There hasn’t been much vidya gaming going on these past months; in addition to Real Life stuff, I have too many hobbies to juggle my time with. And given how expensive and time consuming it can be, it’s increasingly fallen by the wayside.
That said, I’ve still found time to fire up another one of those frustratingly archaic JRPGs that people seem to like hearing my talk about. In this case, it’s….
The Phantasy Star series has always fallen into a weird place for me. As a kid I remember having this magazine which discussed all four games at length. They looked like the coolest games ever with their anime-inflected space opera adventures. But I never got a chance to pick up and play one until I was an adult, and by that point they felt way too old and clunky for me to invest much time in without getting frustrated.
But as an even older adult, something seems to have clicked in my head, and I find myself having a grand time with Phantasy Star II. Indeed, even though I’m only a few hours in, there’s a good chance that it’s one of the greatest RPGs ever made, provided that you’re ok with it not being much fun to actually play.
Being an RPG from 1989, it’s largely a grindfest with sadistic dungeon design, non-intuitive interfaces and lots of sundry opaque elements. It’s not as unhinged as, say, the first couple of Final Fantasies, but it still hates your guts and wants you to suffer, which makes it a bit of a tough sell.
And yet it does some things that I can’t help but admire.
Part of it is its setting, which, even in an age when JRPGs can be almost anything, still feels really unique in its straight-faced sci-fi trappings. You see, the series is set in the distant future, centering around the so-called Algol star system. In the first Phantasy Star, the planet of Motavia was your standard Arrakis/Tatooine-type desert world. But an AI called Mother Brain has since taken over and terraformed it into a paradise. Over the years the civilization on Motavia has grown stagnant, with the suggestion that they’re on a steady crawl to becoming like the Eloi.
Something happens, of course: the system has started producing horrible bio-monsters that are making a mess of the place while the climate is falling out of whack. This, naturally, is freaking everyone out. You’re a government agent dude who is tasked with investigating what the source of the problem is.
The setting is so dang unsettling because you’re looking at this surreal, transhumanist eden at just the moment where things are starting to fall apart. It’s all bright colours and spiffy, Star Trek-y locales, but it feels so existentially wrong.
But, importantly, Phantasy Star II understands that you’re playing an RPG to have an adventure. Take the earliest bit of the game, as an example: you need to go west to complete your mission, but doing so will require you to cross a bridge guarded by a bandit who is too powerful for you to surpass. So you wander around for a bit and find a town that has been ransacked by bandits. This leads you to discover where the bandits have been holed up, except…the place is full of monsters and all the bandits have been killed. On one of the corpses you find a letter revealing that these bandits are actually holding the bridge bandit dude’s daughter captive, and that he only resorted to banditry as a means of paying the ransom. Now your current task is clear: you have to rescue that girl so that you can cross the bridge.
There are no cutscenes, and only perhaps a line or two of dialogue guiding you here. In a more modern game this sequence would be littered with various cutscenes. When you arrived at the hideout there would likely be a scene where the characters say something along the lines of, “whoa, monsters killed all the bandits!” And so on. The ongoing effect of this would rob the player of her own sense of discovery. You would no longer be piecing the situation together yourself, but rather be watching characters piece it together for you, and guiding you in your next step. It could still be an exciting story (and, oh boy, this plot line does not resolve itself the way you would expect), but it wouldn’t feel like an adventure.
Some of this is a side effect of technological limitation. It was 1989: you weren’t going to get a dialogue-heavy RPG on a home console anyway. But I think as a result this forced the developers to get good at building the story and world-building into the player’s own exploration of the game, and Phantasy Star II is (so far) an extremely well-done and consistent example of this.
It doesn’t hurt that I adore the 80s anime aesthetic of the visuals, or the 80s FM synth soundtrack, with its endless snare-drums. And then there’s the Japanese box art:
Seriously that is just the coolest thing.
But fancy packaging aside, it would be nice to see a JRPG that has as its subtext a critique of secular utopianism. The early hours of the game seem to be leaning in this direction.