The Sega Master System may not have been know for its RPGs (or JRPGs) but there is still one long running franchise that got its start on the Master System way back in 1987. Phantasy Star is a sci-fi fantasy role playing game from Sega that made it’s debut on the Japanese Sega Mark III in ’87 the brought over to North America in ’88. This was about the time that the Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy series were gaining traction in Japan but had not yet made their way to the NES. What that means is Phantasy Star pre-dated both of the aforementioned RPG series in North America by a whole calendar year! Unfortunately, because the Master System was such a flop in the U.S., Phantasy Star will never get the credit it deserves and is rarely cited as being N.A. gamers first RPG experience. Yes, there were RPG elements in Zelda 1 & 2 but those were not the same type of RPG and the style of gameplay is significantly different. Personally, my first RPG experience was with Dragon Warrior on the NES, thanks to Nintendo Power’s cartridge give away with renewed subscriptions back in 1989 since I never owned a Master System growing up.
Phantasy Star is notable for a couple reasons beyond it being the premier RPG for the Master System. First, the dungeons you explore in the game are rendered in a first person 3D perspective, which was unique for the time and quite challenging. Challenging in the way that you weren’t allowed to see what was ultimately in front of you until about 2 screens before the item/monster you were about to encounter. This meant that you’d really have to be ready for just about anything but also you’d likely waste time going down empty hallways because you couldn’t see far enough in front of you to determine there was nothing there. Additionally, there were no dungeon maps to guide you on your quest. Like most RPGs of the era, there were overworld maps to help you determine where to go and where you’ve been but the dungeons were confusing labyrinths that almost demanded a player to graph them out in order to avoid repeating mistakes. These days, there are maps available online that will save gamers countless hours of wandering and exploring but that isn’t the same experience players had at the time, for better or worse.
The second unique aspect of Phantasy Star that comes to mind is your female protagonist, Alis, Alis witnesses her brother’s death at the beginning of the game and she must avenge him while taking down the evil rule of King Lassic. Female protagonists were few and far between in 80s video games and especially rare in a fantasy role playing game with fighting, magic and weaponry. Before everyone gets too bent out of shape about Samus Aran being a female protagonist in 1986’s (Japanese release date)Metroid, keep in mind that most players never knew they were playing as a female the entire game unless they got at least a good ending. The Metroid manual perpetuates the ruse by calling Samus a “he” in order to avoid spoiling the surprise ending. In Phantasy Star, there is no similar ruse to fool young, often male gamers into thinking they were playing as a man or boy. Alis is featured right on the front cover, feminine facial and body features unobscured for all to see.
Phantasy Star’s gameplay is exactly what you’d expect from an 80s JRPG. You wander around the overworld visit villages and talk to townsfolk to gather clues as to where your quest will lead you. You will grind for experience points by fighting enemies that gradually will make you stronger and stronger. Alis meets additional characters on her journey that will ultimately join her to assist in her quest. These are all pretty standard tropes of RPGs that have since been done better but at the time of Phantasy Star’s release, were fresh and original. Despite it selling poorly at the time, Sega thankfull didn’t abandon the franchise. There were 3 additional high quality Phantasy Star titles released for the Genesis/Mega Drive and the series would be revived in a MMO format on the Dreamcast as Phantasy Star Online.
Phantasy Star is a landmark title for the Master System and a must own, plain and simple. It’s not a perfect game (grinding…..so much grinding) and a player today has a much better chance of enjoying it with a little online help for some of the most obscure clues and demanding dungeons. The cartridge features a battery back-up, which was a serious bonus if you didn’t enjoy entering in long passwords. If you want to play a genuinely good game with a good story and interesting characters, Phantasy Star is for you.