Like the Sega Dreamcast itself, Phantasy Star Online was ambitious and ahead of its time. As common-place as the massively-multiplayer online genre is today, ten years ago dial-up internet connections and offline-only home consoles meant they were confined to PCs. However, Sega could make that leap thanks to what was considered the first true online service for a console, and with respected studio Sonic Team behind it, Phantasy Star Online quickly became a fan-favorite and the perfect showcase for the platform.
However, in part of the Phantasy Star series there were a number of departures from the norm.For one, it offered real-time instead of traditional turn-based combat, making it far more compatible for online play. Similarly, instead of a linear story and quest lines, players would enter dungeons set in lush open forests, caves, mines and an ancient spaceship, with narrative handed out occasionally between missions. While the game was billed as an MMO, the fact that a limited number of players could only play in the same instance meant this actually wasn't the case, but that didn't detract from what was otherwise an engaging and true online role-playing title.
Although there were a limited amount of areas, familiar MMO tropes such as side quests, high value weapons and armor kept players returning to grind their way to better equipment. A unique aspect was the MAG, a robotic sidekick not unlike Sonic Adventure's Chao creatures that could be fed items and evolve into different forms, offering new attacks and support abilities. While it was possible to play solo through dungeons, working with others was always desired, especially against the screen-filling bosses, such as the memorable dragon that topped off the end of the forest area. Communicating between players was also surprisingly straightforward despite the lack of voice chat, with a variety of e-motes and shortcut phrases at hand that easily broke down language barriers.
Much of the game's content was also accessible offline, adding AI-team mates to help out in battle, and allowing the same profiles to continue their game online. As desirable as this feature was – especially since subscription-based broadband was rare at the time of release, and so playing online could run up costly bills – it also led to one of the title's downfalls. As game saves were saved locally, it was ripe for hacking and duping items, making high level equipment and super-powerful MAGs easy to create using the right tools, and later share online, spoiling the prestige value of owning valued items that many MMOs depend on.
The game's success, especially in Japan and Asia, led to a number of follow-up expansions and sequels that provided more content. At the end of the Dreamcast's lifespan, Phantasy Star Online Ver. 2 added more areas, features and gameplay balances, and from there the series jumped ship to both GameCube and the original Xbox, platforms which both offered more reliable broadband connections. A third episode featuring new card-based mechanics was released on GameCube, while a fourth expansion – with unique crater and desert environments, items and enemies – was released exclusively on Windows PCs in Japan.
From there, the franchise's fortunes have become mixed; the official servers for most versions were closed within a number of years, and follow-up Phantasy Star Universe on PC, PS2 and Xbox 360 failed to capture a solid fan base or critical response in the same way the original did. Several spinoffs for handhelds Phantasy Star Portable and Phantasy Star 0 have performed reasonably well, but all eyes are on Phantasy Star Online 2, which is designed to be the true successor to the Dreamcast original set for release sometime next year.
While Phantasy Star Online wasn't particularly groundbreaking or inspirational in gameplay, its simplicity and timing in the market couldn't have left more of an impact on its players, so much so that a small online fan base using private servers still exists today. How many other long gone consoles still offer that level of dedication?
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