In certain ways, it’s both very obvious that Phantasy Star II: Fantashī Sutā Tsū Kaerazaru Toki no Owari ni (which apparently translates literally to something akin to At the End of the Time Which Can Never Be Returned To, which is yet another reason to be thankful that the traditional requirement of descriptive sequel subtitles on media is exclusive to Japan) is a JRPG of a very dusty vintage. The random encounter rate is astronomical, the dungeons outright mock the concept of intuitive exploration, and the story line tends to go into hibernation for just long enough to confuse the player when plot actually occurs. While I genuinely love the first and fourth entries in the series (the third is an entirely different animal, and a far future entry that may just consist of an animated gif of me chewing my own face off to avoid actually playing the damn thing), Phantasy Star II: Subtitle That I’m Not Going to Write Out Again seems to actively stymie any attempts to play it. When Phantasy Star super-fan Andrew Weiss has been attempting in vain to complete the game again in his adult years, and even the siren song of achievements kept him from finishing the Live Arcade port (I’ve seen this man shoot his own brother in the face for an achievement before. Granted, this was in a video game that indulged my secret desire to dress up as pre-World War I Lil Wayne and massacre the endless troops of a thinly fictionalized Emiliano Zapata, but it stands to reason that I’ve seen things.) So what hope does a foundling like myself have for embracing one of the few genuine classics of the pre-Sonic era?
As it turns out, not much hope at all. The number of things Phantasy Star II does right is nothing considerable, but the game is still limited severely by genre convention. Accessibility wasn’t exactly a high priority for the creators. Phantasy Star II has a lot to recommend, and in many ways set a standard for Japanese role-playing games. In many ways, considering the glacial evolution of the genre, the tropes presented by Phantasy Star II are still standard twenty-plus years later.
Perhaps most notable is that Phantasy Star II is the first big name JRPG to really push storytelling. While earlier games such as Final Fantasy II, Dragon Quest III, and even the original Phantasy Star featured a story that actively shaped the gameplay, the narrative mostly existed as an excuse to ferry intrepid bands of bloodthirsty teenage adventurers (or in the case of Phantasy Star, a bloodthirsty teenager, her cat, a former statue, and an immortal sexually ambiguous wizard) from set-piece to set-piece. Primarily due to cutscenes that must have looked like anime stills at the time (and still hold up to this day, albiet in a vastly diminished capacity), the player is drawn deeper into the narrative, which remarkably makes short work of tired conventions, with the first questline setting the party against domestic terrorists.
So it’s a little unfortunate that the game itself is kind of a drag. The game features a massive grind that doesn’t offer much in the way of shortcuts, and the save system is unfortunately not as robust enough to make up for the absolutely brutal random encounters. Beyond that, the dungeons are massive mazes of identical tiles with an absurd amount of loose wiring or piping hanging over the parties head, leading to even more confusion as to where the party should head even before you factor in a random encounter rate that was ridiculous even for the time. If anything is stopping the average player from making progress in Phantasy Star II in 2010 it is easily the gameplay itself, which is a shame considering how much the game has to offer even now in this distant future.
The story hits the same broad political notes (SOCIALISM ISN’T SUSTAINABLE! screamed until bitrot claimed the cartridge) that JRPGs would later become famous for a good five years before the pope-slaying golden age of the Playstation era. But because of the extreme (which in the late eighties meant “any”) effort care taken to introduce the main character as the inhabitant of a unique and living world. Each of the planets the party visits are much more unique than any of the climes presented in other JRPGs at the time. The characterization was also sublime at the time, featuring a large cast of characters who show up at the main character’s doorstep and offer their aid for different reasons. Like Phantasy Star before it, Phantasy Star II really makes you feel like you are using characters, not classes. And while there is no shortage of useless party members, this is one of the first games where a favorite could come from personality rather than skills. In one of the most clever flourishes I’ve ever seen in a game, the background in the character portraits even link together, creating a panorama of all the characters sitting around the house waiting for a turn to go kill some biomonsters (sprite-editing courtesy of Pre-Sonic Genesis’ friend and outstanding citizen Nicola):
Details like that, combined with clever callbacks to the first game that are only partially obscured by a lackadaisical commitment to translation continuity and utterly fantastic music really make the game feel like a sci-fi manga from the late eighties. While the core gameplay is appropriately archaic considering the genre, the trappings absorbed players into what certainly must have felt like the first next-generation role-playing game, an incredible achievement for being the sixth game released on a console. Like Chrontendo curator Dr. Sparkle pointed out in the comments earlier this week, it’s rare that any console would see a game that was so well made that it redefined a genre so early in the lifespan (the only other example I can possibly think of is Halo), and for that reason the game is worth your attention, even if only by proxy.
Should you want to brave the game, I have heard good things about the Numan Revolution rebalancing hack but do not know just how much it changes (look for that in a future bonus update). I did my partial playthrough on the GBA port, but cannot recommend it due to resolution issues and frequent crashes. Mercifully, the game has an effectively perfect port on any of the several console collections Sega has relased, and someone who goes by Thuryl on the Something Awful message boards has done an excellent narrative-style let’s play of the game that includes all sorts of interesting minutia that make it worth a look regardless of your familiarity with the subject.
(images stolen from the Video Game Museum)