I was only in 8th grade when I first heard about this new role-playing game called Phantasy Star for Sega’s fledgling 8-bit console. While I already had great experiences with the Master System, playing an RPG that I truly loved on one was something I hadn’t done up to that point.
Yes, I had both Ys: The Vanished Omens and Miracle Warriors: Seal of the Dark Lord, but neither of those really clicked with me, so I figured I’d always be playing the best the genre had to offer on the Apple side of things, with classic series like Ultima, Wizardry, and The Bard’s Tale.
The more I read about Phantasy Star, though, the more excited I got about playing it. When the day came that it finally hit stores, I would be in for one heck of a case of sticker shock: its price at Toys R Us was $69.99! Seventy bucks back in 1988, when most games were around $39.99 or less. There was no way my mom would go for it. I didn’t do any chores, which meant no allowance, and thus no disposable income for “important” purchases like this. I was at an impasse, and wasn’t sure if I’d ever get to play it.
As fate would have it, though, our family was set to take one of our annual trips to Las Vegas. My dad loved playing craps, and my mom loved the slot machines, so Vegas was always high on their vacation destination list, and it was a relatively quick and convenient drive from Southern California where I grew up.
Although I was still way too young to gamble and hated cigarette smoke, I always loved walking through casinos, especially hearing the satisfying sound of quarters and silver dollars clunking down loudly into those metal coin trays. This was back when you still had to put coins in them and physically pull a handle!
My destination of choice was, unsurprisingly, the midway arcade at Circus Circus. While other casinos had a few videogames to amuse the youngsters, nobody brought it like this place. It’s funny to think back on how my parents would just leave me and my sister — who was only 9 or 10 at the time — alone there. She would go off and play the carnival games, which she was very good at, while I hung out in their giant arcade.
The first machine I would go to was always Mr. Do!, even though it was an older game. I loved the graphics, music, and gameplay, which owed a lot to Namco’s Dig Dug, but I preferred its pacing. As a Robotech fanatic, I also loved Capcom’s Hyper Dyne Side Arms, but I was rather terrible at it. I remember the copyright screen saying something about it being illegal to play Side Arms outside of Japan, so that added to its allure.
It was during that trip to Vegas that I devised a plan to buy Phantasy Star on my own. I would try to spend as little money as possible playing arcade games and stockpile the quarters I got from my mom throughout the trip, and hopefully have enough by the time we went home to make the purchase.
I’m not entirely sure how I did it, but by the time we left for California, I had about $90 in quarters! I must have done a lot of game-watching that trip, which probably explains why when I start up games at home for the first time, I’ll sit there and patiently wait to see if anything happens after the title screen appears. You never know if there’s a second intro sequence behind it.
Anyway, it was a matter of a day or two of returning home that I wanted to make my way back to Toys R Us, but how was I going to buy it without my mom finding out how expensive it was? There was a mall close by, and on one of the days she had to go, I went along with her. When we got there, I said I wanted to walk over to Toys R Us to buy a game with my leftover money from Vegas. She thankfully agreed and off I went! The entire time, I thought I was going to get caught, but I made it, bought the game, and threw the receipt away as soon as I stepped outside. I hightailed it back to the mall, found my mom, and I’m sure I annoyed her with my impatience to get back home.
I think I read the manual twice in the 2 miles that separated the mall and home, and I’m fairly certain I sprinted inside before she even shut off the ignition to start playing.
From the moment I turned on my Master System, I knew this was going to be something different. What immediately stood out for me was Alis, Phantasy Star‘s main protagonist. Her design was distinct, strong, and attractive. The title screen music was also instantly memorable, conveying a spirited sense of adventure. I couldn’t wait to start.
For its time, Phantasy Star begins rather violently and tragically, with the execution of Alis’ brother Nero at the hands of the local tyrant Lassic. The graphics during this intro sequence are beautifully drawn, and it does a really good job of quickly establishing motives and goals. I’ve never been the biggest fan of overly long intro sequences, and although by today’s standards this intro is very brief, it leaves the player clearly knowing what needs to be done next.
The overworld graphics are decent, but I think they’re slightly disappointing and a bit too simplistic, even back when the game was new. However, it became obvious quickly where most of the art budget went for this game: dungeons and battles.
First of all, the dungeons. My jaw hit the floor the first time I entered one! Not only are they done in a first-person perspective similar to the classic Apple RPGs mentioned earlier, but they are rendered in vibrant colors and animate smoothly as you walk through them. Even turning corners are fully animated. This was a big deal back in 1988, when most dungeon-crawling games had no walking animation except for The Bard’s Tale, and even then, it was limited to towns and weren’t full-screen like these. HERE is an example of what they look like, accompanied by the game’s equally ominous music.
The dungeons remain one of my favorite aspects of Phantasy Star, and I had a lot of fun mapping all of them on graph paper. Opening chests was stressful since many of them are laced with explosive traps that startled me the first time it happened. With these first-person dungeons being such a good memory of mine, you’d think I’d be all over the Etrian Odyssey games from Atlus, but as of this writing, I have yet to play one. Someday, I’m sure.
Then there are the battles, which are another graphical highlight. Enemies are large, have animated attacks, and are set against colorful backdrops that reflect the environment you’re currently in, whether that be a grassy field, dark forest, or a sandy beach. Some even have background animations, such as the coast where water laps up against the shore.
I remember the battles having excellent, gravelly sound effects, hit and spell animations brought these conflicts to life, and enemies were not easy to defeat. In fact, your first battle can easily end you if you’re not careful, which is in stark contrast to the easier RPGs of today.
Again, having detailed features like these in an ’80s RPG was unheard of at the time, and even the Genesis sequel that followed in 1990 had arguably worse dungeon and battle graphics than its Master System predecessor. I know I was shocked in a bad way when the meticulously drawn battles of Phantasy Star were replaced with a boring grid.
I mean, honestly, looking at those, you’d think the Master System screenshot was from the newer game. In that sense, I always felt like Phantasy Star II was a rushed sequel. I didn’t think the soundtrack was as good, and even though it was now on the 16-bit Genesis console, it didn’t feel like a substantial upgrade to its 8-bit older sibling. This made the original game feel even more special to me.
Even though I was one of the very few kids at school who had a Master System, games like Phantasy Star made it worth every penny. It’s a game that not only got me completely hooked on console RPGs, but stands as one of the best early examples of a development team putting their all into making sure their game made an unforgettable impression on players. It’s rough around the edges by today’s standards, but it will always remain one of my all-time favorites from the 8-bit era.