Time Extend: Phantasy Star Online

It’s a gaming phenomenon: a high-fantasy adventure with a vibrantly distinct art style, attracting an unprecedented number of newcomers to the world of online gaming – the first of its kind to earn an Edge 9/10. Déjà vu? Before World Of WarCraft there was another game which swept an adoring audience before it: Sega’s masterful Phantasy Star Online.

On the face of it, it was a disastrous plan for an MMO. A console with no voice communication and no bundled keyboard. A time when most players had a pay-per-minute internet connection. A game aiming to hold players’ attention for dozens of hours that had only four different areas. Limited weapons, limited costumes, limited quests. Parties of four traversing the same territory over and over again. Expectations may have been lower in 2000, but it still sounded like an idea whose ambition outweighed the available technology. But that isn’t what people experienced. People still talk about Ragol like it’s real. People made friends they still talk to every day. People still stop in their tracks when they hear the music. That’s because the available technology, for all its limitations, provided extraordinary things. A truly international community, for one, allowing players to dip in and out of conversations across the globe. A world that crackled with colour and life.

It’s often hard to reconcile the two images we’re left with of the Dreamcast. For many, now, it’s a luminous memory – the last summer of a time when it really was all about the games. But its place in history is that of a failure – a squat, white albatross around the neck of Sega’s hardware hopes. But whether you look at the frustrating facts and ugly figures or instead remember the wonder and amazement, one thing can’t be denied. When someone got it right – and that someone was often, although not always, Sega – the Dreamcast enjoyed a kind of symbiosis with its software that few consoles could match. Super Mario 64 may have been the perfect expression of what made the N64 special, and a copy of Halo may be an essential component of the Xbox, but with the right game in the drive, the Dreamcast seemed to hum with renewed power.

How is it that titles as diverse as Jet Set Radio, Soul Calibur, Samba De Amigo, Shenmue, Skies Of Arcadia, Rez and Metropolis Street Racer can all feel like the defining Dreamcast game? No matter how ill-fated the console itself, there was always the sense that it had been designed around the company’s software ambitions. This wasn’t a machine put together by hardware experts, whose software would gradually explore its potential as it marched on towards inevitable obsolescence. This was kit assembled around a company whose teams were ready from the start to explode with creativity, taking the best of their arcade instincts and the freshest of their new ideas to reshape home console play.

The result was software like Phantasy Star Online. Unmistakably firstparty in its scope and excellence, making it nearly broke Yuji Naka. He still talks with exhaustion about trying to sustain the game in the face of the stress its players placed on it. His team’s efforts were worth it, however, producing a game of such irresistibly immersive solidity that players rose to the occasion whenever it fell short of all it might have been.

From the first moments, that attention to detail showed – the sound effects and loading screens creating the impression of a complete world waiting to be discovered, rather than a lumpy transition between reality and awkward fantasy. The characters waiting to be selected were a bizarrely eclectic cast – part android, part harlequin, part Camelot – but somehow everyone found something that suited them. The odd grace of the available avatars set the tone for people’s behaviour in-game. There was something peculiarly courtly about the long gowns and formal armour, and it encouraged a sense of chivalry from the off. And if players couldn’t quite fix on a combination which suited their tastes, they might find their personalities modulating to fit their eventual appearance.

The same was true of communicating within the game. Many players hadn’t invested in a Dreamcast keyboard, and relying on anything other than a few stock phrases was patently unrealistic when using the in-game typing system. Even if you were fully equipped, many early adopters found themselves playing with non-English speakers, communicating as best they could through gifts and clumsy smilies. And, even with a keyboard and an English-speaking party, there were few who could master playing while typing.

It should have put the game at a disadvantage, but instead became an unexpected strength. For a start, it effectively outlawed the kind of absent-minded chit-chat that can undermine the atmosphere of even the most sophisticated online world. Words were precious, not least because what you said would hover over your head for long seconds, potentially polluting with crass trivia a gameworld where every other pixel was deliberate and artful. It’s striking that even when the move to Xbox allowed voice communication, most PSO veterans shunned it. But, for many, finding a way to balance being a good player with being good company proved impossible to manage alone, and this brought a strange new community into the world of PSO: the typers. The beauty of Ragol meant spectating was such good sport that flatmates, girlfriends and boyfriends were willing to be drafted in as stenographers, taking dictation from players and adding their own occasional asides as they too became friends with the players (and typers) who made up the party.

There’s no question that it was the beauty of the world that attracted these onlookers. It’s an odd truism that for all people claim stories matter to them in games, they talk about them very rarely. PSO is no different. Although it was hard not to wish the inhabitants of the Pioneer 2 well, or to quell your curiosity about Red and all the trouble she’d caused, her story mattered little to most players. Place was far more important, and with only four main zones, PSO ran a real risk of monotony. But rather than the ice, fire, beach and castle areas that lesser games would have fallen back on, Ragol’s geography had a variety and cohesion that worked to emphasise the sense of a real ecology at the same time as it reflected the shifting plot. Just as the brightness of the Forest faded to gloomy squalls, the blandness of the Caves deepened to more mysterious caverns. Early stages of the Mines may have displayed a fairly straight, if dazzling, take on alien technology, but their later stages had hints of the arcane which served as perfect preparation for the spooky grandeur of the Ruins. And throughout these areas, the creatures you met were convincingly interconnected: the similarities of the dumb forest Boomas to the dark and deadly Dimenians didn’t just give you cues on how to handle them in combat: they underpinned the story of a natural world twisted and warped by the events that had unfolded there.

But even without the context and sense of progression, every frame of PSO was breathtaking. Even on a hundredth visit, the turquoise fizz of the Mines still amazes. Even as a veteran, leading a newcomer to the  hidden waterfall chamber still excites. Even with old friends, conversation dies away as you catch glimpses of the world beyond the windows of the Ruins. There was little in the preceding Phantasy Star series to prepare players for such vibrancy. Despite the establishment of the science-fantasy tone, and the colourful chunkiness of the Mega Drive games, there was nothing foreshadowing the sumptuous detail of Ragol. Despite later revisions on more powerful consoles, nothing but the Dreamcast was equal to capturing the radiant solidity of PSO’s world.

Those Mega Drive games did make their influence felt, however, in the game’s weakest element: its combat. The conversion from tactical, turn-based battles to full-action fighting may have been a necessary step to take the game into three dimensions, but the result showed up the team’s unfamiliarity with action games. The zangk zangk ZANGK monotony of the triple-attack combo was claimed by some as therapeutic, but there was no disguising its dullness. Auto-targeting could be erratic at close range, and battle tactics usually relied on nothing more sophisticated than running from one end of the room to another, stretching enemies out into convenient queues of obedient stooges. Even as a team, fights were usually tests of concentration and common sense, rather than skill or strategy. It was only against bosses that sustained coordination and communication was required, although even these were patchy: the exhilaration of besting Dark Falz was equalled in intensity by the relief of banishing the brutally repetitive De Rol Le.

Nor did item and equipment management fill the cerebral gap left by the combat. Maximising the potential of your Mag took some figuring out, but most players were likely to turn to GameFAQs rather than laboriously exhaust the possibilities of feeding them every combination of items. And, while equipping the right combination of items required a fairly challenging process of stat-juggling, there was little that had a major impact on the way you played the game.

But the heritage that PSO did benefit from was the mythos of the Hunter. PSO’s players weren’t competing heroes – certainly not to begin with. They were employees, professionals, equals. It added an immediate sense of camaraderie to the world, as well as fostering a tone of courtesy and respect which only the most determined of PKers betrayed. Encountering NPC Hunters on Ragol – whether rivals or victims – strengthened that bond, that sense of purpose. It gave you a connection to the world which most RPGs, with their recurrent storylines of wandering world-savers, fail to deliver. Another hallmark, the music, which had always been striking, took a new turn – ambient, orchestral and absorbing – creating atmosphere as powerfully as the game’s visual imagination.

Atmosphere is often talked of as a bolt-on extra in games, as an inconsequential bonus. For this truly pioneering game, it was as central as its most fundamental mechanics. You didn’t pick up the controller to play PSO, you picked up the controller to take a trip to the planet’s surface. As the sense of wonder and exploration faded, it was replaced with a much more enduring sense of affection and familiarity. And so, in the end, the plot lost out to the place. Your job may have been to make Ragol safe for the settlers, but you gradually discover that it’s not somewhere you’re willing to share.

In the end you go native, more at home with the hostile fauna on the surface than the civilised bustle of the ship. It’s a unique achievement for an MMO – a sense of solitude and ownership in a world that thousands of others have tramped through. In the end, it’s the communal experiences – the adventures undertaken with friends old and as yet unmade – which makes it feel all your own. It’s that feeling, more than any visual effect or famous franchise, which is the hallmark of a true Dreamcast game: it feels like they made it just for you. And the reason for that is simple: that’s exactly what they did.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in E155.