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SummaryTalking cats and anime spaceships got it right the first time
The GoodTogether with Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star is considered the founding father of that peculiar sub-genre known as "Japanese RPG". Of those three games, the Sega Master System flagship title is the most appealing and polished one, and also the one that captures the spirit of the new genre most closely. Like its two NES cousins, Phantasy Star is based on simplified RPG mechanics taken from Western games, but it adapts them better to the console medium, sacrifices less gameplay value, and adds a lot of flair and character its contemporary rivals lacked.
Straightforward and shallow by Western standards, Phantasy Star is still noticeably less restrictive than its own sequels - as well as most of its genre-bound stepchildren. There is quite a bit of exploration involved, and the game doesn't take you for an idiot, actually allowing you to think outside of the box. In Dragon Quest, you could theoretically go wherever you wanted, but monsters that were mathematically impossible to defeat reduced that non-linearity to a mere facade. There are such instances in this game as well, but for the most part it does a great job at letting the player decide what to do next. It is quite astonishing that this early offering of the genre had the guts to be less condescending and patronizing than the countless insultingly linear Japanese RPGs that followed suit.
There are no magic arrows or straight pathways from A to B that securely lead you to your destination. Yes, NPCs might give you clues, but it is your job as the player to figure out what they mean. There are many dungeons in the game, a fair amount of which can be tackled in any order you wish. There are vast stretches of the overworld for you to explore. There are four planets you can travel to - and, once you get your own spaceship, you can choose to visit any of them. There are interesting vehicles you can buy to make the exploration process less tedious and access previously blocked areas. You never feel that steel claw on your neck that forces you to play the game one way and one way only. The suffocating linearity that would ultimately irreparably damage Japanese RPGs is not present in this little game with a large heart.
There are also plenty of more conventional goodness in Phantasy Star. You'll have four party members, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. You'll buy gear, hunt for rare items, and learn magic to defeat fearsome foes. The game's 3D dungeons might look plain, but I'd take them any time of the day over the drab monstrosities of its sequel. Somehow, things feel organic in this game, with a healthy element of randomness and surprise, not tailor-suited for the player like its own sequels and most other representatives of the genre. Also, you can save your game anywhere, which should be a given - only, quite inexplicably, it is not.
In terms of presentation, Phantasy Star is clearly ahead of its time. Of particular importance is the game's dramatic element, which later became the defining trait of the genre. Before Phantasy Star, RPG heroes were usually chosen for their mission without any particularly compelling reason. This game was the first to introduce personal motives to the narrative: Alis, the young heroine of the game, is not a fighter or an adventurer by nature - she just wants to avenge the death of her brother. During the course of the game she assembles the first distinctly Japanese party (two humans with pre-set backgrounds and a talking cat), thus becoming the first anime-style RPG as well.
Breaking free from the ever-present medieval cliche, the game also created its own world - a Star Wars-like mixture of space-traveling science fiction and fantasy elements, which also became the home for its sequels, complete with its own history, geography, style, races, recurrent characters, and so on. You fight evil bees and slimes together with robotic guards; within the same battle, you slash the enemy with Alis' sword and fire at it with Odin's laser gun. You equip leather shields and armor, but heal with coke and burgers. You wander through wilderness areas and descend into caves, while returning to ultra-modern cities and traveling to other planets.
All this is presented with splendid graphics. Particularly the battle scenes are way ahead even of most 16-bit offerings, let alone contemporaries. Animated monsters are a pleasure to behold, and an even greater pleasure to vanquish.
The BadIf Phantasy Star was indeed primitive, it was so compared to Western RPGs, not its own grandchildren. Indeed, while clearly deeper and more sophisticated than the impossibly dumbed-down Dragon Quest, the game discards a lot of role-playing conventions with its rigidly assembled, plot-dictated party and only rudimentary choices in character development. NPC interaction is completely one-dimensional, and the whole experience feels, more often than not, like a hastily concocted amalgamation of Ultima-style overworld traveling with some simplified Wizardry mechanics during dungeon exploration. But perhaps that was part of its unique charm for console players who wanted to get a taste of the interesting genre without complicating things too much.
On the other side, the difficulty level can become relentless, and not always in a good way. Phantasy Star created much of what is good in Japanese RPGs, but also exemplified the most maligned traits of the genre, such as incessant random combat. Of course, it feels appropriately "retro" in a game that had to deal with real hardware limitations rather than the laziness of its designers, but it does get tiresome after a while. Particularly the beginning of the game is quite offensive, forcing the player to literally walk Alis in circles until she is strong enough to venture beyond the walls of the first town.
I have nothing to say against the concept of 3D dungeons, but the fact is that they are rather featureless. Drawing maps is probably a must for this game, since there are no visual landmarks to distinguish one place from another. More annoying, however, is the fact that the optional paths in the dungeons tend to lead to useless pieces of equipment and ridiculously underwhelming amounts of cash. Dungeon exploration hence becomes more of a challenge in itself, an obstacle to overcome, rather than a trip to discover new things while enjoying the process.