(SMS / Master System)

Phantasy Star (SMS / Master System)

Game Review

Phantasy Star Review

Europe PAL Version

Posted by Kelvin Green

The starting point for a venerable roleplaying legend

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.

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User Comments (36)



Corbs said:

This is the game that really kickstarted my interest in console RPGs. I bought a friend's Sega Master System so I could play R-Type and he threw in Phantasy Star with the deal. Still one of my favorites.

But the grinding at the beginning can be a bit of a turn-off for those who like to jump right in.



SwerdMurd said:

Man this game aged like absolute waste....The interface makes the DQ series seem current. I guess you had to be raised on Sega to tolerate this one....I tried to level into the curve but it wasn't balanced...and the world/dungeon design is aaaaaawful. Cannot wrap my head around 8/10.



James said:

You know me - huge Sega fan. Love more modern Phantasy Star games, but never really got into the original titles, even though I had them on GBA, PS2 and 360... something about them (perhaps the fact I have no idea what does what?) always kept me at bay. Maybe it's time to have another try...



Corbs said:

I think a lot of what makes this one appealing is for those who played it originally. The menu system and grinding does make it feel a bit outdated, and we all know Phantasy Star IV is a much more well-rounded experience. But without this game, I'm not sure if I would have gotten so into console RPGs.



TwilightV said:

I wish this would hurry up and get here so I can start on the series... had my eye on it since it was announced for Japan a few months back.



Giggsy said:

Great to see this, love them all except 3. I'll be downloading this shortly to complete the collection.



Kelvin said:

I agree it's dated, which is why I reduced the score from 9 to 8. Once you're over that initial grinding hump, it's a great game.



Digiki said:

Hurry up to NA Phantasy Star! I'd like to begin my foray into the series.



Adamant said:

Yeah, amazing game.
Don't be put off by the "grinding" comment either - as mentioned, it's only something you have to do at the very very very beginning of the game, it's not going to take long, and it's made relatively clear when you're strong enough. The power of your enemies will rise at a much more acceptable rate than grind-heavy computer RPGs from the time, so you'll always be ready for what comes at you.



Kirigirisu said:

I really liked that review, I've never played any of the Phantasy Star games prior to the Dreamcast entry (haha) and this seriously makes me consider playing!



The_Fox said:

Meh. Way too dated for me. Some games that are primitive have a special charm. Not this one.



MJongo said:

Why isn't FM sound supported? It is in the VC release of Wonder Boy II...



Adamant said:

FM sound isn't supported because this is the European version of Phantasy Star, which didn't have FM sound.
The European version of Wonder Boy II did, there was just no way to activate it.



Turbo_Genesis_64 said:

I would give it a 9! Wonderboy 2 should not be a point behind this title. This is one of my favorite RPGs. Perhaps, only bested by Phantasy Star IV.

The only major flaw I see is the last dungeon has the last Boss at such an insane place you probaly would only find him out of sheer luck or by going to a map of it on a fan site.



KeeperBvK said:

@ Adamant: "The European version of Wonder Boy II did, there was just no way to activate it." Couldn't you activate it by running the game on a Japanese MS?



Adamant said:

@Turbo Genesis 64: "The only major flaw I see is the last dungeon has the last Boss at such an insane place you probaly would never find him out of sheer luck or by going to a map of it on a fan site."

Bollocks, I found him right away. It's the obvious place to look.

@SSBFan 12: It's not. Super Empire Strikes Back has been confirmed for that day, and the chance of a 2-game week is next to zero.



FantasiaWHT said:

When they say grinding, they aren't kidding.

When you first walk out of the town, out of the three or four different fights you can run into in the first area, you can survive literally one of them. Everything else you have to run from. And that one fight leaves you so depleted you have to go back to town and heal up until you get your next level haha. Agreed though, once beyond that initial hump, the game is great. 8 is a fine score.



Metang said:

Never played a Phantasy Star game, but I will buy this when it hits NA.

The only other SMS game I've downloaded is Alex Kidd



Adamant said:

@Turbo Genesis 64: The door to the boss was in a place where you'd have to turn towards the wall to see it, yes, but it's located in a tiny area with no way out, and the door is found in the most logical place it could be. It's extremely easy to find.



Davva said:

Great review of an outstanding game. I've still got the original cartridge, and am part way through playing this again on a 2nd hand SMS.

Re: the final boss and how easy/not easy it is to find. To anyone playing this for the first time, the game makes it clear, which dungeon you're supposed to find the boss in so just try everywhere in that dungeon and be patient; it's a big dungeon and if i remember rightly you have to make a turn in the middle of a corridor and walk into a wall. Don't do what i did... I falied to find it and in desperation i must have re-searched nearly every other dungeon in the game looking for that boss. It was a few months later when i saw the solution in a magazine, and then i was finally able to finish the game, i certainly got my moneys worth, even tho' it was £40.00.



primeris said:

I played this game when the Collection came out. It's the only one that that grabbed me and I played to the finish. I know, I know, I have to give PSII a chance...



Jack said:

Good review I guess but 8 is disapointing. It's one of the rare games that deserve a 10 and it doesn't feel dated to me. I like the hard diffculty and level grinding. Now I hope to have time to play the Playstation 2 remake soon.



Kelvin said:

It was a close thing, but in the end, I decided that the early grinding was a put-off, so I dropped it to 8/10. If it makes you feel any better, it's a high 8!



aaronsullivan said:

Get out the graph paper to map the dungeons... or cheat, I guess. But what fun is that? Love this one.



Pickle said:

Talk about nostalgia. Played this game back in the 7th grade and would be counting the seconds during class not being able to wait to get home and continue this game. I dont mind the 1 hour leveling up in the beginning as it gave me a more rewarding feeling as I got further into the game. The final dungeon did take me a few months to figure out but i like challenging RPG's. Classic game, first of the series and downloaded this to my collection as soon as it became available. I give this one a 10 for its era.



Kelvin said:

Turbo Genesis, I would argue that this is one of the best of the 8-bit rpgs, certainly on consoles. If we include computer rpgs, that's a different matter!



CaptainN said:

Not only is Phantasy Star one of the best 8-bit RPGs made but it is also the best Master System game ever produced! If your a fan of old school RPGs then this is a must buy!



Mach-X said:

I'm in agreement with most of these comments, Phantasy Star is truly an epic 8 bit game with graphics that easily come close to a lot of 16 bit rpgs. If you compare this to FF1 or Dragon Warrior it's hard to believe they came from the same generation of consoles, it's so pretty, especially in the battle scenes. If you're playing this for the first time tho, get yourself maps of those dungeons. The pseudo 3d thing is cool, but the later dungeons are ridiculously stupid with steps you can take that transport your elsewhere into an identical looking spot and you have no idea where you are since every step you take looks the same as the last.

and @adamant, the FM sound is present in ALL versions of games like Phantasy Star or Double Dragon or Altered Beast, oddly enough Sega never removed it from the game data when porting it to other regions, they just never included the FM hardware in other regions consoles. Stupid move really.
In fact, anybody with a Master System, OR Genesis(Mega Drive) with Power Base Converter, a guy in australia makes boards you can attach to euro or NA systems to unlock that FM sound. If anybody is interested, info here
http://www.smspower.org/forums/viewtopic.php?t=10841 tho they are handmade and somewhat costly as a result.

OOOOPS, my apologies, adamant, FM sound is NOT present in exported versions of Phantasy Star. It had to be removed due to the english translation of the game filling up the cart data to its 512k limit. Again sorry bout that mistake. However FM sound is still left in other exported games, do they play with FM sound on VC?



fairybats said:

I've never owned a Sega in my life, but I'm giving this a shot a) I love how 80's the art is and b) it's pretty rare when the main character in an rpg is a girl. The title screen reminds me of Nausicaa. So far I'm doing what everyone has talked about and grinding away, little bits at a time. I don't mind so much, though, I have a good feeling about this game

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