I had every intention of writing another Awesomely Underrated editorial on Phantasy Star 3, the black sheep of the Phantasy Star series. I've found myself in a Phantasy Star kick after the Retroforce Go! Phantasy Star episode aired.
This kick of mine included playing our resident black sheep, which I had fond memories. Since it's been released on Virtual console, this week seemed to be the perfect time to talk about the game. While the setting was outside the traditional "feel" of the previous Phantasy Star games (that "feel" returning in IV) I never thought the game was bad per se. Sure, the battle mechanics were bare bones, but the story was interesting. The player had choices; choose who to marry and it effects what quests the player goes on, the stats of the offspring and the choice would effect who the offspring would choose to marry for the following generation. The game had four endings, which was unheard of in the early nineties. This groundbreaking innovation would make players overlook the flaws of the game, right?
This is my third or fourth playthrough of the game. When I say "playthrough" I mean I went through the choices and played multiple scenarios. I've seen each ending at least once. I have my favorite (Aron) and least favorite (Sean). Now I'm a little older and a little wiser. I still like the game, but I've found that my love for it may have been a bit because of retro goggles. I've found some glaring things about the game that my older self can no longer find acceptable in a good game.
1) Bullshit Music
Video game music today is written in stems. The idea being that an ambient layer is the base of the musical idea. Other layers of music are added on top of the ambience to add intensity. Many players have probably heard this without realizing it. The trick to writing a good stem is that each of the musical ideas need to sound good by themselves. Phantasy Star 3 didn't intend to write stems but the music in many cases sound incomplete, repetitive and just plain bad. While I could not find direct audio clips of the music (I've been searching for OST's of the original PS games for a while). But here is a YouTube Video of some of the general battle mechanics. You can hear what the music is doing as well and hear what I mean.
It's true that some of the music has some sort of melody, but in many cases it's pretty unconvincing. That victory music that you hear, that five second phrase? That's the whole thing. What the fuck was that? It sounds like it was phoned in. It doesn't even fit in the musical pallete the rest of the music has. You hear lots of funky bass (gotta love the Sega Genesis sound card) in the dungeon. That's everywhere in the music. Whenever I hear that bass sound in other Sega games, I think of Phantasy Star 3 because of the imprint it made. But I'm thinking of a sound
. I'm not thinking of a catchy tune. There were few and far between in that game. You may have also noticed that even in that five minute video that music gets extremely repetitive.
2) Bullshit Dungeons
This doesn't just effect Phantasy Star 3. I found this problem in Phantasy Star 2, along with many other JRPGs of the time. The dungeons, while challenging are poorly designed with little reward to compensate the challenge. They look repetitive, which makes it very easy to get lost. Most of the dead ends have no reward. Further more, the characters move slowly which results in the player wasting a lot of time walking aimlessly back and forth. The time is added on with the random battles that ensue with it.
Here is a map of one of the first dungeons in Phantasy Star 3 (with stairs leading to the outskirts of Cille castle.
While I have no problem with a game being challenging, I do have a problem when the challenge comes as the result of poor game design. Most of the dead ends are impossible to see until you've traveled too far. Then the player needs to turn around and go back. With the random battles coming and the dungeon looking pretty much the same, I have found myself going in circles without realizing it because everything looks so similar. I don't know how I found this acceptable as a kid.
3) Bullshit Localization
Did you know Lena was Rhys's fiancee? I didn't, and was completely confused as to who she was and why she showed up when she did. Before he met Maia, he was set up in an arranged marriage with Lena who was princess in the neighboring kingdom of Satera. It's that castle across the mountains that you can't reach at the beginning of the game. Why did his parents approve of breaking that engagement? If you choose to marry Lena instead of Maia (after all that work to find her), the explanation is that the world was not ready for an Orakian to marry a Layan. I didn't get that from the "Though I sought Maia, I choose you" line that comes from the US localization.
The nice people at Phantasy-Star.net
helped shed some light on the poor translation that graced the US. The example I mention earlier is just one example of important information that would have made the game make more sense. Japan, being a country that gets more cool things than us has Omake compendiums that flush out more of the story and are thus inputed into the timeline as part of official canon. All of this is great and makes me appreciate what they intended for Phantasy Star 3. Unfortunately most of that did not make it into the US version, or its translation is so poor, that it's not clear what they mean.
I know it may seem like I'm bashing the game, and maybe I'm getting old and cranky (I am approaching 30 in a few years so that may be it). Despite my complaints, I still want to play through the game, but it's become clear in my age that the retro goggles are showing their wear.
As I continue to play more retro games, I may find more games where the goggles do nothing.