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Written by  :  jlebel (2211)
Written on  :  Mar 20, 2006
Platform  :  SEGA Master System
Rating  :  3.5 Stars3.5 Stars3.5 Stars3.5 Stars3.5 Stars

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Summary

Unique & convincing game world with some "1st in the series" shortcomings.

The Good

Phantasy Star is a series that has it's own unique look and feel while capturing what is specific about being an RPG.

Even though this is an 8-bit game the graphics are clean and easy to look at. They're not overly attractive but clearly convey the world as intended and most important never obfuscate game play. Cut scenes using the familiar anime style helps give the game it's unique look.

Phantasy Star sports a wide variety of monsters that are both interesting and intimidating. Most of the random encounter drawings are large and reasonably detailed. During these encounters the background matches the world map terrain (nicer than seeing solid black), which adds to game atmosphere.

The music is pleasant enough and doesn't grate on your nerves after a few hours. The tunes are simple affairs similar to what can be found in Dragon Warrior.

A nice attempt at adding magic is present (3 of 4 characters can use spells) but I found myself saving magic points for some anticipated battle at the end of a given dungeon. While this may be somewhat normal for an RPG, in Phantasy Star the magic points are very limited, so this effectively turns your party of characters into hack and slash warriors.

A linear storyline unfolds during game play, but the gaming world is not linear, except where constrained by the strength of random encounters or impassable geography. Two great design choices contributed to this:

1. Multiple vehicles are available for travel, including an ice digger for burrowing through glacial plains, a hovercraft for water, and a land rover for some hostile grounds. 2. Access to inter-planetary travel between 3 planets, a defining point for the Phantasy Star series.

Furthermore the story, not being stereotypical, has Alys the female protagonist remain the game’s strongest character. Even her axe-wielding, non-magic using warrior friend Odin is inferior.

A final comment on the story: as game play progresses you never lose sight of the fact that the antagonist has caused much suffering; in various ways NPC's remind you why you are trudging about the world.

The designers decided on 3D dungeons like in early Wizardry titles – this is both good and bad. They attempted to add something not found in other competing titles like Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior, unfortunately the result is a bit boring, but at least each dungeon has a different colour and it's more than just a wire-frame outline.

The Bad

Being first in the series means a few bad design choices shouldn’t surprise us too much. Here is my list of personal gripes:

  • The contents of many chests found in the dungeons are meaningless. For example it is quite common to find a chest with 20 mesetas, meanwhile each random encounter renders 2-3 times that amount. Obviously there is little motivation to seek out and retrieve chests if they are often disappointing.
  • This was a BIG complaint for me when I first played Phantasy Star: At the end of each random encounter the dead creature(s) leave(s) behind a treasure chest and you have to decide whether to open it or not. This happens at the end of EVERY fight for the ENTIRE game. This was almost enough to turn me off the game but somehow I got used to this and didn't think about it (maybe it was the wonder of how a blue slime could manage to carry a chest). The idea behind this is that each chest has a 5-10% chance of being booby-trapped depending on the monster that leaves it, so you have to decide on the risk of opening the chest, but the thing is you need mesetas to buy some very expensive items so you always say yes, and it just becomes an annoyance.
  • But my biggest complaint was not being able to selectively attack an enemy when fighting a big group during a random encounter. The game would randomly select a monster for each attacking character. It was very frustrating to see a couple of enemies linger with 1 hit point while the party hammers away at the others.
  • The game has another problem with time spent levelling up at the start of a new game. Things get interesting after a new character joins the party, which doesn't take too long, but this obligatory levelling-up period could be enough to turn away interest in Phantasy Star. Personally, walking in circles to generate random encounters to grow in strength enough to access new areas is a pain. Fortunately this character growth happens naturally by travelling the world map and traversing dungeons after Alys hits level 5 or 6.
  • A final complaint: I found having to heal each character separately at a hospital to be a nuisance, it wasn't so much the cost (1 meseta per lost point) but this task slowed down game play for no good reason. Although in the first town a place exists where instantaneous party healing can occur (for free even), but for the other towns this was not the case and the player had to use the cumbersome hospital interface.


To the credit of Phantasy Star designers these 'features' for the most part do not make a re-appearance in the other installments of the series.

The Bottom Line

Phantasy Star came out in 1988 for an 8-bit system. The designers did a lot with the hardware they had and it shows by how convincing the game world is. Being the first in the series also means that the designers discovered some features work great and others ensnare the player with unnecessary maintenance. Despite design problems enough balance is present in Phantasy Star to call it fun and worth trying out for those who are curious about this unique series.