[According to Sega’s genre description, anyway]
The Playstation 2’s “Sega Ages 2500 series” was considered little more than another public embarrassment for Sega until around the halfway point, a time when they started focusing on entirely on publishing accurate ports of arcade classics rather than creating unnecessary 3D remakes of perfectly good, if old, Sega games. In many ways this was a reasonable reaction as the quality of the earlier titles in the series ranges from “Who honestly thought this wasn’t a complete waste of time?” to “Actually this is completely amazing”, although it also shows something of a general misunderstanding of the series’ purpose: The “2500” part of “Sega Ages 2500 series” was the price – 2500 yen (about £18GBP or $23USD at the time of writing). These were budget Playstation 2 games and expectations should have been (and should still be) tempered as such: The Ages series was never intended to be a string of premium-grade remakes going shoulder-to-shoulder against chart-topping new releases or the Sega equivalent of the Library of Alexandria, they were supposed to be nostalgic bits of fun for people who liked Sega and happened to own a PlayStation 2.
Having said all that, while Phantasy Star: Generation 1 may have been sold for a budget price it never feels like a game that’s had its ambitions compromised by a lack of funds, and if anything this game’s existence serves as a solid argument of the focus that can come from starting with a smaller budget and then being made to stick to it. As going off on wild flights of development fancy – recreating the entire Algol solar system as some traversable 3D vista, introducing new playable characters for the sake of shoehorning in a new twist or greatly expanding the script – were all completely out of the question this remake is forced to concentrate on nothing more than bringing the original Phantasy Star to an older and more technologically advanced audience, and because of that we end up playing a game that’s closer in spirit and form to the original than a greater budget and more generous development cycle would have given us. It really doesn’t take long for old hands to get a grip on things here: There are no ill-advised attempts to update the underlying design work or character art into something more appealing to the eyes of 2003’s game-buying public even if this does mean the game retains most of the flaws as well as the triumphs it had the first time around. Everyone and everywhere is immediately familiar even if there have been some small changes along the way – Palman, Motavian, and Dezolisian Rappies are one new and technically “incorrect” addition – but nothing so drastic I ever thought of shouting “That’s not Phantasy Star!” from the rooftops (besides, I happen to like Rappies).
The new visual direction’s absolutely gorgeous, retaining the familiar silhouettes of Phantasy Star’s distinctive dome-like buildings and cave entrances while gently (re)introducing familiar elements from later games in the series. There’s no doubt that Generation 1’s wealth of cutscenes, all looking like stills from the greatest sci-fi/fantasy manga that never existed, owe their existence to the fantastic art used throughout Phantasy Star IV. There’s admittedly not as many scenes here as there was in IV (in part due to the Master System game not having as many significant story beats as its later sequel), but even in its plainest moments Generation 1 always does its best to set the tone or show an enlarged still of a new character or boss monster when they first appear, and an all-new range of expressive character portraits as the group chat amongst themselves do their best to plug the gaps. Battles have been graphically brought into line with the much-loved Phantasy Star II and IV, the backs of the main cast now visible when fighting a solar system’s worth of monsters and even going so far as to have unique motions for magic, ranged attacks as well as for different types of melee weapons too – Tyron wields an axe very differently to a large sword, and Alis’ double hit with a technically weaker dagger introduces potential tactical advantages over a stronger single-hit sword. Enemy designs have also been updated along similar lines, responding to the heroic quartet with their own impressive selection of attack/shot/magic actions as the situation demands – thanks to these upgrades it’s now easy to see what’s going on simply by looking at what’s happening on the screen, something that’s far from a given even in a modern RPG.
An awful lot of these fights take place inside surprisingly fair and un-maze-y 3D dungeons which are largely, but not completely, identical to the layout found in the game’s 8-bit predecessor. Now constructed from texture-mapped polygons, they unfortunately look a little basic and bland when compared to those found in either the series’ Master System pioneer or similar Playstation 2 games. This was one battle the 3D Ages team were never going to win: As awe-inspiring as the originals are the harsh light of modernity reveals an unpleasant truth – they’re visually simplistic and extremely repetitive. If the 3D Ages team had clinged too tightly to that look they’d have been forced to try and sell “Oooh, look! Red brick walls!” as a whole new location on an alien planet; but if they’d given them the full Emotion Engine treatment then they’d be virtually unrecognisable. As it stands they’re a creative compromise that at the very least makes ice caves look like caves made of ice, even if they’ll never make anyone’s “Top ten dungeons” list.
So parts of Generation 1 are all-new, some parts are old with some new or old-new polish, and some parts are just uncomfortably old: The per-character item limit in a game where everyone is almost always together and the need to purchase and then use “Searchlight” items to illuminate many of the compulsory dungeons feel like a bucket of ice-cold retro water to the face, and the invisible pitfalls that cruelly drop the party down to a lower floor (which to be fair can be avoided with a spell from Myau, and aren’t as common as I expected them to be) are exactly the sort of Eighties RPG thing I really don’t miss, as is talking to NPCs over and over until their dialogue starts to repeat because some of them won’t trigger a vital plot-progressing conversation flag until the third or fourth time they’ve been interacted with (including on one hair-pulling occasion, a solitary NPC on the third floor of a dungeon I’d just left). These things were never unique to Phantasy Star even back in The Old Times and aren’t necessarily a bad thing now – it’d be a real shame if an RPG as significant as this one had all of its well-worn wrinkles smoothed out into something more generic for the sake of chasing after broader appeal – but they do require a level of patience the fresh layer of graphical polish may not have prepared newcomers for.
Even with this albatross of oldness hanging around its neck Phantasy Star is still largely a forward-thinking and unique game: The Star Wars-esque mix of everyday sci-fi and mundane magic leaving the story free to mix and match talking cats and sorcerer-like villains residing in floating castles with cheery safety-conscious robot pilots and laser guns. The plot may not be especially profound – Lashiec is evil, Alis wants to avenge her brother’s death, and her three new friends all hold a very similar train of thought – but I appreciate the directness of Phantasy Star’s story and the sense that every action is leading towards one clear singular goal. It makes a nice change from peeling back layer after layer of intrigue only to discover that the heroes/God were the real villain all along, if nothing else. Sure there’s more than a bit of “Go fetch the key to open the thing to reach to the dungeon that contains the wotsit the party ACTUALLY needs” going on, but because Lashiec’s mentioned so often it always feels even in the dreariest “And now we must find the scattered pieces of evil-destroying equipment” of times that there’s always a specific point to all this busywork and every task is another step closer to that final victory over the forces of darkness. These fetch quests are never quite as tedious as older RPGs have trained players to expect them to be in any case: It doesn’t take very long at all for the team to learn low-cost spells allowing them to immediately warp out of a dungeon or return to almost any previously-visited town on the planet, so when the plot dictates [SOME GUY] in [PLACE C] insists on them going back and speaking to [OTHER GUY] in [PLACE B] again even though there was a mountain range and a dungeon in the way the first time through it only takes a few button presses and perhaps a short (and free) spaceship ride to see Alis and friends appear exactly where they need to be, even if that place is on another planet.
Did an RPG as historically significant as Phantasy Star deserve better than a minimum-spend Playstation 2 remake? Yes… in theory. However this wasn’t a half-hearted recycling of an old IP for the sake of dusting off an old setting, it was the vanguard of a brand new series (and a long-running one too – there are thirty-three Sega Ages 2500 releases in total spanning five years) celebrating Sega’s illustrious past; a release confident enough to proudly stand alone and be judged on its own quality and history, not something apologetically shoved in a “value” bundle the way far too many classic games are. What would a larger budget have accomplished, anyway? More cutscenes that didn’t exist the first time around? Better graphics than the already pin-sharp and artistically faithful ones seen here? It’s a successful remake just as it already is, never following the original so slavishly that it renders its own existence pointless but also never straying so far from the source material it feels as if it’s the original in name only. It’s the first Phantasy Star as people like to remember it rather than as it actually was – the harshness of those early enemy encounters has been toned down (but not eliminated) and the party now speak out loud the sort of lines that were previously left to player’s imaginations, but everything else is still in there. There’s no pleasing everyone, and Phantasy Star: Generation 1 often wobbles as it tries to balance respect for the old with embracing the new, but of all the many, many, remakes I’ve seen over the years this is one of the most reverential to the past without ever pretending it wasn’t going to be played by people living in the present.