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It’s time for Phantasy Star to make a proper comeback

Three decades after its debut, the revolutionary role-playing series seems ripe for a return to its classic roots

We saw an impressive number of legendary franchises celebrate a 30th anniversary in December 2017, including Mega Man and Final Fantasy. That year-end birthday pile-up makes a lot of sense. Back in the era before Black Friday took over the world, mid-December used to be the optimal time for Japanese game releases, landing a few weeks before the country’s big New Year holiday.

Similarly, it makes sense that 2017 in particular saw such landmark dates. After all, 1987 was the year that Japan’s 8-bit game developers finally had both the experience and the tech available to fully realize their ambitions — the latter thanks to the arrival of advanced memory-mapper chips for the Famicom console and the launch of NEC’s impressive PC Engine hardware.

Some publishers greeted last month’s anniversaries in fine style. Capcom brought Mega Man back from the dead, and Square Enix continued its steady churn of news and products for Final Fantasy, which continues going strong all these years later. One publisher, however, was suspiciously low-key about the birthday of one of its greatest creations: Sega and its RPG franchise Phantasy Star. If the company’s official channels were all we had to go on, we might never know that the original Phantasy Star debuted for Mark III/Master System back in December 1987.

Indeed, while the company announced a Switch conversion for the series’ current iteration (Phantasy Star Online 2, featured above in a recent episode of Monster Factory), that port seems likely to remain stranded in Japan, as with every other iteration of the game. Sega made some rumblings about localizing the massively multiplayer RPG for the U.S. and Europe back when it first launched, but those hopes appear to have shriveled up and died as the franchise hurtled toward its 30th anniversary. Indeed, the English-language page on the game’s official site was quietly taken offline in late November. Happy birthday.

The resultant hand-wringing among fans over PSO2’s failure to expand its virtual borders beyond Asia ultimately serves to highlight the need for a proper Phantasy Star follow-up. The original Phantasy Star Online, which debuted in 2000 on Dreamcast, stands as a work of monumental importance: It established single-handedly the fact that online multiplayer RPGs can work just as well on consoles as on PCs, provided that developers account for the unique features and requirements of console play. At the same time, PSO also supplanted the single-player RPG franchise from which it took its name. Surely, there’s room in the world for both?

Between 1987 and 1993, Sega created four inventive, story-driven games under the Phantasy Star name. Each feels slightly different from the other, but (aside from the standalone Phantasy Star 3: Generations of Doom) they all belong to the same universe and detail a long-running battle for the fate of the galaxy.

The original Phantasy Star seemed to take its cues from the early Ultima games, containing a mix of swords, sorcery and spaceships alongside first-person dungeon exploration. The sequels dropped the first-person viewpoint and fell more into line with the design of Dragon Quest, with turn-based battles that play out from the player party’s perspective. Yet Phantasy Star’s sequels never came off as mere Dragon Quest clones.

A screenshot of Phantasy Star 2, via GameFAQs
Sega

Instead, Phantasy Star forged its own path, with high-stakes drama and a vibrant approach to storytelling. Not unlike Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden games, Phantasy Star seemed to take its primary narrative cues from manga and anime. The original game’s protagonist, a young adventurer named Alis, appeared to have been cut from the cloth of the mid ’80s warrior-woman anime trend seen in the likes of Leda: The Fantastic Adventure of Yoko and Rumiko Takahashi’s cult favorite Maris the Choujo. The central storyline was decidedly redolent of a thinly veiled Star Wars pastiche rendered in primary colors, another common anime trend for the era.

Major plot events unfolded through artful comic-panel cut scenes, prefiguring Final Fantasy 7’s flashy computer-rendered movie sequences by a decade. These sequences began as a handful of simple images in the original and eventually evolved into complex overlapping graphics — nothing quite as elaborate as the movie sequences that you’d find in the capacious media of Sega CD or Turbo CD RPGs, but artful and impressive all the same.

Speaking of Final Fantasy 7, Sega fans will forever be quick to point out that Phantasy Star 2 did the tragic, permanent death of a beloved heroine long before Sephiroth skewered Aerith. For that matter, PS2 even arrived a couple of years before Final Fantasy 4 turned tragedy into farce with its endless succession of quickly reversed self-sacrifices by secondary characters. Not only that, but Phantasy Star 3 presented a generational saga in 1990, several years before Dragon Quest 5 and Romancing SaGa 2 cemented their status as each franchise’s respective fan-favorites by building on that same narrative concept. In many ways, the Phantasy Star games were ahead of their time.

Granted, Phantasy Star never broke any new boundaries in terms of play mechanics. Nevertheless, the series’ scope, storytelling and slick audiovisual style made it a mainstay of the Sega catalog throughout the 16-bit era. And, as with many of the vintage franchises (including Sonic!), Sega more or less skipped over Phantasy Star during the Saturn era. When the franchise returned, it did so in the form of the radically different Phantasy Star Online, an engrossing real-time multiplayer experience that had almost nothing to do with the older turn-based single-player games save its application of a glossy sci-fi patina to its RPG concepts.

A screenshot of Phantasy Star 4, via GameFAQs
Sega

The older games’ disappearance from Sega’s roster has been a source of continuing disappointment to many of the company’s older fans. Great as PSO may be, it’s not the same thing as classic Phantasy Star… and as we’ve seen with PSO2, the demanding nature of maintaining an MMO in multiple regions often means western fans miss out on the latest releases.

As Sega looks through its back catalog for contemporary inspiration, Phantasy Star seems a perfect candidate for revival. It’s not necessarily suited for the faithfully retro Sonic Mania format — outside of Phantasy Star 4, the original Phantasy Star games feel tediously grindy by modern standards — but perhaps in the “earnest homage” spirit. A Phantasy Star 4 pastiche that approaches the game the way Square Enix has paid honor to Chrono Trigger with I am Setsuna and Lost Sphear could work quite well.

It’s also worth noting that the designer most associated with Phantasy Star, Reiko Kodama, still works at Sega. Indeed, she’s kept her RPG skills sharp in the post-Phantasy Star days; she played a critical role in the beloved Dreamcast RPG Skies of Arcadia (which could also do with a follow-up). More recently, she’s spearheaded the 7th Dragon games, which have evolved from Etrian Odyssey-style dungeon crawlers to the futuristic adventure of 2016’s 7th Dragon 3 for Nintendo 3DS. It would be a pretty short leap from near-future Tokyo to the Algol system… and it definitely doesn’t hurt that Sega has the RPG pros at Atlus in its stable of developers now.

Vintage Phantasy Star may have been reduced to little more than a work from a long time ago, set in a galaxy far, far away, but milestone birthdays always offer a perfect occasion to take stock of things and commit to changes for the future. I, for one, am ready to enjoy Phantasy Star’s comfortable middle age.