It says something about my life that one of the greatest tragedies of my youth was never actually owning a Super Nintendo. I had friends with them, my uncle had one, even my grandparents were lucky enough to be blessed with that beautiful grey box (the only two games they owned for nearly a decade? Wheel of Fortune and PGA Pro Tour. I was a master at both.), but I never was so lucky. Well into the Playstation era I begged for one, spending my time at the mall gazing longingly through the window at Electronics Boutique at the demo for Final Fantasy III, desperate for Mode 7 effects and shoulder buttons. It would be years, well past the systems heyday, before I would discover emulation and finally get a chance to play those classics.
All was not lost though, as I had happened upon a second hand Sega Genesis late into my middle school years. Sure, it was no SNES, but any port in a storm is heaven. Nearly the entire run of the system could be described as “diamonds in the rough”, a collection of new IPs or one-off games that flew far under the radar of most gamers. While you were playing Ogre Battle, I was knee deep in Shining Force. Who needed Street Fighter 2 when you had Eternal Champions? Lastly, let us not forget the seminal Moonwalker…
Actually wait, I spent a solid 3 months of college trying to forget that game with the help of a certain Captain Morgan.
In the end, being a Sega fan was an important part of my development as a youth. I had to dig deep for my enjoyment, overlooking flaws that would’ve sent mainstream gamers running back to the mall in tears, confused parents in tow. I learned how to look past the veneer of graphics and character recognition to see the basic form of games, to find fun in whatever I had. It taught me appreciation and honesty. I don’t think I’d be the man I am today had I actually gotten that system when I wanted it.
But most importantly, it exposed me to Phantasy Star IV: End of the Millenium.
While Nintendo had Final Fanatasy, Sega had its own role-playing epic: Phantasy Star. Starting on the Sega Master System, the 8-bit competitor to the original NES, Phantasy Star told the story of the Algol star system and Alis Landale, one of the first female main characters in the genre. It featured massive and confusing first person dungeons, requiring pads of graphing paper and a monastic level of patience. The final boss, Darkfalz, still haunts the nightmares of any of those lucky enough to have experienced this game as a child.
Once the Genesis came out, Phantasy Star’s place as a flagship series for Sega was cemented with the second entry in the series, which nearly doubled the scope of the original game. Coming out in 1989, Phantasy Star II, would beat Square’s Final Fantasy II by a solid 2 years. While a solid game, it suffered from a soaring difficulty level that made conquering the final levels a frustrating and tedious affair. The third entry in the series, a dark enough horse to be ridden by Death himself, was developed and released in the US only, featuring an interesting “generations” system that saw your story unfold over multiple generations of the same family. Cursed by terrible graphics, awful music, and a walking speed that would make a sloth envious, the game was panned by reviewers and thankfully forgotten by all but the most die-hard fans.
Then came Phantasy Star IV. Competition in the RPG market was tough, with the amazing Final Fantasy III on the horizon. Storytelling and graphics were becoming more important as the genre was expanding beyond the die-hards to include the kids who normally skipped all the talking parts. Returning to Algol after a ill-fated sidestep into crazy with PS3, PS4 told the story of Chaz and Alys, two monster hunters on the desert planet of Motavia. Over the course of this massive game, which featured multiple massive planets, three different vehicles, and an instantly recognizable soundtrack, you not only solved the mystery of the monster infestation but also discovered the origins of series staple – Dark Force.
When other kids reminisce about the first time they heard Kefka’s life I sit back and recall the awful bwaaaaaaa of Dark Force. Hearing people hum the Theme of the Moon inspires Zio’s Theme. Phantasy Star IV was the zeitgeist for those of us crazy enough to follow Sega with dogged devotion.
Imagine my surprise to find this glimmering gem from my childhood among the new releases on Steam.
For some, replaying Phantasy Star IV will be like seeing your old roommate from college. Nothing will need to be said to relive those heady days of Sand Worms and cyborgs. For a brief moment, it’ll be like no time has passed, and you’re 12 years old again, sprawled out on the shag carpeting of your living room after school, nursing a warm Coke and throwing yourself at Lashiec in the Sky Castle, again and again.
For those unlucky enough to have not experienced the game at release, this is a glimmering opportunity to see a world without Squaresoft, a place without Moogles or Espers. It’s a chance to experience nostalgia for the first time. It’s not something to be missed.
While Squaresoft tied itself to its tiny square sprites, PS4 went for broke for the cinematic experience long before the days of FMV or CG sequences. During key story sequences, the game would shift into a layered comic book style, using highly stylized panels to show sweeping action or intense emotion. While FFIII might show a comical looking “sad” sprite to represent a crying character, PS4 would give you a detailed panel of a character in the shadows, the stream of tears highlighted across their darkened face. Even now, in our world of motion captured facial animations and hour long CG sequences, the artistic intent and control expressed by this style holds up.
As a result of this stylistic choice, the story of the game ends up striking so much harder. The added emotional weight of actually SEEING how characters react to important events goes a long way towards drawing you into the story. Some people speak of how Aerith’s death is the saddest moment in video game history. These people never played PS4. In a time where video games were bouncy and colorful more often than not, PS4 went for broke tackling themes of loss, revenge, redemption, honor, and growing up. Even now, having gotten married and started a household of my own, I’m discovering new aspects of certain characters that I used to dismiss.
Adding to this is the music. Without the stock themes of a long running series to draw on, the composers were able to go for broke in creating themes that would capture the wide range of settings and emotions in the game. The warbling theme of Motavia captures the strangeness of a world in the grip of a biological terror yet still for the most part barren. Behind the Circuit, the theme for many of the game’s space stations or tech centers, rushes along like an electric current with a slamming beat that inspires images of assembly lines and industrial might.
Newcomers to the series might find themselves a little in over their heads, as the internal vocabulary of the game can be disturbingly impenetrable. Spells have a wide range of unique names tracing back all the way to the first outing. Fire is Foi, Lightning is Wat, Heal is Res. If you want to heal your whole party you cast Sar. Even having played all the games in the series, some abilities still escape me, like Rimpa or Savol. Much of the setting is also cast against a series long backstory that isn’t always perfectly expressed. If you didn’t play the original game, mid-game baddy Lashiec (or Lassic) will be little more than a random villain to you. Many of the massive end-game revelations revolve around the cast of the first game as well, with little explanation about who the characters are outside of brief mentions.
Despite having larger sprites as well, much of the overworld and map art is woefully simple compared to the elaborate sprite designs of other RPGs of the period. The amazing cutscene art makes up for this, but going from the highly detailed and driven style of Final Fantasy III to the slightly more generic work in Phantasy Star IV can be rough. The lack of many of the nice bells and whistles provided by the significantly more powerful SNES also hurts, with the Mode 7 effects used in both FF2 and FF3 during airship sequences being amazing technical feats at the time.
With this recent, and cheap, release of Phantasy Star II, III, and IV on Steam under the Sega Classics banner, it’s worth your time to check out this vital, but often forgotten, piece of console RPG history. The music and unique custscene design allow it to hold up much better than many other games of the time, creating a timeless classic that still has the same effect today as it did back when it first came out.