(Warning: I know it's hard to avoid spoilers for a game from 1989 anyway, but in case you do care, major Phantasy Star II spoilers are on their way.)
On Christmas Day, 1991, I carefully removed the tape from the colorful wrapping on the big box. I know that most kids just rip away, but that was always how I did it. I was already pretty sure I knew what was inside, but when I actually saw it, my heart felt like it was going to leap out of my chest.
Here is what I saw:
I got Quackshot at the same time. I could have sworn it came in the box, but that seems like the sort of thing they'd advertize, and this is definitely the box I remember.
I set it up as quickly as I could; I'd been waiting for this for months, which was an eternity to a six-year-old. When I turned it on, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was as if some kind of magic had possessed our television set. It looked like this:
I made this GIF. It was harder to do than I'd have thought.
It's impossible for me to express today why something like that was so mind expanding, but I'll try. I was used to video games looking like this:
I was late to the NES party, being 5 and all, so yes, I went directly from this to Sonic.
It changed my entire concept of what a video game could be. The effect was instantaneous: from that moment on, I was a Sega Kid. I'm 27 now and I still am one. I guess I always will be. I've talked about this before
(For the record, Sonic 4 was a huge disappointment, but Sonic Generations finally did bring the series its first great game since 1994). To me, being a Sega kid means remembering the Genesis as my favorite console and refusing to forget how much Sega did for video games as a medium during its glory days, which a lot of people in the community have either forgotten or aren't old enough to remember. When the Internet seems to have adopted either the SNES or one of the first two Playstations as the consensus best console, it gives me a kind of identity.
It also puts me in the past. Honestly, it's hard for me to relate to today's gamer, and a rather small portion of new games interest me. That's another article, though.
But as readily as I might have jumped on the Sega train, I never forgot the NES. One of my favorite games as a kid was the original Dragon Warrior. I sank what felt like ages into it, gradually advancing further and further into its vast world. At least, that's how it seemed at the time. As primitive as that game was by a modern standard, I still appreciate the trick they pulled off. They made it feel epic by making the world incredibly dangerous and your grind a long and tough one. You had to work hard for your victories, and that made them satisfying. I am still a huge fan of the oldschool JRPG; I think that the very mechanics that are widely dismissed as outdated enable the genre to evoke feelings and create experiences that are impossible in any other kind of game.
It's kind of odd, then, how long I went without ever really playing an RPG. As a kid I didn't even know what Dragon Warrior was the start of; to me it was just a very special game. I was dimly aware, as the years passed, of the existence of things like Final Fantasy and Earthbound, but I failed somehow to make any mental connection between these games and my fond memories of beating up slimes. If you'd mentioned the term "RPG" to me I'd have stared at you blankly. This lasted until 1997, when I got caught up along with everyone else in Final Fantasy VII's marketing blitz. Soon afterward I got into the genre in earnest, picking the Dragon Warrior series back up on the Game Boy Color, emulating the SNES greats on an early DOS version of ZSNES, and so on.
You might think that five-year-or-so gap is easy to explain - I was too tethered to my Genesis to notice. All the RPGs were on the SNES, right? Of course, as you're already aware if you read the title of this blog and recognized the game title in it, Sega had its own flagship RPG series.
It's weird that nobody ever told Sega how to spell "fantasy." I guess they just didn't want to embarrass them.
I don't know how it is that I never heard of Phantasy Star or the Genesis's other RPGs during its heyday, but somehow they totally escaped my notice. I wish I could tell you about my cherished childhood memories of these adventures; I can feel the ghosts of what they might have been in my mind. The fact is that I didn't even know Phantasy Star existed until the Genesis was dead and buried and I had a Dreamcast. I'd beaten Skies of Arcadia more than once before I ever played an RPG on a Sega system made before 1999.
In 2006 I set myself to the task of building a new Genesis collection, having long ago sold my original one as children do. That was a great time to do it - retro game stores were still around and Genesis games were cheap as Hell. I picked up Phantasy Star II at one of those stores, excited to see what I had missed. When I got it home, though, I didn't take to it at all.
After a couple of false starts, I was sure I was never going to finish Phantasy Star II. I got frustrated with the early part of it, it seemed bland and uninspired to me and I wrote it off. It seems that some people feel (look at GameFAQs user reviews) that this game is massively overrated due to nostalgia and console loyalty - that we Sega fans have to like it (or even pretend to) because we missed all the great 16-bit RPGs, which were on the SNES. I kind of was one of those people.
I was mistaken. Phantasy Star II is a fiercely challenging and addictively fun epic, as I found out when I decided to dust off my copy in order to beat it as part of a forum project to beat every officially released Genesis game in 2013.
It's easy to see why people don't like the game. Aside from the enemy graphics, which are very good and fully animated (an impressive thing to see in an RPG at the time - this game was released in 1989!) and the portraits and cutscene stills, the game's graphics are quite primitive for the system. The lack of battle backgrounds is disappointing, and those pipe overlays are annoying. Grinding up front is definitely required, most of the dungeons look practically identical, and the layouts are overly complicated and full of dead ends (To properly enjoy this game, use maps - they were included with the original release anyway. This was the main problem with my initial attempts at the game). In the early part of the game, the story is very sparse, and you rarely encounter much text before trudging off to the next dungeon.
Coming at the absolute beginning of the 16-bit era, the game might not grab you at first.
However, forced to give it a serious chance, I found out that I had barely scratched the surface of a massive old-school RPG classic. I'm kicking myself for only having played through it now; this game was MADE for people like me, people who ground their way through Dragon Warrior and loved it. If I'd gotten this game with my Genesis in 1991, it would have blown me away - I can only imagine. Better late than never.
The story comes along as you get further in - it's simple and one wishes there were more of it, but it's surprisingly compelling nonetheless. Phantasy Star II is about loss. The text on the back of the box (which is fantastic; somebody had fun writing it) says "be ready to die!" and I think this sets the tone for the game. Mota is a planet where all needs are taken care of by a computer called Mother Brain (because nobody had used that name in a video game before, right?) , an Eden - until the lab that creates the planet's lifeforms starts creating monsters, the climate control stops working, and everything goes wrong. Their support yanked out from under them, the people are utterly lost.
A lot of RPGs tell you that the world is in crisis, but in a lot of them, things certainly seem to be going OK in most of the places you visit. This game does not shy away from the realities of death and ruin at all. Desolation reigns. The first town you come to is a bombed out husk, its survivors only able to despair and to soullessly ask you, "why would you want to come here?" Bandits are responsible for this, but they too have met a grisly end before you ever get to them. Their society shattered, people sink to unthinkable depths to get by and still fail. Even you, our party of heroes, are faced with a hopeless task. You don't even really know what you're doing, and neither does the authority sending you on your mission. You may become strong enough to meet your objectives in the savage world outside, but you never seem to accomplish anything. You fail to save a kidnapped girl. When you finally accomplish what you think your goal has been since the beginning of the game, it only makes things worse. You are not rewarded or thanked for your efforts. Even at the end of the game, the fates of many things remain unclear, and even those you have managed to save have hard times ahead of them. You struggle, you hope, and that's really the best you can do. But you never stop, as the human spirit is indomitable.
The game's hero Rolf and his comrades fight against relentless hopelessness, as they struggle even to find out what their task really is.
One thing that tends to undermine the impact of death in RPGs is that you can bring people back, and when you suddenly can't, there's no explanation as to why. Maybe your party members are just "unconscious," maybe they're magically revived. I think the way it's handled in Phantasy Star is brilliant. You have to make a clone of your lost comrade. The "grandma" at the clone lab looks so harsh as to not even seem human, and this underscores the feeling of unease that goes along with what you're doing. You haven't brought back your friends - they're dead. You've only made a new person with their body and memories. I have to admit that whenever a character died, I felt bad in a way I don't in other games. It felt real.
And now let's talk about the spoiler. It's hard to avoid spoilers for a game from 1989, but I wish no one had spoiled it for me. Still, I felt like I had to talk about it.
Nei's story is akin to that of the game as a whole. When you get to the source of the biomonster problem, it turns out to be a twin called "Neifirst," a genetic experiment that was deemed a failure and whose creators tried to kill her. Nei broke off from her somehow, representing that part of her that didn't hate all humans. Nei and Neifirst are the same being, so her struggle is ultimately against herself, and it's made clear that she knows this all along. She also knows that she is doomed from the very beginning, as Neifirst's death will mean her own no matter what. Still she fights. This is what makes her death meaningful to me. It's not just killing off a main character for the sake of doing so. By the way, speaking of how the game handles death, this is just about the only game I've seen tackle the "why not just resurrect them?" issue with plot death head-on. After Nei dies your party automatically
marches straight to the cloning lab, only to be told there's nothing they can do. This is a brilliant touch.
Neifirst kills Nei before the battle really starts, but although you really shouldn't have any way of bringing back dead characters in the field at this point, there is one really obscure way. I did it. I felt like she deserved to finish what she started, at least.
Nei gets up for one last fight.
In the end, though, what's inevitable cannot be changed.
Yes, I named the main character SEGA. It's an homage to those old Dragon Warrior manuals where the hero would be called ENIX.
Goodbye Nei. I won't forget you.
In the end, of course, you destroy Mother Brain, but the result is far from the "everyone is happy" endings of practically every JRPG ever. But even though Phantasy Star II shows us a desolate world and teaches again those old lessons that life is struggle, the good life can't last forever and that loss is inevitable, its ultimate message is one of hope.
"Those who give up are doomed." This is why I didn't get to experience a classic game much sooner than I did, and it's also made me think about the struggles of my own life. I suffer from debilitating anxiety and depression, and giving up is frequently on my mind, but you can't. This is why I value stories like these, even though I can see the tropes that make them up as plainly as anybody else. The story of the struggle of the brave few against hopeless odds keeps coming up because it has powerful meaning to us in our everyday lives. The forces between you and happiness might seem so wide and tall you can't see the end, or there might be more of them than you can count, or it might just seem to be a wall made of material you can't scratch or dent. Still, as long as you can try, you try. Even if it's just for trying's sake, it's worthwhile.
Long live SEGA.