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Friday, August 14, 2015

Article: Revisitng Phantasy Star on Wii Virtual Console

The title transcends languages, apparently.
Continuing my quest to consume old Japanese Role-Playing Games, I became curious about a series of titles that kept popping up on the Wii VC: Phantasy Star. I had heard the name from the Dreamcast days, specifically aware that Online had been received well. In truth, I had no idea what the series was best known for, so I did a bit of snooping and discovered that the original four games are considered landmarks of RPG design in their own ways. So I figured it was time to take a look at them individually and see how this series progressed, and how it affected RPGs.

I also wanted to see if these classics could still be considered as such and returned to easily on more modern systems. My overall conclusion with the original Phantasy Star? Ehhh, not so much.

PROS:

-Very different characters and setting from most RPGs, though it falls back on the same equipment types and enemies.

-Impressive sprites and animation for its time, very charming feeling.

-Weird conveniences even for an archaic RPG

CONS:

-Nondescript objectives aren't good for a quick playthrough

-Lack of dungeon mapping (to be fair, it's an old game)

THOUGHTS:

Phantasy Star kind of surprised me. I wasn't sure what I was expecting from an 8-bit RPG, though this one is considered one of the best. While I'm not sure it's more favorable to me than Ys Book I and II, I still think it's a pretty solid RPG with a few surprises for someone who thinks the medium was archaic.

Phantasy Star features one of the first female protagonists in video games in the form of Alis, and though she doesn't have a whole lot of dialogue, she is resourceful and strong, with a host of abilities that might prove useful (or not, if you're looking to steamroll the game). Her ability to use both offensive and healing magic is useful in the early game, especially when it's only her and her pal, the weird ferret-cat-dragon thing. As the cast expands, each new member feels very alien in their function, though Noah, the final member, is pretty much a standard mage, even in appearance. While the game tries its best to say "no, this is a LASER sword, honest!", you'll be seeing a lot of high fantasy tropes here, from slimes to vampires to... well, actually, there's a host of bizarre animal wildlife on display, and I'd be lying if I said the narrative doesn't take some twists and turns.

Though you start out in a pretty standard looking world with some futuristic touches, the other planets you travel to feel different and have their own design challenges and layouts. It's impressive to see the level of variety that went into the world design, and how different vehicles help you in different areas. Dungeons range from simple caves to complex labyrinths, and though they don't vary much in appearance, each one has its own charms to set it apart. There's a distinct design chocie to put lots of easily opened doors in the areas leading up to bosses and whatnot, and it does give the whole thing a sense of triumphant build. The bosses are also pretty colorful and odd, but  there's nothing too mind blowing until the final boss, whose sprite looks truly terrifying.

However, the most glaring flaw of Phantasy Star is its lack of direction. While some townspeople have good things to say and I respect an old RPG for doing that, it's easy to lose your way in Phantasy Star just because you are determined to explore. Not only that, but certain necessary quest objectives can be flat-out missed because of the nondescript nature of the items and overall story. While a game like Ys or even Zelda II felt pretty straightforward in how the townspeople communicated goals to the player, sometimes the objectives in Phantasy Star require several steps and even items, so doing one of those things out of order can prove frustrating. The lack of direction in dungeons is also an annoyance, but tolerable since maps have been made and because of the title's age. Still, if you're expecting an easy run through, be prepared to do some tough backtracking or completion in order to finish this game entirely. More modern maps and item descriptions on wikis and walkthroughs can be a blessing, since several key items don't really have descriptions (or use after the first time they're implemented, sell that stuff off!), and being able to pinpoint items more easily means you can avoid the tedium of using certain spells and abilities ad nauseum. I was pleasantly surprised to find that a weapon for your mage can actually be used as a normal inventory item that can help you skip battles- that's crazy! I thought the final moments of the game were going to be a nightmare!

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Phantasy Star. Upon starting the game, I played as far as I could without the help of a guide (which was pretty damn deep, if I do say so myself. Eight to ten hours!), but ultimately its age began to show and that's when I couldn't waste my time any longer. I can see how, when this game was released, people probably poured over its contents, marking dungeons on graph paper and noting what certain items did and townspeople said. I could feel myself getting enraptured in the game's simplistic visuals and music, which are damn good even for their hardware. But I have to move on to the next entry in the series, and that means I didn't have the time to fully immerse myself in the experience. And that's okay, it was still super fun. Just not as easy to get into as other classics.

Final Verdict: While Phantasy Star has a host of interesting ideas, locales, and conveniences, it hasn't aged well. If there's any title that could benefit from more modern design choices while keeping the feel of the original (3D Classics, anyone?) this deserves it. It's a good 8-bit RPG, but suffers from its time period a bit too much.

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