The Sega Master System was never very popular in the US or in Japan, which is probably the only reason Phantasy Star isn’t a bigger deal than it is. Technically the first JRPG released in the US, its Japanese release was the same week as Final Fantasy 1 (and after Dragon Quest 1 & 2), though you’d never know they were contemporaries based on screenshots. If you ever wanted to know just how much the Sega Master System’s graphical capabilities outstripped the NES, this is the game to play.
Unfortunately, while very pretty and well presented, Phantasy Star has a lot of problems. It seems in almost every aspect the game is a rousing success tempered by a significant failure. The graphics are amazing for an 8-bit game: every monster’s attacks are animated, the first-person dungeon scrolling is incredibly smooth, and everything just looks great. But the way townspeople stay completely still like statues, and every dungeon has the exact same brick texture (but in varying colors!) kind of undermines the graphics. There is a similar dichotomy with the sound: the music is generally quite good, but the sound effects are bad. Like, PC speaker bad in some cases. Apparently in Japan the Master System equivalent had an FM synthesizer add-on that helped with this, but we never got it.
But enough about the graphics and sound, let’s talk gameplay. Phantasy Star is structurally similar to Dragon Quest 2, in that you start with a lone adventurer – a heroine, in fact, which was pretty much unheard of at the time – and your first task is to gather a party. Your party members include a wizard, a fighter with inexplicably terrible stats, and a cute talking cat. While we probably didn’t appreciate it in 1989, this game is extremely anime-influenced. Gathering the party members is a lot of fun, though advancing past level 1 is shockingly difficult. I couldn’t find anywhere on the map where every encounter was actually beatable at level 1, so there’s a lot of running away and resting involved. Unlike in Dragon Quest, death means game over, so this can be quite annoying.
Once the party is gathered, you start a quest to find the tools that let you take down your nemesis, the evil King Lassic. The game actually begins with the brother of the main character dying and imparting his quest to overthrow Lassic to his sister. Story-wise, this game was way ahead of its contemporaries. There’s foreshadowing, some political-ish drama, and mad scientists who eat cats. However, you’ll spend more of your time wondering what you’re supposed to do next than anything else, because the story telling (and translation) have some major problems during the middle parts of the game. This is the kind of game where townspeople will mention an item and you should go look for it, not because anyone gave you a reason to or you have any idea why you’d need it, but because this is a video game so if someone mentioned something it must be important.
If Phantasy Star was just the sum of its story and presentation, it would have been a true classic. Unfortunately, the game’s biggest problems are in its actual gameplay, primarily the combat system. It’s similar to that of DQ2 except that you will only fight a single enemy type at a time (the game displays only one representative enemy even if the group numbers as many as 8). It actually plays more like DQ1, since combat spells are a waste of MP that’s best saved for healing, and everything is a war of attrition. One cool idea is that you actually see the enemy party’s HP, but this just exposes the major flaw of the system: you can’t aim for individual monsters. Your party will hit enemies at random, causing individuals to stay alive far longer than they would if you concentrated your attacks. If you’re properly leveled and equipped, almost nothing in the game will really hurt you, and combat becomes a boring grind where you do nothing but attack ad nauseum.
The tedium of combat is exacerbated by the dungeon design. The first-person dungeons are cool, but the game features no auto mapping or even an on-screen compass, and you absolutely must make maps if you want to get anywhere. That’s fine, but what’s not fine is that the game throws increasingly unfair dungeon design at you as time goes on. Pit traps will often set you back quite a ways, and the later game dungeons are less mazes than extremely long hallways designed to whittle down your HP and/or bore you to tears. The game even has “hidden” doors which are only hidden by virtue of the fact that the first-person display is so limited. They’re not fun at all but mercifully don’t see much use.
If they had cut back significantly on the length of the later dungeons, Phantasy Star would have been a very solid B. But the endgame is a ridiculous slog that stopped being fun hours before it was over. There’s plenty of potential here, the the game is quite unique for its time. It isn’t the greatest game, but it’s definitely a very interesting one.