Monday, May 6, 2013

Phantasy Star IV: It's happening

at 7:22 PM
Remember when I recently said I was going to give classic JRPGs another shot? I chose Phantasy Star IV, and fuck if I'm not enthralled after a weekend together. Why though? This is so weird. You don't even understand what this is like for me. You can't understand. You wouldn't. This is like suddenly discovering that you're gay. Good analogy, not uncomfortable at all. But this is just one game, and only the first seven hours. There's still the novelty factor (I've played half-dozens of this type of game before, but this time I really want to like it), or maybe I just have nothing better to play, or it could all be attributed to a passing case of the Weekend Brain Cancer. Dunno. I've been duped before (though never on record).

I was hesitant to approach Phantasy Star IV, as it lives on that '93-'95 threshold of games between what I consider "classic" and "modern" JRPGs. Chrono Trigger was the turning point mechanically (overworlds were dropped/downplayed, dungeons became heavily scripted, parties became gigantic and fluid, and the genre got fucking EASY), and Final Fantasy VI narratively (everything is boring, way too much exposition, chronological discontinuities) but the trends were already happening. Games like Final Fantasy V and PSIV were at the ready with linearization of navigation and quests, alongside simplified dungeon layouts. Still, PSIV keeps enough old-school difficulty both in exploration and survival, while introducing some typically Western features like formalized side-jobs and variable equipment. My first impression is that it's the perfect game to act as a gateway into the old while capturing enough of the new to highlight the differences.

The Phantasy Star games, for those not in the know, were Sega's answer to the SNES glut of Squaresoft and Enix RPGs. The series isn't far removed from Final Fantasy, Lufia, or Breath of Fire. It didn't gain nearly the same popularity over here as Square's triumphs, starting on the Master System and seeing only three Genesis entries before going into a seven-year hiatus, to be later resurrected and rebooted as the popular Dreamcast MMORPG, Phantasy Star Online. Of greater note is the development studio itself, Sega AM1 (later AM7 later Overworks later Sega Wow Overworks), who created just about every Sega game you've ever known, excepting those abominations from Sonic Team. They did Golden Axe, Shinobi, Streets of RageAltered Beast, House of the Dead, Alex Kidd, Valkyria Chronicles, and most importantly, Skies of Fucking Arcadia. They're essentially Sega's EAD... and appropriately far crappier than Nintendo's. But that's not to say they didn't make some great games, and at the very least, lots of popular ones. Anyway, we're getting sidetracked. I chose the Phantasy Star series because I was a long-time Phantasy Star Online player and wanted to go for something a little out of the mainstream, plus I like scifi better than fantasy, if only marginally. Or not at all. There was a point in my life when I did.

I know I claimed I was gonna go with the earlier Phantasy Star III, but then Greg reminded me about its RIDICULOUSLY unreadable interface (pictured below), so I returned to PSIV instead. I have no clue what is the deal there, because Phantasy Star II uses (Microsoft-Windows-inspired) menus almost identical to IV. It makes Crimson Shroud (which I was just moaning about last week) look like a godsend. The original Phantasy Star is a first-person dungeon crawler, and I struggle most with those. Lord knows I only made it through four floors of Etrian Odyssey II. So PSIV it was.
How did this [Phantasy Star II]...
...transform into this nonsense [Phantasy Star III]...
... and then back into this? [Phantasy Star IV]

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