Phantasy Star


Due to the massive popularity of the original NES and the relative obscurity of Sega’s eight-bit console, the Master System, most gamers today assume that Final Fantasy was the progenitor of all console RPGs.

They, as some of us know, are wrong.

Although the original Final Fantasy was released before Phantasy Star was received by the masses, it’s important to remember that, in this case, “before” means “three days before.” Literally. It was the difference between December 17 and December 20, both in 1987.

And quite frankly, while many gamers, today, prefer the relative open-ended style of Final Fantasy – minus the sometimes-ambiguous hints and inferior graphics – it was Phantasy Star that pioneered what I like to refer to as the “pure plot” RPG (not to be confused with the Pol Pot RPG, which is a bit different).

In the “pure plot” RPG, the main character is the only one who effectively represents the player. He or she starts alone, or with a very small number of NPC companions, and proceeds to pick up more characters as the game progresses. These characters will have different strengths and weaknesses – or, in some later games, characters that can be gradually customized to suit the player’s needs or wishes – but will all play some part in the storyline.

Compare this with Final Fantasy, which does have an overarching plot but has a party of characters you create at the beginning whose only bearing on the plot is that they are the ones who solve all of the kingdom’s problems.

It’s nice that FF lets a player decide how they want to play the game and, to be fair, it often leads to greater replayability. Yet there’s something about the satisfaction of finding that musk cat, of using that medicine to change the warrior back from a statue, of convincing that haughty Esper that you really are worth helping, that you just can’t find in that sort of game.

And as if being the forebear of most modern console RPGs wasn’t enough, Phantasy Star also presented players with a number of other firsts: It was the first RPG that gave you the choice of talking with your enemies instead of the standard “Fight/Item/Magic/Flee” command menu. It was the first RPG that had a female main character (eat your heart out Terra, Final Fantasy VI came out over seven years later). It was even the first major console RPG to include sci-fi elements, such as robots, firearms and spaceships – to come out in the U.S., if not necessarily Japan.

Couple these innovations with some of the best graphics and sound available at the time, the largest battery backup of any game of its time and an engaging storyline and setting that saw continuity with the following three games in the series, and you begin to wonder why Phantasy Star was so underappreciated. Then you remember that it came out on a system that saw little success in the United States, that it was so far ahead of its time and, oh yeah, it cost only slightly less than the system itself. And you cry a little (on the inside).

Final Fantasy certainly wasn’t bad – it, too, was an innovator in many ways, and the plot introduced the now-time-honored idea of time travel in RPGs. But honestly, with so much going for it, one must wonder whether the FF franchise would be as big as it is today if it had been forced to compete with Phantasy Star on an equal footing from the beginning.