Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Phantasy Star 1

I did a rant recently on The Magic of Scheherazade, and the many ways it was really noteworthy for its time (and the fact that it STILL has some aspects that are creative and different even in the present day), and it was fun. So hey, why not look at another laudable, ancient RPG? An even older one, this time!

When it comes to console RPGs, Phantasy Star 1 for the Sega Master System is one of the oldest to be found. I actually never owned a SMS, myself, and only played PS1 for the first time half a dozen years ago when it was rereleased on the Gameboy Advance. But once I finally did play it, something like 20 years late, I was reasonably impressed with it (and I didn't have to worry about the feeling coming from any sense of nostalgia)--Phantasy Star 1, I found, was quite a pioneer for RPGs in several ways.

One of the earliest RPGs to feature a world map--multiple world maps, in fact. One of the earliest RPGs to give its cast personalities shown through game dialogue. First Science Fiction RPG. All pretty important moments for RPGs. There are 2 aspects of PS1, though, that I feel were its most important contributions to the newborn genre of video game RPGs.

The first is the cut scene. While not totally unknown before the Playstation 1 era of RPGs, proper cut scenes, now a rather huge part of console RPGs, only became commonplace once RPGs hit the 32-Bit scene.* Additionally, most of the times prior to the Playstation-Saturn-N64 where an RPG had a cut scene, it was almost always just reserved for the end, which hardly qualifies it as a cut scene at all. I mean, sure, early RPGs like Startropics and Crystalis had endings with art scenes shown, but a player kind of expects that an ending should pull out all the stops, and it's just one, final place. Phantasy Star 1, on the other hand, has a small handful of cut scenes scattered throughout its adventure's span, seen during the story's most important moments. They're humble, to be sure--scenes of art depicting game events and characters that have to make do with a very limited set of colors and graphical capabilities--but they're certainly not bad, and just the fact that a game on the archaic Sega Master System has them, in multiple instances, is quite impressive. It's not that other old RPGs don't make a try at this sort of thing on occasion--as I said, I recall the endings to Crystalis and Startropics 1, both NES games, having comparable scenes in them...but to my knowledge, PS1 came before them, and was the first to actually include these scenes during the course of the actual game.

More important still to me is the fact that Phantasy Star 1 is, as far as I am aware, the first console RPG--possibly the first video game RPG, period--to star a female protagonist. In 1987, a female protagonist for any video game was almost unheard of; it had only been the year before that the gaming world was blown away by the revelation that Metroid's Samus was a woman. I'm pretty sure that having a heroine was something the RPG genre hadn't made any serious attempt at before PS1, so that's quite something. What makes it even more noteworthy is that Alis is actually a protagonist with a bit of depth, having motivations to go on her quest besides just being unable to deny the whimsical commands of the person holding the controller. A main character with any sort of personality and depth of character was uncommon back then, when RPG characters were most often standard silent protagonists. So not only did PS1 have a female protagonist, but it made her one of the best main heroes of her generation of RPGs. That's worth some recognition; it would be a while before RPGs would see any significant number of leading women, and also a bit of time before the idea of a protagonist that has any sort of plot relevance would take hold in RPGs.

That's about all I can think of, but I'd say that's certainly enough. From the smaller details to the way it pushed the envelope in quality of story telling, Phantasy Star 1 was a trailblazer for the RPG genre, and I say kudos to it for its contributions.

* This depends, of course, on how you define a cut scene. Technically speaking, you can say that any scene in an RPG where you don't have regular control is a cut scene, and so, given all the story events and dialogue of any given Role Playing Game, at least half the game is a series of cut scenes. But that perspective is lame and uninteresting. When I say a cut scene, I mean a part of the story being told in sequential art, animated FMVs, real-life video, that sort of thing. Something special, different, a part (hopefully) so important that it has to be shown as well as possible through art beyond the game's regular capacity.


  1. Ecclesiastes says:

    I still need to play this damn series someday.

    Fun Fact: How I've most often seen it defined, cutscenes using the game's engine are indeed known as "events", as everything is choreographed via programming(code that literally translates to [Char_2 Moves 2 Spaces]). "Cutscenes" involve rendered footage. Compare FFVI characters moving and talking to the ending footage of the Falcon flying.

    tl:dr The preceeding nerdwall supports your stance on PS1's cutscenes.

  2. You talked all about TMoS, but only mentioned a bit of Phantasy Star?

    My soapbox:

    I really appreciated the use of the first-person perspective. In a comparable NES game like the port of Wizardry or something like Swords and Serpents when you change direction the screen flashes and you are shown the new direction. In PS1 the "camera" actually turns and scrolls when you move forward or back. This makes PS1 extremely easy to navigate for most of the game without even having to break out graph paper (granted I seem to have a good sense of in-game direction, but my real-world sense of direction while driving a car is an abomination).

    Also cool was the ability to TALK to some monsters which not only gave you a little interesting bit of dialogue but as far as I know always ended an otherwise violent confrontation peacefully.

    Back on the first-person view, did you ever notice just about every action taken has a different animation? I'm not just talking about the cool animated enemies in this early game but also your character's spells and weapons they have equiped. Seriously, one sword does one slash mark and another does its own (even gun blasts are different and always fun to use considering that they always hit every enemy every single time you attack with one).

    Finally, I'm surprised that with your love of Star Wars you don't mention any of the references the game makes: worlds that have a single climate and (the big one) Motavia, the desert planet, where you fight jawas, buy a landrover (read Sand-crawler), and purchase Light Sabers (Yes, that exact term... Yes, freaking double-take AGAIN).

    This game is just so enjoyable (even if I can now see it as a major grind that PS2 ran with laughing maniacally), and I first played it as an unlockable on my XBox360's Sonic's Ultimate Sega Genisis Collection.

  3. In all honesty, this is mostly just a case of your having been more observant of some of its features than I. Yes, you're absolutely right about the animation, talk option in battle, and camera's helping your navigation by turning with you; I just didn't really notice/remember these things.

    The references I'm less really interested in, though. Cute and all, but neither innovative nor particularly important.

  4. I think all of this is true if we only consider console RPGs, but if you're talking about computer RPGs then it's not quite as accurate. Can we really consider these firsts by ignoring computer RPGs? It seems like strange to look at this with blinders on.

    Without knowing more about older computer RPGs, I'll give Phantasy Star cutscenes and the first female lead in any case. Even though many RPGs, allowed a female lead, they didn't force it on the player like this. I think calling them cut-scenes is accurate if we consider any scenes that cut away from the normal game interface as such.

  5. It was interesting - my introduction to Phantasy Star was the second game (and then the 3rd and then the 4th) - I didn't actually play the first until Sonic Genesis Collection on the Xbox 360 when I unlocked it. It was obviously light on story elements, but I remember some of the other rpg's I played early on (Dragon Warrior and Ultima: Exodus on the NES were probably my first two) and at least as memory serves, this is comparable to them on several fronts and didn't feel like time wasted in playing it.