The CRPG genre in the early eighties had a lot to celebrate and strategy juggernaut, SSI, didn’t want to feel left out.
In a lot of ways, SSI entering the genre with its expertise behind wargame sims made a lot of sense. Pen and paper RPGs had come out of the wargaming field, extending the rules and pulling inspiration from the kind of tactical environment that they created. From the days of Gary Gygax’s run-in with Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg in the late 50’s to Dave Arneson and Dave Weseley’s Napoleonic “Braunsteins”, the roots of the RPG genre would feel their way past scenarios grounded in reality to ones involving magic and fantasy over the course the next few decades.
SSI’s gaming history had largely been dominated by wargaming scenarios covering everything from the Civil War to World War III. Then in 1984, they published a little game called Questron — a CRPG that stated on the back of its box “Game structure and style used under license from RICHARD GARRIOTT” as it was mechanically identical to his Ultima series right down to the 3D wireframe dungeons and a tiled, 2D overworld. Though it had its own improvements, it’s interesting to see an early example of the kind of influence that Ultima’s success created.
But it would be in 1985 that SSI would release another CRPG, Phantasie, which was the first of a series. While Questron did have a sequel four years later, Phantasie would go on to have two more over the next five years including Phantasie IV which was released exclusively in Japan.
The series’ lead designer, Winston Douglas Wood, had worked on all of the titles — including the one that Japanese developer, Star Craft, had created with SSI’s blessing — according to an interview with hardcore CRPG sanctuary, the RPG Codex. Wood also reveals that Phantasie had been SSI’s best selling title for several years. Even though its sequels didn’t do quite as well — by the time they were coming out, the genre was getting crowded with a variety of other contenders and improved sequels from peers — Phantasie still did things that its competition didn’t quite address. As it is with many games, Phantasie’s features were due to its designer, Wood, wanting to improve on what was out there.
Phantasie is exclusively a top-down, tile-based game — no 3D dungeons here. Those were top-down as well owing to Woods’ experience with pen-and-paper RPGs. But they also had the added mystery of revealing themselves slowly over time as you explored, much like how automapping systems would later fill in the details as the party explores more of a particular area.
Phantasie also allowed players to create a party of characters, something that Wizardry had long enjoyed and which the Ultima series would get started with in 1983’s Ultima III. It also had a unique blend of Grecian mythology and Tolkienesque trappings. “Tholie’s Tale”, an atmospheric story told in the manual, immersed players outside of the bare bones fiction in the game motivating them to save the world from the eponymous Dark Lord threatening everything.
It told of how nothing had existed until Zeus and his followers dwelt in a place called the Olympic Plane encircled by the River Styx, and how they created the world. Of course, Tholie doesn’t get to go any further than that — the adventurer she’s traveling with is a bit impatient and wants to know if there are opportunities for fame and fortune in the land of Gelnor. There is, and it’s in the form of the Dark Lord, Nikademus, and his Black Knights.
Races are the usual Tolkien-inspired fare — Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Ogres along with Minotaurs. Fighters are also among the basic staples of fantasy ranging from fighters, monks, priests, rangers, and wizards. Towns are also where all of the business in managing your party and the game are handled from saving the game, training characters up to new levels, to building a party of six (though you can generate up to 37 characters).
The game also had a banking system. Each character had their own “account” and could deposit or withdraw gold from a bank. Dungeons also had a degree of persistence. If you left one and returned to it quickly enough, monsters and doors that you may have torn through may yet be left the way that you had found them. But after so long, it might revert back to how things were when you first found it.
It, like Wizardry, would also allow players to run multiple parties in the same game. They could play with one party, save the game, and when they started another one, could assemble a new crew and go off to adventure. Players could visit a town and check with the local Guild to actually see which of their characters are currently holed up in which town.
Combat also had a few interesting features extending the utility of your characters. Monsters can actually surrender, giving up gold and items. On the other side of the coin, you can also do the same as your pockets are emptied and backpacks liberated of any goods they might have. It’s also turn-based and players have more than an ‘attack’ option to use. Characters can still do that, but now they can also thrust and slash at enemies in front of them, or lunge at bad guys a row further back. Each move also has its own benefits and pitfalls. A simple attack simply allows you to strike a monster twice, but a thrust is one powerful attack that has the potential for doing a tiny bit more damage (1 or 2 hit points more), for example.
With some systems, like the Apple II and the Commodore 64, the game split the screen between a map on the right and an actual display of the party on the left. Combat displayed the party lined up at the bottom with ranks of monsters in front of them. While a number of CRPGs at the time still resorted to text-based lists of monsters, Phantasie tried to visually represent that if only to look cool. While players couldn’t tactically use it to maneuver their characters as they would units in SSI’s many strategy games, it still added a nice bit of visual pizzazz to the game.
The game also had a night and day cycle with encounters predictably becoming more dangerous at night. The world of Gelnor was also varied with seas, islands, mountains, plains — all contributing to the illusion of a world as detailed as any Ultima.
Phantasie comes across as user friendly as Ultima was, though it also had bits and pieces of the kind of hard consequences that Wizardry excelled at punishing its players with. As one example, resurrecting a character wasn’t fraught with the kind of harrowing danger that the potential for turning one to ash might entail in Wizardry. But a character’s constitution stat would still lose a point or two after being brought back. The manual was also filled with helpful tips on how to get around the game from combat to how to use the bank in order to pay for training or learning new spells.
Like many games at the time, Phantasie also enjoyed a wide number of platform releases thanks to SSI’s publishing chops. It appeared on many of the most popular systems at the time such as the Apple II and the Commodore, later appearing on the Amiga, Atari 8-bit computer, and MS-DOS. Like a number of other Western CRPGs, Phantasie had also appeared in Japanese systems such as the MSX with considerably different packaging art. Later, it along with Phantasie III and Questron II, was included in a “Bonus Edition” published by US Gold in 1990. But as for appearing on modern systems today, it, like many other games of its time, hasn’t yet found its way to a digital service like Good Old Games.
Phantasie cleverly mixed together popular mechanics and systems in a party-based, 2D tiled adventure featuring a number of features that helped to make it one of SSI’s most successful titles. It’s a considerable accomplishment considering the competition at the time and in the years ahead, but it wouldn’t be the last time that the venerable strategy company would enter the world of Gelnor. It would only feed its hunger for more, developing a large number of other titles ranging from Gemstone Warrior to the license that would make it a powerhouse in the genre — TSR’s AD&D.