Retrospective: Phantasy Star Online

Format: Dreamcast Publisher: Sega Developer: In-house (Sonic team) Review: E95

Compared to the epic sprawl of the average online RPG, Phantasy Star Online stood out by confining its action within tightly constructed levels, channelling a party of just four players through a most concise narrative arc. This was hardly massively multiplayer. Also unusual was the subject matter: in a genre overpopulated with elves and dwarves, Phantasy Star Online transported you to other planets, where you’d interact with such science-fiction exotics as the Humar or FOmarl. The most remarkable distinguishing feature, however, was that Phantasy Star Online was a console game.

In today’s rarefied hi-def era, when wireless broadband makes it a breeze to get online with a console, it’s difficult to recall that halcyon dawn of online console gaming: how could paying by the minute to use the Dreamcast’s 33.6k modem be anything other than an obstacle to online gaming? And yet still people pitched up to play the first ever console online RPG, draping cables around the house and settling down with a USB keyboard and controller with all the meticulous ritual of a junkie preparing a fix.

So it’s the first ever console online RPG. But so what? So Phantasy Star Online would be little more than just a historical footnote were it not for one thing: for the six years that its servers were operating, it provided one of the best ever online gaming experiences. And it probably still would today, if the servers remained alive. Over those six years it spawned a series of upgrades across various other consoles, but the essence of the game was intact at the beginning, without the over-complication of the eventual outright sequels.

Considering it was the first ever stab at a game of this type on a console, Sega got an awful lot right with PSO. Rejecting turn-based combat – despite technological limitations – was among its cleverest design decisions.

Of course, it was possible to play Phantasy Star Online offline. (It feels quite lonely now that the servers are switched off, just as it did back then, but while it’s a shadow of its imperious online self, it’s still substantial enough – though it received mixed reviews from critics at the time.)

It still contained the jaw-droppingly gargantuan bosses, one for each different territory – Forest, Cave, Mine, and Ruins. It still contained significant scope for character customisation, with nine character types (broadly divided across guns, melee, and magic). And there was still some degree of social interaction, as you fed your floaty MAG companion with items in a bid to evolve it into acquiring new offensive abilities, or into taking on an entirely new shape (it was even possible to make it resemble a Chao, from the Sonic games).

The real social interaction, however, took place online. It was hardwired into the fabric of the design of the game. The very fact that it wasn’t a massively multiplayer game is one of the reasons that the original Phantasy Star Online proved so memorable. Although online RPGs now routinely make use of instanced areas, Sega’s game was one of the early pioneers, creating an unparalleled sense of intimacy. Take the universal translation system, for example, which allowed players from across the globe to co-operate in harmony, or the emoticons that could be edited and mapped to the D-pad, or the guild cards you could swap with fellow players to make sure that you’d meet up again.

Assigning private jokes to the D-pad, accepting missions from the Hunter’s Guild and descending to the surface of Ragol to find out what happened to colony craft Pioneer 1 was never less than a pleasure, and for a long time the playing community was unreasonably welcoming and wholesome. Mega-levelled strangers were quite happy to help new players by giving them items or by partying up with them. The entire experience simply throbbed with charm, and not just because of the other players.

“It’s genuinely rare that a game both excels and innovates to this extent while remaining effortlessly simple” – our Phantasy Star Online review, from 2001.

A serene sci-fi soundtrack complemented clean-edged architecture and vibrantly colourful character design. At Easter, Pioneer 2 would be decorated with eggs; on Valentine’s day with giant hearts; and giant Christmas trees would appear at Christmas. (What a shame that the majority of developers don’t seem to have learned the important lesson that drab stylings are not compulsory components of online gaming.)

And in a genre in which pointing and clicking still forms the basis of most player behaviour, Phantasy Star Online was a genuine action-RPG, in which player skill was as important a component of combat as massively levelled-up character stats. Combined with the beautiful planetside surroundings, it meant that the grinding never became a grind, as it does with so many online RPGs – because Phantasy Star Online was constantly engaging your senses, demanding that you finesse your finger skills, weigh up tactical options and hone your combos.

And ultimately it’s the application of this console-oriented design philosophy to a previously PC-only genre that spawned such an enduringly brilliant game design. It’s a shame that its host platform didn’t prove quite so enduring.