I grew up with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and a Commodore 64. My first experience with a turn-based role-playing game (RPG) came in the form of Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest in Japan) on the NES. I had read all about it in issues of Nintendo Power leading up to its release and was excited to give it a try. It turns out that I fell in love with the genre and am still a huge fan today. As a faithful Nintendo boy, I never gave the Sega Master System a second look. I knew of some of the games on that system thanks to coverage in magazines like GamePro and Electronic Gaming Monthly, but I didn’t actually know anyone in person that owned that system, even though I always had a sneaky suspicion that I’d enjoy Phantasy Star. It’s bright and detailed graphics (for the time) really had me intrigued, but I sort of pushed it out of my mind as something I’d never get the chance to play. Flash forward 30 years later and I’m finally getting that chance, and it was mostly worth the wait!
Obviously when you compare RPGs from the ‘80s with ones from today there’s a big difference. Luckily I grew up in that period and have an appreciation (and a pretty damn good memory) of playing tons of games during that time. Even so, going back and playing Phantasy Star without any of the nostalgia for the game was always going to be a gamble. These types of releases are often focused on serving the existing fans, not courting new ones. Going into it I sort of thought the game would be novel, but that I probably wouldn’t come away thinking it was anything worthwhile for today’s gamer. I’m happy to report I was wrong! Yes, I found the game to be extremely obtuse and cryptic with some of the dialog, but the underlying exploration and combat was still fun all these years later.
Unlike most other RPGs of that time, Phantasy Star ditched the usual swords and sorcery medieval setting for a futuristic sci-fi one. This and of itself is a cool decision that is appreciated even today. You begin the game in a spaceport town and the game uses the now-standard overhead perspective for you to move your character around in. What’s interesting is that at any point you can press a button and the view changes into first person, giving you a detailed (for the time) look at what’s directly in front of you. In fact, as you begin exploring dungeons and caves this first person perspective is all you get. I remember reading at the time that these labyrinths can be quite tricky and that it’s easy to get turned around and lost. Luckily for this port they’ve included an auto-mapper that shows everywhere you’ve been, making navigation so much easier than it must have been originally. While NES games like The Goonies II and Dr. Chaos had also experimented with first person sections, the graphics here are so much better and it’s kind of amazing to see how much ahead of the curve Sega was with this title.
Staying on the graphics for a moment, this game really is something special. The amount of colors on the screen is vastly superior to almost anything on the NES. In addition, you get some blown up portraits of various characters that are quite detailed and look decidedly anime. The overworld is also detailed with trees, sand, grass, and other environments looking great for an 8-bit system. It’s no wonder this game captivated many Sega players back in the day as it’s quite impressive visually.
Most RPGs live or die by their story and their combat, since that’s what the majority of these types of games are. Luckily Phantasy Star does both pretty well. The story is told rather sparsely by talking to the various townspeople and progressing along to new areas. Much like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, some of the people you talk to are rather worthless and sometimes talk complete nonsense. Others are more helpful and will give a bit of lore or background to the world around you. The story isn’t anything too deep or even all that captivating, but when put in context with other games of the time it offers more up than much of the competition.
Battles are pretty standard first person affairs. You select from a menu and can attack or use magic or run. At the beginning of the game I died almost instantly from one of my first encounters. I found that the surrounding woods around the first town are a bit diverse in enemy types. Unlike Dragon Warrior where you’ll probably battle mostly Slimes for the first level or two, here you can go up against something that you have no chance of defeating at your level. I had to constantly run from some enemies while seeking out others to level up. I’ve also not played a game in a long time where simply upgrading your weapon has such a dramatic impact on the damage you deal. I went from having to attack one enemy four times to defeat it to killing it in a single blow just by upgrading my weapon to the next available one. So, if you find yourself having difficulty at the beginning, just grind for a few minutes to earn enough money to buy some upgraded equipment and you should be good to go. The combat system in general doesn’t offer up anything too special, but it gets the job done.
Fans of the original game will be pleased with M2’s work here. There are a host of options to mess around with, including the visuals, where you can do everything from stretching the screen to adding scanlines to enabling pixel perfect mode. You have a host of different borders to choose from and some audio options as well. The extra effort put forth is much appreciated and in a time where other companies (ahem, Sony’s PlayStation Classic) cut corners it’s nice to see the great deal of care and attention to detail that went into this game. Whether you’re a fan wanting to relive your childhood or a newcomer, Phantasy Star has something to offer. I’m happy I finally got the chance to play this one, even if I’m 30 years late to the party.
Sega Ages Phantasy Star Review
Final Thoughts: GREAT
Phantasy Star comes to the Switch and it’s loaded with all sorts of options that should please hardcore fans. If you’re new to the game it’s still approachable even today, although having an appreciation for ‘80s 8-bit games will definitely impact your feelings toward it. I’m happy to finally say I’ve played this classic and the Switch’s portable mode is a great way to experience it!