Nintendo stole most of the RPG thunder from Sega thanks to a long list of seminal RPGs that appeared on the Super Nintendo, but that doesn’t mean the Genesis was barren for fans of the genre. The main example of this was the Phantasy Star series, which, while often eclipsed in popularity by Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and Chrono Trigger, actually managed to be several steps ahead of the competition even as far back as the first game for the Master System. But Phantasy Star IV managed to reach the same heights as the pantheon of classic Nintendo RPGs thanks to some incredibly smart design decisions that handily made up for the game’s weaknesses.
This is even more impressive when you consider the fact that, compared to its slick-looking contemporaries, the game isn’t that impressive from a graphical standpoint, as everything about the graphics screamed 8-bit. While it’s clear that it was a game built for a 16-bit system thanks to the wider range of colors and greater amount of detail, most of the game’s graphics could best be described as “simple”. Compared to the vibrant, manga-looking sprites of Chrono Trigger, Phantasy Star IV looked downright primitive.
But Sega built Phantasy Star IV on what came before, entwining the game to prior titles in the series. The state of the game world is a direct result of events that took place in Phantasy Star II. While the game works as a self-contained story, it closes the door on the Genesis series in fine fashion, providing closure and sprinkling in a surprising amount of context and continuity where appropriate.
Additionally, the simple visuals that looked so unimpressive compared to its peers were in reality deliberately so. While Sega could have easily revamped the graphics to compete with other RPGs, what we got was something in line with the visuals of Phantasy Star II, but more refined. Instead of feeling lazy, it helped connect the final game to its own past, which is appropriate given Phantasy Star IV, more than any other game in the series, is a game built on its own history.
The game did feature several key new additions that helped it become not only the ultimate expression of Phantasy Star, but one of the best, most innovative RPGs around. Players could program battle behaviors for their characters and even find new combination attacks using the new macro system. And instead of cut scenes or in-engine dialogue, important scenes were communicated using manga-like panels that gave the game a feel unlike any other RPG of the time. But it’s the game’s ties to its own past that really make the game memorable. Long-time fans of the series found catharsis with the ultimate story, and even someone experiencing the series for the first time felt like they were playing something that was a part of something bigger, something vast and rich. And if nothing else, that’s what Phantasy Star has always been about.
Article by Jeremy Signor
GameSpite Journal 12: Phantasy Star