As one of the oldest JRPG games, the Phantasy Star series has started since the late 80s and continued on until 2014 at least. Yet, that doesn't mean the series has moved in a single path since. In fact, there is a clear break between the classic turn-based RPGs of the Master System and Genesis and the Online-heavy action RPGs of today.
This retrospective will analyze the series based on that split, with a separate focus on the classic games and the modern ones.
All critical ratings are from Gameranking.com, and commercial performance is based on some research by myself.
A) The Classic Series:
These are the games Sega made to directly compete with the JRPG juggernauts on Nintendo's system. Which is why, in many ways, these game became very influential to later RPGs, and are all considered classics to some extent.
1- Phantasy Star:
As a direct response to Dragon Warrior, the first Phantasy Star succeeds in spades. It was considered a massive upgrade in terms of graphics, animation, characters, and story. It moved the young RPG genre from its Dungeons & Dragons role-playing roots into a more cinematic, story-focused style. Most importantly, it discarded the medieval fantasy setting, and embarked on a bold sci-fi direction, offering another RPG setting for the players.
The game relied on its setting heavily, as the sci-fi world carried the story in the absence of any meaningful character interaction, which was par the course. To do that, Sega depended on the abilities of their graphical team, who made the game one of the most advanced of its time, with full-faced character portraits, and even animated enemies.
One innovation that the series later discarded was the first person dungeons. It was mind-boggling how such pseudo-3D graphics were conjured with the technology of the day. Other RPG staples, such as turn-based combat, overworld navigation, and interactions with NPC in various cities were improved upon later.
Despite probably being the best JRPG of its day, it has not aged kindly. Specifically, a number of Quality-of-Life (QoL) ( advancements (such as save-point, item descriptions, maps, etc) were missing. A light remake of the game was released on the PS2, with some additional party interactions and QoL improvements.
2- Phantasy Star II:
Phantasy Star II picks up right where the first game left off. Actually, it picks up 942 years later, but in terms of the game itself, it is a clear and natural evolution. Like the first game, it is heralded as an important influencer in the JRPG genre, with a deeper story and more involved combat. It improved on aspects of the original while discarding others for a stylistic change (first person dungeons are out).
Yet, like I noted in my review of the game, this is one JRPG that did not age well. Compared to other 16bit JRPGs of the era, Phantasy Star II is more a slog to play than most. It severely lacked QoL features that would have made it more fun to play, and the limited characterization reduced the impact of an otherwise cool story. Of course, there were those mountainous mazes to contend with while a random encounter pops out every five seconds.
In fact, when looking at the differences between the first two games in the series, you realize how Phantasy Star was so ahead of its time while its sequel barely made a jump.
That is clear in the remake, which added the same advancements as Phantasy Star Generation 1 had, and as such, it became evident the two games were not very different despite being from different gaming generations.
3- Phantasy Star III: Generation of Doom:
Nearly every series has its black sheep, and Phantasy Star III has that unfortunate title here. Eschewing the sci-fi setting, this title at first appears to have a traditional fantasy setting. That immediately alienized fans of the series, and with other significant changes to the combat system and the story, all contributed into making it the least liked in the classic series.
However, if you actually try and judge the series on its own merit, it's actually not a bad game. In fact, it continues to innovate within the genre. For instance, the story is more ambiguous about the nature of good and evil, without a clear antagonist at the start. Also, two years before Dragon Warrior V came out, this game featured a generations mechanics where marriage choice changed the stats of the next generation as the story continued.
I liked it more than the second game. It has a better, more involved story, and significantly better graphics despite only being a year younger. Still, the menus are as labyrinthian as always, and finding where to go (even physically) can take hours without a guide.
4- Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium:
Here is the last game in the classic series. When initially released at a price tag of $100 ($165 today), critics and fans were justifiably a little apprehensive. However, as time passed, all opinions converged on considering it one of the best Genesis games, and possibly the best in the series.
As I found out, it is the only JRPG on the system that did not age beyond playability, with more friendly menus and dungeons than past games. Yet, it is not only in those QoL features that the game improved but also in general gameplay and narrative ability. That's not to say that Phantasy Star IV has the best story in the classic series, but that is told in the best way. With more character interactions, cut-scenes, and exposition, this is a basic story told really well.
One particular story development shocked players in the past and did it in an honestly better way than "that" shocking scene in Final Fantasy VII. This was a game pushing the boundaries of its genre.
Still, despite everything it had going for it, I simply do not think its measured up to the titans of the genre on the rival SNES platform. Specifically, I think Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, Terranigma, and Lufia II are all better games. Yet, this showed an upward promise for Sega that went on unresolved during the next generation. This was the last Phantasy Star game, as it concluded a story that spanned a least three games (the third game was rarely placed with the "trilogy").
The series went dormant until...
B) The Modern Series:
Sega made it into an MMORPG. Laying still during the Saturn era, the company must have realized it was a bad idea not to go in with all their big guns into the fifth generation (they even failed at bringing in Sonic at full force). Still, the original story was concluded, and a decision was made to leverage the Dreamcast's online capability, and so the first significant Japanese MMORPG was born.
Later, the series took the gameplay of the online games and made some single player games in the same mold, and this make-up the modern series.
a) The MMORPGs:
The only thing the new series took from the old is their pioneering spirit. The first Phantasy Star Online was the first online RPG on consoles.
1- Phantasy Star Online:
The only two things Phantasy Star Online shares with its older brethren is the space setting, and an almost series tradition of progress. It is difficult to understand now, but this was the first MMORPG released on a console, and it announced the Sega Dreamcast as the first console to consider serious online play.
If anything, this was a revolutionary idea, one that was helped by some solid Action-RPG gameplay, and a near-universal critical admiration. The game had around 270 thousand players online at one time.
As with other MMORPG, the game was re-released with extra content several times. A subscription-based version was released, and then two expansions released as Episodes I & II on the Gamecube and XBox respectively. The third expansion was less an expansion, and more a spin-off; a turn-based card game.
One complaint about the game was its limited single-player content. However, that did not stop people from positively enjoying the game, with many hobbyist servers still running the game despite Sega shutting it off in 2010, ten years after the game's initial release.
2- Phantasy Star Universe:
Responding to one of the biggest complaints about the first online game, Sega decided to make a more involved single-player content. In that regard, it succeeds. However, Universe failed in two ways. First, it wasn't a big departure from the first game and was panned by critics for not upgrading on a by then six-year-old game. Second, it failed to convert the dedicated fanbase of the PSO.
These failures are apparent when you consider the fact that PSU's servers shut down before PSO's.
Still, the story and setting were the most realized since the original games, and as such, the story continued with several sequels on the portable scene.
3- Phantasy Star 0:
In a deliberate strategy to target a younger audience, Sega decided to target the Nintendo DS audience. Regardless of commercial or critical reception (which was decent), the game succeeds in that front. The 0 in the name had two meanings here. First, that it is a fresh start for the series, and the second is that it can be read as a letter "O" for online.
Other than the simplified controls and streamlined RPG systems, this is yet another game made in the PSO mold. Except, it takes a page from PSU by having a notable single-player experience.
One thing that was very cool is how players can use the DS touch screen to send hand-drawn notes to each other. Of course, that caused all kinds of problems when dicks started sending pictures of dicks to kids online.
4- Phantasy Star Online 2:
Finally, 12 years after the release of the first PSO game, another follow-up was released, but don't get too excited. From the get-go PSO2 was designed to be a free-to-play game on multiple devices. Even though the game was positively released, it probably did not perform up to Sega's expectations, as they canned any plan for Western release.
That may be due to the crowded Western MMORPG market, but it also may be linked to an increased catering to the styling of the East Asian MMORPG market, from design to gameplay.
At this point in time, it doesn't look like PSO2 would ever see a Western release. However, a renewed push for the game on the Nintendo Switch by Sega may be the testing ground for such a possibility.
b)The Action RPGs:
These games are based on the same Action RPG foundation started by Phantasy Star Online and are considered part of the modern series. However, there is less online focus, with mission-based multiplayer in place of a connected MMORPG gameplay.
1- Phantasy Star Portable:
Directly following from the PSU games, the two PSP games both take a lot of inspiration from that divisive title. This includes generic characters in a trope-filled story but also includes some action RPG combat that misses the mark more often than it hits. Fans of the Universe game will probably enjoy this title, but its attempt at more single player focus only reminds us how the Phantasy Star series used to be a trend-setter, only for this game to follow the most generic of JRPGs.
2- Phantasy Star Portable 2:
Released only a year after the first Phantasy Star Portable, this sequel actually changed as much as it carries things forward. First and foremost, it actually had more of an online focus than the first game, and the online missions and infrastructure were much more developed. Story-wise, the game was more interesting, even if utilizing the same stoke of cliches, while the gameplay was streamlined even if not changed in any major way.
Generally, this was the best out of two forgettable titles that somehow sold really well, proving that the Phantasy Star name still had its heft. The game had an expansion released only in Japan in 2011.
3- Phantasy Star Nova:
This is the last single player-focused release for the Phantasy Star franchise, and it was not released west courtesy of the Vita's unfortunate failure.
In many ways, this was a companion app to the PSO2, even featuring the same character creation tools. With less extensive (but still available) online play and more focused single player experience, it still had the same action-packed RPG gameplay.
It was well-received in Japan, but naturally hampered by its choice of console, as well as being very similar to the more popular PSO2.
This is another case where the franchise did not actually die, but a certain part of it did. Like with the Shining series, Phantasy Star morphed into something very different than its original form. Yet, unlike the former, the latter actually maintained commercial and critical success. That is until the series went out of the Western markets completely.
Still, this is going to be an analysis of the decline of both the classic series and the western representation of the modern MMORPGs.
End of the Story or End of an Era:
One simple reason a franchise ends is that it had reached its natural conclusion. Not every series is designed for perpetual game development, and there is an argument to be made that Phantasy Star was always designed as a trilogy (with PSIII being tacked on), and as such, no plans were made to continue with the series after that.
However, the fact that Sega used the franchise as a vehicle for their first MMORPG means that the series could continue even if the story has ended.
In this case, not only did the story of the first few games end but their entire stylistic existence, with the modern series not taking any of the influences (besides the space setting) that made those games special. In this case, it was clearly an attempt to attract a different audience than the ones attracted to the space-opera Anime epics of the 80s.
Sega's Poor Planning in the Saturn's Age:
We can see signs of clear tactical decision-making in Sega's earlier attempts at countering the dominance of Nintendo in the console market. For example, Sega tried to develop or publish exclusive games within each genre to counter the 3rd party support for Nintendo which supplied games in genres the Big N rarely touched. This culminated in the massive unlikely success of the Sega Genesis.
No such intelligent thinking was evident in the Sega Saturn's life-cycle.
Some Trooper should have been in front of Sega's managment office trying to stop them from screwing things up
To be fair, the string of stupid decisions can be traced before the Saturn's launch. However, it is during its bare-bones launch and Sega's subsequent failure to migrate the excellent exclusives of the Genesis that their sheer incompetence was observed. Not until Panzer Dragoon Saga, four years after the console's launch, that an A-Tier JRPG was released.
Sega's poor planning in securing any future for their marque JRPG franchise must be blamed for the gap between the classic and modern games.
The decline of Classic JRPGs (Especially in the West):
After the glorious golden age of JRPGs in the 16-bit era and the subsequent explosion of the genre on the PS1 and PS2, there has been a repeated consensus that the entire classic genre was fastly declining. That can be clearly seen by the sharp decline in the number of JRPGs released after the end of the PS2.
Regardless of how true that fact is, it is without a doubt that Japanese companies have reduced their JRPG output, and that can be seen as a reason as to why Sega decided to persist with the Modern Action-RPGs that are inspired or follow PSO. The same reasoning, as well as a crowded MMORPG market in the West, may explain why PSO2 will not see a Western release.
If a series doesn't deserve to "live" then we wouldn't be upset when it stops. These are the reasons I think the classic Phantasy Star style should be revived. Also, although I am not personally interested in the Online offshoot, I think that series should continue in the West as well.
80's Anime Space-Opera Style:
The classic sci-fi style in 80's anime was often more like Reinessance era Europe in space than the futuristic stuff more common today. That of course, couple with industrial era in-efficient looking space monstrosities (more close to Star Wars than Mass Effect). I cannot think of many games using that setting lately (except Infinite Space which is excellent) or at all.
in the late 80s, Phantasy Star was clearly going for a look similar to anime like Legends of the Galactic Heroes but in 8bit graphics. Now, with increased graphical powers, I think taking another try at that syle can be very attractive. PSO moved the series towards more current Sci-Fi anime trends, but the older style still has its fans.
See the obvious inspiration from Anime like Legends of the Galactic Heroes
I think there is space for such a JRPG today, especially with a renewed interest in Turn-Based games with the success of games like Persona 5 and Octopath Traveler.
Phantasy Star Online is Still Being Played Today:
The case for PSO2 is simpler to make by the virtue of it already being made, but not released in the west. I think that Sega is actually smart in looking at the crowded Wester MMORPG space and being afraid of competition. After all, before its revision, even a juggernaut like Final Fantasy XIV was struggling.
However, this is not a new franchise we are talking about. Phantasy Star was the first to have a console MMORPG, and there are still hobbyists today playing the first one in private servers. That's the kind of dedication that the series earned, and I don't think it is wise for Sega to ignore that entire market.
While the series will probably continue in this new path, fans of the older games still yearn for a comeback to the classic series. With the renewed success of JRPGs in this generation, a revival of the classic story-based single player games is not outlandish. In fact, this is the time for the franchise to shoot for the stars again.
Or shoot for your subscription fees
A Western Release of Phantasy Star Online 2:
This may not be far-fetched at all. Late this year, a Switch version of the game will be released. With the Switch being region-free, it may encourage a number of fans to port the game. This could prove as an indicator for Sega to port the game.
Regardless of how it performs in the port circles, if the game performs well-enough in Japan on the Switch, it will surely give Sega something to think about regarding a Western release
Otherwise, the modern series might still get a token release every now and then like it did on the PSP and Vita.
Another Classic JRPG on the Switch:
Here is what I am personally hoping for, and it doesn't need to be on the Switch.
JRPGs are finding a new resurgence these last couple of years, culminating in the massive success of the 16bit revival project; Octopath Traveler. With this, customers made their voice clear, and a classic revival of such a storied franchise will surely find an audience.
Specifically, because Phantasy Star was so different from other JRPGs in its generation, it can stand out even more now, with space for some reason being almost exclusively utilized by Western developers.
The original trilogy+1 may have ended, but there can always be anothe Space-Opera epic to follow its footsteps.
The "Where the Hell is" is going to be a series where I discuss the decline and disappearance of game franchises that interested me greatly, and now are gone. For a series to be covered, it needs to have three or more games, an unresolved conclusion or different storylines and is a series I somewhat played. Please feel free to give me any feedback or recommendation, as I always try to write better blogs.