With its inspired space setting, rich history, and distinctive aesthetic, Phantasy Star may be my favorite RPG series of all time. One may not associate Sega’s flagship RPG with Nintendo hardware, but the Wii, DS, Game Boy Advance, and GameCube are actually home to some of the best games in the franchise- many of which still hold up today! Let’s have a look.
Despite Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy introducing me to RPGs and making me fall in love with the genre on the NES, Phantasy Star remains my favorite 8-bit RPG. In many ways, it’s shocking that Phantasy Star is even a product of the same era as Square / Enix’s RPGs. The game opens with an anime-style still-frame cutscene depicting heroine Alis’ brother slain at the hands of the king’s guards. It’s extremely impressive stuff, and demonstrates a level of visual quality that is found throughout the whole game.
While you traverse the overworld and towns from an overhead perspective in Phantasy Star, dungeons, battles, and NPC conversations are all in first-person. The NPC and monster sprites are gorgeous, as are the backgrounds. The game is very appealing visually, even today.
The most technically impressive part of the game is also the most frustrating- the dungeons. In Phantasy Star, the dungeons are all in a first person perspective, which is pretty crazy for a console game from 1987. However, the mazes are extremely intricate, with few landmarks, no in-game map, and walls with the same pattern throughout.
Should you check it out? Absolutely. Phantasy Star sports memorable music, an epic planet-hopping quest, and is a technical masterpiece. If you are intent on completing the game, I’d highly recommend using a guide, but I think you can have a profound experience just wandering and exploring the game world on your own. I certainly did the first time I played it.
The original Phantasy Star is easily my top choice to get the Sega 3D Classics treatment from M2 (I wrote a bit about that here).
Phantasy Star II was, like its predecessor, a game completely ahead of its time. Releasing in 1989, two years before Final Fantasy IV, PSII brought RPGs into the 16-bit era with style and soul. Set 1000 years after the original, PSII tells a surprisingly dark tale of a world kept in order by a computer called Mother Brain, which begins malfunctioning.
The excellent visuals match the gritty sci-fi story perfectly. The character designs and art in Phantasy Star II are some of my favorites of the 16-bit era, right up there with Chrono Trigger. Phantasy Star II’s music fits the game perfectly with its chipper, yet haunting industrial pop; easily in my top-5 Genesis soundtracks.
While the game eschews the first person dungeons from its predecessor, the top-down mazes are still extremely difficult to navigate. Later dungeons, with their multiple teleports, make using maps essential.
Should you check it out? Again, yes. While an inconsistent localization somewhat negates the impact of the excellent story (and the connections to the original Phantasy Star), this is still an incredibly epic RPG. It’s definitely a tough game, but with maps, grinding, and a bit of patience, it’s far from impossible.
One of the few games in the series that I have not finished, I’ve tried to get into Phantasy Star III probably a dozen times over the years, but it just never clicks, despite being a solid RPG. Here’s (essentially) what I wrote about it a few years ago, in a piece about the PS2 Phantasy Star Collection:
The reviled third entry in the Phantasy Star series really isn’t as terrible as you’ve heard. It has some problems, sure. The character art lacks charm, some of the enemies are pretty unsettling (the giant, torso-up sprite of a naked man with what seems to be an all-seeing block of cheese balanced on his head who jiggles his pecs to attack comes to mind), and the towns are all a bit too samey-looking, but it’s not all bad. The multi-generational branching story is really cool for its time and there is some excellent music to be found here (minus the bizarre and somewhat irritating contextually-shifting battle theme). It’s my least favorite game in the series, but still one of the better console RPGs of the time.
Should you check it out? Maybe, but other games on this list should definitely take priority.
What about the Game Boy Advance Phantasy Star Collection?
The Phantasy Star Collection on GBA includes PS I – III on a single cart. While portability is great, the games suffer from degraded sound and Phantasy Star I has an awful save glitch. However, I played through PS I and II on this cart around release and the sound didn’t bother me, nor did I encounter the save glitch in the first game (as far as I remember). While I would definitely recommend the perfect ports on the Wii Virtual Console over this collection, it is a bit cheaper (used carts can be found for under $15) and portability goes a long way with grind-heavy games like these.
Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium (First released: Japan – 1993 – Sega Mega Drive / North America – 1995- Sega Genesis) Available on Wii Virtual Console
Despite the tackiness of linking to my own writing (again), I’d like to refer you to a review I wrote of the Wii Virtual Console version of Phantasy Star IV, which pretty much sums up how I still feel about the game today.
PSO Episode I & II on the GameCube is one of the most expensive Phantasy Star games out there, selling for around $50 used. It’s still in demand for good reason- the game is packed with meaningful additions to the original Dreamcast PSO. For one, the game makes use of a plethora of GameCube accessories. It supports progressive scan through the pricey component cables, online play through the 56k or broadband modems (though the official servers are long offline), and even the Game Boy Advance cable for downloadable minigames.
As for the core game itself, Episode I is pretty much the same as it was on the Dreamcast (you can read about my recent replay here), but Episode II is like a whole new PSO game, with all new areas, items, quests, and enemies. What I feel really makes PSO Episode I & II on GCN special is the local multiplayer mode, which allows 2-4 players to play together in split screen. The main focus here is co-op questing/grinding in the traditional PSO manner, but there are a couple of additional weird and cool modes to play as well.
The first being battle mode, which isn’t too exciting to be honest. It plays just like your standard co-op mode, except with friendly fire. Yup, in addition to the monsters of Ragol, you can also attack the other player. Unless you and your co-op partner(s) are really looking to spice up your play and make Ragol even more dangerous, there’s not much point to this mode.
Challenge mode is a bit more interesting. Here, you go to the Hunter’s Guild counter to receive a timed quest for you and your partner(s) to complete.
The name “challenge” is appropriate here, because you start at a pre-determined level with pre-determined gear. While this makes the game exciting again for players with maxed-out characters, unfortunately none the experience or gear earned in this mode transfers back to the standard gameplay modes.
Challenge mode is still worth checking out though, especially if you’ve somehow exhausted the rest of the game’s content, because the areas are changed up a bit from the standard mode.
Split screen isn’t perfect, and includes many of the faults inherent to these modes such as texture pop-in and cramped viewing space. Once you adjust however, the issues do not dampen your enjoyment of the game in the least.
Should you check it out? It’s kind of tough to recommend spending $50 on a GameCube game from the early 2000s with an online mode that no longer exists in an official capacity. However, Phantasy Star Online Episodes I & II is so packed with content that you could easily spend 50 hours playing single player. Factor in the offline split-screen multiplayer and this is an extremely robust package that could keep you playing for years.
But most importantly, it’s worth owning at least one copy of PSO, even just to play offline, because it remains a great game today. The art design and music is incredible, the enemies inspired, the character progression addicting, and the timing/positioning-based combat is still challenging and engaging. PSO, even in its offline state, is one of my favorite games of all time, and one that I will continue to revisit over the years.
Just remember to not play it with a WAVEBIRD controller 😉
What about Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II Plus for GameCube?
I wish I could tell you more, really. This is the only Nintendo-system Phantasy Star title I don’t own. I’ve never been able to justify the $80-$100 price the game goes for these days, especially considering there apparently isn’t a significant amount of additional content over the original PSO I & II.
From what I’ve read PSO I & II Plus fixes some bugs and exploits, adds a Challenge Mode to Episode II, and allows for a handful of previously online-only quests to be playable offline. I would like to purchase this version at some point, once I can find a complete copy at a more agreeable price.
Phantasy Star Online Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution (First released: Japan – 2003 / North America – 2004) Available on GameCube
Man, what’s with the third entries in the Phantasy Star series always being weird (and somewhat disappointing, yet still interesting) departures?
For Phantasy Star Online Episode III, Sonic Team made the bizarre decision to create a PSO collectible card game for this GameCube exclusive.
The problem with PSO Episode III is not that it is a collectible card game. While it’s initially obtuse, if you poke around in the tutorial (and some guides) you’ll find a solid and addicting CCG. It’s unbalanced and exploitable, but that’s simply the nature of the genre at the time Episode III was released. The thrill of opening card packs and customizing decks, something that millions of Hearthstone players are experiencing right now, is also present in this game.
PSO Episode III is certainly an aesthetically pleasing game. It uses not only the same art style as PSO I & II, but also many of the same models. While this visual similarity could cause the game to feel overly familiar, it manages to still come across as fresh due to the drastically different settings and mechanics. The (mostly) new soundtrack is excellent (as expected) and makes the game (arguably) worth the price of admission alone.
Despite all it has going for it, PSO Episode III has two major problems. One is that the game is SLOW. From the multiple steps in your turn to being forced to watch attack animations to waiting for the computer to make their moves, every battle feels much longer than it should.
The biggest issue with the game however, is that it is called Phantasy Star Online Episode III. While spinoffs and genre changes can be great (look at Mario!), such a dramatic shift in style alienates players who put hundreds of hours into the previous game. Imagine for a moment that Blizzard had revealed World of Warcraft 2, and it was Hearthstone. Yeah. There’s a reason that PSO Episode IV: Blue Burst returned to the style of the first two episodes.
Should you check it out? If you are a big fan of CCGs, Episode III is a solid and interesting, but flawed game. I would recommend most of the other titles on this list over it, but there are far worse ways to spend the $10 that the game currently sells for.
Phantasy Star Zero (First released: Japan – 2008 / North America – 2008) Available on Nintendo DS
Phantasy Star Zero is a very special game to me. I was living in Japan on the day of its release, December 25, 2008. While I loved being in Japan, holidays always brought out the worst sort of homesickness and loneliness in me. On this Christmas day however, I went out to a shop and picked up a copy of Phantasy Star Zero. I fell in love with the game instantly, playing it all day. I then emailed a Sega-loving friend back in the States to tell him about it and we ended up having an long email exchange about our favorite Christmas gaming memories. By the end of Christmas Day, my despondency was gone and I was filled with nostalgia and holiday cheer. In a way, PS0 saved Christmas.
Fast forward five-and-a-half years later. I’m on a plane with my wife, whom I had just married two days prior, and we’re headed to Japan for our honeymoon. What am I playing on the flight? None other than Phantasy Star Zero. Yes, PS0 is a game that still competes for the coveted card slot of my 3DS. Why? Because it’s packed with content and it plays great- making it perfect for the occasional pick up and play session.
Phantasy Star Zero was envisioned as a portable, spiritual successor to the Phantasy Star Online games (PS0, get it?), and for the most part, it succeeds. While keeping the addicting formula of PSO, Zero adds some welcome tweaks to the gameplay. Your character in Zero is much more nimble than in PSO, and the dodge/roll button is a fantastic addition.
The interface is improved as well, primarily by the existence of the DS’ second screen. The action stays on the top, with the touch screen acting as a handy and accessible toolkit. On the bottom screen you’ll find the health and status of yourself and party members, an area map (which can be zoomed in with a tap), and an adorable PictoChat-esque communication interface.
The visual presentation is probably where Zero differs the most from PSO. Character designs this time around were done by Toshiyuki Kubooka, the artist behind the characters and animation direction in the Lunar series. The character designs are distinct and appealing and while I prefer the overall art direction of PSO, Zero is still artistically striking. The actual gameplay visuals are less pleasing, with the blocky, low-polygon environments you’d expect from a 3D DS game. Characters and enemies still look good though, thanks to the excellent art design.
While the visuals may not have aged the best since the game’s release, the method for playing it has. Like with most 3D DS games, playing on the 3DS is a dramatic improvement in character control, thanks to the addition of the circle pad.
The soundtrack in Phantasy Star Zero sees PSO composer Hideaki Kobayashi returning. While the OST isn’t as memorable as PSO, it’s still really great and fits the aesthetic perfectly. This is probably as good a time as any to discuss the story in the Phantasy Star Online games. To put it bluntly, the stories in these games are merely functional and lack the epic character-driven tales and continuity of the 8 and 16-bit entries. PS Zero attempts to interject more drama and character moments into its narrative, but it’s not terribly engaging and scrolling through box after box of dialogue quickly becomes tedious. Definitely not a deal-breaker, but it kind of makes me appreciate the minimalist storytelling of the original PSO even more.
Should you check it out? I’d say so. If you’re new to the Phantasy Star Online experience, this is a more accessible starting point than PSO proper. The PS0 servers went down with the rest of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection Service, but the game is still playable locally (and has more than enough single player content).
All screenshots in this post are official Sega promotional shots, except for the crappy Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II, III, and Zero shots I took with my phone. Everything else is from Moby Games.
To close this post out, I’d like to share a photo of my Phantasy Star collection. I was always fascinated by the photo of Nick Rox’s collection in the Dreamcast PSO Guide, so I figured I’d do something similar here. My collection is meager, but meaningful, as it includes items purchased while in Japan and a present from my wife.
If you’re new to Phantasy Star, I hope that this post has inspired you to check out at least one of the games in the series. If you are a veteran who loves the games as much as myself, I hope this was an enjoyable and nostalgic read! If you have any further questions, or if you want to share a thought or memory of the series, leave a comment below or drop me an email or Tweet. I am always down to talk Phantasy Star. Cheers!