Also available on Genesis and Saturn, PlayStation 2, and Game Boy Advance via Phantasy Star Collection
Phantasy Star is a series that a lot of folks are familiar with thanks to later entries, but relatively few folks seem to have played the Sega Master System original. While Phantasy Star often gets overshadowed by Dragon Quest and Fantasy Star, the other two "big" JRPG series of the era, Phantasy Star has long been my favorite. I originally played through it about ten years ago and remember hailing it as the greatest 8-bit RPG. Now, ten years later, I have a Retron 5, a Power Base Mini, and the retranslation and FM sound restoration patch that SMS Power put out, so when Eighties Ladies' Night was chosen as the Together Retro theme for March on Racketboy, I decided it was the perfect time to replay it, see if my opinion of it holds a decade later, and experience the FM sound and more accurate translation.
Phantasy Star tells the story of Alis, a girl who lives on the planet of Palma, one of three planets in the Algol star system. After seeing her brother killed in the street by the military, she vows to kill the Algol System's brutal dictator, LaShiec. Along the way she meets Token Warrior Guy, Token Mage Guy, and Token Magic Talking Animal to help her in her quest. You have to go between three different planets with different environments in your quest, fight a variety of monsters with an exponentially larger variety of pallet swaps, and gather the strength and equipment to usurp a tyrant's throne.
Visually, Phantasy Star is fairly standard on the overworld. It really doesn't stand out much from Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest too much in that regard. The battles are from a static first person perspective where you see the enemy but not your characters, just boxes with their HP and MP. No matter how many enemies you're fighting be it one or half a dozen, you only see a single enemy sprite; the only indication that you're fighting more enemies is the list of enemies and their HP in the top right corner of the screen. On the one hand, this is a bit disappointing as it precludes the option of fighting multiple enemy types like in Final Fantasy, but it does allow for larger, more detailed enemy sprites. I think it's a pretty fair trade off in that context.
What really sets Phantasy Star apart from its other 8-bit rivals is the dungeons. Whereas most of its contemporaries feature dungeons that have the same overhead perspective as the overworld, Phantasy Star employs a first person perspective that completely revolutionizes the immersion of dungeon crawling and is, as far as my experience goes, completely unique for RPGs of the era. Because this perspective would have been fairly demanding on the system on a large scale, the dungeons are all corridors one square wide, and the navigation just involves turning corners, going up and down stairs, and opening doors. Despite that, in addition to the aforementioned deep immersion, I found the dungeons to be far more challenging to navigate than those of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, but I mean that in the best possible way.
As for what the SMS Power patch changed, the most obvious change is going to be the music. The Master System's standard PSG music chip is okay for most games, but it doesn't always produce the most aurally aurally pleasing sounds in the world. The FM chip, however, which was removed when the Sega Mark III was brought to North America as the Sega Master System, produces some fantastic sounds that were leagues ahead of what the NES could produce. Some games used this chip better than others, but Phantasy Star is one of the examples of brilliant use of FM sound. The music with restored FM sound is simply fantastic and a marked improvement over the music that North Americans originally got in every way. As for the retranslation part of the patch, it had been long enough since I played Phantasy Star as it was originally released that I can't speak too much to how much better a translation this is than what Sega released, but I do know that it's a much more accurate translation from Japanese at least as far as the names of characters and items and the such goes.
Phantasy Star is, admittedly, not quite as flawless as I remembered. It is, however, still the epitome of 8-bit JRPG game design in my opinion. It has its flaws, but I still found it to be a thoroughly rewarding experience and unique among its 8-bit contemporaries. It surpasses both the original Final Fantasy and the original Dragon Quest in storytelling and world building, and it's a shame that it's not been more widely played in the West. Anyone who has access to a Master System, a Genesis with some kind of Power Base device, or a Game Boy Advance really needs to play this game. 13/10 would recommend.
My Rating - 5 Neps
I'm a teacher.
And I like to play video games. I like to collect video games. I like to talk about video games, and I like to write about video games. During the day, I teach high school history; during the night, I spend my spare time gaming. Then I write about it.