At the mention of popular Role Playing Games inevitably Final Fantasy becomes the main focus of the discussion. Final Fantasy 7 arguably brought the JRPG genre to the masses to the west and is widely regarded as one of the greatest examples of the genre. However, there is one game that I believe rivals FF7 for this claim. The Sega Megadrive didn’t have Final Fantasy but it did have Phantasy Star IV : The End of the Millennium.
My previous experience with the series came from Phantasy Star Online, a cooperative multiplayer online action role-playing game that appeared on the Sega Dreamcast. This was one of the first games that I played with others in an online co-op on a console. I had a curiosity as to Phantasy Star’s origins and after the release of the Sega Genesis Classics collection, I decided to dip my toes into, what is often described as the best in the series, Phantasy Star IV.
Even Final Fantasy couldn’t boast a universe as well developed as Phantasy Star’s Algo star system. Populated by an interesting cast of cyborgs, machines, human-like races and aliens. Each having their own distinct cultures and histories, it features dire threats that plagued generations of heroes across millennia.
However, with this innovation, Phantasy Star IV still embraces some RPG cliches. The game starts with two freelance “hunters”, Chaz and Alys, on a mission to clean monsters from an infested basement. The story soon catapults the stakes into orbit however as you learn that the character’s home planet of Motavia is experiencing rapid desertification. This is not the only threat however as the realms rampaging bio-monsters might decimate the population long before the increasingly hostile climate gets a chance.
Soon to compound this trouble an evil dark magician arises and becomes a dictator. Calling himself Zio he seeks to raze Motavia and from its ashes construct a new society. Behind Zio however is something much more insidious, a threat that veterans of the Phantasy Star series have known all too well.
The game isn’t initially as visually appealing as Final Fantasy VI or the beautiful Secret of Mana but according to its developers, this is by design. Motavia is a planet on the decline and its arid landscapes have been crafted to fit that atmosphere and overall narrative. It is a stylish game with its bleak brown environments and sterile mechanical corridors broken up by dynamic and bright manga-style cutscenes. These cutscenes make for effective interludes and help with character development.
The combat in Phantasy Star IV is turn-based and characters can combine techniques for powerful combo attacks. It does suffer from the rapid-fire random encounters which plagued the 16-bit era RPGs. What sets this game apart is its ability to tell a well-crafted story and effectively engage the player. It’s narrative is grown up and so is the gameplay. Main characters can suffer permanent deaths. The story also rewards players of the previous titles as it brings the series to a culmination.
I was surprised by some of the game’s more complex systems. You can actually create macros for your party, which is an impressive feature for such an old RPG. This means that you can use a menu to set up what actions you want your party members to do in a single turn. Macro A, for example, could be set so that everyone attacks. You can then select this Macro from the menu instead of having to go through every character and manually making them attack.
Phantasy Star IV does have some issues with its English translation. Characters speak in a somewhat rigid manner. This makes the dialogue feel somewhat unrealistic. Also, unlike most RPG experiences, there’s not much to do besides the main quest. There are only one series of sidequests that you can obtain from the Hunter’s Guild in one town. Sidequests can become an important part of the interpersonal narrative in RPG’s helping craft nuances within characters away from the central storyline.
Experiencing Phantasy Star in the Genesis Classics Collection
I mentioned that I played through this game in the PS4 version of the Genesis Classics title. This adds some new features to the game experience and makes it a more fluid and responsive title. You can use the shoulder buttons to fast forward or rewind time. Fast-forwarding makes battles and movement a lot faster and less tedious. Rewinding also helps revise strategy so that you don’t lose any characters. I don’t think rewinding detracted from my experience, it helped me fully access my strategic options. You can also create and load a quicksave slot. This is useful as the dungeons are quite long, with no places to save your game in a normal way. More than once, I died, thanks to a boss encounter and lost a lot of progress and time.
So true to its title Phantasy Star IV was a form of ending. So far there hasn’t been another Phantasy Star game outside Phantasy Star Online and Nova. Sega really deserves some respect from RPG fans for telling an epic story with such a well-defined beginning, middle and ending. This is a beautiful piece of game development that deserves to be recognized as one of the best RPG’s ever made.
The Genesis / Megadrive has fewer RPG titles compared to the Super Nintendo. One series stands out however, Phantasy Star is set in a Sci-Fi / Fantasy environment with a retinue of well-crafted characters. The fourth installment is considered the pinnacle of the series. Let’s explore why.
Chris McAuley is a Northern Irish born author, comic book and gaming columnist who has now branched out from talking about comics to helping create them. An acclaimed colourist for 2000 AD and Marvel he has worked on flagship titles such as Judge Dredd, Roy of the Rovers and Hulkverines. Chris also has a commitment to the Indie scene being an inker and colourist for ‘The Lang Way Hame’ a Scottish comic which is tipped for an award later this year. With close ties to heroes of the industry such as the ‘Godfather of British comics’ Pat Mills and Spawn creator Todd McFarlene,