Phantasy Star Online originated for the Sega Dreamcast back in 2000, and was eventually ported to Gamecube and Xbox later in 2002. Despite a very limited North America release, Nintendo actually developed a GCN network adapter specifically for fanboys who wanted to get the full PSO experience—I’m talking online co-op, complete with a monthly subscription fee in order to connect and play with other people around the world. Did you know Gamecube was even capable of pretending it could host an MMO? Apparently neither did anyone else–even the people who bought the game. Back in its heyday, there were never more than like a couple hundred people online at peak hours, and most of them were busy using exploits to duplicate items and make their characters godly.
Servers have long since been shut down, but nowadays the game can still be enjoyed offline in four-player splitscreen. Phantasy Star Online has definitely withstood the test of time, boasting some of the most lucratively addictive gameplay I’ve ever experienced. In high school I remember the momentous day where I cleared over one-thousand hours of played time spread across a couple of different characters—that’s unheard of, for a console game. Unfortunately I lost the bulk of my game saves when my memory card specifically reserved for PSO corrupted, but that has never stopped me; every so often I give PSO a play, and each revisit reminds me of how simple and fun SEGA’s retro-inspired dungeon crawler is. Over a decade later, the game has proven itself timeless.
Plot & Characters
Since players get to generate their own characters in Phantasy Star Online and the entire plot consists of about two paragraphs of dialogue, this category is essentially moot–but hey, we’ll go with it! Character creation has players choosing from humans, robots called “CASTs”, or newmans, which are essentially further evolved space humans with advanced magical powers and waning physical strength. Classes consist of hunter, ranger, and force, the latter of which being equivalent to a mage. One of the coolest aspects of PSO is that classes don’t restrict you entirely as to what you can and cannot wield or wear; the only stipulation that ever really intrudes is that CASTs can’t use magic, but can instead deploy hovering traps that inflict different status ailments on groups of mobs as they trudge towards you.
Creation options offer a few sliders to mess with your character’s height and width, and believe me when I say those sliders can be utilized to their fullest extent. Every time I played with one of my friends back in high school, someone would make a new character with ridiculous physical attributes, like to the point where it was hilarious to watch them go through some of the attack and defense animations. Players can also choose from a few pre-set faces for their character, and select color schemes for their armor and hairstyle. These features can all be changed for a 10,000 meseta fee via the game’s “dressing room” that is unlocked after completing your first playthrough. Generally, the customization options offer enough room for variety that you’ll hardly ever encounter another character that resembles yours, leaving you feeling one of a kind and satisfied.
One thing’s for sure though: every person that plays Phantasy Star Online has created a Sephiroth character at some point in their life. You know—as tall as can be, black outfit, long white hair, evil-looking face? Also, it is virtually impossible to create a CAST ranger that doesn’t look like a trash truck, ambulance, fire engine, or a piece of construction equipment, due to their default stature being atypically gargantuan. But you know what? Everyone is fine with that, because as stupid as your dude or dudette may look, the game is still so fun that it doesn’t even matter. In fact, looking back, I think the hilarity of the character models definitely adds a lot more to the PSO experience than it detracts.
You know you’re playing a jRPG when the opening cutscene is presented in the form of a music video with a forlorn Asian woman crooning in front of a synthesized piano track. Whether you’re into anime soundtracks, techno/dance music, or minimalistic ambiance, Phantasy Star Online has you covered. When you’re managing your inventory or resurrecting a teammate back in Pioneer-3, the intercom is playing a lovely piece of techno mood-music that keeps you happy and reminds you that you’re hanging out in a giant shopping mall in a video game…that’s literally the best way to describe it, trust me. Each field in the game has its own couple of songs that rotate, depending on the situation you and your teammates encounter. Bosses bring with them their own theme music, although their songs aren’t nearly as memorable as the fights they offer. Final Phantasy, this is not.
PSO’s soundtrack compliments its environments and gameplay perfectly; the songs never feel out of place, and do a great job establishing an ambiance for their respective atmospheres. Weapon and character sounds accomplish what they set out to convey, while keeping up with the game’s colorful, almost whimsical appearance. Oh, and if you’re ever fortunate enough to discover a gag weapon hidden deep within the game’s toughest difficulty, prepare to laugh at the sounds they produce upon impact.
For their era, the graphics in Phantasy Star are pretty good. SEGA did a great job bringing an anime-style motif to life with fully 3D models and environments. Even the darkest areas in PSO are brimming with lavish colors and embellished with lots of tiny bursts of visual intensity. The level known as “ruins” is supposed to be a sort of nest for an alien race, and amidst all the shades of grey comprising the space ship they’ve taken over is an accent of lilacs, aquamarines, easter yellows, and neon pinks that compliments the environment perfectly and makes the enemies pop against their backdrop.
Since PSO is set in the pre-existing Phantasy Star universe, a lot of the series’ most iconic enemies make their return from the previous jRPGS and are brought to life in three dimensions. SEGA did come up with a whole new roster of baddies to unleash on players for PSO though, and they’re all very unique and reflective of their respective ecosystems. Sticking with the ruins map, the aforementioned aliens stand upright like humans, but walk around with scythe-like arms poised for attack and shark dorsal fins for heads. “Dimenions”, as they’re called, don’t have distinguishable eyes, noses, ears, or mouths, and their skin lights up and displays patterns like neon billboards as they stalk you through their home. It almost makes you feel bad for slicing through them to unlock the doors to the next area.
Phantasy Star is very fun to look at, and even more fun to play. On Gamecube, players are given two three-button palettes that can be freely assigned different types of combat moves, spells to cast, or items to use. One button brings up an in-game keyboard for online chat, and can be used to register messages to the d-pad for quick broadcasting while fighting. Shoulder buttons are used to center the camera and toggle between move palettes. It’s awesome that the face buttons can be reprogrammed at any time to allow you to develop your own control scheme, and if that isn’t enough, there are even button combos that act as shortcuts to your inventory and map if you need fast access to a different weapon or a view of the boss’ whereabouts.
PSO plays like a dungeon crawler; if you don’t know what that means, the main focus of the game is “pick level, kill dudes, loot treasures.” Longevity is garnered from a treadmilling character level system that is capped at a whopping 200, potentially offering hundreds upon hundreds of hours to be spent grinding in a single save file. Time goes by very quickly while playing PSO though because the thrill of the hunt is very real and omnipresent—with each enemy you defeat, there exists a chance for a rare item to drop, and this game, perhaps more than any other game I’ve ever played, has some of the coolest and most memorable rare weapons and armor. Each weapon is named, offering a glimpse into what may be considered PSO‘s “lore” for lack of a better term, and shows up on your character as a heavily modified version of one of the game’s conventional weapons. Named armor doesn’t show up per se, but rare sets usually offer minor aesthetic change in the form of some sort of aura surrounding your dude. In PSO, you know someone is leet when you see them enveloped in a could of smoke, or surrounded by pulsating laser rings.
Another piece of gear that plays heavily into PSO is the MAG, a small robotic familiar for your character that offers stat boosts, special moves called “photon blasts”, and even invulnerability or resurrection if it likes you enough. Every five minutes or so, players can feed their MAGs extra items they’re carrying to increase HP, attack, defense, or accuracy. Every level the MAG gains translates into an extra point to the stat for the character (except for accuracy…that’s every two points, for some reason). Eventually as MAGs levels up, they will evolve and learn photon blasts that can then be used as the player deals and receives damage to build up a meter. Photon blasts generally deal large amounts of damage to a group of enemies, but some offer large temporary stat boosts or powerful healing to the team as support. Like players, a MAG can be leveled all the way to 200 as well.
What’s awesome about MAGs is that they aren’t bound to the specific character by which they’re raised; if I start a hunter and raise his MAG to level 100, I could then unequip it and give it to another character who is level one to give them a giant head start. MAGs offer a whole new level of meta-customization that allows for heavy alteration of character stats, and raising a MAG only adds to the compounding fun of Phantasy Star Online.
Remember earlier when I chose to ignore the plot category entirely? Here’s what happens, and I swear on Red Ring Rico’s grave, there is zero exaggeration here: when you create a new character, the game dumps you straight in front of the “President” of Pioneer-3, your space colony searching for a new planet capable of sustaining life, and he tells you to go clear the forest of some indigenous creatures that are threatening your new colonies on planet Ragol. After you purge the forest and return to him, he says, “Good. Now go clear these caves.” Next comes the mines, and then the ruins after that, and before you know it, you actually beat the game.
That’s right. Phantasy Star Online has four levels, and the longest one takes about 90 minutes if you are at the target level and brandishing mediocre weapons. What it does with those four levels, however, is amazing and completely ahead of its time–very much like the system on which it originally debuted . After you beat the four levels in PSO or advance your character to level 20, you unlock hard mode, and the dynamics of the game begin to change. After running through hard or hitting 40, you are pitted against very hard mode, and after clearing that or hitting 80, you are granted access to ultimate mode. Ultimate mode transforms the game entirely as it reskins, reworks, and renames every enemy you’ll encounter; they all become hideous mutated forms of their former selves, and they are all very capable of destroying you.
If beating the same four levels three times in a row just to get to the part of the game where things get interesting which also happens to be the end sounds horrible to you, fret not; every time you boot up PSO, the dungeon layouts are completely different. PSO’s levels are comprised of premade rooms with preset enemy spawns and container locations, laid out in a grid-like pattern to generate a map. In other words, the levels feel memorable enough that you’ll never really get lost, but different enough that it keeps the maps from ever feeling too repetitive.
The ride to ultimate mode may feel the same each time you play, but there are some subtle tweaks beneath the hood that completely change the way the game functions. Once you unlock hard mode, each enemy in the game has a slight chance of dropping a rare weapon, or monster part that can be crafted into a rare weapon. On very hard, the rare weapons become cooler, more effective, and slightly more common, and by ultimate mode, every enemy has a chance to drop a weapon that, if its stats are jacked, can redefine your entire character and play style.
Those rare items are responsible for some of my favorite, most triumphant memories as a gamer. In Phantasy Star Online, items drop from enemies in small, color-coded boxes; orange boxes are weapons, blue boxes are armor, green boxes are usable items, and yellow boxes are money. If you’re ever fortunate enough to encounter a red box, however, you’ve found yourself a rare. Every single time I down a monster in PSO and see a red corner poking through the remnants as they fade away, my eyes widen, my grip on the controller tightens, I begin to hold my breath, and my heart stops beating entirely…every single time. Even if I’m still engaged in battle with other mobs, I’ll rush over to the box and feel a wave of triumph wash over me as “?????RARE WEAPON?????” appears on my screen. Sure, I’ve probably collected hundreds of copies of the same rares over the years (curse you, Storm Wand: Indra) , but the excitement still persists to this day, and its honestly one of the greatest feelings to be had in gaming. PSO really is timeless for that reason–I think I’ll be leveling up my CAST hunter and my newman force until the day I die.
And I assure you, it’s a labor of undying love.