Online gaming for the masses
For many PSO was the first online console experience, as SEGA’s Dreamarena service quickly became the precursor to Xbox Live, it was a hint at the sort of services that gamers could expect from all consoles in the future. Released at a time before the really big massively-multiplayer games had hit the market, Phantasy Star Online and it’s parent online service helped pave the way for large scale cross-platform online gaming.
Even with these milestones, there are a number of other important reasons why the game continues to be played by it’s many fans; namely the accessibility of it’s gameplay, and the vibrant game world; a rare futuristic design in what still remains a sea of dark or historic themed RPGs.
“What happened on Ragol? What occurred on Pioneer 1? Are the people on board alive?” – Tyrell
Then there was SEGA’s decision to move a key franchise from a story-led series(1) to a persistant online world, a decision that would later be repeated by other developers such as Square Enix and Blizzard. Subsequently the gameworld of PSO borrows heavily from it’s predecessors – the races of people, item names, spells, enemies, currency and in more general terms the modern style of futurism that Phantasy Star(2) coined back in the 1980s.
Sonic Team’s new game took it’s first tenative steps online in 2001 using the Dreamcast, and although it was also available offline PSO was clearly designed to be played co-operatively with others, free from the restriction of subscription fees that would darken later online games. PSO suited the infrastructure of the web at the time(3) – providing compact gaming sessions with others using the Dreamcast’s built-in modem. For us Europeans this aspect of the game’s design was appreciated even more – as every minute online inccured a cost from our ISPs.
Dreamarena established, and with PSO as it’s premier title it was then than the community part of the game began to expand, as more people began to get to grips with PSO. The game lobbys became bustling ingame chat rooms, as a melting pot of gamers whirled around looking for their next adventure. It’s something we take for granted now, but the atmosphere of this largely new experience was electrifying, particularly as the games built in auto-translate and symbols chat meant everyone could understand one another, even tentatively.
The Pioneer Project
The majority of Phantasy Star Online’s story surrounds the populations efforts to colonize a new planet due to the destruction of their home world. The main ship area – Pioneer 2 show off the transtionary nature of the game, with the hunters fighting an often losing battle to secure the planet for colonization purposes.
“We can’t return to our planet. Now we must emigrate to Ragol.” – Tyrell
The constant threat of the wildlife and other lurking horrors seem to show the instability of the game world, and goes a long way to explain a lot of the aggressive enemies you encounter. In short it’s a neat way to explain why enemies are always present, a detail not really explained by other online games.
The players role as the hunters form the basis the tiny amounts of stability for the colony – as each player goes out to collectively try and restore order to Ragol’s chaotic surface. It is always made clear from the opening scene, that something is not right about the planet they have chosen to inhabit – something undefinibly evil seems to turn against all of the positive efforts of the crew.
Vital personnel are lost in the on-going battle with the wilderness, everything on the surface is living, sensitive to their presence and keen to eradicate the threat. It’s amusing then that such a modern population with all the technology that entails is struggling to manage their new home. This is the conundrum of Ragol – the only habitable planet they have been able to find, but one that simply doesn’t want them.
“It was this place, Ragol. We’ve come to a terrible place at the worst possible time…” –Red Ring Rico
Their struggle is personified by the horror sealed deep in the ancient ruins of their new home. Dark Falz(4) is the misfortune that has followed them and their ancestors through space by coincidence, his presence on Ragol points to the fact that battle follows hunters like a dark inheritance, in striving forward to achieve progress, they have only oncovered their waiting curse, their reward for an inability to live unstainabily and without conflict.
Gameplay and customization
A character is chosen from three distinct job types; hunters, rangers and forces, with each individual class and race having particular traits and weaknesses, it’s a option that we see often in console games now, but the ability to create a unique avatar that reflected how you wanted to look and play was not as widespread then, and helped to build PSO’s appeal.
This was just one of the many unique touches PSO had – another being the inclusion of the MAG, your mechnical companion which provides the majority of your fighting capabilities. The MAG can be fed to improve character statistics, and quickly becomes more important than your armour or weapon. The ability to fine tune your character in this way so directly was a welcome addition, particulary as players realise that different MAGs could be raised for different battle situations.
“Mags are just protectors invented by a scientist. But we’re given one when we become Hunters. It’s kind of tradition.” – Dacci
PSO’s combat is real-time and often fast paced, particularly with other players all hammering the enemies around you. This was a game that you were unable to pause, you simply had to carry on picking off the enemies or run into the cover of a doorway or telepipe back to town, and although the game looks relatively simple and can be repetitive, each enemy for each character has a unique strategy, be it the lightsaber-esque hunter swords or the appropriate elemental spell for each enemy. There are a multiude of ways PSO can be played, with each job and class requiring a different strategy.
This is particulary apparent in the later difficulties in the game, each of the four more progressively difficult options give a definite sense of challenge to the game. There is always an enemy that has the potential to kill even the mightiest character, taking you back to the moment you started the game. Even characters reaching level 200 cannot firmly argue that they have experienced everything PSO has to offer, in each episode, challenge character and difficulty.
The beauty of PSO
The look and feel of PSO is relatively unique, part of the excitement we experienced from playing it was due to the fresh, futuristic feel. In a sea of medieval focused RPGs Phantasy Star stands out with it’s unique art direction and design ethic. PSO captured the beauty of the moment, the expectation of that relatively new millennium inspired by the story led games before it.
Every button, sign and object was designed with this principle in mind, illustrating where to go, and the key focal points in the game. The designers of PSO has a real eye for detail, the coloured action buttons that responded not only to buttons on the player’s controller but also to the appropriate targets on the enemy, giving an idea of whether the attack could hit.
“Train yourself. Become much stronger to impress me… Ha, ha, ha…” – Kireek.
The spell system while not completely accessible to the new player, tried something radical with it’s symbol led spell casting, with each of the levels elemental spells displayed using an increasingly more elaborate illustration of fire, ice or lightning. But after extended play even these visual cues become second nature.
The beauty of the game is unmistakable, the graphical prowess was a stunning achievement for the time, but the design decisions still strike the game out as indvidual almost a decade later. Most of the later enemies and bosses have a flair to them, a stripe of colour that strikes them out as not entirely natural.
The Hunter’s Guild community
The online aspects of the game continue this theme, as co-operation becomes the cornerstone of PSO – hence the focus on online connectivity in both it’s name and template. This idea of co-operation matches the pioneering motivation of the characters within the game, players are eager to explore each new area, and unravel the tactics behind each new enemy and threat as to begin to piece together what is happening on Ragol for themselves.
“I was against the immigration! If a planet dies, the people have to die with it. Don’t you think so?” – Scientist
Friendships forged in the moments in between the encounters with enemies were remembered and helped to immortalize PSO in the hearts of it’s fans despite it’s flaws, PSO was a boyant example of co-operation in a PC gaming era due to the steps it made to make it’s game world more accessible. The game provided elements of customisation largely unseen by console gamers, the ability to create symbol chat, to dance in the lobby in the lobby using animation, and best of all to customise a character based on personal preference.
However the way the game originally saved locally to a memory card left it vulnerable to exploitation by hackers. Two communities began to form; the people who played PSO entirely legitimately with the added challenge of avoiding the second sub-group of hackers using duplicated items.
If anything this added sense of danger made the legitimate games all the more worthy. PSO functioned best at these moments, the quiet, respectful games with strangers and friends that emulated everything that was right about this growing new genre.
Ultimately it was a need to continue these happy experiences of the game that led to formation fan-built PSO servers(5) to allow players from all versions of PSO to continue playing Sonic Team’s discontinued game, for us it’s simply not a game worth giving up on, and almost a decade after it’s original release still a game worth returning to.
(1) I would say it’s greatest influences are Phantasy Star I and II – the PSO ep II spaceship music even borrows the key battle theme from the second game. Back to text
(2) The original Phantasy Star was released back in 1987 (in Japan), and like it’s older cousin is one of the most under appreciated RPGs of all time. Back to text
(3) In fact it was quite common for dialup services to disconnect every two hours at this time. PSO levels could fit into this timeslot nicely before a reconnect was needed. Back to text
(4) Dark Falz is of course one of the main villains in the original Phantasy Star games, set to return to blight humanity every 1,000 years. Back to text