January 2001 was an odd month. On orders from the Japanese office, Sega of America announced they were handing the console market over to Sony. To clear out a few million Dreamcasts that had already been manufactured — it was a popular system, so production had been in high gear — Sega chopped the price down to an unbelievable $99. Coinciding with this announcement, Sega released Phantasy Star Online for their supposedly dead Dreamcast.
Outside of Final Fantasy XI (which wasn’t even available at the time), Sony’s PS2 never experienced any online success. Hell, you had to buy a special add-on to even play that game. Sega, on the other hand, included and advertised an internal modem from the very beginning. For those who’ve grown up with the 360 and PS3, it seems natural that console games would feature online multiplayer . . . but back in 2000 and 2001, Sega pioneered the territory. Phantasy Star Online was something new, and all the cool gamers wanted to be part of it.
Combine (1) the novelty of online play with (2) the allure of a seminal RPG series with (3) a mainstream console’s unexpected price drop, and you’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime combination that no gambling man would have predicted. Phantasy Star Online sold well, people talked about it all the time, and the Dreamcast looked more alive than ever.
If you’re smart, or if you’ve done your reading, then you’ve already figured out that this isn’t going to be an “objective” review. In Phantasy Star Online’s case, I’m not even going to shoot for “tempered”. This is an incredible product from the days when the Sonic Team logo meant you were about to spend the next seven nights without even a wink of sleep. Phantasy Star Online surpassed those high expectations and stretched seven nights into thirty. Hell, I know musclemen and burly war vets who still get misty-eyed when they think of their days with PSO.
Imagine: a boy grows up on NES and Super Nintendo RPGs, obsessively pressing the A button to elicit canned responses from NPCs who pace back-and-forth in rote patterns. That thoroughbred console boy boots up Phantasy Star Online, walks into the lobby of the Pioneer 2 spacecraft, and types “Hello”. After a brief pause, three characters simultaneously respond with a variety of salutations: “Hi there”, “Good evening”, and “OSSU!” This first moment of human contact — a moment that sounds so basic today — felt so magical that it formed the crux of a Japanese commercial.
As for the hardcore MUDders who regularly roleplayed online, talking to real people was nothing new; those folks were instead enchanted by the cosmic melody and Blade Runner city setting.
In a traditional JRPG, our console boy would keep tapping the button until the NPCs start repeating themselves, but there will be no repetitive dialogue here! The other characters are more interested in action, and the boy is invited to tag along for an expedition into the forests of Ragol. The boy anticipates the adventure that lies ahead, and he’s ready to learn from his online elders.
Now imagine stepping foot into that lush wilderness for the very first time, surrounded by a 3D world so vividly imagined and richly colored that your friend on the futon — who’s been watching with transfixed gaze — excitedly shouts “HOLY SHIZZLE SON, THOSE GRAPHICS ARE THE BOMB! PHANTASY STAR ONLINE IS SO TIGHT!” (It was 2001; people really talked like that.)
Today, some “gamers” want videogames to “blur the line between games and movies” — they actually think being movie-like is a good thing. Back in 2001, no one wanted Phantasy Star Online to be a movie. Movies were old and lame; PSO was new and awesome. 2001′s gamers spent their free time calling up friends on land-line phones to set up some late-night trystes, then unplugged those phones to hook the Dreamcast into the wall socket for some 56k dial-up action (or they used the broadband adapter, if they weren’t college students subsisting on 99-cent Whoppers). Many of 2001′s gamers also spent their mornings and afternoons doing exactly the same thing . . . but if their local friends had day jobs, PSO addicts connected with internet buddies over in Japan. Any Dreamcast owner could play Phantasy Star Online with any other Dreamcast owner, and they conversed through a universal symbol-and-phrase system.
As time went on and gamers obtained rare items from the fiery caverns or mystical ruins, new arrivals to Ragol started cheating to get ahead quickly. They’d hack the game to enable player-killing and loot corpses; in return, righteous vigilantes hacked their own systems to enable player-killer killing. It was beautiful.
But if you wanted none of that, then you could simply hook up with three known buds and effectively prevent any outsiders from interfering with your experience. Phantasy Star Online wasn’t an MMORPG, nor did it feature a wide-open world; the game was a matrix of quests in sealed environments. In addition to blocking interlopers, Phantasy Star Online’s quest system let players engage in structured, action-packed adventures without the filler (wandering across the world, waiting for respawns) that accompanies MMORPGs. Sonic Team understood that open worlds inhibit immersion — they instead produced an action-packed game, just as they always did.
I spent a lot of time imagining what it must be like to play Phantasy Star Online, because I didn’t have internet access. For me, Phantasy Star Online was only available offline — and it was still the ultimate Sonic Team production, pulling together the futuristic sensibilities of Burning Rangers, the imaginative boss encounters of NiGHTS into Dreams, and dungeons designed with tricks they learned in Shining the Holy Ark. The game’s structure — built to support an online experience — did exhibit some quirks that worked against the singleplayer experience. Character movement was a bit slow, the inability to pause could be frustrating, and the whole conversation system cruelly reminded me of what I was missing . . . but the numerous quests and ease of advancement trumped the unnecessarilly slow progress of a single-player MMORPG like Valhalla Knights.
After arriving to the surface of planet Ragol, my cute avatar Annet (inspired by El Viento) discovered that the previous colonists had all died in a mysterious explosion. This reminded me of the legend of Roanoke Island — the second wave of colonists arrived to find the island deserted, but evidence of the colony’s existence remained. As I explored Phantasy Star Online’s world, I discovered messages left behind by a mysterious woman. Did she live? Had she died? Or would I discover something else, something sinister deep within Ragol’s ruins? Like Diablo, the game’s dungeoncrawling leads towards a satisfying conclusion. Phantasy Star Online also offered plenty of quests to discover new items (many of which had to be analyzed to unlock their full potential, similar to ye olde classics like The Bard’s Tale).
One thing I particularly liked about PSO’s quests were how NPC supporting characters often joined the party, interjecting their own silly banter while we wandered in search of robotic pets or giant, murk-dwelling snake beasts. Each area featured multiple variations of a musical theme; the melody and pace would shift in real-time between peaceful and violent as monsters approached or perished. I fought fire dragons, I crossed over pits of lava, and I witnessed twin creatures fuse together like the mighty Modulok, each half a sword-bearing beast. While away from the Dreamcast, I wistfully yearned for internet access; while playing the game, I blissfully lost myself in Sonic Team’s mighty adventure.
I may not have seen everything Phantasy Star Online once offered, but I saw enough.