A common theme throughout this series of articles has been the presence of Sonic Team, and once again they feature here. This surely highlights the incredibly talented and inventive studio that they once were, before losing several key members (including Yuji Naka), and succumbed to churning out near endless sub-standard Sonic the Hedgehog titles with neither a whit of quality control or indeed, effort. However, fourteen years ago, this was not the case, and after giving Sega a flagship Sonic title in the form of Sonic Adventure (his first and best 3D outing), and the brilliant puzzle game, Chu Chu Rocket, they served up another forward thinking piece of game design, with the incredible, Phantasy Star Online.
Nowadays, when one conjures up images of an online role playing game, invariably, the most common one would be Blizzard’s enormously successful World of Warcraft, but Phantasy Star Online actually beat it out of the blocks by just under four years, and paved the way for many advances in game design for many years to come, not to mention, the console features that we currently take for granted. These, I will return to later on, however, as I should first discuss the game itself.
The original Phantasy Star series is a well-loved, and critically acclaimed collection of turn based role playing games, however, in 2000 when Sonic Team delivered PSO, they transformed the series into a real-time combat based dungeon crawler. It came about as, after the completion of Sonic Adventure, the team began work on the project, and were specifically asked by the head of Sega at that time (Isao Okawa) to focus on network gaming. He personally believed, and was later shown to be correct, that online connectivity and communities were set to become a very important facet of console gaming, though it certainly wasn’t at that time. To combat this, the Dreamcast launched, equipped with a modem, a brilliant online network (Dreamarena), numerous games that supported internet connectivity and, the rest, as they say, is history. Evidently, the design team took inspiration from Blizzard’s Diablo series as they switched the style of the game in that direction, masterfully reinventing a staple PC archetype for the vastly different taste and culture of the console gaming audience.
In terms of its narrative, Phantasy Star Online sees players assume control of one of three different character classes (though there are yet variations and customisation options within them), these being Hunter, Ranger and Force. The former are suited to close combat weapons such as swords and daggers, Hunters use long range weaponry such as rifles and pistols, whilst Force, are the mages of this universe. Having chosen and customised a character model, players are sent from the ship, Pioneer 2, onto the surface of the planet Ragol to ascertain the events that took place upon their arrival, to discover why communications were lost with the original craft, Pioneer 1, and unearth the source of the massive explosion that rocked the planet. Ragol was designated as the salvation of the people after their home planet was destroyed, and so, to keep public anxiety as controlled as possible, the principal, sends down a small team of hunters on a secret mission to investigate-that, of course, is where the player comes in. Scouring the areas of the game reveals messages left behind by the famous hunter and scientist, Red Ring Rico, who provides more insight into the strange happenings on the planet, as players slowly piece together the true nature of the catastrophe, and confront the malevolent force at work behind it.
On top of the main storyline, there are also numerous side quests that can be accessed via the Hunter’s Guild on the ship, Pioneer 2. These missions see players take on contracts from private citizens, and in some instances, these too can help in piecing together the events that have taken place, though primarily they simply provide some insight into the lives of NPCs on board the ship, as well as providing additional means of generating valuable experience and meseta (money).
When starting the game, players are asked to choose between Online and Offline play modes, which play out in slightly differing ways. The planet Ragol has four distinct areas to explore, each with a final boss to dispatch at the end, missions to complete and many items to discover. There are also three different difficulty modes that the game can be played at, normal, hard and very hard, though to play at the higher end of the scale, players must first complete the entire game on the previous difficulty level. In online mode, where the bulk of play will likely be done, these higher difficulty levels require only that players meet the minimum level requirement, for instance, to play the game on the hard difficulty, players must have a character of at least level twenty in order to be able to compete with the hardened monsters that one will encounter.
In the online mode, players connect to servers jam packed with gamers from across their region, or potentially, the world, these take the form of ships, and within each of these there are then blocks that players can choose from. It is here that players can meet up, within the visual lobbies, and form teams of four which then transport across to the game’s main hub, Pioneer 2, where they can accept side quests or access the shops before teleporting onto Ragol to tackle the game proper. Naturally, PSO emerged long before console gamers had access to voice communications, so Sonic Team got around this by implementing text based chat where players could utilise a software keyboard, or if they purchased one, the console’s keyboard accessory was also thankfully compatible, offering increased typing speed. On top of this, there was also symbol chat, where players could utilise simple images to communicate what they were feeling or what actions they would like others to perform, handy when attempting to converse with others who are not well versed in your language. Additionally, Sonic Team also threw in Word Select, whereupon players could choose from simple pre-set messages, the beauty of this option though is that the game would automatically translate the phrases into the receiving player’s chosen language option, as long as it was either English, French, German, Spanish or Japanese, making it a very clever way of circumnavigating any communication issues that players might have otherwise experienced.
The areas of the world feature a variety of alternative layouts that the game cycles through, providing a variety to one’s surroundings that prevents Phantasy Star Online from ever becoming stale, a crucial addition given the sheer volume of time that players are likely to spend traversing the land in both play modes. Another fascinating feature of the game are the Mags, these being tiny floating creatures that, once equipped in the character’s inventory, follow the player around, potentially bestowing upon them stat boosts and an extra means of combating foes. Mags evolve as players feed them items, these confer small boosts to them across their Def, Pow, Dex and Mind ratings, levelling up any of these will then in turn provide a small stat increase to the player’s character. Additionally, as the player takes damage, the Mag builds up and stores energy ready to unleash a photon blast, there are several forms of this attack, and new ones are learned when the Mag evolves. Interestingly, when the Mag reaches the levels 10, 35 and 50, it can then evolve into one of a variety of different, and more powerful forms, adding an even greater level of depth to an already deeply satisfying RPG adventure.
Phantasy Star Online was quickly followed by PSO Version 2 in 2001 (2002 in Europe), which added in several new items and features, including a new difficulty level and a mini game that could be played in the game’s lobbies. On top of this, Version 2 also granted players the option to power up their characters even further, allowing them to be developed up to level 200. As if this wasn’t enough, Sonic Team also included a battle mode where players could fight one another and created even more areas to discover on the planet of Ragol.
Regardless, it was the original Phantasy Star Online that broke new ground, amassing around 200,000 unique players in 2001, proving that a viable market for online gaming existed within the console sector. More importantly though, for developers and console manufacturers, it displayed rather prominently that people were also prepared to pay to play online, so it is from Sonic Team’s endeavours that the Xbox Live and Playstation Plus services that we have today were born. The game was also a massive critical success too, garnering its Metacritic rating of 89%, and heaps of praise for its visual splendour as much as its forward thinking design, though it is this that has seen it repeatedly praised in more recent years as being a game released ahead of its time. The recent success of Blizzard’s Diablo 3 being testament to this.
Sega’s Dreamcast was the driving force that ushered in a new era for console gaming, and Phantasy Star Online was at the forefront of that revolution, propelling the concept of network play into the hearts and minds of the console gaming community. The Dreamarena, the portal through which Dreamcast owners were brought together, still fails to feel antiquated even by today’s standards, for many-including myself-it was the first time that internet access had been available at home, and that made it very special indeed. Even Japan, where nowadays, network providers offer speeds of up to 2Gbps download (1Gbps upload), was a country unaccustomed to such concepts, and it saw Sega’s chairman go to great personal lengths to ensure that Japanese gamers would warm to the console and its online games by offering a year of free, unlimited internet access with each Dreamcast console, this he reportedly paid for himself, such was his belief in the potential of online gaming.
The importance of the Dreamcast, and of Phantasy Star Online, in regards to the evolution of video games cannot be understated, they are truly vital, explicably linked to the online revolution that has brought us to where we are today, and for that reason, Sega, I-and many others-salute you.
– James Paton @theblackpage81