A History of Gamers: Phantasy Star IV


Last year, when I got married, my wife and I chose not to have a wedding party. We had our reasons, many of which grew out of the fact that bridesmaids have a genetic disposition towards truancy, but for me it all boiled down to a simple question: which of my friends would I bequeath the distinguished title of ‘best man’ upon? I had good friends, a few great friends even, but no ‘holy-shit-man-I-killed-a-hooker-and-need-a-ride-to-Reno’ friends.

Having attended my fair share of bachelor parties and awkward wedding receptions, I knew what a best man looked like. The kind of guy that knew you back when pissing your pants was par for the course, who would front you the money to rent a llama because “dude wouldn’t that be fucking sweeeeeeeet,” who would pull a surprisingly poignant toast out of nowhere despite being three knuckles deep in the bottle of Jagermeister you brought especially for him. I had friends who fell into some of these categories, but nobody that fell into all them.

The closest candidate was a guy I hadn’t talked to in years. We had known each other since first grade, back in the halcyon days before youth was defined by Pokedexes or K/D ratios. He was the sworn foe of one of my friends, a grudge buried deep in the relationship between their mothers, so the first few years of our relationship consisted of playground scuffles and pieces of tanbark winged across lunchrooms. Like any good American, my hate was defined not by experience but by relationship. He was the other, thusly he must suffer.

My final summer before middle school I attended a YMCA summer day camp. I was the only kid from my area there, so I spent most of my days in a corner, pouring over various Calvin and Hobbes books I had gotten at school book fairs. When I saw him walk up, his own copy of The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes under his arm, I had an Enemy Mine inspired epiphany. Trapped in this middle class prison for children, we saw each other for who we really were: total outcasts.

As a result of this chance encounter, we became allies of necessity. I was a tall kid, lanky and awkward, while he didn’t break five feet until well into high school. We were the quintessential odd couple, easy targets for the confused fumblings of middle school bullies and their slightly older douchebag brothers. We put our animosity aside mostly out of our mutual desire to not get the shit kicked out of us on a regular basis, life on the hard asphalt of YMCA Milpitas being little more than a low-rent recreation of Lord of the Flies.

By the time middle school rolled around, we had grown as thick as thieves. We came from similar backgrounds, both of our fathers being relatively active PC gamers with stacks of cryptic game boxes in our respective garages. He showed me Starflight, I introduced him to Master of Orion. We’d spend hours pouring over page after page of graph paper, rudimentary game designs occupying our every thought. Together we learned how to program in Megazeux, an entry level game creation program based on ASCII graphics and a cobbled together programing language called Robotic. I’d read Poe while he read yet another Battletech novel (seriously, he owned all of them.)

One winter day he pulled out a Sega Genesis game that I had never heard of: Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium. Before I could express disdain at the flagrant disregard for the conventions of the English language that the game had, he simply commanded that I be at his house after school, because I “had to see this shit.”

The opening chords of that game changed my life. I had never played Phantasy Star 1, 2, or 3 (thank god for that one) but the aggressive drum beat of the intro song for the final, and best, game in Sega’s answer to Final Fantasy made me into an immediate fanatic. The game itself, the story of a neophyte bounty hunter named Chaz, who stumbles into a galactic conflict that stretches across time, did for me what Final Fantasy VII would do for legions of people who didn’t know better: it spoke to the angst boiling inside me.

A great story tends to mirror the experience of the reader in some way. Harry Potter grew with his audience, reflecting their growing sense of self and all the issues they began to confront as they marched unrelentingly into adulthood. Luke Skywalker’s desire to do nothing more than go to Tosche station to pick up some power converters was the perfect match to every kid’s burning need to avoid the greater world around them and continue a life of immature ignorance. The tale of Chaz Ashley was my story, the thing I latched onto when everything that was once familiar began to take on the strangeness of puberty.

If you’re into it, the whole thing fits the classic Hero’s Journey rather perfectly. Chaz starts off in the town of Aiedo, his long-time home and where he hopes to build a future as a bounty hunter. While investigating a series of strange disappearances with his mentor, Alys, he stumbles into a much larger conspiracy involving the nearby town of Molcum. There he meets Rune Walsh, an enigmatic (and perverted, as is the Japanese way) wizard who directs him towards his true foe: the evil magician Zio. Zio, with the help of series staple Dark Force (Falz) kills Alys and sends Chaz, along with the genetically engineered “numan” Rika, on a journey across the Algol star system for revenge.

You’ve got the spectral guide with Rune, the journey into the realm of the strange with the whole leaving the planet thing, the descent into the underworld as he confronts the ghost of Alys, and the final battle against the totally-not-a-metaphor final foe: The Profound Darkness. At the end they all return to Chaz’s home planet of Motavia, back to Aiedo, to pay respects to Alys and finish what they started. Like all great stories, it’s all about the protagonist’s quest to become a better person, even in the face of desperate adversity.

All the things that people much greater than I talk about when they get misty eyed at the mention of Star Wars were lodged deep in that little black cartridge for me. I didn’t have the words to describe it then, I wouldn’t for almost a decade, but they were there in my endless passion for the game. For months, friday night sleepovers would be defined by my incessant need to play the game, where I would end up staying up long past my friend grinding on sandworms before heading to the Air Castle, the rising sun my signal to try again at defeating the evil king Lashiec. When I somehow got my hands on a Genesis of my own that was missing an AV cable, I learned the exact commands to access the sound test so I could listen to the music using the system’s built in headphone jack.

I made a t-shirt from a mosaic of images from the game’s comic book style cutscenes, that I proudly wore to school in the way only a 6th grader could, completely unaware of his awkwardness in the face of his overriding obsession. The CD I made of the game’s music, fresh from our amazingly overpriced 1x speed CD writer, proudly wore its literal groove from how often it spun in my discman. Long after that fateful year, still firmly lodged in the strangeness of youth, I even dressed up as Rune while attending my first and only anime convention. I wrote fan fiction. FAN FICTION.

There weren’t a lot of things I knew about myself then, but I knew that I was a Phantasy Star fan.

Unfortunately, the magic of that spring couldn’t last forever and, as magic is wont to do, vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. My friend’s parents were divorced, a strange thing to me with my parents still in the trenches of marriage together, so our schedules often revolved around discussions of weekends ‘here’ or ‘there’. His father, the ‘there’ parent, lived just over 20 miles away, which might as well have been another time zone to my 11 year old self. My friend wasn’t exactly an easy person to deal with, partially why we became friends in the first place, and his mother was already slightly unhinged, creating a volatile household that would slowly get even worse over the years. He didn’t like to talk about it and I never even thought to ask. Like most boys our age, any serious conversations occurred either under the cover of darkness, firmly entrenched in our sleeping bags, or in front of the TV with controllers in our hands.

It was on the last day of our 6th grade year, while I was fighting the final boss of Phantasy Star IV for the first time, that he broke the news. He would be moving in with his dad for a while, he didn’t know how long. We sat there in silence, watching the ending to the game that defined our friendship, both of us knowing that it would never be the same in the way that only kids do.

Before I left that day he let me borrow the game “for a while.” I still didn’t have cables for my Genesis, so it sat on my desk for the entire summer, slowly getting overwhelmed by the various accessories of a nerdy-ass teenage boy: D&D books, other games, graphs of Doom II levels I was designing. I kept on loving Phantasy Star, but I couldn’t bring myself to hook the Genesis up and give it a go. I wouldn’t see it again until I stumbled upon a Sega Collection for the PSP that contained the game more than ten years later.

I stayed in touch with my friend, he eventually moved back and we were close through high school and college, but 6th grade was us at our best. Sitting in the perpetual sunlight of a summer afternoon, marveling at a new combo we discovered by accident, pages of scribbled code (his) and story arcs (mine) scattered at our feet. He’s a programmer now, while I chose the significantly less lucrative path of the writer and educator. We defined ourselves in that dusty bedroom as the ending credits rolled even though our paths would diverge as the years continued on. He would continue to become more and more self-involved as his family collapsed inward while I would invest all my time into the endless pursuit of ladies and increasingly complex prose.

So when I considered who I could pick as my best man, I wanted nothing more than to hit some bars with him and give him the good news, but I knew I couldn’t. Had I gotten married back then, there would’ve been no question. I also would’ve had a Phantasy Star themed wedding, so consider the source. But now, after all the years, all the fights, all the growing up…I just couldn’t do it. The magic that brought us together was gone, seemingly trapped in a Genesis cartridge that had long since been lost.

When he told me that he wouldn’t even be attending my wedding, I knew I had made the right choice.

Not too long ago, Phantasy Star IV came out on Steam (I wrote about it.)  I bought it on a complete whim, the miniscule price worth what I thought would be a momentary jaunt down memory lane. Instead it was like my teenage self had crawled out from my monitor and punched me in the gut. I could barely swallow as the opening scene started up. All the years between the harsh pragmatic man I had become and the joyous little kid who proudly wore a homemade video game shirt to school melted away. I didn’t cry, but my living room was suspiciously dusty that day. That kid I was? He wanted to write about video games.

I redoubled my efforts on my blog, and now I’m pitching features and seriously trying to get published. Eleven year old me would be proud (he’d also call me out for wearing skinny jeans.)

As for my friend, I called him later that week. We hadn’t spoken since before my wedding, a little bit less than a year earlier, and it had been years before that. We talked about old times, caught up on where we were now, and swapped war stories about our respective professions. For a brief moment we were right back there, sitting on his scratchy carpet and eating Little Debbie treats right out of the freezer.

We haven’t talked much since that day, but that’s the thing about that kind of friendship…you don’t need to. The magic that brought us together, as faint as it now is, will always be there. It’s there in the twinge of nostalgia you get when you hear Guile shout out “Sonic boom!” and can actually remember what your local pizza joint smells like, the place you would go before all the awkward soul bearing sleepovers with friends who have been scattered to the winds over the decades. It’s there in everything I write, every half-brained idea for a RPG plot that I dare put on paper.

Phantasy Star IV didn’t make me the man I am today, it just pointed me in the right direction, and for that I’m grateful.

Now to burn this photo of me with blue hair.

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2 Responses to A History of Gamers: Phantasy Star IV

  1. Wow. As someone who went through the same sort of friendship and gaming obsession then loss of said friend due to life… You’ve got me tearing up, homesick for those days sitting around the SNES and later the X-Box with that best friend “forever”.

  2. shwitz44 says:

    I’m not gonna lie, this one tugged at the heart strings.

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