For some reason, JRPGs have always trended more towards swords and sorcery than robots and lasers. This was undoubtedly due to the fact that most of them sprung from Wizardry and Ultima, which in turn borrowed from Dungeons & Dragons, which in turn borrowed from Lord of the Rings. In the Famicom days, there were a number of Dragon Quest clones that incorporated other themes, including the futuristic sci-fi settings of Konami's Lagrange Point and Hot-B's execrable Hoshi no Miruhito.
One of the earliest — and best — examples of sci-fi RPGing was Sega's Phantasy Star. Designed in part by famed developer Yuji Naka, Phantasy Star featured gorgeous graphics, superior music, and a relatively intricate plot. Where the Dragon Quest sequels boasted larger game worlds, Phantasy Star offered three different planets to explore.
The first-person dungeons feature smoothly scrolling graphics, putting most of its contemporaries to shame. Furthermore, Sega had the guts to bring it to America a good year before Nintendo even bothered to localize Dragon Quest.
The setting wasn't the only unique aspect about Phantasy Star — its best asset is its speed. Dragon Quest began to get bogged down with its text narrations, and Final Fantasy's visions of sprites waving swords at thin air eventually grew tedious. Phantasy Star, on the other hand, is blazingly fast.
The sequel, Phantasy Star II for the Genesis, improved everything, with a longer quest and an expanded character roster, although it lost the first person dungeons, cranked up the difficulty even further and bogged down the battle system with some unnecessary animation. The third game is an interesting experiment, allowing you to follow three generations of a single hero, but is so far removed from the series, both in narrative and in aesthetics, that it's often considered the black sheep.
The absolute pinnacle of ideals from the original Phantasy Star came in the last true game of the series: Phantasy Star: The End of the Millennium, usually just referred to shorthand as Phantasy Star IV. The adventure begins with Alys and Chaz, two bounty hunters out to investigate a mysterious biohazard, but soon expands into a huge quest that, once again, spans the entire galaxy.
It features fantastic graphics, some of the best music on the Genesis, and a plot that compares to or bests Square's efforts — it's one of the best of the 16-bit era, tying the entire series together and only stumbling due to some inconsistencies in the English translation.
There's plenty of fodder for longtime fans, including the new incarnation of pretty boy mainstay Lutz, a rematch against King Lassic, one of the bad guys from the original Phantasy Star, and the ability to explore the ruins of the planet Parma, demolished back in Phantasy Star II. Dragon Quest III shocked everyone by cleverly tying the first three NES games into a clever little circle, but Phantasy Star takes the series' history to even greater heights.
All of these taken together make for an extraordinarily solid experience, but where Phantasy Star IV really excels is its blistering fast pace. Long gone are the little characters that crawl slowly across the screen — your party members dash across towns and through dungeons.
The battles, using the over-the-shoulder perspective used in Phantasy Star II, are just as quick — the screen flashes white, the combatants fight, and full rounds barely take more than a few seconds. You can even program macros for each of your characters, if selecting individual commands isn't your thing.
It's not just the movement and fighting though — even the plot moves along at a quick and steady pace. The dungeons fly by quickly, with each event leading quickly into another without any random stumbling or unnecessary grinding.
In short, it's the best of the straightforward aspects of 8-bit RPGs with the strong storytelling chops developed in the later 16-bit games. For all of the CD-based 32-bit RPGs that succumbed to long battle transitions, even longer fights, and excessive cutscenes, Phantasy Star IV is one of the best antidotes — and an example more developers should strive to follow.
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