Japanese RPGs came into their own in the mid-90s. This era was full of classics like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, whose inventive refinements would dramatically influence the genre’s future. When discussing these roleplaying monoliths, Sega’s Phantasy Star franchise isn’t always included among their ranks. It’s easy to assume the reasons for this: Phantasy Star didn’t jumpstart the genre the way its contemporaries did, and it has rarely received the same amount of attention. However, despite this relative obscurity, the franchise introduced a multitude of ideas and mechanics whose repercussions would be felt for decades to come. No game in the series represents this influence better than its fourth main entry, 1993’s Phantasy Star 4: The End of the Millennium on the Sega Genesis.
Even in the late 80s and early 90s, many RPGs had been stuck in a stylistic rut. The most popular RPGs were fairly uniform in their styles – they would feature medieval high fantasy settings, monsters inspired by European folklore, and more magic than one could shake a wand at. Then Phantasy Star 4 came along and defied this trend altogether.
Long before Final Fantasy VII famously ventured into science fiction, the Phantasy Star games had featured sci-fi settings from the beginning. Phantasy Star 4 made the most of its series’ distinctive style. It takes place in the Algol planetary system, telling the story of worlds that have become cripplingly intertwined with technology. Advanced mega computers, initially meant to maintain each planet’s balanced ecosystem, have been corrupted by a mysterious tyrant called Zio. At his behest, these computers create vicious monsters and natural disasters that wreak havoc on the Algol system. The game puts players in control of Chaz and his mentor Alys, two hunters tasked with investigating and putting a stop to this phenomenon.
Today, this setup might not sound so novel. After all, sci-fi RPGs aren’t particularly rare in the current generation. For its time, however, Phantasy Star was a revelation. Not only had there not been many prior sci-fi RPGs, but there weren’t many games in general that could match Phantasy Star’s incredible scope and ambition. In an era where most RPGs were content to hash out their own takes on the same medieval formula, Phantasy Star 4 told a story spanning an entire cosmos and created a futuristic world unlike any game before it. It can even be viewed as an early forerunner for the Mass Effect series in terms of its intergalactic scale and detailed universe.
Each planet in the Algol system is fully realized with its own topographies, cultures, and histories. Planets range wildly, from the arid farmlands of Motavia to the frigid wastes of Dezolis. A variety of different races inhabit these worlds, including the spiritual Dezorians, the fearsome Motavian tribes, and the cat/human/android hybrid Numans (it’s complicated). With these different species and cultures, the Algol system was extraordinarily realized to feel like a living, breathing galaxy – an impressive feat for any game today, and even more so for a game on the modest Sega Genesis.
This world was further brought to life with another one of Phantasy Star 4’s innovations: manga-style cutscenes. This added an additional layer of depth to the story and characterization that simply wasn’t possible with the small overworld character sprites in many other RPGs at the time. The dialogue itself is well-written in its own right, but when paired with the detailed panel artwork of the cutscenes, the writing becomes that much more impactful. In a way, Phantasy Star 4 could be considered the forefather of elaborate RPG cutscenes – a trope that was later popularized by Final Fantasy VII, among other titles.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Phantasy Star 4’s narrative is how daring it was for its era. Only a few hours into the story, it does the unthinkable – it permanently kills a major party member. Something so dramatic was practically unheard-of back in 1993, nearly four years before Final Fantasy VII became infamous for doing the exact same thing. But unlike Final Fantasy VII, Phantasy Star’s death scene retains every bit of its original poignancy due to the timeless artwork of the manga cutscenes. The same can’t be said of Final Fantasy VII, whose early 3D graphics haven’t aged quite as gracefully, diminishing the scene’s emotional impact for modern audiences. Phantasy Star 4’s bold plot twist is yet another example of its oft-unrecognized innovations, one that remains effective 25 years later.
Beyond its impressive story and visuals, Phantasy Star 4’s gameplay was inventive for its day. Like the game’s story, it may look standard, or even stereotypical on the surface – after all, it features an explorable overworld, random encounters, and turn-based battles – with seemingly nothing to distinguish it from any other RPG of its generation. Yet after the first battle, it’s not hard to see how forward-thinking the game was.
For one thing, it allowed the player to program the party ahead of time with “Macros.” Macros are pre-programmed sets of commands which make every active party member perform specific moves automatically, instead of commanding each one manually. In addition, macros let characters mix certain attacks together into devastating combination abilities – a mechanic that’s nearly identical to Chrono Trigger’s signature combo system, years before that title had even released. These two additions helped the sometimes excessively frequent random encounters move along at a mercifully quick pace, turning what could have been another tedious old-school RPG into a game that still feels fresh today.
Although the Phantasy Star games have often remained relatively unknown, now is the perfect opportunity to look back at the series and appreciate its understated revolutions. With the news that the series’ latest entry, Phantasy Star Online 2, would finally be released in the West, there is no better time to look at the franchise’s past and appreciate the ways it silently influenced the roleplaying genre. Streamlined battle systems, detailed worlds, anime visuals, and combo attacks have all become standard for modern RPGs, yet Phantasy Star 4 featured them all long before they became so widespread. From its deep world-building to its detailed visuals to its fast-paced gameplay, Phantasy Star 4 was a quiet turning point for its genre, making it a uniquely compelling experience even to this day.