Talking cats, swords and spaceships mark the dawn of a new genre
Japanese RPGs began their life in the late eighties as a modest and not very demanding branch of the leading (and only) RPG kind of that time: Western one. In our days, no one who compares Japanese RPGs to their Western counterparts will find any difficulty in pointing out the differences between them: Japanese RPGs focus more on emotions, are more epic, more story-driven, and rely more on simple, linear gameplay mechanics with various enhancements than on true exploration and role-playing.
Yet the game that is commonly regarded as the first Japanese RPG, Dragon Warrior
, didn't possess any of the aforementioned qualities that would make it radically different from PC-style RPGs. It was a toned-down copy of a simple, generic medieval RPG, without own personality and style. But less than a year later, Phantasy Star
was released for Sega Master System. This game was the true pioneer of the genre.
Even a superficial comparison between the two games will clearly show that Phantasy Star
is the winner in every category: gameplay, atmosphere, setting, narrative. I can't stress enough the importance of Phantasy Star
as the game that defined the genre
. This game paved the way for other Japanese RPGs, it already contained in a nutshell all the main stylistic elements that would later help Japanese RPGs develop into a full-fledged genre.
The game's story was a completely new word back then. Surprisingly, even compared to Western RPGs of yore, this narrative had a definite tone of its own. Before Phantasy Star
, RPGs depicted heroes who were chosen for their mission either without any reason (being nameless adventurers who just happened to be in the mood for saving the world), or because of their legacy (they were descendants of great heroes, the promised ones, or anything of the kind). No one yet thought of telling a world-saving, evil-slaying story based on personal motives
. Even at present time, when games become more and more story-oriented, Western RPGs often prefer to omit any personal involvement from the side of the hero. Japanese RPG, on the other hand, cannot be imagined without such personal involvement. And the first game that defined this cardinal concept of the genre was Phantasy Star
. Alis, the young heroine of the game, is not a fighter or an adventurer by nature. Her quest is neither a mission nor a following of a knight's oath. Her motive is entirely personal - a quest for revenge. Of course, later the quest smoothly turns into a traditional world-saving tale, but the premise is what matters here. The foundation stone was set. Phantasy Star
was the first RPG with a distinctly Japanese character cast. It allowed you to control the first colorful, typically Japanese party in history. You had an innocent girl, a talking cat, a strong warrior, and an effeminate wizard. Of course, the personalities of those four were rudimentary, but already their appearance
made them totally different from anything RPG scene had seen until then.
The setting of Phantasy Star
was also a defining moment in the history of the genre. Breaking free from the ever-present medieval cliché, the game created its own world, a mixture of space-traveling science fiction and medieval/magical elements, which also became the home for its sequels, complete with its own history, geography, style, races, recurrent characters, and so on. The game was unbelievably unique and stylish at the time it was released; the semi-sci-fi, semi-medieval setting was fresh and charming. You fought evil bees and slimes together with robotic guards; within the same battle, you slashed the enemy with Alis' sword and fired at it with Odin's laser gun. You equipped leather shields and armor, but healed with coke and burgers. You were wandering wilderness areas and descending into caves, while returning to ultra-modern cities and traveling to other planets.
Many people who think now of "Phantasy Star" recall first of all its truly outstanding production values. The musical score contained upbeat modern-sounding tunes, melancholy town and world map themes, and weird, menacing dungeon melody. But what really amazed players at that time were the graphics. Monster attacks looked incredibly realistic for the time, and the battles were decorated by wonderful backgrounds. The smooth-scrolling pseudo-3D dungeons were also quite impressive. And whenever you talked to a character, the scene switched to a first-person view with a large, detailed character sprite in front of you. All that was technically ground-breaking, but the real greatness of the game's graphics was in its style: Phantasy Star
is undeniably the first anime
role-playing game in history. With all the limitations of the epoch, its graphics looked like anime. You felt immediately it was a Japanese game just by looking at it.
But don't think Phantasy Star
was only about style. It also had high-quality gameplay with a very good balance between exploration and linear advancement. You could go to places you weren't "supposed" to visit, and if you were brave enough, you could explore the continent you were on, searching for caves and other points of interest.
Unlike most modern games, Phantasy Star
didn't just take your hand and guided you to the next destination. You had to talk to people, find clues, and figure out by yourself what and where the next task might be. Since there weren't many "invisible barriers" hampering the player's exploration. it was always possible to visit several locations at once, sometimes several cities, all with new weapons, equipment, and people to talk to. This made the obligatory leveling up less tedious.
Controlling a balanced pre-defined party was a joy after the desolate solo quest of Dragon Warrior. The player had to use spells and find the right equilibrium between the actions of party members.
Like so many early Japanese RPGs, Phantasy Star
is an exercise in patience. It forced you to spend hours just running around a small area, afraid to stray from the path, fighting easy monsters who gave you ridiculous amounts of experience and money. You had to stop doing your quest and accept the tedium of collecting enough money to buy that new piece of armor, without which you would die when hit by a bee.
A particular problem of this game is that the difficulty of random battles was widely inconsistent; even your levels and equipment didn't have the same weight as luck. Sometimes you were attacked by only a couple of enemies; another time you met eight of them and were killed before you could realize what was going on. You couldn't tell your characters to target a specific enemies; instead of taking care of them one by one, they could just attack a different one every turn and die horribly as a result. Every new companion joined at a low level, so you had to spend hours to train him as well. The characters never grew truly strong and were stuck at low levels for a very long time. You typically ran out of MP after just several battles. The dungeons on Dezoris or the last tower were real nightmares, especially because you were always so far away from towns where you could heal. Premature death was a normal thing, because there was nearly no way to survive during your first trip into a dungeon.
Which brings me to dungeon design. This is in my opinion the worst part of Phantasy Star
and something that managed to nearly ruin the whole experience for me. The complex, maze-like dungeons were devoid of any features, meaning that you had no indication where exactly you were. Drawing maps became a necessity. Tackling a dungeon was in many cases a matter of exploring just a small part of it, nearly dying (in best case), teleporting out, and trying again.
Needless to say that compared to today's RPGs (or even to its own sequel
), Phantasy Star
didn't really have much of a narrative. The story started strong, but afterwards it was mostly a hunt for party members and items needed to get to Lassic. The characters also stopped interacting after becoming part of your team, and their personalities were just rudimentary.
The Bottom LinePhantasy Star
infused soul into a genre that started its life as a sub-par clone of Western RPGs. No fan of Japanese RPGs can ignore this game; this is the grandfather of them all, worthy of deepest respect and admiration. But it is much more than just a historical phenomenon; with its balanced gameplay and attractive visuals, Phantasy Star
remains enjoyable even today.