Thursday, January 26, 2012

Games To Play Before You Die: #6 - Phantasy Star

Phantasy Star (1988)
Publisher: Sega
Designer: Rieko Kodama

(“Some cats, if they eat a certain type of nut, they become huge and
can fly. It’s really very wierd (sic).” -- NPC in the town of Abion)

Between 1986 and 1988, a trio of flagship titles for what would become three of the most beloved Japanese RPG franchises were released: Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star. While Final Fantasy landed on North American shores in 1988 and Dragon Quest (retitled Dragon Warrior for the English-speaking market) followed suit in 1989, Phantasy Star beat them both to the punch by nearly a year, effectively earning itself a reputation as the first JRPG to cross the Pacific.

Although it bears many of the hallmarks of classic JRPGs - random battles, overworld maps, HP and MP, character levelling, and increasing item strength and magic potency - Phantasy Star innovated on a number of fronts. To begin with, dungeons were presented in an unique first-person perspective; since the Master System was not powerful enough for true first-person 3D, the game’s designers presented a smoothly animated pseudo-3D effect, giving the impression of 360-degree motion. Monster sprites and combat attacks were animated, which was largely unprecedented at the time.

Perhaps the aspect of Phantasy Star with the most enduring impact, however, was the shift in tone from a medieval, Dungeons & Dragons-inspired environment to one with heavy sci-fi overtones. Later Final Fantasy games would mine this anime-esque juxtaposition of fantasy and science fiction to the extent that it would become one of the series’ defining qualities, but while the Light Warriors were toying around with the notion of airships and floating castles, Alis Landale and her crew were flitting from planet to planet, warding off robot-cops with small arms.

The game’s protagonist Alis was female, and female protagonists in video games were few and far between in 1988 (even Samus Aran had to trick players into presuming, at best, androgyny until the very end). In a field which was, and continues to be, predominantly male-oriented, lead designer Rieko Kodama joins a short list of female game designers from the era, which includes such luminaries as Sierra co-founder Roberta Williams and Wizardry designer Brenda Braithwaite. Commenting on the role of women in her games, Kodama stated in an interview that “one thing I always have in mind is that I don’t want to include any elements that would treat women unfairly in my game. It’s not that I create games with a message of discrimination against women or wanting to eliminate gender-role, but I’m careful not to treat them unfairly.”* Alis was neither scantily-clad nor a sex symbol; rather, she was a strong and determined heroine with a mission, caught up in a drama compelling enough to draw in players regardless of gender.

Phantasy Star has spawned more than fifteen sequels, spin-offs, and remakes, most recently with 2011’s Phantasy Star Portable 2: Infinity for the PSP, but it’s important to convey just how critical the first entry in the series was when it first came out. For many non-Japanese gamers in 1988, Phantasy Star was their first encounter with a console roleplaying game, and it made a spectacular impression. It set the stage for Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, and is perhaps lesser known than those two games today simply because the Master System didn’t enjoy the same popularity, historically, that the NES did. That it managed to spark a legitimate franchise is all the more impressive considering the fact that the games were often relegated to Sega’s latter-day consoles: the Game Gear, Sega Saturn, and Dreamcast were all recipients of exclusive Phantasy Star games, and it wasn’t until remakes and collections of earlier games started to make their way over to the GameCube and PlayStation 2 that the majority of RPG fans discovered Phantasy Star’s vast, undiscovered world.

(Upon release, Phantasy Star retailed for $69.99, with some outlets selling the game for as much as $80. By comparison, the typical Sega Master System game sold for $29.99, and the system itself retailed at $99.99, making Phantasy Star one of the most expensive games ever sold.)

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