Every once in a while, a video game is released that changes both the way we play and the way the industry works. Super Mario 64
(N64), GoldenEye: 007
(N64) and Resident Evil 4
(every platform ever) are all great examples of games that revolutionized their respective genres, games that have since been looked upon as the "standard format" for at least a certain period of time after their public debuts.
Yes, every once in a while, we get games that revolutionize genres. But, it's far less often that we get a game that actually creates
a genre. I'm talking about a game that takes a type of gameplay that was so niche to begin with, and turns it into a household term: the MMO. World of Warcraft, Guild Wars
and a myriad of other MMOs have made their presence known in the gaming world of today, and it's all thanks to a single breakthrough game that sucked away close to a thousand hours of my time as a kid.
So, this month, the 12th anniversary of its North American debut, let's take a look at what I consider to be one of the most important games in the history of the industry: Phantasy Star Online.
Mainstreaming the MMO
Abandoning the series' roots as a traditional, SEGA-branded JRPG, Phantasy Star Online
(PSO for short, HAVE MERCY ON MY KEYBOARD) was unleashed into the world in Japan at the end of the year 2000. It wasn't the first MMO to ever exist; EverQuest
comes to mind as being an earlier title. But EverQuest
was an extremely niche game for a couple of reasons: First, it wasn't free. It was released as so many MMOs were back in the day, as a pay-to-play game. That was a concept that people weren't really used to yet, since most of the time, you'd just buy a game and it would be yours. Second, the Internet and online gameplay weren't exactly standard yet. Sure, there were a ton of games with online multiplayer back then (Star Wars: Jedi Knight - Dark Forces II
being my personal favorite), but not a game that actually required
you to remain online while you played. How would people get phone calls? PSO fixed both of these problems, and what resulted were unparalleled single player and multiplayer experiences woven into one character.
The main reason PSO became so popular could arguably be credited to the SEGA Dreamcast itself, the console on which the game premiered. I've sung my praises
of the Dreamcast in the past, and the reason PSO was so successful is because of most of the console's features. Literally everything you needed to play the game came built into the Dreamcast without requiring any external hardware or upgrades other than a memory card.
PSO had a very key difference when compared to EverQuest
: It had a built-in offline mode. SEGA's foray into this new and foreign world was executed with near perfection right out of the box. After creating your character in the game, that same character could be played both online and offline, meaning that when your parents needed to use the phone and you got kicked out of your game, it didn't have to be turned off. Kids could work on their characters offline, jump back into an online session later, and show everyone the rare items they'd found on their own, making for an even more social experience. This offline mode also solidified the ability to be able to play the game in the future, far after SEGA decided to shut the original servers down, without your character(s) that you worked so hard on becoming useless. I know people who still have working Dreamcasts and copies of PSO, and there are even hacked servers set up
that allow you to play it online, even to this day. Single player and multiplayer gameplay in PSO was seamless, and it always felt like the same game. Between that and the thousands of weapons available to find as you played, it was like the Borderlands
of its time.
Another reason for PSO's high sales was a genius move by SEGA: The game came with a demo
of the then-soon-to-be-released Sonic Adventure 2.
PSO may have been a new series at the time, but everyone
knew who Sonic was. For a lot of people -- myself included -- the main reason Dreamcasts were even bought in the first place was to play the original Sonic Adventure.
Who wouldn't want to get their hands on an early preview of the next game? It's not like you could just download
a demo, or any black magic like that. So, SEGA was able to hook both sci-fi fans and Sonic
series fans in one fell swoop, and the result was money to their ears.
Features from the Future
To say that the Dreamcast was ahead of its time would be the biggest understatement in the history of gaming. SEGA's little white (or black, or Hello Kitty) system had so many of the features that gamers actually demand
of currently-available platforms that I actually consider it to be one of the main reasons the console failed -- Developers didn't know how to take advantage of everything it offered, because the sheer amount of innovation was overwhelming. Looking at PSO, this quickly becomes apparent, as the game took everything that made the Dreamcast as advanced as it was and gave gamers an experience that no previous game had offered.
The first major draw of PSO for the Dreamcast was, as its name implied, the online play. PSO brought a type of multiplayer to the masses that had only been toyed around with by other games before its release: cooperative gameplay. Sure, we had a ton of split-screen games, like Perfect Dark
(N64), but this was something on a whole new level. We had the ability to play with people from all around the world, and we didn't even have to leave our couches. Because the Dreamcast had everything a player needed out the gate, there was no complicated setup or rewiring that needed to be done; All you had to do was to plug the console into the phone jack, start the game up and have a blast. It was the easiest way of connecting to other players that anyone had ever seen, and it was free, to boot (until Ver. 2
came out, anyway).
Once you connected to SEGA's servers, you were thrown into a lobby, where you could connect with other players and form parties. After a team of up to four players was formed, your own private PSO world was opened up to you, where you could battle enemies, complete missions and trade items with your teammates. I remember how much awe I would be in whenever I saw an amazing new weapon like the Double Saber, or weapons made out of various enemies' appendages. Just seeing what other players were using was a thrill for me, and we hadn't even started killing anything yet. Combine that with the fact that you could actually chat with any of these players, and you had a truly engrossing experience that was unlike anything else I had ever personally experienced. (The text chat portion of the game even had an automatic translation tool, since the game could be played on a worldwide scale.)
The second major innovation that PSO brought to the table was downloadable content. While DLC is delivered a whole lot easier today, the Dreamcast actually handled it pretty well with its available hardware. Content was saved to the VMU, the Dreamcast's memory card, much like the way it's stored on a hard drive nowadays. There wasn't a lot of space, but back then, extra content wasn't nearly as large, either. PSO allowed players to download extra missions to be played both online and offline, and these extra missions came with new, exclusive weapons. Since the game was already chock-full of weapons, and part of the appeal of grinding for hours upon hours was to get the rarest weapons possible, players ate up any opportunity to get more.
One of my favorite parts about this feature is that if you downloaded the missions through the Dreamcast's web browser, you could actually get content that was only released in other regions of the world. I remember downloading quite a few Japanese missions, and all I had to do was switch my native language in the game to Japanese. The missions played perfectly, and I was able to get the weapons I coveted so much.
I could talk about the features and innovations that PSO brought to the gaming world until I'm blue in the face, but none of it would mean anything if I hadn't been such a huge fan myself. The version that I played the most was on the GameCube, Episode 1 & 2 Plus.
What drew me into this iteration more than the two Dreamcast versions that came before it? Split-screen multiplayer, that's what. The GameCube version had way more content than the original Dreamcast games, so it was obviously the version I dove into. But I wasn't about to buy a separate broadband adapter for the 'Cube and then pay for a subscription on top of that. So, the addition of local multiplayer was something that sealed the deal for me.
Back then, a friend of mine lived just down the street, so we were constantly at each others' houses grinding levels in PSO for hours at a time. We'd look up the locations of the rarest weapons and armor, and we'd slay monster after monster to get them. There were a ton that we never found, since PSO is a cruel mistress, but it didn't matter. The hours that we spent playing that game culminated into an experience that we still reminisce about today. In fact, talking about those memories is what inspired me to write this whole thing in the first place.
When we weren't playing PSO, we were going online to look up the locations of rare weapons in the game instead. With drop rates of something like 1/36,000, our mouths would drop at the mere thought of trying to find half of the worthwhile items in the game, but it didn't matter. Hours and hours later, we still weren't bored of fighting and leveling up. We never got tired of battling the same creatures in the same areas, over and over. Same music? Didn't matter. Same environments? Didn't matter. There was always the possibility that we'd hit those lucky numbers and find one of the hundreds of rare weapons the game would eventually cough up, and we weren't going to miss out. We gladly played the same levels repeatedly, and we did so for years. We never even scratched the surface of the sheer volume of weapons available to us, a fact that still makes us smile every time we realize it.
This GameCube keyboard controller was made specifically for Phantasy Star Online Episodes I & II. Yes, I actually have one of these things, even though I've never played the GameCube version online. I clearly have a problem.
There was something about PSO that took control of me in a way that no game ever had before, and it didn't let go. In a lot of ways, I still don't think it has. While my friend and I occasionally get online and have a nice session of Phantasy Star Portable 2,
there's just something that feels like it's missing from the original game. My love of PSO's magic can be compared to how a lot of people feel that no Final Fantasy
title will ever overtake the seventh game in the series. By all accounts, the later games in the series should all have been huge improvements, but something always pulls me back into that original world that happily robbed me of so much of my time, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
So here's to you, Phantasy Star Online.
You changed the way we played 12 years ago, and you're still going strong.
Let's all pour one out for one of the most revolutionary video games ever made, and I'll see you all online when Phantasy Star Online 2
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