The Sega Master System and the NES both were engaged in yet another spiraling contest of console supremacy that would be a fanboy tradition from generation to generation in the late eighties. Both systems had their own positives and negatives: the Master System was technologically superior to the NES in terms of graphics and sound, but the NES would build upon a huge share of third-party licenses on top of Nintendo’s own exclusive library to dominate the market. It was a lesson that Sega would take to heart with the Mega Drive/Genesis later on.
To show off the technical power of the Master System, a number of games released for did their best to make use of its unique hardware. Colorful games such as Fantasy Zone, Zillion, and arcade translations such as Space Harrier, Quartet, and R-Type would push its limits. And when it came to RPGs, the Master System would also roll out the pixel carpet for them as well.
One of the most iconic, and a personal favorite of mine, was Phantasy Star. Initially released in Japan in ’87 and then making its way to North America the following year in ’88, it was an amazing tour de force of visuals and sound. As soon as that opening music began playing with the game’s heroine, Alis, poised onscreen to begin the good the fight, I knew that this wasn’t any ordinary RPG.
Gameplay was divided between a top-down view of three different worlds on which the massive quest would take you. Vehicles would also play a big part such as a digger that bore through previously impassible terrain to open up new areas to explore. Fighting was turn-based with a four person party. Dungeons, though, were especially stunning utilizing first-person views utilizing grid-based movement.
The performance and visuals, however, were amazingly clear and sharp for something that wasn’t a PC. Though the Bard’s Tale and other CRPGs used the first-person view, none of them really matched the kind of graphical fidelity and smooth performance that Phantasy Star played with at the time. Random encounters would attack onscreen with animated monsters, a simple menu system kept track of everything with only a few button presses, and NPCs were everywhere with something to say.
The story was also as epic with the cartridge supporting saves to memory…very useful after several hours of scouring its dungeons for treasure, or simply in grinding up for an escapipe or set of new weapons. A quest that would start on one world would soon evolve into a journey to stop the ruthless ambition of Lassic behind which lurked a darkness that threatened to engulf the Algol system. It was an remarkable mix of sci-fi and magic, a theme that many others would also emulate.
Each character was also fleshed out with their own goals, interests, and personalities. Though simple, it was a technique that would be used by a number of other RPGs and adventures in which the player was asked to play the role of a character whose story was already set but whose actions would be prompted by gameplay which was just amazingly fun. It even holds up pretty well today. There was just something clean and focused about it that keeps it on everyone’s favorites list – including mine.
The game would be followed up with three more games – Phantasy Star II, III, and the monster-sized IV. After IV, many of these would appear in collections which would often be Japan only. Fans would even go on to create translations that were much truer to the original script years later.
Since then, Sega has built Phantasy Star up into a new franchise, Phantasy Star Online, with its sci-fi elements even more hyped up than they were in the original quartet. Personally, I didn’t care much for the online interations as they drifted from being singular experiences focused on story to MMO models that required teaming up with players to get anywhere in the game.
Something was missing in the translation, and when I look back at the visual aesthetics of Final Fantasy XIII with its own blend of sci-fi and flashy powers, I can’t help but think that it could have been Phantasy Star had Sega continued to focus on the series in the same way that Square-Enix had done with theirs.
The ad for Phantasy Star was simple with the cover art for the game displayed and a few screenies to show what the game looked like. That blue dragon? Rough customers along with that tentacle thing sticking out of the sand in the other shot to the left of it. The upper right screenshot showing a corridor was an example of the first-person dungeon view, the middle shot is a store, and the one in the upper right is a shot of the overworld as the party train approaches a town. Probably to stock up on another escapipe for a quick dungeon exit.