The year was 1988. The game, Phantasy Star. I had seen a commercial for it on TV. Usually video game commercials came in one flavour: Nintendo. On the rare occasion that there was a commercial for a Sega Master System game, my ears would perk up and it would have all my attention.
A little back story for you: it was a time when there were no in-store game kiosks – only the locked glass cabinet at Toys ‘R’ Us. Behind the glass were TVs with the latest video game systems hooked up to them. And the Sega display always had HANG-ON/Safari Hunt in it. Because this was a game I already had, it wasn’t nearly as captivating as seeing another game in action. The only other way I’d see a new game would be in the Sears catalogue, the Sega game brochures that would come with games, or on the even rarer occasion that one of my friends got a new game. Mostly everyone I knew had a Nintendo Entertainment System, however. And so getting to see a new Sega game was always an exciting event even though, in retrospect, not all of them were that great.
Phantasy Star, on the other hand, was absolutely amazing, and still is. One of the first images I’d seen of the game was of a mid-air fight with an enemy that seemingly filled the whole screen: GOLD DRAGON. Its colours were bright, its linework was bold, and was that a giant fireball it was spitting out, right at the screen? Yes, yes it was. On the strength of that screenshot alone, I knew I had to have the game.
At a time when most game cartridges were priced around the $50 CDN mark, Phantasy Star was a very scary $99.99. But it promised so much! It was a “Four-Mega Plus Cartridge” for crying out loud! I didn’t know what that meant, but thought it meant it was twice as good as Shinobi, which was only a Two-Mega Cartridge. I’m not sure how I talked my parents into buying me a game that was the same price as two games, but I’m thinking it was because they always got me whatever presents I asked for (and sacrificed some of their own wants for this, and I do appreciate this). Perhaps they also knew it would change my life.
Phantasy Star is the story of a girl, Alis, who sees her brother, Nero, killed in front of her by King Lassic’s guards. Lassic used to be a good king until dark priests arrived and he became involved with them. Monsters showed up across the three planets of the Algol star system; the people fell into poverty and the cities into ruin. Nero apparently was sniffing around where he shouldn’t have and was killed. With his dying breath, he gave Alis his sword (the weakest weapon in the game, so maybe that’s a reason why he died) and told her to search for a warrior named Odin, who would help her defeat Lassic.
And so the adventure and mythology that is Phantasy Star had begun. It was unlike any game I had ever played before. Characters talked to you, you earned money, there were shops, monsters appeared out of nowhere, and the story was so in-depth it opened my imagination to new forms of storytelling. Then, there were the dungeons. Glorious, smoothly-animated, first-person dungeons that were full of treasure, traps, and monsters beyond my wildest dreams. Every time I found a new key item as listed in the instruction manual, I crossed it off. Laconian Sword: got it! Laser gun: got it!
Another first introduced to me by Phantasy Star was the concept of characters who would join you in your quest. And they’d level up, learning new things. While these concepts have now been around in gaming for close to 20 years, at the time this was all huge and awe-inspiring. The game was perhaps too big for me to fully grasp at the time, and so it took me a full five years to finally find everything, defeat the “final” boss, and then find the real enemy (who is ridiculously well-hidden – seriously, how would anybody have found him? I don’t know how I did).
A game that was one hundred dollars lasted me five years. That’s not bad at all.
I still have my Sega Master System and my original copy of Phantasy Star. I bought a GameBoy Advance SP just to get the Phantasy Star Collection: a cartridge that contains the original game, plus parts two and three that appeared on the Sega Genesis. I now have several versions of the games in different formats, including the original cartridges that were recently given to me by a friend. Just today, I finished the first game on my GameBoy Micro while on the train home from work. And it was just as fun and exciting as the first time.
Games like Phantasy Star are the reason classic gaming will never die. In an age where every game seems to make or break a studio, and where every game is under pressure to sell millions of copies, it’s sometimes comforting to forget about the hype and play something you truly love: a good game you grew up playing might get old and show its age, but it will never stop being fun.
Replay Value: 10