Minor spoilers ahead.
Recently the Sega Ages edition of the Sega Master System classic, Phantasy Star, was released onto the Nintendo Switch e-Shop which piqued my interest. I’ve always heard about the franchise primarily through the Phantasy Star Online game on the Dreamcast, (which I sadly never played in its heyday) but had never delved into any of the preceding titles. This was a major hole in my gaming history that I wanted to rectify especially with my love of JRPGs. So when I saw this appear in the store for only $7.99, I jumped on it and subsequently beat it.
I’m not one to play games for a challenge so, yes, I did use a walkthrough several times to figure out where I needed to go next as objective markers and an expansive throughline to refer back to weren’t prevalent in video games circa 1987. Secondly, the Sega Ages version has an automapping feature that you better believed I utilized happily. For those who do not know, the original game was lauded for its first-person 3D dungeons which was very impressive on an 8-bit system thanks to lead programmer, Yuji Naka who would later go on to be the lead programmer for Sonic the Hedgehog. However, because the hardware was limited, walls, floors and ceilings looked identical making it difficult to keep track of where you were and where you had been. Originally, many people used a pencil and graph paper to map out each dungeon as they progressed. In this version, there is a map in the bottom right corner of the screen (which can be turned off) that maps it out as you explore. Ask any of my family and friends how easily I get lost and you’ll hear that I can barely find the way to my bed at night so this feature was necessary and, if it didn’t have it, I likely wouldn’t have picked it up.
With that being said, you play as heroine Alis (which was, again, different for the time and still today) in the futuristic town of Camineet witnessing your brother being murdered with the only lead to go on being a name that he utters before he takes his final breath: Lassic. That is the story setup as, from there, you explore the town, talk to townsfolk and eventually leave to the world map where you will likely get promptly destroyed by the random encounters. This game does not start off easily as leaving the starting area was a death sentence until I grinded up a few levels and bought a couple of pieces of equipment. But, once you do, the world opens up and you get some passive storytelling of a great warrior who has been turned to stone by Medusa, a cat with a strange vial around its neck and a magic-wielder who could be of use on your journey. Again, the story is very minimal, but I was impressed with how well the environmental storytelling was handled for such an early release.
While there are swords and shields in the game, Phantasy Star is decidedly futuristic which was another departure for RPGs at the time with most of them being residing safely in high fantasy ala J.R.R. Tolkien. So walking around these towns with dome houses and being able to find weapons like a laser gun was different than what was offered by its contemporaries. What didn’t age well were the item and spell names as some of them make little to no sense. Want to know what a Lac. Pot is? Or how about the spell Help? Or Fly (it doesn’t do what you think it does)?
However, what stands out to me the most is the sense of scale in the game. While I’m not sure about whether or not the sheer size of the map itself is comparable to the original Final Fantasy (also released in 1987) or Dragon Quest/Warrior in 1986, it feels huge because it takes place over three different planets in the Algol solar system: the Earth-like Palma, the desert planet, Motavia and the ice planet, Dezoris. Each world brings different traversal challenges and monsters. It was a brilliant way to give the illusion of there being a much larger game world than what was actually there.
In terms of the combat, it is standard early JRPG fare. It’s a turn-based system where you select an action for each of your party members to perform and they are then carried out. Limitations of the Sega Master System only allowed one enemy on-screen, but this was offset by there being anywhere from two to five of the same enemy in each encounter with their own distinct HP pools listed in the top right. However, you can’t choose which one to attack which was a bit annoying. But, again, this is one of the progenitors of the genre so the lack of polish makes sense.
Once I finished the game, I was very happy that I had taken the chance on it. The three sequels to this game are available on the Sega Genesis Classics Collection, also on the Switch which I ended up buying as well. I’ve heard that Phantasy Star 2 is a big improvement but is very grindy. Phantasy Star 3 is apparently only tangentially related to the overarching plot of the games and takes place back in medieval times. But Phantasy Star IV is considered to be the Phantasy Star game in the original series. I’m thinking that I will jump to IV and see how it goes as I’ve been reading that it is a forgotten classic that doesn’t get the attention it deserves due to the likes of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI on the SNES and is on par. While I’m sad that the franchise seems to be dormant at this point, I’m glad that these games are so easily available to return to for those of us who missed them the first time around.