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.
By the time I got my Genesis in the winter of 1991, I had missed the boat on Phantasy Star II, unfortunately. However, my favourite place in the world for the next couple of years, a local video rental place in downtown Seymour, had a copy of Phantasy Star III for me to rent. Being a child of Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, I was sold. I loved Phantasy Star III, renting it so much that when the store eventually closed down in the mid-1990s, they gave me the game for free. I own it to this day.
However, as I entered my pubescent years, I loved a lot of things. I loved any female who caught my eye. I loved the Prince Valiant cartoon. I loved my Detroit Pistons Grant Hill jersey. Like all of those other things, my “love” for PSIII was a little shortsighted as I’ve come to at least understand why the game is considered the black sheep in the series that it is.
When I wrote up Phantasy Star II during RPG Month, I gave it the widest swing I’ve ever given a game, taking it from an A+ to a D+ as twenty-three years have not been kind to it. That was for the good game. How does the less spectacular sequel stand up?
HOW WAS IT THEN: Phantasy Star III was a lesson: Don’t mess with what works.
Sega basically changed the formula that worked so well for the first two games. Character development, the battle system, the gist of the story, the aesthetics, all of these familiar elements went out the window. Phantasy Star III was panned when it was new because it was such a radical departure from the first two games, and a lot of what changed wasn’t for the better. But bless Sega for trying.
The story of Phantasy Star III was ambitious. It took place one thousand years after the events of Phantasy Star IV, dealing with a war between the forces of Orakio and Laya. The player took the role of Orakian Prince Rhys, who goes to save a woman he was marrying despite 1) having just met her, and 2) she has amnesia. Rhys isn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the door, but after a while, he has a choice of either marrying the woman (Maia) or marrying another woman who helped him (Lena). Their offspring moves onto the second generation. Through a total of three generations, Rhys’ offspring, aided by cyborgs Mieu and Wren along with generation-specific sidekicks, get to the root of the evil behind the Orakio versus Laya war. The choice of who to marry affects the stats of the children; the difference between Orakian blood (Lena) and Layan blood (Maia) is that the latter can use techniques (magic). So putting Rhys with Lena makes their son, Nial, a physical powerhouse who only has that one dimension; but adding Maia’s Layan blood makes a more well-rounded hero, and their children complicate the bloodlines even further. This part of the game was executed very well.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game doesn’t come along for the ride willingly. There are seven different worlds to explore, as well as the space stations of the later generations, but finding out where to go was a problem. The story itself was confusing and opaque, and things stopped making sense the further into the game the story advanced. These issues, in addition to this being Not Phantasy Star II, made fans of the series very angry when the game was new, anger which hasn’t abated over the years. It’s a fair point. While it’s not as difficult over all, it’s more difficult to get anywhere because of unnecessary hurdles to advancing the story and a fair amount of grinding that’s necessary to get new characters into the swing of things.
With the Super Nintendo flying by this point and Squaresoft finding its groove with the Final Fantasy series in America, a weak Phantasy Star was bad news for Sega in the early 1990s, and Phantasy Star IV couldn’t undo all the damage. Phantasy Star III was still an above average game, but it was more because of its potential than its execution. If it had been named anything else, it would’ve been just a somewhat decent JRPG.
HOW IS IT NOW: Remember that D+ I gave Phantasy Star II, an all-time classic? Hold on tight, kids. We’re going to experience some turbulence.
Every flaw I mentioned that PSIII had in 1991 has grown into something unmanageable in 2012. Finding the next place to go or the next person to talk to is an absolutely atrocious process that’s made worse by the game’s reliance on triggers, and the drab scenery that all looks the same. While different worlds look different—an ice world here, a desert world there—landmarks are painfully hard to come across; and while the hero is given a monitor to map things out, it’s virtually useless due to the small viewing area on the maps and their inaccuracy. Furthermore, some events or characters won’t show up until that proper trigger’s been hit. Just in the beginning of the game is an example of something that’s still frustrating to do in 2012. In order to obtain the Sapphire, Rhys needs to sail to a cave on an island across from one of the first towns he visits. However, the owner of the boat he has to borrow won’t go out without a cyborg being on the ship. I knew where to find the cyborg (Mieu), but when I went to look for her, she wasn’t there. It wasn’t until I talked to a random NPC in town who mentioned the presence of the cyborg that Mieu showed up, ready to be recruited. This makes it important to talk to every NPC, a trend that has largely gone by the wayside in modern games for good reason: it’s boring and artificially pads the games.
Of course, once those triggers hit, it’s time to explore. This was annoying in 1991 and mind-numbingly painful in 2012. There are no real landmarks to use in the vast majority of the caves, and the outer worlds aren’t much better. Going from world to world through the futuristic-looking caverns is particularly arduous because of the layout. Everything looks the same, and it’s easy to forget which direction you’re going in, a problem made worse by the game’s high encounter rate and difficult enemies. Now add in the frustration of the limited and now archaic save system, where you can save your games only at inns. There were many times players would arrive in a new world, hanging on for dear life, only to be taken out by stronger enemies before they could make it to a town or even find one in some cases.
The worst part of playing Phantasy Star III, however, is what happens when you put the game down for awhile. Keep good notes or else getting back into the game is an impossibility. The NPCs’ hints aren’t enough to get back on the right track, and what’s left is often wandering the endless landscapes looking for a place to go. None of this is made any more enjoyable by the actual gameplay. Item management is arduous with limited item slots and no way to sort; e.g. a monomate takes up as many slots as a two-handed sword, and they’re all sorted by when you received them. Also, doing anything in battle beyond hitting the autobattle icon is needlessly burdensome. I will grant that none of the old Phantasy Star games are as accessible in 2012 as we’d like them to be, but PSIII takes it to a whole other level.
The good news is that, for those interested, Phantasy Star III is widely available as it has appeared on virtually every Sega compilation since the dawn of time. It’s gotten to the point where I half expect to find download codes for it in a box of Frosted Flakes; it’s become that ubiquitous. Unfortunately for the game, a box of Frosted Flakes at my local supermarket is about $4.99, and it’s worth more. With Phantasy Star III being retconned in the series’ canon by Phantasy Star IV, there is literally no reason to go and slog through this game other than to win some sort of personal merit badge.