I never owned a Sega Master System, so I didn’t get the chance to check out the original Phantasy Star when I was young. In fact, the first game in the series I actually played was Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom on the Sega Genesis. I didn’t play the two previous games in the series until Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection was released in 2009, which includes every game in the series to be released on the Genesis. Role-playing games weren’t that big of a genre in the early ’90s, and there weren’t a whole lot to play on the Genesis, especially when compared to the NES library of games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, and Ultima: Quest of the Avatar. The Phantasy Star series was pretty much all Sega had back then. I played through Phantasy Star III a lot and even finished the game twice. After discovering the older games for the first time, I was surprised at how different III was from the rest of the games in the series – multiple story paths and endings, magic spells (or “techniques”, as they’re called in the series) being taught in discrete groups instead of individually by level, , a lack of fast-travel (you can still use Escapipes to escape dungeons, but you don’t have any Telepipes for traveling between towns), and a completely different visual style than the others.
Coincidentally, this was around the time I started getting heavily into role-playing games, with Dragon Warrior III on the NES and Final Fantasy II on the Super NES (now correctly known as Dragon Quest III and Final Fantasy IV, respectively) occupying a chunk of my free time between trips to Blockbuster Video. A couple of years later, Final Fantasy VI–er, “III” came out on the Super NES, and I was amazed by its presentation, and wondered if the Genesis would be able to come up with something similar for its system.
After playing about a full day’s worth of Phantasy Star IV, I concluded that Sega indeed did have what it took to make a game that was just as good as anything in Square’s main RPG series, even if just for one game.
The Phantasy Star games are set in a world that mixes swords and sorcery with science fiction. Humans, androids, and genetically-modified humanoids live their lives on Algo in fear of the ominous Dark Force, a demon that appears every thousand years to wipe out all life. While the stories of the numerous Final Fantasy games were self-contained, Phantasy Star I, II, and to a lesser extent, III had an ongoing story arc. Phantasy Star IV’s subtitle, “The End of the Millennium,” also suggested that the game would bring the series’ story arc to a definitive conclusion. You start out as a rookie bounty hunter named Chaz, who along with his mentor Alys must investigate an outbreak of monsters at an academy on the desert planet Motavia. It slowly blossoms into your typical “save the world from evil” story, but has enough twists and turns to keep the story exciting. Of course, without a good cast of characters to get the plot moving, even an archetypical story like the one in Phantasy Star IV would fall flat. Thankfully, Alys, Chaz and their allies–from the mysterious wizard Rune to the wisecracking priest Raja to the multi-purpose androids Wren and Demi–provide enough personality to keep the player interested.
The Super NES Final Fantasy games used their sprites to great effect in cutscenes. The Phantasy Star games, by comparison, don’t have nearly as expressive character sprites, so instead, they use comic-style still images to display dramatic events. This presentation style works in Phantasy Star IV’s favor, as it adds detail to scenes that couldn’t always be adequately shown with in-game graphics. The graphics really come alive during the game’s battle scenes, with enemies swiping and striking at the player’s party, and magical effects filling the screen as both sides trade blows. This system was used in the first two games, but is animated a lot more smoothly in IV thanks in part to the cartridge’s expanded memory (at 24 megabits, it was one of the largest Genesis games ever released, and the main reason the game was originally so expensive at retail). The game’s sound isn’t quite as impressive as the graphics, but there are a few enjoyable tunes to be heard from IV’s soundtrack, such as the songs to the technological dungeons, the theme to the Air Castle (one of several call-backs to the original game), and the battle that plays when you fight two major storyline bosses.
The thing I like the most about this game compared to the others is how much faster it feels. In older games, your characters moved very slowly, making exploration take much longer than necessary. In Phantasy Star IV, the characters move around twice as fast (and even faster if you’re riding around in a sand cruiser or ice speeder), cutting travel time down and improving the overall pace of the game.
Finally, there are the little improvements that Sega made to the combat system. Characters get two different types of special combat techniques–standard magic spells, and character-specific skills that don’t tap into the character’s pool of Tech Points–and can combine them to produce even more powerful attacks. If you find a skill combination that you like, you can set up a macro to activate it at any time during battle, provided that all of the characters involved have enough Tech Points or skill uses left. In some areas, you can even fight inside a vehicle, gaining experience as you speed over the sand or ice. Battles are balanced so that each encounter isn’t too easy or too frustrating, minimizing the need for level grinding as you proceed through the story.
As a Super NES and Genesis owner, I was rarely ever left without enough interesting or high-quality games to play. The Super NES was technically more powerful and had plenty of great RPGs, but that didn’t mean Genesis owners had to feel left out. With Sega putting much of its storytelling and programming muscle into Phantasy Star IV, it not only provided a satisfying conclusion to the series, but also crafted a shining gem that can easily be called one of the stand-out games in the console’s entire library.