An Andrew Stokely Rant
Think of all of the best JRPG’s from the fated glory days of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. What comes to mind? Final Fantasy IV. Secret of Mana. Earthbound. Breath of Fire II. Final Fantasy VI. Chrono Trigger. So on and so forth ad infinitum et ad naseum. It doesn’t take a genius to point to the one commonality among all of these titles. Namely, each and every one of the beloved classics listed above were all exclusive to the SNES. Literally. Every. Single. One. In the days before Final Fantasy VII and the beloved Sony Playstation, the SNES was simply the system to own for loves of turn-based battles, scrolling menus, and lengthy, story-driven experiences.
There are, of course, some reasonable and logical explanations for this. For one thing, the SNES had a larger storage capacity and color palette than its jet-black counterpart, leaving much more room for creativity in developing the worlds in which these games take place. For another, the sound quality of the Sony sound chip in the gray and purple box’s hardware was very much conducive to the kind of symphonic sounds developers such as Square, Nintendo, and even Capcom felt integral to the kinds of fantastical atmospheres they set out to create. Beyond that, there’s the sheer convenience of starting with Nintendo and staying with them for the leap to the next generation: Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, for example, got their start on the Famicom and saw multiple releases on Nintendo’s follow up. These series were driving and defining forces within the realm of the JRPG, and any new series seeking to make it big probably wanted to follow suit. (I cannot, however, prove this last point objectively.) Oh, and Nintendo had a virtual monopoly on the home console market at the time. That probably helped a bit too.
Sega, on the other hand, was born and bread for the arcades, dating all the way back to the early days of their pinball machines. This is where Sega excelled. Games like Afterburner, Altered Beast, Space Harrier, and Zaxxon were the kind of titles that won them fans. These were action-oriented, reflex testing, skill-demanding kinds of games that got the heart racing. These were more or less the diametric opposite Wizardry and Ultima inspired titles that found a home on the NES. It’s not hard to see why third-party developers of these kinds of games hardly perceived Sega on their collective theoretical radars. Again, I can’t prove this, but I think that it has as much to do with their history as it does their share of the market at the time.
Yet, when the time came to release their first console outside of Japan, Sega showed they were not afraid to branch out. The Master System had a number of memorable titles, many such as Golvellius were inspired by games seen on the Famicom such as The Legend of Zelda. Others were more traditional JRPG in style, such as Miracle Warriors. However, there was one game that drastically set itself apart from its contemporaries. It dared to be science fiction in a world of fantasy. It put a female character in a leading role in a time when most gamers were young to adolescent children. It pushed the limits of what was possible graphically and presented and atmosphere that still manages to impress.
That game, of course, is the original Phantasy Star. It was bold. It was creative. It was imaginative, and, as some have claimed, it was perhaps the single greatest JRPG ever to be presented in eight-bit. It was a cult success that spawned three sequels, all of which made their home on the world famous Sega Megadrive. Phantasy Star II featured more of the same in terms of theme and story, but also had a few tricks up its sleeve-not the least of which is the death of a main character and the total destruction of an entire planet. (Um, spoilers, I guess…). Phantasy Star III saw a bit of a departure in more ways than one. The style was different, the themes were different, the story was quite a bit different, and, hell, it didn’t even take place in the same star system as the other games! It was one of those divisive titles that has its supporters and detractors, each with some legitimate compliment or complaint, each with their own irrational, personal reasons for falling into one camp or another. Which, leads us to the series’ grand finale…
Phantasy Star IV rounded up the series in just the right way. It took the best aspects of its predecessors, added a few new ideas, and pushed the Genesis to its fullest graphical and sound abilities. It was the defining RPG on the system and it holds up just as well, if not better, than any of the games that I listed at the start of this article. It has an in-depth story with twists and turns. It has loveable and memorable characters. It has a distinctive anime style and aesthetic. It really is the underdog of the Sixteen-Bit era.
Why? Well, the case could be made for any number of reasons, not the least of which is its story. For fans of the previous entries, it pays homage to and follows the continuity of the previous games. The planet that was destroyed, the “first planet,” Palma, is still gone, and a big stone statue dedicated to the first game’s protagonist, Alis Landale, can be seen on the planet Mota. For another thing, it carries on the Phantasy Star tradition of strong female characters with Alys Brangwin, a powerful and daring individual who acts as a mentor to the other protagonist, Chaz. Together with a band of memorable characters, they fight an epic battle against the evil that is Dark Force over the course of a story so full of twists and turns that I dare not spoil it here.
From a game play standpoint, battles are lightning-fast and can be reduced to mere seconds thanks to the aide of macros, or per-programmed battle commands that you can call up at a moment’s notice. The battles themselves are also very intuitive and spells and attacks etc. are represented visually instead of with words. In addition to random battles in traditional party formation, Phantasy Star IV offers the rare opportunity to take part in turn-based vehicle battles, which provide a welcome deviation from the grinding norm.
Aesthetically, Phantasy Star IV might just be the single most beautiful looking JRPG of the time. While the in-game graphics are primitive by today’s standards, the cut scenes, which are presented in detailed, manga-style still frames, are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The music, too, gives off the kind of techno sci-fi heavy metal vibe that the Genesis was known for. This sound only adds another layer of atmosphere to an already engrossing experience. These layers coming together in the moment, however, is an experience that can only be truly experienced first-hand.
In short, Phantasy Star IV is amazing. It is a game that deserves your attention. It is a game that deserves your time. It is a work of interactive fiction that picks and chooses which genre conventions to follow. Where it deviates, it does so drastically and memorably. Where it sticks to the formula, it adheres so well that it’s hard not to love, especially for fans of the genre. Anyone looking to pick up an original copy can find a cartridge for anywhere between twenty and sixty dollars, depending on the condition, whether or not the box is included, and so on. Most people, however, will either want to experience this classic on the Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 as part of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection or download the game on Steam.