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.
The Phantasy Star series is fascinating to me in part because it fell under the radar of the gaming world at large when its games were still new. It didn’t enter the total public consciousness until Phantasy Star Online came out for the Dreamcast, and that game started the negative trend of paying for a game’s subscription after paying for it at a store. I’ve already looked at Phantasy Stars II and III, and a common theme came up: neither game stood up well when looked at with the standards of 2012. PSII is a twenty-three-year-old RPG that plays slow, and PSIII is just not that good of a game. Phantasy Star IV, however, had a more fleshed out story, far better localization, much better presentation, and a story every bit as good as Phantasy Star II‘s.
Does Phantasy Star IV have the staying power in 2012 that its predecessors didn’t?
HOW WAS IT THEN: In the golden era of Japanese RPGs, Phantasy Star IV took a position on the front lines. Featuring a list of well developed and enjoyable characters wound into a narrative eight years in the making, Phantasy Star IV had an amazing story that had two advantages over the better SquareSoft games: it had continuity that none of the Final Fantasy games had at the time (this was before the company now known as Square Enix started making Final Fantasy games with the intention of exploiting them further down the road), and it had fewer plot holes than the two big Final Fantasy games had. For example, there was no period of dead time like FFVI’s post-apocalyptic world, which was largely spent wandering around the landscape looking for things. Phantasy Star IV isn’t as linear as past games, however, offering a wealth of side quests for the purposes of gaining experience and other prizes for those who need a break from the main quest. Phantasy Star IV even had a legitimately heartbreaking moment, making that not only twice that Phantasy Star beat Final Fantasy VII to the punch, they did it better both times.
In addition to being a good game on its own merits, PSIV also greatly improved compared to its predecessors. While it wasn’t easy, it certainly wasn’t as outright maddening in difficulty as Phantasy Star II was, wasn’t as poorly balanced as the original Phantasy Star, and was ten times better than Phantasy Star III just on the merits of being Not Phantasy Star III. The battle system was streamlined and sped up with the addition of combination attacks to do greater damage, which added a degree of unpredictability to the game as players tried to find the best combinations. It also had just the right length: it wasn’t the eighty-hour mess that Final Fantasy VI was, but it didn’t require repeat playthroughs to get the most out of it like the shorter Chrono Trigger.
The Genesis was an underrated RPG system, featuring three Phantasy Star games, two outstanding Shining Force titles and the overlooked Shining in the Darkness, Shadowrun, and the neglected Beyond Oasis, and this was before we even got into the Sega CD’s library. However, Phantasy Star IV took its place alongside Shining Force II as being as good, if not better, than even the best Square had to offer the SNES.
HOW IS IT NOW: Phantasy Star IV manages to pull off something rare: not only does it stand up well as an RPG in 2012, but it’s the rare sequel—the last part of a trilogy, even—that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their experience with the previous two Algol games.
The story stands up by closing the trilogy definitively while being equal parts deep, entertaining, and humourous, while also adding in comic relief at the right times and treating a major event with the gravity it deserved. There aren’t a lot of holes to the story, and things are kept moving right along with not a lot of fluff or dead time. One key addition was the Talk feature, which features additional dialogue between characters depending on where the player was in the game. This isn’t so big a deal now as these kinds of things are now best handled by Quest logs, but this was huge for anyone who stopped playing for whatever reason. In 2012, a feature like this is virtually mandatory.
The anime-styled cutscenes, something that was just becoming normalized by the popularity of Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z in the mid-90s. They kept things lively as well and brought personality to the characters that didn’t exist in PSIII. Today, these are pretty standard issue, but I’m willing to say the still cutscenes in PSIV are better than what we see in some modern games because of a lack of voice acting, which is hit or miss today. It also had the trends of the anime industry in the mid-90s, when things were better written and not slanted towards the abominable moe trends of the past five or so years. The mid-90s was arguably anime’s golden period, and it shows in Phantasy Star IV.
Nowadays, Phantasy Star IV would be considered a hard game because any game that isn’t intentionally “fuck you hard” like Wizardry is made too easy to compensate for smaller attention spans, but Phantasy Star IV had the right amount of grinding necessary. First-time players can wander around long enough in finding their next location and searching for chests that they would naturally grind to a level that would make hitting goals a possibility without excessively fighting for money or experience, whereas more experienced players know enough about battle mechanics to get through at slightly lower levels. This is a very well balanced RPG that didn’t punish its player like PSII did. For those players who did play the earlier games, there are enough nods to the past to please fans. Early in the game, for example, the music from the later dungeons in the first Phantasy Star can be heard but remixed to a 16-bit sound chip, and it still gives me a fangasm after all this time.
With that said, not everything is perfect. The encounter rate can get ridiculous at times. Finding combination skills takes a lot of trial and error, which is a bad thing in a game where MP is at a premium at times. Characters come and go from the party frequently, making it hard to find a consistent party. Dungeons can become very long, and with the inability to save inside of them, they can get tense near the end when the difficulty spikes up. There’s also a ridiculous bug which causes players to lose stats once they reach the maximum level of 99. Thankfully, for those who choose to emulate, there are patches that fix this bug.
Phantasy Star IV, for being such a treasured game (and expensive in its day; $79.99 in 1995), is strikingly easy to find today. The price of the cartridge has gone up over the years; a box-less copy runs for about $25 and a boxed one runs over $50. However, Sega has made it available on multiple compilations on virtually every system known to man, including Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection and on Steam. The former can be found for about $20 nowadays, if not less, and is a steal on its own merits. There’s also the $8 Virtual Console version, but that’s a rather high price compared to other products on the market. Every version supports savestates, as does emulation, so those turned off by not being able to save in dungeons have a recourse.
Phantasy Star IV stands up as a shining example of the pre-Final Fantasy VII era of video games. It might not be quite as good as later games like Suikoden II, but it’s the best that Phantasy Star has to offer. It closed a brilliant trilogy with fireworks, and it’s worth a playthrough for anyone, young or old.