The gaming industry has a severe case of selective memory disorder doesn't it kids? The industry touts Final Fantasy as the ruling class of RPG's, and looks back upon each and every one of it's ancestors as an elite, ancient french wine that has no peer. You'd think that Square was the only team in town that could put out an RPG with an interesting gameplay system, stellar presentation, awesome music thats worth buying the soundtrack for, and a worthwhile story.
Lemme tell you about an awesome little game for the Sega Master System called Phantasy Star that fucking OWNED Final Fantasy, kids. It froze it's ass with a toasty ice spell, lopped it off with a laconian blade and force fed that rancid frozen treat down the throats of the light warriors. Chaos has long since escaped the Paramanian prison where he hid the dirty secret that he was Dark Force's personal bitch every night. Pulling a Necron should rightly be called pulling a Dark Force. Airship my ass, Phantasy Star gave you a Land Rover for cruising, AND a SPACE SHIP! Oh, you want a battle system, howsabout EVERY frickin enemy encounter being fully animated in their attacks? HUH?!? HOW YA LIKE THAT SQUARE? You couldn't do that until ten years, two gaming generations, and four times the processing power later.
It's time the gaming industry woke the fuck up. PHANTASY STAR may not have had the impact Square did outside of Japan, but through this series Sega brought so many original and brilliant ideas to the RPG table that Square would copy from their notebook for years to come. And this little article/rant is where Phantasy Star gets the props that have been so unjustly stolen from it.
The first Phantasy Star was one of the most awesome and innovative RPG's of it's generation. Arguably one of the first to involve a large party, THE first to take your quest off planet. The only one to have fully animated enemy attacks. And the first to mesh swords & sorcery with science fiction. Oh, and while Final Fantasy (the first one) was challenging, tough, intimidating, yadda yadda... it was still a cakewalk compared to Phantasy Star.
Okay, so the story is that in Algo star system there is ruling an evil king named Lassic. The latest rebellion attempt against him ended with your brothers dying body being dropped on his doorstep by Lassic's minions. Instead of getting all weepy, his sister picks up his sword and vows to take down Lassic. Along the way she embarks on adventures to the various planets in Algo to find the allies, weapons, and tools to make it to Lassic's sky castle and take him out. Along the way she picks up a talking cat with a mean bite named Mayu, a hulking brute of a warrior named Odin, and a sorcerer named Noah. Thats it, the entire game is pretty much a fetch quest to level up, storm the castle and kill the evil king. Although the game does get props for being one of the first where the strongest character in an RPG is female. Thats right, this is a feminist shout out to all RPG heroines hereafter. If an evil king should kill off your family, you don't get mad, you don't hook up with some posturing, over-compensating, macho idiot in a contrived romantic sub-plot in order to get him to do all the work for you. No. You get your posse together and get even. Word.
To me, the chief charm of the game is one very common to 8-bit RPG's; you are never REALLY told what your next objective is. You're kinda scrambling from one place to another, and discovering on your own all the little items and secrets that will let you get your revenge. The most you'll get is people just saying stuff that will involve your quest. A few citizens may mention an item that will be key to your quest, one may even tell you where to find it, but you may not even be able to get there without another key item or two prior. Most RPG's today flat out hold your hand and deliver scripted event after another, connecting the dots of where your next destination lies to such an extent that there really is no mystery left at all in your quest. Phantasy Star has something RPG's these days have lost, a sense of discovery and mystery. You never really know where your going to end up, or what your next objective will be. You just move where the game will let you and discover on your own all the secrets and eventually forge your way through the various challenges. RPG's these days would not be able to get away with this. They would be called too hard. Too difficult and challenging. Gamers these days want to be told where they need to go, and where the next plot point will be. Figuring stuff out on their own, exploring and discovering all the game has to offer, and enjoying a challenging adventure is something that has been lost over time. And this is one of the reasons why I frickin love this game so much.
As for the battle system, well it's basic 8-bit RPG stuff. You got spells for attacking, defense, and healing. One thing I LOVE about Phantasy Star I that no other RPG has done since is the fact that you can see how much HP the enemy has. Like okay, can we talk? I'm sorry but am I the only one thinking that particular innovation should have stuck around? It's a nice bit of info to have without having to waste a turn casting a spell to find out just how close they are to keeling over. Anyway, as I mentioned. One of the coolest things about the game is that each and every enemy is fully animated in their attacks. You got Man/bat creatures that leap into the air, spin in a ball, and them fire towards the screen and return to the standing position, skeletons that will swing their sword towards you, aliens that will point and shoot their laser guns, the amount of animation in the game as far as the enemy attacks went was astounding, and it's too bad that we would have to wait until PSII for the allies to get their fully animated attack thing goin on.
Okay, now the battle system DID have it's flaws. When enemies attacked you en masse, you wouldn't see like say, five skeletons, just one skeleton with five different HP bars. And yes, it did kinda suck that you couldn't choose which one to attack, and sometimes would end up attacking the enemy thats at full health while another enemy with like 3HP left would be left unharrassed, but you did have group attack spells and options so it wasn't completely cumbersome... just mostly. But hey, I let this game off with the fact it was the 8-bit generation, and PS did some great stuff that wouldn't be repeated until 32-bit started making it's rounds.
The best part of PS is that JUST when you think it's over, you get tossed into one last labyrinth with the TRUE final boss to battle. Man, Dark Force was a billion times scarier then anything Square put out. Not even Kefka freaked me out the Dark Force did. Dark Force is depicted as an utter nightmare. A freak that is pure evil and WILL kick your ass if you are not leveled up sufficiently, and will still likely do so if you're unlucky. You battle him against a backdrop of pure darkness and his spells are insanely powerful. He was so cool that he ended up being the defacto villain throughout the entire series, and just got freakier and more evil as time went on. Sure, in this game he sorta just, appears and starts wailing on you... but at least he was challenging. I swear Necron who ripped off this guy went down in what, four rounds of combat? Yeah sure Neccy, you're the guy thats gonna unravel all of reality and existence and return all of reality unto a void and... Oh LOOK! I think I see Dark Force behind you and he's mad that your ripping off his modus operandi. PSYCHE! Made ya look.
There was a PSII remake of Phantasy Star I & II, and I swear I want both games translated and released this very second. WTF does Sega think it's doing? They wanna recoup losses, get those fucking treasures translated and released to the western world this very second dammit. Okay okay, I know the Phantasy Star name is pretty much mud right now thanks to that whole Online and Universe debacle, but there are still numerous old school gamers that would kill for an updated and expanded version of this game translated into english.
Anyhoo, PSI is a darling of an 8-bit RPG that surpassed just about everything Square and Enix were doing at the time. It's also insanely hard and challenging. It's arguably the most challenging RPG I've ever played and I swear I doubt most modern teens and younglings would last an hour against this kind of difficulty. Most RPG's these days seal off more challenging areas with tougher enemies until the gamer has sufficiently leveled up and defeated a boss that requires those kinds of levels, and obtained the Mcguffin necessary to enter those challenging areas. Nope, PSI leaves those areas wide open for travel. But you will know if you're in them the minute an enemy attacks you and wipes out you're fully healed and fresh party with one hit. PSI don't play kids, and truth be told, thats why I love it so much. It's a relic, a lost artifact worthy of being uncovered by Indiana Jones himself. A lost treasure of a bygone era when RPG's were played very differently then they are today. And one of my favorite games ever.
Phantasy Star II
To fans of the first game, this was a very familiar sight
Thats what PSII is about, giving you more of what you liked about the first game. And making the world and the story more substantial and more grim at the same time. In PSII you are Rolf, a government operative on the lush, green planet of Motavia. Thats right kids, the barren desert planet from PSI is now a lush, garden planet that is supposedly the new Jewel of the Algo star system. It's 1000 years in the future and the people of the Algo star system are enjoying a time of technological and academic success. Algo lives in peace thanks to a technological entity known as the Mother Brain keeping watch over all matters. Yet, things are starting to go a bit wrong. Bio-monsters are appearing and there is no logical reason for their rise. Towns are being sieged and destroyed and travel across the landscapes of the three planets in Algo is a hazardous proposition. Furthermore, Mother Brain has inexplicably prohibited space travel. Despite all these sinister signs and portents the people long since satisfied with mother brain, do not question or rail against any of these apparent disasters and travesties. They just passively assume it is in their own interests. Although there are some who are seeking answers to the developing mystery of just what is going on at the bio-plant and where all these monsters are coming from. Thus, the Governing body of Motavia assigns the mission of investigating the cause of the recent upheavals to the peace of Motavia to the character you play, Rolf. However, before you go you're friend and possible lover, Nei, is worried about your safety and decides to join you. Nei is a Numan, half human, half bio-monster. You found her near death on a mission and brought her home and nursed her back to health. And so, the game is afoot.
One of the cooler and more interesting aspects of Phantasy Star II is that instead of seeking out your party members and earning their trust, they seek you out and offer their various services as word of your quest reaches the people. For every new town you visit, you can then return to your home in Paseo and there will be a new face at the door of your home offering their services. During this adventure you will first be approached by Rudo who is an angsty hunter who lost his family to Biomonster attacks and now seeks to end their threat. Eventually you will find on your doorsteps all sorts of interesting faces. Such as a disgraced mechanic who preferred taking apart machines then reassembling them, a police officer who wishes to help you keep the peace, a doctor who wants to lend you her aide, a scientist that is suspicious of the biomonster attacks and wants to find out more, and a flirty thief who steals at random.
Some of the more popular terms used to describe Phantasy Star II are atmospheric and creative. There are some great and unique touches to the game that make it very much ahead of it's time in terms of atmosphere. One of my favorite little touches was that since this is a high tech society you are in, the defacto way to revive party members isn't through some mystical art or miraculous stay at an inn, nope. They are cloned. Also despite being one of the white hats, the townspeople are often very prejudiced towards Nei for being a Numan. Many of the weapons and armor have more in common with Star Wars than Lord of the Rings, and packing high tech boomerangs and big weaponry along side mystical swords and armor is very thrilling. Another great touch was that the world you are in is called a paradise, but it soon becomes apparent that it is anything but. Your first obstacle in your quest is a man blocking your way to the Biosystems, threatening to kill all that pass. His story is a sad one, and by the time it's resolved you will find that it ends on an even darker and more desperate note rather than the happy-happy, feel good, wannabe soul food that Final Fantasy tries to shove down your throat. This conveys the feeling that the haven that Motavia has become is going to hell in a hand basket. Little incidents begin to show the cracks in the seams of this would-be Eden. Eventually your quest will bring you to bear witness to the first ever death of a valued party member on a console RPG. While you avenge your comrade, you are than jailed and blamed for the calamities befalling Motavia and scheduled for execution. Okay, have no fear, the game doesn't end there. You do eventually escape, but then things fall even further towards the eventual apotheosis of calamity for Algo and your team. Your former band of public heroes are now branded as outlaws and hated by society. Oh, not dark enough for yah? It gets better. The game is underscored by the theme that while your party has the best of intentions, and some really cool weapons, it may not be possible for them to save Algo from the anarchy and hardships that are slowly embracing it. While I won't spoil anything, the games final battles in the game are epic and intensely dramatic as anything Final Fantasy ever put out. In the end, the question of whether you saved Algo, or sentenced it to destruction is left dangling. PSII is one of the few games that have the sheer audacity to give you an cliff hanger ending this controversial.
Yeah, right now your stgy should be to run the hell away.
Oh, and lemme also mention that accompanying the dark mood of the story is a level of challenge scarcely seen in this age. This isn't a game crafted in the Final Fantasy mold where the game starts you off slowly, gives you a few easy monsters to kill so you can level up quick, grab some easy money to buy good gear, and then later lets the challenge rip. Nope, with PSII the game developers are inhuman monsters who hate you, and your little dog too. The monsters in this game start out nasty, and just get worse. They will laugh at your pitiful attempts to defend yourself, break you into little pieces and gloat over your festering corpse. If you dare to travel outside of your current area before you are ready, looking for some quick XP and money, the monsters there will kill you in one stroke. Bosses are near ridiculously powerful, and the dungeons are designed by sadists who love dead ends and twisting corridors. During the games release, it came with a detailed strategy guide, and it was absolutely necessary. Journey into any of these domains without a map on hand, and you will, I repeat, WILL be killed as you exhaust your healing supplies and your party members inevitably succumb to the relentless assault of powerful biomonsters that will eat away at your HP with the same unstoppably oblivious gusto that most movie-goers show while munching on popcorn.
That said, when, or should I say IF, you survive and level up, you will find the game rewards persistence. Get your thief to a decent level, and she will steal rare and valuable items. Some long before you can buy them, some can't even be purchased. Level up your mechanic sufficiently, and his techniques will utterly destroy any mecha you should find. The doctor isn't much for offence in any regards, but she will keep your party alive and even give you a status boost once she's sufficiently leveled up. All of your characters come in handy, and it's knowing where and when to include them that will give you a fighting chance against this stacked deck of a gaming world.
Okay, when frogs are kicking your ass, you know the game is difficult.
Next, lemme just say that the battle system in PSII made some huge strides from the traditional one used in the first one. It's very strategic in the sense that for every portion of the game you embark on, you're definitely gonna want to shake up you're party a little bit. Sure the scientist has some mad skills when it comes to attacks that will make short work of any biological creature you encounter, but he's less than worthless when you face and combat robotic enemies. Some levels are so ridiculously insane, that you'd be nuts not to take your Dr in there. You'd think that precious fourth spot would best saved for some muscle, but nope. Healing items are so rare and hard to come by in this game that the Docs spot in the later sections is pretty much reserved and damn necessary. I would probably say that Phantasy Star II is probably why I like my RPG's that think about their characters and their attacks and impact on the game play other than just offer you a game that lets you design your characters any way you wish. In this game, there is no such thing as a star player. Everyone has their own valued impact on the quest and you are going to need the help of each and every party member before the game is over. Cuz this game is even more relentless with the enemy encounters then before. Parties of monsters of various types and numbers will descend upon you every step of the way. Not only does this game feature PSI's patented fully animated enemy attacks in a pre-32-bit title, but now your characters can do their thing with some awesome bits of animation. Back in 1990, THIS game was the Final Fantasy VII of it's era from a presentation values standpoint.
Oh, and the soundtrack is awesome. It has a epic, futuristic vibe that is stirring and memorable. I'd love for sega to pimp for a remastered CD of this soundtrack.
Phantasy Star II is one of the most elite RPG's that Sega ever created. As I mentioned prior, this game and the first Phantasy Star were recreated for the PS2, and I swear Sega is insane for not releasing them outside of Japan. All of Square's earlier Final Fantasy titles have been re-released multiple times, and the PS2 is more than worthy of the honor of recieving the PS remakes that are every bit as good, and perhaps even better than any FF remake outside of FFVI or the upcoming DS remake of Chrono Trigger. Yep, it's just that good and you should definitely give it a try since it's available in several compilations like the Sega Genesis Collection for the PSP and PS2 as well as a compilation for the GBA. The only reason I can't think you would not enjoy it is if you are the sort of gamer that does not appreciate a challenge. But since you're sitting there reading all about the Sega Genesis era, I doubt that applies to anyone reading this list. So you go buy NOW!
Phantasy Star III
In Pat's FFVIII article, he called that particular game an aberration, a game that tried to be different in every way from it's super star predecessor FFVII, and he was right about that. And since FFVII ripped off Phantasy Stars patented "death of a valued party member midway through the game" shtick it only makes sense that FFVIII follows PSIII's "lets be different" shtick.
Now, if you do a google search and read up on this game, you will find that the third installment is the black sheep of the PS saga. You may even get the impression that it is as terrible a game and packs as contrived a story and as flawed a game play system as FFVIII, which is very far from the truth.
Phantasy star III changed things for the saga. The first Phantasy Star introduced us to the Algo star system, where technology meets mysticism in a way that has not ever been repeated, not even in Final Fantasy. The blending of swords and sorcery meets high tech sci-fi was brilliantly executed in a maddeningly difficult yet very well executed video game. Phantasy Star II came out and upped the ante considerably on everything. It gave you more party members, more weapons, more spells, a bigger story with more dramatic twists, more game play options, a shocker of an ending. The word of the day with Phantasy Star II was MORE. Then Phantasy Star III came out, and the word of that day was DIFFERENT! And as you all know, gamers as a whole hate that word.
Different scares us, intimidates us, and alienates us from our video game franchises. When we ask for a sequel, we are asking for the same feeling and game play thrills but through a different means of graphic and aural presentation and storytelling as well as similar, but different methods of game play. This deeply oxy/moronic characteristic of the gaming majority is something that makes designing video games so damn tough and I'm surprised the scant few developers who sincerely give a crap about their products don't go absolutely batshit insane trying to please their audience.
So yeah, in this Phantasy Star game, you are no longer in Algo. You don't have access to the familiar worlds. And the game doesn't really show it's direct ties to the series until the BIG twist set up in the games third act. For this, most Phantasy Star veterans scream foul and declare this game to be disowned from the Phantasy Star legacy. Personally though, I rather enjoy the departure and am regretful that Sega did nothing to capitalize further on the storytelling implications of the games final endings.
Rhys attacks! YAY!
Another facet of the game that had fanboys screaming was how it downgraded the battle system to something reminiscent of the NES dragon warrior titles. PS1 had a battle system where every enemy attack was fully animated in it's own way. PSII upgraded this system with making your characters attacks and spell effects fully animated, PSIII ditched this system, and the only animation you get is the typical weapon/spell effect and the enemy making a very lazy animation, such as their eyes glowing or their fingers wiggling whenever they attack.
Now, I will give fanboys the point that stripping away the detailed animated fight sequences does rob PSIII of one of the more unique and distinctive aspects of the series, but the core PS game play is fundamentally intact. True, without the traditional look and flow to the battle scenes you may as well be playing Dragon Quest, but I've never really minded the downgraded production values of PSIII. So I consider the argument of the lesser production values to be a strike against PSIII to be moot. Furthermore, the argument of the lesser production values taking away from the overall worth of the game may have been somewhat of a valid argument fifteen years ago, however considering how archaic all the PS games look by this point, if you still can't let that niggle go, then you are flat out locked in a fanboyish tirade of resentment against change. Not only that, but I'd still tell you that the glowing eyes or wiggling fingers is still more animation then square ever gave any of their enemies prior to Final Fantasy VII. So will you fanboys quit yer whining already.
Lesse, blue haired hottie with the come hither gaze vs flat chested tomboy. Is this someone's idea of a joke.
Now, as far as the story, overall game play, and setting goes, well PSIII is easily the second most ambitious game in the series (just behind PSIV). The story starts off with the Orakian Prince Rhys ready to marry his bride, a woman who he found in distress some time ago and came to fall in love with. Sadly the nuptials are interrupted by a dragon who snatches Maya away, while announcing his ties to the Layan clan. The Layans have been the Orakians sworn enemy for hundreds of years, The Orakians believe their ancestral hero, Orakio, vanquished them and their Leader, Laya, a long time ago. But this dragon and the kidnaping of Maya shows that there are still Layans around. This capulet/monatahuge gone sci-fi esque feud eventually leads to Rhys having to chose between two brides at the end of his adventure, one Layan, and one Orakian. whichever one he chooses, the story will segue eighteen years later to his son going off on a quest of his own, and also having to choose between two potential brides, and the third generation eventually discovering the link between this setting, and the previous two games. I won't spoil anything, but that particular plot twist is excellently done and is one of my personal favorites in the entire series. The generations gimmick is also something original (this game does predate Dragon Quest V btw) and the worst you can say about the idea of multiple generations was that RPG's just had not fully developed as a storytelling medium today. PSII was an anomaly in the sense that despite the few storytelling scenes and cinemas, it managed to tell a deep and moving story. Sure, Square was at the time driving RPG storytelling forward towards being more and more complex, but the trend hadn't completely caught on as of yet. As such, the story itself is interesting and engrossing, but the telling of it is basic, sparse, and piecemeal in that classic early era 16-bit vernacular.
Despite the ambition behind the concept of PSIII, well I will say that the game is still one of the more traditional RPG's of the 16-bit era. With less of an overall script than FFIV and the english dialogue being silly and bland at times. I think that for a gamer not weaned on the 8-bit and 16-bit era, they would derive little to no enjoyment from PSIII at all as the battle system and script are all so simple in execution that it at times feels like a later gen 8-bit game. The scope and curiosity at the far reaching consequences of your progeny, as well as the tenuous yet vital link to the first two games are the driving force of PSIII are the more driving forces in this title, and you have to be a PS convert with an open mind to enjoy this title.
Yep, it wouldn't be a Phantasy Star game without Dark Force.
PSIII is the weakest link overall in the series, the small cartridge space (this game obviously has much more content than the first two, but is the same size as PSII. Perhaps THAT is the reason for the scaled back production values) obviously led to some corners being cut on the third-generation quests. However it is still a great game with a beautiful soundtrack, and some great graphical sequences in it's own right. It's a shame that Sega never concluded this particular storyline, I'd say that three of the endings are very interesting and opened the door to several great storytelling twists and possibilities that were never fully explored. PSIII may have failed to provide the "wow" factor that the series was known for in terms of presentation and execution, but it's generations gimmick and unique story give the game it's own distinctive charm and really had more to offer the franchise than just Wren and a few mentions in PSIV.
Phantasy Star IV
Airships are cool. Spaceships are cooler!
Ahhh, Phantasy Star IV. I liken you to the rather plain looking girl that has such an awesome personality and character, that you would legitimately rather date her rather than the atypical model type of gal. You see, the model would be Final Fantasy VI, or Chrono Trigger. Both are in all regards the better choice. I mean look at them, they look better, sound better, are more successful, and all your friends just rave about them. They seem better constructed and more well thought out. I've enjoyed my time with both, but I've spent FAR more time hanging out with Phantasy Star IV than the two of them put together. Phantasy Star IV just has a certain jenes ce quis, a certain something that just makes it special. A stand out, a stunner by merit of character and personality and no matter how often FFVI or CT call, you just cant seem to pull yourself away from Phantasy Star IV to spend time with them.
The story starts off with a very inconsequential note with a duo of hunters (as in bounty hunters) show up in Piata, a big town noted for it's first class university, to take on a bio monster hunting job, and end up on a quest to save the universe. Along the way they acquire allies, save towns, embark on fetch quests and take care of other peoples dirty laundry. It's an old school RPG in every fundamental aspect possible. But it pulls off it's old-schoolness in a very distinctive and gripping style.
The first distinct and awesome thing PSIV does is the format of how the story gets told. Whenever something important happens in the story (which is usually every five to ten minutes) you are treated to a cutscene. Now PSIV uses a series of still panels with anime style artwork presented in them. The character designs are very likeable and the artwork itself has a dramatic, and distinctive style to it. Whenever a character has a shift in mood, another panel is presented on top of the prior panel representing them creating a comic book like feel very similar to the cutscenes found in Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops for the PSP. I find this technique far more effective in depicting and fleshing out the mood of the story than the FMV sequences in FFVII and other more modern RPG's. Unlike most CGI, these sequences focus on the characters and their facial expressions as they are speaking, helping to communicate their moods and emotions in a more personal way then billions of dollars of CGI can.
Now, let me dare to compare one of PSIV's money shots... The death of Alys sequence (look man, there's a statute of limitations on these sort of things, and the game is almost a decade and a half old. Alright? So shut up about spoilers) Compared with FFVII's Death of Aerieth (oh yes boys and girls, I'm going there) sequence.
Now personally, I find the PSIV death scene to be the more dramatic and heartfelt by far. Not only could I accuse Uematsu of ripping off/taking inspiration from the morbid theme that plays during this event, but there is just far more emotion displayed in PSIV's money shot than FFVII succeeded in depicting. If your looking for sheer graphic splendor, FFVII has the upper hand. Even in my nerdiest moments of nostalgia tinted fangasms, I could still never be deluded enough to make any if's, and's, or but's about that particular point. But thanks to the detail in the hand drawn portraits, and the fact that we can see facial expressions as well as more nuanced details, such as Hann and his Fiancee clinging to each other for comfort during the death scene, this moment in the game succeeds in being far more emotionally touching and down to earth, even with it's questionable english translation, inferior cartridge format, and puny 16-bits of processing power. In the sequence detailing the death and funeral of Alys, we see Chaz's upper face in shadows with his cheek is clearly visible with a tear running down it. I've already mentioned Hann and his fiancee, Rune is unable to look directly at the grave, and the somber expressions on Rika and Gryz speak volumes about their feelings without one bloody line of dialogue. These are hand drawn portraits of sorrow and mourning that pull you into the moment. And... this is all in just ONE fricken sequence people out of dozens that the game displays.
FFVII on the other hand, well the only facial expression we can clearly make out is clouds, and it took how many gajillion dollars with of CGI to accomplish that minuscule bit of character insight? Everyone else has one signature animation that fails to comply even half of the emotion PSIV dished out in that one stinkin panel. So you can imagine that if PSIV can succeed in conveying that depth of emotion in just one sequence, how much more does it succeed when the game is literally filled to the brim with them. The constant, comic book style of storytelling that PSIV used is a great alternative to FMV and I'm surprised that more game developers haven't repeated that execution.
Now lets talk battle system. I think PSIV has one my favorite battle system in any RPG ever. It's the traditional turn based minutia that Final Fantasy's ATB system rocked the world against a long time ago, but it has a great deal of little touches. PSIV is one of those rare 16-bit RPG's where every character feels very different in the way they attack. And rare is it in PSIV that you will just simply mash the attack button and find success. Every area you enter you have to fight a few battles to get a feel for the enemies, and equip and plan your tactics with your characters accordingly. I tend to enjoy RPG's that makes you plan your battles and your characters role in them, since in doing so it helps to create a further sense that each of your party members are unique and interesting. Sure it's a tiny little thing, but it did help to pull me into the game.
Besides that, the first REALLY big thing that makes PSIV's battle system unique and awesome is the Skill system. Every character has various skills that they can use in battle. These skills can be anything from healing actions, to group attacks, to single attacks, instant death attacks, and support spells. Offensive skills are often differentiated from effect (physical, magical, elmental) and instead of spell points, skills have a certain number of uses to them before they ened to be recharaged by resting at an Inn. Your characters can even combine skills and spells with eachother to REALLY lay a barrell full of pain on an enemy. One of my personal early favorites is using Rika's illusion (group status attack) skill with Alys's Death (single attack) skill. This results in a party of super tough monsters being made very dead, very quickly, in one very cool animated sequence. There are many more group attacks to fiddle around with, and discovering and executing these attacks are a joy to behold, and the only time this system was executed better was in Chrono Trigger. This is due to the fact that in PSIV it's best to assign the attack patters to a marco when you want to pull one off, because the characters you want to merge attacks have to strike back to back in order to pull it off. For example; merging a fire attack such as Nafoi or Falaeli with a Gra spell leads to a firestorm attack which bakes undead foes into crispy corpses in a fraction of the time it takes to beat them to death. However if your two characters don't attack one after another, you end up with a puny and ineffective wind attack executed against a group of resistant zombies, and a single fire attack baking only one enemy, which is sorta lame and wastes MP/Skill points.
But yah, skills and merging skills with techniques is half of what sets PSIV's enemy encounters apart from the pack. The other half of the equation would be the merging enemies. Oh sure, a duo of junior oozes may not present a meaningful challenge, in fact, you'd probably just laugh at them rather than fight. But give them a moment to breathe and they will combine to form a Giant ooze monster with higher stats and attacks. Oh sure, this means a crapload of XP if you can take down the beast. But it also means you got to actually kill it and not get killed yourself first. And there are many monsters in this game that can pull off this move and make your day a very difficult one, or a good one if you can kill it and watch your characters climb levels like crazy.
Now, before I go on I should point out that this is definitely the easiest Phantasy Star of the four. Oh sure you will get your challenging dungeons. The Air Castle (yep, the one from the first Phantasy Star) in particular will likely punt you back to the game over screen a few times before you get the hang of things, but It's a far cry from the nut-cracking, widow-making, soul-shattering difficulty of the first three games. In this, perhaps PSIV is also ahead of it's time in a way that isn't so great. As RPG's have developed from a game play standpoint to a storytelling medium, challenge has been constantly eased up in order to deliver a more cohesive storytelling feel. I mean, there are few things more annoying than really getting into an RPG only to be given the stiff-hand by a tough boss and stuck there for days or even weeks. However I find that there are few things more satisfying than finally taking down that boss and continuing the tale. By cutting the challenge by more than half that of the prior games, the makers of PSIV were obviously focusing on crafting a tale that would connect all the dots of this series, explain everything that occurred while making sure this tale went out on a high note, and making sure the player got to see it all without getting frustrated. The drastically scaled back challenge is one of the most bitter/sweet aspect of PSIV for myself, and I do wish some of the bosses and dungeons made you sweat a little harder just to make the game itself that much more satisfying.
Now I've already talked about the cool touches on the battle system that makes things unique, but that isn't all that makes PSIV stand out. One of the things I find the most distinctive and unique about Phantasy Star IV is how it brings together the elements of the past games for the big finale in this title. This game concludes a series that has chronicled the events of 2000+ years of battle and hardship. It's really great that the developers put so many shout outs to parts one and two, and even made sure part three got it's shout-outs despite it still taking part in a different part of the galaxy at roughly the same time.
Not only are there shout-outs, guest appearences by past characters and pieces of equipment, but the main cast is also carrying on the feel of bringing together all elements of the games prior for one last showdown with evil. While there are many party members that will come and go, there are overall four core members to your party with three of them being tied to the events of the prior games. Rune has a strong connection to Noah from PSI, Rika is a descendent of sorts from Nei from PSII and Wren is a "kissing couson" of one of PSIII's androids. Then there is Chaz. Chaz is PSIV's main character, hobnobbing with this legacy of awesomeness and being something of the cornerstone upon which the legacy of the series rests. He's the typical reluctant young swordsman who's rough around the edges yet with enough untapped potential that he is chosen by fate to combat an ancient evil and to decide the fate of the universe. Sure, you've heard that tale a million times already. But PSIV's hook is that if you're a fan of the series, then you've developed a great sense of familiarity with Algo and it's people over the course of the series, and this helps to take away the "been there, done that" feel to story, since you probably, genuinely give a crap by this point. It's a little thing, but the sense of connection and conclusion this game gives you to the entire series helps to draw you in. And the fact that the conclusion is, in itself, a quality one helps make the game even sweeter.
And let me say that despite using an incredibly pitiful midi engine for it's sounds, I just can't get enough of PSIV's soundtrack. I've already mentioned the theme that plays when Alys dies and the aftermath of that event, but I think for me, the more noteworthy theme in the game is the theme that plays when you step into an inn. It's just so restful, tranquil, it makes one feel like they are home. And considering how little a player tends to spend at inns while playing an RPG, it's amazing that this little theme can stick with me the way it has. I mean, I won't lie and say I think the soundtrack is superior to Chrono Trigger's or Final Fantasy VI, but it has it''s moments when I can picture the great Uematsu standing up and saluting this games musical efforts.
Phantasy Stars IV final moment, shows you not an apocalyptic showdown, nor an epic battle, it shows a statue on a picturesque hill of Alys from PSI, erected in tribute of the heroine, with a FIN title pictured next to it. This image remains on the screen until you push reset, or shut your genesis off. I love this moment since it really says in a subdued and nostalgic tone that this epic saga has now been completed. Until PSIV the games all had tenuous threads that connected them to each other, but PSIV came out and connected all the dots and succeeded in giving Genesis owners the impression that they had been enjoying THIS particular RPG saga for eight years. In a industry where cash cows are milked until the nectar sours, PSIV boldly decided to close the book on those years of questing and adventuring in a way that was beyond satisfying. It was a ballsy move for Sega to make PSIV the final stop for this particular gravy train, rather than just run it into the ground. I stuck with the Phantasy Star Saga for all those years and the games effective and well placed fan service and it's final image all sum up the feelings I've developed for the franchise over those years. The teenaged me sat on my bed for a good while when I first finished PSIV, and just thought about what I just witnessed. It was the first time any bit of fiction, be it a series of novels, comics, or a television show ever truly concluded for good. Most television series I watched ended without a conclusive denouncement, and we all know how the comic industry will work a series until it's no longer profitable, then just drop it unceremoneously. Seeing PSIV's final image was a bitter sweet moment that should you actually become even slightly emotionally tied to the Phantasy Star saga as I did, will likely put you into a reflective mood as well. It's the bitter/sweet end to a grand series that decided it would be better to go out in style and grace and to be remembered thus. And bravo to the Phantasy Star team for doing so.
You may have noticed that the intro for this entry into (Too Cool For) Sega Genesis Week was much longer than the prior one. I guess thats just sums up how I feel about this series. To be recognized and appreciated. They are all great games that can easily stand next to anything that the mighty Square or elite Enix ever delivered at the time, and I hope I've actually given cause to any Phantasy Star virgins out there reason to look up and play these RPG masterpieces.
Thanks for joining us here kids, much like the Phantasy Star series, this piece is over. As is (Too Cool For) Sega Genesis Week. Hope you've enjoyed the show and I wish you all happy gaming.