As a theme, hopelessness rarely appears in Japanese RPGs. Sure, any good story includes a moment when all seems lost for the heroes, but we know they will win out in the end. That is because most Japanese RPGs follow the time-tested model of the hero’s journey. At first glance, Phantasy Star II might seem to be in the same mold, but it is not a hero’s journey. It is the story of a species fighting for survival, a storyline that tends to be less inclined to a happy ending. For these heroes, then, there is no hope.
The game begins on the pleasantly terraformed desert planet Mota. However, monsters (since this is sci-fi, they’re given the less-than-ideal name Biomonsters) are abroad, and if that weren’t enough, a thief is keeping people from traveling. Rolf and his friends Nei and Rudo must find and stop this thief. So far so generic, right? Only the thief is stealing because he wants to pay the ransom for his kidnapped daughter, and when Rolf finally infiltrates the thieves’ hideout, everyone has been slaughtered by Biomonsters. It’s all downhill from there…
In a major showdown, Nei, the female lead up to that point, is killed. Granted, given the difference in hardware, characterization, and sheer cinematic heft, it doesn’t hold a candle to Final Fantasy VII’s iconic death scene, and a year earlier Final Fantasy II was killing off secondary characters left and right. Nei, though, is the first major character in a video game to have such a memorable exit.
Not long after Nei’s death the heroes must prevent Palm, the capital planet of Mota’s solar system and the location where the original Phantasy Star took place, from being destroyed. They are unsuccessful, an entire planet gone the way of Alderaan.
The heroes eventually discover that everything that is going wrong traces back to the solar system’s computerized caregiver, Mother Brain. After destroying it, they find out that Mother Brain itself was constructed to control all life in the solar system. The alien beings that constructed it lost their planet, and now their numberless hordes have been angered, and all that stands between them and Rolf’s people is, well, Rolf and his people. What planet the aliens are from is shocking, if a bit heavy-handed, but as for the ending: It consists of Rolf and his friends standing up to the aliens, each getting in their heroic last words. Cue credits.
There are quite a few games where the main character dies in an emotional finale, but I’ve yet to see another where it is heavily implied that every character the player has come to know over the course of the game goes down in a blaze of glory. It’s the kind of thing that was unprecedented when I first played it in 2000, let alone back when it debuted in 1989.
The feat accomplished by Phantasy Star II’s storytellers is not as groundbreaking as what we would see from Final Fantasy IV. What it did do was give console RPG writers, from Final Fantasy VI to Lufia II and beyond, the freedom to be bleak, to not always let the heroes win decisively. This allowed for deeper, more intricate stories, and the medium is better for it.
Article by Paul McClain
GameSpite Journal 12: Phantasy Star II