This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.
All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.
According to your average American JRPG fan, the medium pretty much begins and ends with Final Fantasy. It was the original Final Fantasy—which Nintendo actually published and promoted with the help of a Nintendo Power strategy guide—that got JRPGs their foothold in America along with Dragon Warrior. But while all of this was going on, Phantasy Star was quietly establishing itself on the Master System as a game well ahead of its time. The Genesis came out soon after, and with it came Phantasy Star II, which sold for the then-unheard of price of $69.99. To put that in perspective, that’s over $120 in 2010 dollars (the latest we can get numbers on), a number that makes me much less sympathetic to the $60 is too much! argument over today’s games. Those that bought the game risked a lot: there were no Funcolands in those days and no easy way to trade in a game for a new one outside of risky mail-order services advertised in the back of gaming magazines.
Phantasy Star II is one of the all-time classics in the history of not only the Genesis, but role-playing games as a whole. But does the game stand up on its own legs to the post-RPG boom eyes of 2012?
HOW WAS IT THEN: Phantasy Star II took everything most gamers knew about RPGs at the time and blew it up. While Nintendo gamers like me were still wrapping our heads around four nameless warriors who couldn’t speak (Final Fantasy) and getting ready for three more who barely did (Dragon Warrior II saw US release in December of 1990), Phantasy Star II gave us a true sequel to a game that already had the best story in the market, seven characters with their own unique backgrounds and skill sets, a deep story of its own with an ultimate moral to it, and a relationship with one character that led to a truly watershed moment in gaming history. The key parts of the story were told in anime-style cutscenes long before we knew what anime was.
Phantasy Star II was definitely a hard game, which blew away some unprepared American gamers who didn’t quite understand aspects such as level grinding. However, those who paid the high price for the game got their money’s worth, involving a quest that could take forty to fifty hours depending on grinding. The story ended on a somber note, leaving what happens next up to interpretation, involving questions that wouldn’t answered for another five years, and the hint guide that came with the game was little solace for those embarking on a long but fruitful quest.
For an audience accustomed to dungeon-crawling games that spawned from the Wizardry and Dungeons & Dragons family tree, Phantasy Star II was like the hammer smashing through the screen in the 1984 Apple commercial. It opened up everyone to a whole new world, in more than one sense of the phrase.
HOW IS IT NOW: When I played Phantasy Star II recently, both when I beat it (for the first time) in 2011 and just this past week, I heard a horrible grinding noise. I couldn’t place it at first, but eventually, I was able to figure it out. It was the sound of Phantasy Star II being ground up by the gears of time like The Brave Little Toaster.
The main issue at play is the fact that the game is highly ambiguous as to what is next. There’s heavy exploration involved, but there’s also a bit of trial-and-error as well. In one part of the game, the crew has to go through four different coloured dungeons in order to operate a dam. The order in which this has to be done is largely left to guesswork, and if the player is wrong, chances are good they won’t survive. A guide isn’t a necessity, but it’s a tremendous help.
What would be a bigger help, however, are maps for the dungeons. PSII used a two-layered system inside dungeons, where overhanging graphics such as the pipes in the ceiling scrolled over the main map. That was a great aesthetic in 1989, but it was a big enough distraction to cause someone to lose their bearings, especially post-battle. In very long, winding dungeons with tough battles and an obscene-by-modern-standards encounter rate with no ways to recover HP and TP, this was often fatal.
Like most old-school RPGs, the balance was completely jacked up. The game starts off easy enough for about fifteen minutes, and then you encounter the first dungeon and learn just where you stand. An inordinate amount of grinding is necessary to get anywhere in PSII, both for the experience needed to level up and for the money to buy new weapons and armour. Things even out later in the game, but there are still huge difficulty spikes throughout the game that make things messy for those who only find out they’re not ready when they’re reloading an old save.
The issues with Phantasy Star II go beyond a lack of modern niceties, such as the ability to save on the main map, a way to find out where you are in the story if you put the game down for awhile, the limited and awkward item management, or flexibility in how to set up your teams. Even the rote act of fighting is bogged down by an interface that was clunky and hard to use. For most fights, it’s easy: pick fight, slash until one side is all dead. But for more complex fights, it’s a rough system. Pick the order button, pick the party member, use an icon to determine what to do, then direct that at a group of enemies. Not one enemy, a group; if you have three of one type of enemy and want to gang up on one at a time, you’re out of luck. It’s a hard system to work when things grow difficult.
With that said, there are still some things about Phantasy Star II that have aged well. The story is still top notch, even if the limitations of the era affect the storytelling a bit. Those limitations don’t hamper the effects of what happens to a prominent character, the effects of the world’s continued degradation, or the heavy-hitting ending. And though the characters don’t talk too much, they still come across as well-written, well-fitting characters; e.g. Shir, who often disappears from your party to steal from stores you’re in. And best of all, for completionists, it’s a very important bridge between the first Phantasy Star and Phantasy Star IV, which completed the “trilogy” (enough has been written about Phantasy Star III that I don’t feel the need to pile on).
Phantasy Star II is a game for people who know what they’re getting into. The cartridges are all old enough to the point where losing save data on them is a highly risky venture for those who don’t know how to replace batteries, so emulation—where the benefits of save states come in—is highly recommended. For those who are against emulation, Sega has made it so that virtually every other method to play this game has been covered. Phantasy Star II has been re-released on Xbox Live ($5), iOS ($3), a compilation on GBA (not worth it), the Genesis Collection on PS2 and PSP (around $10-$15 nowadays), Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection ($20, often goes on sale), and the Virtual Console ($8). It’s almost physically impossible to take five steps without bumping into this game in some form. Even then, modern gamers who didn’t grow up with this style of game will run screaming and rightly so: it’s hard, poorly balanced, and hasn’t aged well in the slightest.
If there were ever one game that needed a remake to be released in America, this is it. However, the Sega Ages version of this and the first game have never been released outside of Japan. With Sega Sammy Holdings increasingly going into beancounter mode with their Western division and all of their focus set on the free-to-play Phantasy Star Online 2, prospects of seeing the remake of Phantasy Star II in the Americas are grim.