Armagideon Time

This recurring phantasy

September 17th, 2019

The original Phantasy Star for the Sega Master System has occupied a special — if bittersweet — place in my heart for over three decades. It my first for-real console JRPG experienced, purchased a couple of days after my mother’s death. Its punishing grind and non-intuitive narrative flow proved to be an adequate distraction during a really harrowing time.

The franchise has waned since its groundbreaking debut, drifting towards an action-RPG MMO model which bears only a superficial resemblance to the 8-and-16 bit turn-based epics upon which the series built its reputation. The nature of the games have changed, but my interest has remained strong enough to be a system-selling incentive. My archives contain a host of Phantasy Star offerings across multiple console generations from the original SMS cartridge to a Phantasy Star 0 gamecard for the Nintendo DS.

One offering which intrigued me, but never garnered much actually playtime was the PS2 reskin of the first Phantasy Star game, offered as part of the budget line of “Sega Ages” upgraded classics. It dropped at a time when my interest in import gaming was at a low ebb. Even if I had a console capable of playing it, I no longer retained the patience (and muscle memory) to blunder through it the way I’d done with the straight port on the Saturn’s Phantasy Star Collection anthology a half decade prior.

It was relegated to the “maybe someday” file, along with a crate of still-unplayed games picked up in the later days of the PS2’s lifespan. Word of a fan translation project caused my ears to prick up, but the logistics of ripping and patching and finding a means to play the damn thing suggested a shitload of work expended for an equal amount of disappointment…

….until a couple of weeks ago, when I got a fan-curated bundle of the translated game and emulation software up and running on my shiny new laptop.

The game is an odd beast, equal parts old-and-new school with little blending between the two. The visuals have been upgraded from gorgeous-for-the-time 8-bit sprites to the slicker and softer prerendered style associated with Aughts Era flash browser games. It looks great in screencaps, but comes off as weirdly flat and sterile during actual gameplay.

The menus and interfaces have also received a less jarring modern facelift complete with tool tips, anime-style character art, and more intuitive functionality. No more blooping boxes of plain text against a stock environmental backdrop in order to manipulate party inventory.

The game’s signature “3D” dungeons got a more lateral upgrade from minimalist sprite-based corridors to…

…some pretty hideous-looking textured ones which don’t add much besides some unwelcome visual noise. At least the developers added a limited automapping feature by way of a consumable item, alleviating one of the more frustrating aspects of the original game.

The combat system has been brought closer in line to Phantasy Star IV‘s, the trad JRPG swan song of the franchise. Characters are now displayed onscreen during battles, and now have attack animations in place of the original game’s monochrome “slash” shorthand. There’s even as auto-attack option has been added for the thumb-fatigued crowd. Hit point, damages, and experience totals have been brought up from their modest tabletop-inspired totals to something closer in line to Final Fantasy’s big number gameplay. After getting a few levels under their belt, the characters are dishing out pain capable of felling the Master System version’s endgame bosses.

The grind in general is considerably easier in the remake version. After three hours of dicking around, my party managed to hit level 20 without much in the way of dedicated XP farming. Getting cash for big ticket items is also much less of a hassle, where going from zero meseta to a fancy new ceramic sword takes a single loop around the starting continent’s shoreline whacking crab monsters for money.

The less punishing grind and automapping feature removed two reasons I’ve struggled with revisiting the game, but the remake’s narrative tweaks provided the incentive to actually give it go. As an early-gen JRPG, Phantasy Star was a bit lean when it came to the plot. All you needed to know — overthrow the space tyrant who killed your brother — was spelled out in the instruction manual or short snippets of imperfectly localized text which…sorta…maybe…were adequate to directly you towards the next quest objective. It was heady stuff in 1988, but had long been outshone by the next-level soap operatics of the SNES Final Fantasy games. Out of the original quartet of games, only Phantasy Star IV managed to capture a similar vibe.

The Sega Ages remake of the first game dedicates a good deal of energy trying to bring the first Phantasy Star up to that level. Alisia and company are no longer stat-defined ciphers, but distinct personalities who interact with NPC and each other through still image cutscenes and dialogue boxes complete with mood-reflecting portraits. It’s not Mass Effect (or even Final Fantasy VI), but watching them come to “life” after all these years is a wonderful treat.

It’s fan service, pure and simple, and that applies to the remake as a whole. It wasn’t intended to win converts but to pay tribute to the first installment of a beloved franchise. Instead of trying players’ patience with faithful yet anachronistic mechanics, it distills the core components of the original into an appealingly compact package — a budget retro-title as a nostalgia-scented love letter.

And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t succeed at its goal.

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