While those kids who ended up with the Sega Master System instead of an NES can easily be said to have gotten the short end of the stick with platformers, and the overall quantity of games for the system, they were extraordinarily lucky on the RPG front, particularly in North America. When the first RPG for the NES was Dragon Warrior in the summer of 1989, those who made the less popular console choice had long since been spoiled rotten by Phantasy Star.
Designed by Rieko Kodama, perhaps the most underappreciated creative forces in the industry, who would later go on to bring us Skies of Arcadia and Valkyria Chronicles, Phantasy Star was a true gem of an RPG, and easily a good decade ahead of its time. When everyone else still had tiny static monster sprites sitting on black backgrounds, Phantasy Star had screen filling animations, set against detailed custom backdrops for a wide variety of possible terrain. When Dragon Quest II was still unusual for featuring a party of named, recruitable characters, Phantasy Star had characters with introductory cutscenes with highly detailed illustrations. When other games still had generic heroic cyphers out saving the world out of a general sense of heroism, Phantasy Star was giving its characters personal motivations. When it was rare to see more than a seagoing ship as a means of expanding the player’s world, Phantasy Star featured a wide array of vehicles, including a spaceship allowing travel between three different planets. Vital information could only be obtained by communicating with monsters in one of three different ways, something rarely seen in RPGs even today, and dungeon interiors featured a first person 3D perspective, with smooth animation even when turning, which no other game featuring tile-based graphics has ever attempted to that degree.
In addition to pushing the envelope for RPGs in so many ways, Phantasy Star had an impressive legacy on the Genesis, with two sequels actually building on the story, recurring characters and settings (along with a bizarre spinoff full of inconsistencies that throws off the numbering), and a nicely satisfying conclusion. These sequels still maintain something of a following today, but sadly, the original is rarely revisited by fans of the genre. While it was far ahead of its time in the ’80s, the somewhat frontloaded difficulty leaves it a relic of the past for many.
Article by Jake Alley
GameSpite Journal 12: Phantasy Star