Pity the poor Master System. South America and Europe aside, it just could not compete with the unstoppable NES despite superior technology and some cracking games. Among those titles is what could be considered the machine's killer app - a huge game with a matching price tag, which not only tested the hardware but also the boundaries and expectations of the genre. The game in question is, of course, Heroes of the Lance.
Only kidding - it's Phantasy Star.
It is undeniably a well presented game, especially for the era. The graphics are bold and colourful, and the battles look particularly impressive, with a unique first-person perspective and large, detailed monster and character sprites (although truth be told, there are some short cuts in terms of animation). On the whole the game looks much better than an 8-bit RPG has any right to and it easily surpasses any NES effort of the era. Even so, it does show its age just a little, and what looked impressive on a 14" bedroom telly twenty years ago does not look quite as good blown up on a flashy HD screen. The pixellation is obvious, although to be fair it is an issue common to all games from the 8 and 16-bit eras, dragged from the past to be viewed on displays for which they were never intended.
While soundtrack composer Tokuhiko Uwabo lacks the epic touch of someone like Nobuo Uematsu, the tunes throughout range from good to excellent. The main overland theme is suitably stirring and heroic, although it is also perhaps a little sickly sweet; the various underground and battle themes are more edgy and evocative, really amping up the dungeon-crawling, monster-battling atmosphere. The Virtual Console release lacks the FM chip emulation of the Japanese original, which is in keeping with Nintendo's policy of leaving VC games unchanged, but it is not too much of a disappointing omission.
Even though Phantasy Star is a relatively early game, it is nonetheless revolutionary in some respects. The use of 3D dungeons is the most obvious example; although such an approach had already been seen in The Bard's Tale on computer platforms - and was popularised by the Atari ST classic Dungeon Master in the same year as Phantasy Star's release - it was unique on consoles of the time. The first person view here is a touch more advanced than in the aforementioned computer games, hewing a bit closer to proper three-dimensional scrolling than the step-by-step approach taken in those titles, but it is also less interactive, with little to do other than move around until a monster, door or chest is encountered; those weaknesses aside, the first-person view does go a long way to immersing the player in a vivid and realistic-seeming game world.
The use of manga-style cut scenes to depict important character interactions and plot moments is also progressive for the time, looking ahead to the FMV sequences a generation or two down the line; again the approach is relatively basic, but even the static images make for more dramatic and emotive scenes than the more conventional in-game interactions. Battles too are rather innovative, as the usual array of rpg combat commands are present, but there is also the option to negotiate - which can often be the best strategy with intelligent creatures more likely to engage in a dialogue - and even the more bestial monsters are available for a chat through the use of spells and items. This feature may not sound like much, but Phantasy Star is one of the few console RPGs that makes use of the charm and friendship magic which is common in tabletop roleplaying, and which distinguishes it as a setting that feels full of real creatures living real lives, rather than a parade of monsters to kill for experience points. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the game, however, has nothing to do with game mechanics; Phantasy Star must be one of the earliest and most prominent games to feature a female protagonist.
The plot of the game is also surprisingly personal for a console RPG. Alis doesn't head off on her quest to destroy the overlord in order to save the solar system, or even free the oppressed people of her village; rather it is the more primal and simplistic motivation of revenge for the death of her brother at the hands of Lassic's guardsmen. While that is not a motivation that most gamers can relate to specifically, it is nonetheless a very human and personal one, and from that perspective, it is easier to relate to than the usual epic and guileless heroism seen in the genre. One could argue that this personal and emotional emphasis is an expression of a feminine, or at least not overtly masculine, approach to the game, tying in neatly with the female protagonist and making her a meaningful inclusion rather than superficial set dressing.
Revolutionary it may be, but the plot is also a tad linear. The vast majority of console RPGs suffer from similar drawbacks, particularly the earlier titles, but Phantasy Star compounds the problem somewhat by giving the distinct impression that it is a more open game than it in fact is. The game allows an impressive amount of freedom to explore, with only a few places which are off-limits at various stages in the story, but while the freedom is refreshing, it is largely illusory, and that can soon become a source of frustration. For example, Alis can find the building in which the robot pilot Hapsby is hidden, and can even examine the pile of rubble under which he is trapped, but will not be able to actually see him until she has spoken to another character who then tells them that Hapsby has been there for decades! Admittedly, it is a problem that might very well not arise for most players, but those who enjoy exploring may find it to be an annoyance.
An issue that players are far more likely to encounter is the aggressive difficulty at early stages of the game. It is pretty much impossible to get going at the start of the story without spending a good amount of time "grinding", as the Warcraft lot call it, to build up Alis' strength; it is a strange design decision, and there is a definite danger that it could be off-putting to some. The game does turn out to be more than worth the early work, but it would perhaps have been more sensible to ease the player into the game more gently.
Phantasy Star is not perfect, but its flaws are all very minor, making this game easily one the best of the 8-bit console roleplaying games. The title is well-made, well-presented, enthralling and innovative, and while the leap in power with the 16-bit generation meant that the top RPGs of that era, including a couple of Phantasy Star's own sequels, are better products on the whole, that is no reason to overlook this early gem from a time before Square dominated the genre. For RPG fans, this is an essential Virtual Console purchase.