In a recent episode of the retro gaming podcast Back In My Play, host Kevin Larabee and ex-Electronic Gaming Monthly guests John Ricciardi, Shane Bettenhausen and Mark MacDonald shared their memories of Zelda II: The Adventures of Link. The episode is wildly entertaining as the crew recalls potent moments from their childhood and reflects on one of the most misunderstood games in video game history. The show also helps remind the listener how primitive information dissemination was back in the day —how shared memories were left to linger in the air of schoolyards, only to be whisked away with time.
It has never been easier to love, hate, play, buy, share and learn about new and old games. In general, that’s a good thing: Knowledge and appreciation for video game history leads to a deeper expansion of a player’s palette and greater sense of context when playing modern games. For developers creating new content, it’s essential to build upon history’s successes and avoid its pitfalls, in constant pursuit to refine the language of video games.
And as we’ve seen with recent releases (Uncharted 4, Doom, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild), developers explicitly draw from the history of games, and savvy players benefit from their awareness of this history. An expanded understanding of video game history can also lead to the discovery of older, previously unappreciated games that still contain fresh ideas and new lessons to teach.
The act of preserving and appreciating the history of games doesn’t rest only on the shoulders of fans and journalists; platform holders and IP owners carry a unique responsibility to propagate games from the past.
Recent reissues such as Rez Infinite, The Disney Afternoon Collection, Full Throttle and the short-lived NES Classic help maintain the industry’s heritage, drive revenue and introduce classic franchises to a new generation of players, but what of the countless games that never made it onto any publication’s “best of all-time” lists? To what degree of responsibility do publishers have to dust off older, less successful titles from their catalog and reintroduce them to a modern audience? Especially if the immediate financial gain of this pursuit is anything but certain? In an age when players and journalists can’t even keep up with new releases, would people even care?
These are questions Adam Isgreen, Ken Lobb and a host of other Microsoft employees certainly asked when they suggested resurrecting the thirteen-year-old Xbox game, Phantom Dust.
A troubled project from the start, Phantom Dust sold a disastrous 6,000 copies in its debut month in Japan. Despite being a first-party title, Microsoft would later announce that it would refrain from publishing the game outside of Japan and instead license the North American rights to Majesco Entertainment, which was able to move 50,000 units at a budget price of $19.99. After an initial spike of excitement around its English language release, the game’s servers soon went quiet as players (and Microsoft) turned their attention to the upcoming launch of the Xbox 360.
From a purely financial perspective, the idea of pouring money into a proper reissue of Phantom Dust was surely a hard pill to swallow for business-minded folks in Redmond, especially considering that a full remake was rumored to be funded but eventually canceled two years prior. What game is worthy of such faithful devotion?
The story of a forgotten community
In Phantom Dust, the player awakens in post-apocalyptic Tokyo to do battle against somber automata in its mission-based campaign or four-player online multiplayer arenas. The Dragon Ball-like action combat comes in the form of over 300 unique “skills” for players to unlock via online and offline victories, which can then be organized and brought into battle in the form of 30-skill “arsenals” (think decks from Magic: The Gathering).
Directed by Yukio Futatsugi of Panzer Dragoon Saga fame (another critically-acclaimed commercial failure), the game is soaked in a sharp, Blade Runner-inspired cyberpunk aesthetic. Like the film, Phantom Dust’s narrative is focused on memories — amnesiacs wander the dusty landscape in pursuit of fragments from the past. Characters speak longingly of their mothers’ cooking, and ghostly sounds of passing metro trains, bicycle bells, and children echo in its destructible arenas. Even the music feels unique, fusing classical pieces from Mozart with modern electronic beats.
The above is roughly how I described the game thirteen years ago for countless magazines and online portals when I worked as a freelance game journalist in 2004, supplementing my income as a lonely English teacher in rural Japan.
As the lowliest writer at magazines Xbox Nation and Electronic Gaming Monthly, I happily covered what could be considered the most dead-end beat in the industry: Xbox in Japan. (Which was roughly as popular as borscht in Thailand.) Every day I searched high and low for stories for my monthly column in hopes it might intrigue readers abroad, usually defaulting to stories about the latest bikini-clad Dead or Alive PR antics from Tecmo. I remember many nights walking along the barren coast of Hyogo prefecture, thankful that I could officially say that I was writing for my favorite magazines growing up, but longing for something more. I wanted to cover something that people would actually care about.
I started reporting on Phantom Dust soon after its unveiling in 2004. While it wasn’t the first game to come out of Microsoft’s first-party team in Tokyo, it was a rare occasion that one of their titles sparked the interest of my editors at Xbox Nation — David Chen and Evan Shamoon — who were older, cooler, and two guys I desperately wanted to impress. I immediately got to work on covering this weird online brawler, which seemed destined for obscurity from the moment I laid eyes on it.
Being the only foreigner in Japan completely relegated to covering Xbox, I had easy access to the Tokyo team at Microsoft. Its stable of creators, events, and early builds were usually just a phone call (and an all-night bus ride) away, and before long I found myself interviewing director Futatsugi and gaining quick access to development builds of the game. Seemingly overnight, I became the de-facto journalist for previews and interviews related to Phantom Dust, and in the process, completely obsessed with the game.
As a longtime fan of cyberpunk, action multiplayer and collectible card games, I felt as if the game was speaking directly to me. Or, perhaps, had I merely convinced myself that I loved Phantom Dust because it was paying the bills and making me popular amongst my peers?
My strongest memory of Phantom Dust was when I finally sat down to review it for Xbox Nation. I remember being in my dark and cold Japanese apartment, huddled close to my kerosene stove, blasting music and facing down a demon that had been haunting me for months. Was I crazy, biased (or a combination of the two), or was Phantom Dust actually one of the greatest games I’ve ever played?
Unlike my colleagues in San Francisco who could test their convictions through debate and second opinions, I was alone, living in a mostly deserted fishing village, mostly left to my own devices. I wondered what would happen if other reviews came out and I was the only writer on the planet who showered the game with praise. I’d never be trusted again … nor would I ever trust myself.
After much deliberation, I decided that I had no choice but to write the most honest, impassioned review of a doomed, import-only Xbox game ever written. I gave it a glowing review and a nine out of 10. It felt right.
Passion for a flop
Following its release, I became an active member of its online community. Initially limited to Japan, Phantom Dust had a small but dedicated base that played together every night, allowing me to practice my Japanese over Xbox Live voice chat and overcome my sense of isolation.
Before long, I started noticing a number of foreign players joining sessions with imported copies of the game, struggling with the Japanese language barrier. It was then that I teamed up with Michael Reilly — owner of fan site Phantom Dusted — to post translated skill guides and site-exclusive interviews with Futatsugi. My passion for the game was now burning even hotter, fueled by the intense interest of importers who just wouldn’t stop playing.
Around the time Majesco released Phantom Dust in North America, my in-game clock froze at around 250 hours and I became increasingly discouraged by the game’s unchanging meta, which heavily favored turtling tactics, and seemingly impossible requirement to win thousands of matches to collect all 374 skills. Thankfully, both of those issues have been fixed in the re-release. Even though I drifted away from the game, I maintained my friendship with Futatsugi over the years.
Years later, I’m still able to say that Phantom Dust had a profound impact on me and my career. I subjected a number of my fellow Halo 4 designers to numerous play sessions in order to generate new multiplayer ideas. Most recently, I spent two years directing a Battle Royale-inspired multiplayer prototype with skills and decks inspired by Futatsugi’s gem. While the team at my current workplace, Camouflaj, has since moved on to other projects, I hope to one day return to some of those designs.
Throughout the years, Reilly maintained the fan site and remained the heart and soul of the community, hosting an exhaustive FAQ and interactive “Arsenal Builder” from super fans Gregory Barton and Jason Holland. The site had its own share of troubles, however, shutting down in 2008 when the idea of Microsoft returning to Phantom Dust seemed hopeless.
Speaking on the phone with Reilly the other day, he told me that fans Dallin Mueller and Nathan Foley eventually convinced him to return to the site in hopes that it would spark something within Microsoft. Then, in 2014, he noticed an unusual spike in traffic on the site’s forums right around the time rumors were spreading about a potential Phantom Dust remake. Curiously, the surge in new visitors was coming not only from Redmond but from Florida, home of developer Darkside.
Later, when word hit the internet that the Phantom Dust remake was canceled and Darkside was shuttering, Reilly wasn’t surprised. On the day the news hit, a new forum user was registered — again from Florida — with the name “Game Is Dead.” A voice from the ether. Still, Reilly kept the site running on his own dime in hopes that it would show decision-makers that the community still cared. It might have worked, as development on a more simplified remaster — not remake — was quietly greenlit within Microsoft soon after.
A bit of gaming’s history returns
Last week, 13 years later, Microsoft has returned to Phantom Dust as a free download on Xbox One and Windows 10. There’s a sense of nervous optimism amongst fans, both inside and outside of Microsoft. The team behind the re-release has done a terrific job bringing the game to modern hardware despite significant technical challenges, mostly due to the loss of the game’s original source code. The game now sports higher resolutions, a live services backend for quick balance fixes, improvements to the new user experience and an aggressive (and necessary) free-to-play pricing model.
Despite its many missteps this generation, Microsoft should be applauded for its efforts to preserve game history, from its revival of old franchises like Killer Instinct, its commitment to backwards compatibility and funding of documentary film Atari: Game Over, and re-releases including Rare Retro, Voodoo Vince, and now Phantom Dust. Clearly not all of those initiatives were motivated by the bottom line — an encouraging sign, certainly, as the preservation and appreciation of game history needs to be about more than that.
I’m hopeful that Phantom Dust will have a much larger impact this time around, not only to help pave the way for sequels, but perhaps to atone for past mistakes and give Futatsugi and the original team a few pangs of gratification. Reminiscing with him last night, Futatsugi said that he’s encouraged that more people will be able to play the game, as he’s still very proud of it. As for a second chance on the series, however, he’s wise to keep his expectations tempered.
Even if Phantom Dust is to once again fade away quietly, I hope those involved reflect on its re-release as a worthwhile endeavor. I’m optimistic that other companies will be encouraged to follow Microsoft’s lead, even if restoring classic content isn’t immediately lucrative. Fan service is important — as is testing the waters for potential new revenue streams from dormant franchises — but IP holders also have a responsibility to preserve and appreciate the history of this industry that they greatly benefit from. Without efforts like Microsoft’s on Phantom Dust, the memories, legacy and availability of many important games from our past will sadly be lost in time.
Ryan Payton (@ryanpayton) is the founder of Camouflaj, the studio behind République and two unannounced VR projects. He previously worked as a producer on Metal Gear Solid 4 at Konami and creative director on Halo 4 at Microsoft.