Phantasy Star III - Then and Now review.
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
One of the most interesting things to me about retro gaming is hearing people talk about their experiences playing video games… not so much now, but how they experienced it back then.
To give you some perspective, I am in my early forties and I was raised playing video games. Some of my earliest memories were playing the Atari 2600 as a toddler.
In the past few years I have really started to dive back into retro gaming. Particularly the games I played as a kid.
I thought reviewing Phantasy Star III as it turns 30 years old might be a fun thing to do and something you might want to read.
As I write these articles, I aim to share my experiences playing games as a youngster, then give you my perspective now. Was it good then? Is it still good now?
Before I can talk about Phantasy Star III specifically, let me give you a little background concerning my history with the franchise growing up.
Phantasy Star I was the first JRPG I was exposed to (not the first one I ever played). Honestly, before I even played it... I just knew it as the "$80 video game on the Sega Master System". I finally ran into someone who actually had it… my grade school friend Scott. He was the only friend I had growing up who owned a Sega Master System. When he showed it to me, I honestly thought it looked childish. Here, I was coming from Nintendo games like Castlevania, Zelda and Metroid. I didn't understand what Role-Playing Games were at the time, and completely wrote it off as "not my cup of tea". I also couldn't understand why the game was so expensive. It didn’t have flashy graphics or do anything I thought was ground breaking for the time. Almost as soon as he had popped it in, I was begging him to put in his copy of Double Dragon for some 2 player beat-um-up action that didn’t cost me a roll of quarters.
My first impressions of Phantasy Star I on the Sega Master System
At this stage in my life, I was all about the Nintendo. Just like any kid my age, I wanted a subscription to Nintendo Power so I could see all of the games I would dream of playing one day. I grew up a poor kid, but I somehow talked my mom into buying the subscription for me. See, at the time Nintendo was heavily promoting their new magazine by giving away a free NES game pack, hint guide and a one year subscription all for $20. Getting any new Nintendo game for anything less than $30 was unheard of then, so getting one for free with the purchase of a subscription to a magazine seemed like a no brainer. That game was Dragon Warrior. Dragon Warrior sounded cool, but looking at the graphics, it didn’t grab me… but hey... even if I hated it, I could try to trade it to someone for something I would like.
At that time, everyone I knew had a Nintendo. They were as common as VCR's and Microwaves. Nintendo had been the only game in town for so long, people were itching for that next generation of video gaming often teased in magazines. The Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx 16 were the next evolutionary step in technology and boy did they deliver! Bigger sprites, scrolling backgrounds, huge color palates and that chunky multi-layered arcade sound. Sadly, much like the Sega Master System... none of my friends had gone down the road of the TurboGrafx 16. So I followed the pack and set my eyes on getting a Sega Genesis.
While I go my Nintendo much later than most of my friends, I was able to scrape together the cash I had saved from Christmas, a birthday and allowances and purchased the Sega Genesis before most of my friends got their hands on one. Probably the only time in my childhood when I was one step ahead of my friends. As soon as I had enough money saved to buy my first game, I noticed in a Sears catalog a device you could stick on top of your Genesis in the cartridge slot that effectively transformed your Genesis into a Sega Master System called the "Power based converter". I thought... FINALLY! I could play Phantasy Star! So before I purchased my first Genesis game (other than the one it came with)... I purchased the power based converter. I was now able to borrow all of my friend Scott's Sega Master System... games including the elusive Phantasy Star I had previously turned my nose up at.
By this time, Phantasy Star II was already out and it looked phenominal, but I held off from playing it until I finished Phantasy Star I. When I brought Phantasy Star home to play it for the first time, it immediately consumed my life until I completed it. Before there was the internet, and easily accessible video game magazines and hint guides, the only way to get beyond a point I was stuck was to go to the Egg Head Software store in the mall and pick the brains of the college kids that worked there who would point me in the right direction. They were my "tip line" to get through the tougher puzzles of the game... Hey! I was only 13 at the time! I eventually completed it and it quickly became my favorite RPG game.
No surprises, the first Genesis game I purchased was Phantasy Star II, which I loved. It had a story line that was tragic and memorable, and I felt like a grown-up traversing through these "adult" themes of death, murder and corruption where there wasn't always a happy ending.
Only a year later, Phantasy Star III was released. I had no money to speak of at the time and nobody seemed to have one to borrow. RPG's had amazing resale values even back then, and even getting a used copy would still be $50 if I could find one. So for the next year, all I did was read about it and how awesome and innovative it appeared to be. A RPG you could play through multiple times, choosing different paths and get different outcomes! When I played RPGs, I didn't want them to end, and this seemed like a game I could really sink my teeth into and get a lot out value out of. At a glance, the overworld looked more medieval... like Sword of Vermilion. I also noticed less of that bright futuristic anime color palate found in the first two games. I liked it at first glance. It made me think that Phantasy Star III might have been a prequel... maybe before even Phantasy Star I. I spent that year imagining how awesome this game was going to be, and it only made me want it more. Eventually I got my hands on a copy of it. When I played through it, my high hopes were crushed. The game was such a disappointment to me... it felt like a step back, WAY back. Now begins the review. This is going to be an honest perspective. Up front, I don't hate the game, but full disclosure, it is the least favorite of the first 4 Phantasy Star games for me, and not by a little. My criticisms of the game are great... but I will follow up with what I did like about the game afterward.
Overview: Phantasy Star III is the third of 4 installments of the Phantasy Star series from the 8 and 16 bit eras. It takes place in a world that was devastated by a war between magic and technology. The war was mutually ended when they realized the conflict was fostered by a dark force which was eventually sealed away in a temple at the bottom of a lake. The aftermath created two factions that continued to distrust and fight one another. Much like history, peace is often made through political marriages. Phantasy Star III takes you on a journey through 3 generations of branching paths you chose as you progress through the story in a quest to save the world from repeating its history and vanquishing the dark force once again. It offered 4 possible outcomes based off of those decisions. Which fate will you chose?
The epic battle between Orakio the swordsman and Laya the sorceress.
I'm now going to break down different categories of the game and detail what I observed and give you my take on it.
Art Direction: For me, I think this is one of the things I will be the most critical of. In Phantasy Star I, the battle scenes were lush (for the time), the character sprites were big and animated... and they even had magical/attack animations that looked cool that drew you into the game... and although you couldn't see your characters, or even the hands of your characters performing actions... you really felt like you were in the drivers seat of the fight. Phantasy Star II made some improvements in that you could see the back of your characters heads and a quick animation of them attacking or casting spells. This was awesome. The monsters were even more animated and the sound effects and flashing screens really made you feel like you were getting hit. The downside was the lack of backgrounds... an absence of environment. All you got was this dull grid that you quickly got sick of seeing. Then along comes Phantasy Star III. T hey seemed to go backwards in quality in almost every level. While you now had backgrounds again (YEY!) they were dull and uninteresting, even with parallax scrolling effects. Ultimately they were still more interesting than staring at the grid in Phantasy Star II. In Phantasy Star III they took out the character sprites, so you had to use your imagination there... the spell and attack animations were as uninspired as a Game & Watch's special effects and didn't seem to change much as you upgraded your weapons. The monster sprites animations were almost comical. Its like someone took a bunch of really great drawings, and had the jokester on the art team animate them. Take the giant menacing rock heads you find later in the game. Scary right? Lets animate them... OH I KNOW! Lets have the big scary rock monster head wiggle it's ears at you. HaWah?! Now lets do the scary giant unicorn man in tights... hmmm, how could we... OH I KNOW! Lets have him wiggle his finger at you in a completely expressionless way! I felt like the people who were assigned this task wished they were on other projects because the enthusiasm they put into each sprite seemed to be mocking the seriousness of the game. Compared to Phantasy Star I's animations (a video game generation ago), these comically bad.
Phantasy Star 1 - Zombie attack animation (8-bit SMS)
This kicks ass. Many frames of animations, its gross... what more could you want? This zombie is PURE METAL!
Phantasy Star III - Some Noble's attack animation (16-bit Genesis).
Talk about phoning it in. 1 frame of animation, it's not interesting, and doesn't appear to be any sort of an attack at all.
Battle: I felt like this game was just attack, attack, attack. The only time I felt myself using magic was to heal myself between battles, and since everyone seemed to have plenty of MP, items for the most part seemed unneeded. For 95% of the game, I just hacked and slashed unstrategically through the game and did just fine. The battle interface was a little lacking, but I wouldn't say it was horrible.
Maps/Towns: Could the towns look any less exciting? While the graphics were noticeably more refined, every town had almost the same palate and cookie cutter houses. Most buildings had second floors, but they were only there to waste your time, because when you went up there, there was almost never anyone to talk to. I don't want to go to a fictitious fantasy world where every town looks almost the same and stare at the same water fountain that sometimes you could bump into and find yourself in a dungeon. Castles? Don't get me started. The castles felt like drafts people drew up before they did any serious detailing. There is very little going on in there. I felt like they did a better job in the 8-bit era. This was a big miss for me. Dungeons? Half the dungeons are literally the same concept of a basic grid with pathways blocked off, like broken glass or a box blocking the way in different places. The overworld maps were filled with caves and temples that you couldn't do anything with (of course you find out why later, but until you found out, they just felt like unfinished parts of the game). The game felt so half-assed.
Music: I am a little less critical of the quality of the music, but more of the repetitive use of it. I liked how the overworld map music had multiple layers of tracks. They had the basic theme, but the more characters you added to your party, the more layered tracks you would hear. For instance, if you had just the main character, you'd hear the basic theme, but if you added a second character you'd here a flute, or additional drum tracks. Only until you had the full party would you hear the full depth of the song. This is a detail I didn't pick up on as a 15 year old. I didn't even notice that the combat music was different based off of difficulty of the fight you were up against. As a kid, I thought it was all just random. Some of the tunes are top notch, but I got sick of hearing most of them since they are reused so frequently.
Story: I can't say this is the worst of my criticisms, but this was a huge miss for me. I absolutely LOVED the concept of how the game designers wanted to tell the story. I even enjoyed picking up on the subtle references to the other Phantasy Star games. I just didn't fall in love with or feel any attachment to any of the characters through the whole story. They lacked personality and depth. By the time you got to learn anything about them, it was onto the next generation with all new characters. The games primary gimmick was that you played through 3 generations. In between each generation, you had a choice of two women to marry and as the next chapter started, you played their now adult children. The problem is... there was no development of romance with any of these women, no conflict in the marriage decisions you made, you just picked the one you thought was prettier. The first pairing was... "do I want to marry the girl that washed up on the shore that you were SUPPOSED to marry before she was kidnapped"? ~OR~ "The chick that busts you out of prison"? I learned almost nothing about either of these characters before I decided to put a ring on their finger and breed with them. As the generations went on, I became less and less interested in the characters themselves and was more captivated by how the biomes were connected and how this all ties into the other Phantasy Star games. The only characters you feel any connection with are the androids: Wren (which I was happy to see come back in Phantasy Star 4) and Mieu (which I felt was a tribute to Nei, a character from Phantasy Star II who I thought was a beautiful and tragic character). Very little about the characters were memorable, and I with the exception of the two androids that are in each generation, I couldn't tell you half of the other characters names 1 week after playing the game.
Endings: Phantasy Star III has 4 endings. You get a different ending for each possible marriage path you can take. In the past 30 years, I played through each scenario at least once. The endings were all similar and only had different ambiguous punchlines that left you up to your own interpretations. None of them were satisfying and oddly enough, the one I liked the most was the one that seemed to tie into one of the previous Phantasy Stars the most in a sort of Sci-Fi "time loop" trope.
Ok... now onto what I liked about Phantasy Star III and if I think it is worth playing today. Phantasy Star III is definitely the ugly baby of the series. It doesn't excel at anything and I can't think of one thing it does better than the other 3. It's gimmick of playing through generations with branching paths was pretty innovative for the time, and I loved it in concept. While the monster animations were pathetic, the actual sprites were mostly pretty well done. The music while repetitive had some really stellar tracks. Other than that, I find it to be a colossal chore to play through in 2020. This game is really for Phantasy Star enthusiasts. It's the slow chapter of an otherwise wonderful and memorable sci-fi RPG series. I highly recommend playing through the series, but I strongly urge you to tough it out through the third part of the series... don't worry, Phantasy Star 4 really makes up for it's short comings.
In closure... the game for me is part of a series I love dearly, and I can even love this "black sheep" despite its flaws. I feel almost an obligation to beat it every 5 years or so to pay it homage. I can say that seeing games like Final Fantasy 7 getting remakes these days makes far less sense because those games don't need to be re-made... they are masterpieces. If you need to change anything about a masterpiece... then it's not a masterpiece. If you thought your wife was the most amazing woman alive, but if someone said "If you could change anything about your wife what would it be?"... then you proceeded to change everything... I think you get my point. They should remake Phantasy Star III however... and make it great. If I could remake any game from my childhood... a game that DESERVES a remake, it would be Phantasy Star III. I want Phantasy Star III to become the game I had hoped it would be. Overall Rating 1991 - 6.5/10 Overall Rating 2020 - 4/10