It's Much More Fun To Play Phantasy Star On Switch

Screenshot: Sega

Over my holiday vacation, I played all the way through Phantasy Star, Sega’s classic 1987 Master System role-playing game. I did this by way of playing the new Sega Ages release of the game for Switch — and now that I’m finished, I realise that I’d never have played it any other way.

RPGs for 8-bit game consoles, as a group, have a reputation for being brutal. They are parsimonious with their hints, tending to not tell you where to go, or what to do when you get there. The random encounters tend to be frequent and punishing, requiring you to spend many hours grinding away just to have a chance at survival.

Dungeons tend to be massive and labyrinthine in structure. Sometimes you can even paint yourself into a corner, saving your game in a place where it’s impossible to proceed any further and having to start from scratch (or just give up).

As beloved as it is, Phantasy Star commits all of these transgressions. That sort of design was acceptable, even appreciated in 1987 Japan, but just a few years later it was difficult to get into games like this. I’ve never gotten further than a few hours into any of the NES Final Fantasy games, for example.

But I have played the numerous remakes, on the Game Boy Advance for example, which made the games much more welcoming to the player by reducing the difficulty and adding in various quality-of-life features that make the experience less of a battle between player and program. (I even played through the notoriously player-antagonistic Final Fantasy II this way, a couple years back, thanks to the Game Boy version’s generous tweaking.)

Screenshot: Sega

The Sega Ages version of Phantasy Star is quite unlike other re-released games. It’s not a remake, like the Final Fantasy ones with their upgraded graphics, music, and interfaces. It is the original Master System version running under emulation, and if you want the original, brutal experience, you can have it. You can change around how the game displays, altering the screen size, pixel smoothing, etc. But you can also choose to tweak the gameplay in a variety of ways.

You can play the game in “Ages Mode,” which changes nothing about the game except for, in almost Game Genie-like fashion, making enemy encounters less frequent and bumping up the experience points and money that you receive for each. Now you can get powered up without grinding, and you won’t be interrupted so much when you explore.

There’s also a new menu that you can bring up with descriptions of all the game’s items, equipment, and magic spells, which are not described in the game and have severely truncated names. No more wondering what the hell a FRD. MANT is supposed to be.

Most importantly, Phantasy Star’s dungeons now have an auto-mapping feature. This is one of those RPGs with pseudo-3D, first-person dungeon crawling, and the dungeons are sufficiently complex that you would have to literally get out sheets of graph paper and map out the layouts as you played if you wanted to have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding your way through.

In the Switch version, a map on the right side of the screen is automatically filled in as you travel through the mazes, making them quite easy to navigate.

Screenshot: Sega

Even with these adjustments, Phantasy Star is still an obtuse journey. Just to name one example, the penultimate boss will always one-hit kill your party at the start of the battle unless you find a certain item beforehand. Oh, and you can actually drop that item out of your inventory permanently, making it impossible to clear the game. Also, if you finish that fight with one certain character dead and another out of magic points, you can’t progress any further in the game, and have to reset and do the fight over. Unless you overwrote your old save after that fight, in which case you are royally fucked and have to start again from the beginning. Fun!

Therefore I felt absolutely zero shame in just using an FAQ.

Thanks to all of those tweaks, I really enjoyed playing through Phantasy Star. I always wanted to love this game. The setting, an eclectic mix of fantasy and sci-fi tropes, is captivating all the way through. The music is fantastic, and the Sega Ages version lets you use the superior Japanese soundtrack even if you’re playing the English version of the game.

The story ... OK, the story still sucks, but the character designs are beautiful. And the battles! In sharp contrast to Final Fantasy’s tiny, static enemy graphics, Phantasy Star’s are gigantic screen-filling beasts with many frames of detailed animation.

It’s a pretty basic 8-bit RPG—very little plot, battles that are by and large just about mashing A, and little to break up the town-dungeon-town-dungeon structure. But the enhancements and tweaks make it a light, breezy experience, a sort of relaxing tour of gaming’s past.

Screenshot: Sega

What I liked most about Sega Ages’ unique approach to Phantasy Star is how I got to experience the “original” version of the game. There’s no similar way to play through 1987's Final Fantasy with unretouched graphics, music, and menus, but also with quality-of-life upgrades. Phantasy Star does a little bit of tweaking under the hood, but most of its augmentations are via overlays. I really like this concept of having the original game running in a window, with extra stuff wrapped around it.

Of course, this sort of special treatment wouldn’t be feasible for every game. That’s why I’m pleased to see that Sega is choosing the “why not both?” path for Switch - you can buy the 50-game Genesis collection with mostly untweaked games for $59.95, or buy the upgraded, augmented Sega Ages releases individually. (Other Sega Ages games currently available include Sonic the Hedgehog, Lightening Force, and OutRun.)

If I wanted to jump into playing the rest of the Phantasy Star series on Switch, I could do that right now via the Genesis collection ... but I think I’d rather wait to see if there are Sega Ages versions of these in the works.


Comments

    This was my first real RPG, I still remember sitting on my Master System making piles of hand written notes and awful maps.

      Man, 80's gaming was ALL about the crappy hand drawn maps! :D. God knows how many books of graph paper I went through during those years, making maps of levels, noting down where enemies, items etc were. All the gaming magazines had "tips" sections that usually had maps of one game or another (along with cheats that actually required you to write code :P). Now I feel really old :(

    Isn't it the same for the Genesis collection on all consoles, not just the switch?

      The Sega Ages range this article is about is exclusive to Nintendo Switch. This is a completely different thing from the retail Sega Mega Drive Classics package.

      It's explained in the second-last paragraph of this article, but to clarify, Sega Ages is developed in Japan by the emulation legends at M2 and each individual game is celebrated with its own tailor-made slew of enhancements, whereas Sega Mega Drive Classics was developed by D3t and is a pretty bare bones collection with lacklustre emulation quality (but it does somewhat make up for that with quantity). It's basically two different approaches to archiving Sega's legacy by Sega's Japanese sector and Sega Europe respectively.

    I loved this game back in the day. Many a grid paper as used.
    I'd love to see the sms version of ultima iv make it's way to the switch too. I'd buy that in a heartbeat.

    I remember playing this when I was like 10-11, as a rental from some local video store. Had no idea at the time how to play this sort of game, and was just running around on someones save. Have since played it a few times in the last 25 years.

    Genesis collection has been available since PS2, however no updating is done to any games that seem to be part of that collection until now. (still not the actual collection)

    ...you can buy the 50-game Genesis collection with mostly untweaked games for $59.95, or buy the upgraded, augmented Sega Ages releases individually. (Other Sega Ages games currently available include Sonic the Hedgehog, Lightening Force, and OutRun.) Only Sonic the Hedghog is in the Genesis Collection, the rest are not.

    One of my favourite RPGs. The automapping feature is a welcome addition to this version, makes me want to buy the game again! Phantasy Star 2 had a hint book which helped tremendously with getting through the game, I don't recall there ever being one for the first Phantasy Star though.

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