples of science fiction settings. It has become more common in recent years, and there are examples from every era, but it would not surprise me to see the difference between traditional fantasy settings skewed in a near ten to one favor against the smaller sample pool of science fiction. The late 1980s saw a huge growth in Japanese role playing games. They had existed for years, even before Dragon Quest became the consensus Grandfather of Japanese RPGs. However, only small developers really played around with them until Chunsoft struck sales gold with Dragon Quest III, coupled with Squaresoft's Final Fantasy series. Larger developers began looking at this design formula as an emerging market and began developing their own projects. Sega was rather quick to fill this growing niche on its own hardware, developing Phantasy Star for the Sega Mark III or Master System as it was also known as.





Sega considered this an important project for its still young console division, and the staff chosen to work on the game hammers the point home. The game was mainly planned and designed by Kotaro Hayashida, who had done the same job for Alex Kidd in Miracle World. The story and script were written by Chieko Aoki, who adapted her own original story into Phantasy Star's first draft. The game's beautiful art was mostly done by Rieko Kodama, one of the earliest female artists in the entire video game industry. Naoto Ohshima would also design some of the characters and a good number of monsters. The game's programming was handled by then rising star Yuji Naka. The soundtrack was composed by a more obscure but unbelievably important figure, a man named Tokuhiko Uwabo. He had worked on a lot of other Master System games and arcade ports such as Fantasy Zone, Spy vs. Spy, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Space Harrier, Zillion, Out Run, After Burner, and plenty of others. Uwabo was also responsible for creating the audio engine that Sega used for the entire life of the Mark III.

Phantasy Star is not a true science fiction game. The entire series is science fantasy, with Star Wars being the most notable primary influence. The feudal governance of this first game also shows flashes of inspiration from Dune. It is presented in both a top down perspective while exploring the overworld, and a first person perspective for dungeon crawling. The 3D first person dungeon crawling effects were chosen specifically because the Famicom could not pull off a similar effect. First person RPGs on the Famicom all have roughly half the screen or more taken up by the user interface while Phantasy Star on the Master System shows the dungeon across the entire screen. The user interface only comes up during random battles and when the player manually opens the menu. At the time of its release this would make Phantasy Star feel like a game that players can deeply immerse themselves into. The biome based world and encounter design coupled with some of the various battle mechanics helps to enforce this feeling. Phantasy Star is also notable for having its main protagonist be a woman by the name of Alis Landale.


Alis concept art


Noah/Lutz concept art

In order to analyze the game at its deepest level I decided to play it the way it was originally intended to be played. No guides or walkthroughs, just exploration, deep note taking of every tidbit of dialogue from the game's various citizens, building my own bestiary, and the very necessary step of using graph paper to draw dungeon maps. Every screenshot featured in this review is also one that I took myself during this playthrough. Any concept or officially published art is pulled from various sources listed at the end of the review, and mirrored to one or more of my personal accounts for ease of access and posterity. It is likely because of my decision to play the game in this way that I was able to quite easily see many of the differences in design between this game and many of its contemporaries. For example, the world of Phantasy Star feels more natural, as the enemy encounters in the game are based not on overall grid coordinates on the map, but by the biome type of the specific tile the battle takes place on. Players will encounter different enemies in a forest, grassland, marsh, beach, desert, tundra, and others. There is some enemy overlap and it always makes sense when this is noticed.

A long form interview with most of the key staff, minus Yuji Naka, was published in World of Phantasy Star, a book published in 1993 with the Japanese release of Phantasy Star IV. An English translation from shmuplations.com (found here: http://shmuplations.com/phantasystar/) provides a vast amount of insight into the development of the single player era of Phantasy Star, and especially the first game. The first game was built in an open environment. The small team shared the same room and could check in on each other's work. They also had little to no oversight or guidance from Sega's higher ups, so they had the freedom to build the game they wanted to make. Phantasy Star also had a much higher percentage of women on the staff than was normal for the time. This feeling of free development actually shines through in the final product, as the player is given many choices and options for travel as soon as the game starts. There are multiple towns to visit and learn about the world and the characters within. Players can solo grind with Alis early on to buy weapons and items from each town's specific shop before moving the plot forward. The game gives plenty of options for this early game grinding, including a couple dungeons that can easily be stumbled into.


Stick to the flat grasslands early on.


You don't find fish out of water.

The world is also stunning to look at, and it would not be a stretch to call Phantasy Star the best looking RPG of the 8 bit era. The spritework is incredible, the colors are bold and pop out at the player. The game is more than willing to show its graphical muscle off by showing a detailed background in the menu screen while exploring towns and the overworld's various biomes. Enemies also have animated attacks, which really stands out considering almost every other game and series in this era just had static enemy sprites that flash when they act. The audio is also an absolute triumph. It is filled with catchy themes that worm their way through the player's ear and stick in for quite awhile. Despite these advancements, it is still an 8 bit RPG at its core, so expect to go through a lot of random encounters and to set aside some time to grind here and there. Since I stumbled around blindly in the early game this was not too much of an issue for me, and once I built the main party then I quickly expanded my horizons by diving into the various dungeons that are easily accessible early on. The game was a pretty easy ride through the halfway point, when the difficulty starts to ramp up by design.


Plains                                          Forest                                          Beach                                           City                                          Spaceport                                          Ruined Town

The game begins with Alis' brother Nero being murdered by King Lassic of Palma's men right in front of both Alis and the safety of their own home. She swears to avenge her brother's death and the game begins with Alis standing right in front of her house in the city of Camineet. Alis talks to the locals and is given a Laconian Pot that belonged to Nero by her neighbor, who also tells her that the warrior Odin can be found in the nearby town of Scion. Another kind neighbor Suelo opens her home to Alis, giving free healing which will be used quite a bit throughout the entire game. Alis explores Scion and learns that Odin has partnered up with a talking animal and went off to kill Medusa. From here Alis needs to acquire both a roadpass and a passport to fly to Motavia, where she will find a trader willing to trade the talking animal, a cat like creature named Myau, for Alis' Laconian Pot. Myau joins Alis and tells her that Odin has been petrified by Medusa, thankfully the bottle around Myau's neck contains the cure Odin needs. The two must venture into the cave south of Camineet and heal Odin. Odin joins Alis and suggests they seek an audience with the governor of Motavia since he is locked in a feud with King Lassic. The governor does require a gift before granting an audience, and the citizens of his seat of Paseo say he loves sweets. Strangely enough there is a shortcake shop in a nearby dungeon. With the shortcake in hand Alis meets with the governor who gives them a letter of introduction to give to the powerful esper Noah, or Lutz as his name is really supposed to be. Noah is in a dungeon to the north of Paseo, and with his recruitment the party is fully assembled.


Myau


Odin


Noah/Lutz

The game has tightly controlled mechanics which really work to enforce that feeling of freedom that the development team had. On the overworld and in dungeons there is an extra search mechanic that is rarely used, and is likely intended to help players find false walls in dungeons. In battle there is an option to talk to enemies, which is quite an interesting mechanic. This is where the game plays around with the idea of sentience and intelligence. Most monsters cannot be spoken to because they do not speak human language, there are exceptions to be found such as a talking tarantula locked up in a prison. Humanoid enemies can be directly spoken to, and they will leave battle afterwards. There is a Telepathy spell that can be used to speak to the more intelligent monsters, as well as items to mimic the effect of both speech and telepathy. Both humans and monsters can have interesting tidbits of knowledge to share with Alis, either completely unique or a hint about something that can be learned before a specific town is entered and a citizen gives a more thorough breakdown. The item and spell design is also simple but effective. The most common effects that a player can want can either be bought or used as a spell, with a few of these effects having a permanent replacement that renders the consumable or spell version obsolete. This feeling of progression of power and usefulness is quite effective and helps with players feeling like they're making real progress. The various vehicles in the game that can be unlocked are also useful and interesting to use, with some still standing out as rather unique and not based on typical RPG vehicle progression.


Phantasy Star might be the ultimate 8 bit RPG experience. It does have a more traditional and classic feel that fans of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy can ease themselves into. Sega's developers approached it with some differences at the deepest levels of design that help it stand out and feel unique. Out of every one of the big name RPGs from the 8 bit era, Phantasy Star feels like it has the fewest flaws, with its only real competition coming from Dragon Quest IV in this regard. Most of the other popular 8 bit RPGs had some sloppiness or bad design involved, such as Dragon Quest II's lack of thorough testing which lead to bad balancing, Megami Tensei's enemies that permanently reduce a character's level, Final Fantasy games having a good story with awkward design or vice versa, with bugs thrown on top of it all. Phantasy Star does not really have issues like these to complain about. Its tightly designed, forward thinking for its time, beautifully presented, and sounds incredible. I am not alone in this opinion either, as it seems to be the overall consensus opinion going all the way back to the original reviews published in magazines in the late 1980s. Today, Phantasy Star can be played on so many systems today that its accessibility gives the curious player no excuses for passing over a playthrough. Complete in box copies of the original Master System release have ballooned up in price to be well north of $100, so it is better for the wallet to grab one of the cheaper Genesis collections that includes Phantasy Star on newer consoles.

Sources:

shmuplations.com
smspower.org
sega-16.com
phantasystar.fandom.com
archive.org
retromags.com
wikipedia.org


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Comments
 
I LOVE this game.  Granted, I played it decades after it came out, but really just playing the game is enough I think.  The story, the characters, and the amazing music really pulled me into the world of PH.  So far I've played the original SMS (emulated on Sonic's Sega Genesis Collection on PS3) and Switch, with the Switch being my favorite.  The dungeon mapping is nice, but I really love being able to switch between FM and PSG.

SP, I am right behind you in your assessment of Phantasy Star.  Back in the day I bounced off Dragon Warrior 1 but ate up Final Fantasy less than a year later, which kind of cemented in my head what an RPG should be, so while I did enjoy DW3 and adored DW4, I was a FF guy for the next two console generations.  But since discovering PH I have to wonder what my JRPG trajectory would have been had I played Phantasy Star first, or even after Final Fantasy 1.
 
@bombatomba: I chose to review Phantasy Star to play through and review because I've wanted to shift my review format for awhile so wanted something I thought would be rather simple and easy to review. I had played it at least halfway through a long, long time ago and could not remember much about it. I was quite impressed by its depth early in the game, when I was only a couple hours into it and had not even figured out how to find Myau yet.

If you're a fan of Japanese RPGs and want to revisit the roots, or start discovering them for yourself, then you can't do much better than Phantasy Star.

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