Ah, good old Phantasy Star Online. Everyone’s played it on one format or another, or dabbled in one of its numerous spinoffs, or spent hours fussing over expensive outfits in the now internationally-available sequel. Been there, done that, evolved a funny-looking Mag and kicked Dark Falz in the chops at the end. But when was the last time any of us played the original and most “raw” version of PSO, the one without several now long-established classes and a whole heap of adjustments and other conveniences, PSO as it was before the internet got hold of it and played it and played it and played it and cheated at it and broke it and learned all its secrets and then combed through the code for more until there was nothing left?
It’s been a while, hasn’t it?
And although I’ve always been aware of the differences – I was lucky enough to live through those wild online times – I didn’t really appreciate how distinct it was from all the PSOs that came after until I returned to Sonic Team’s original vision of Ragol for the first time in almost two decades.
I’ll be blunt – it’s shockingly hard. Character levels come slowly and only after large quantities of enemies capable of wiping you out with an unlucky swipe or two have been killed. Money is scarce and items are expensive, which has the knock-on effect of making everything you can use a precious resource to be consumed only when absolutely necessary and every piece of loot you can see worth collecting; if nothing else you’ll be able to sell it for a small amount of money back in Pioneer 2’s shopping district. I end up dying several times in the opening Forest location, brought low by something later, more streamlined, versions of the game have sanded down into inconsequential encounters intended to be skimmed over with relative ease – that swarm of buzzy Mothmants needling me from the air, the Booma that got a hit in with its claws just before my spell connected – getting killed off like this is… pretty humbling, actually. “You are not the only hero” declares the back of the game’s box, apparently as much of a reminder that am not going to be treated with the same gentleness or quiet awe as a typical RPG protagonist as it is a statement of PSO’s grand ambitions. And death brings another long-abandoned trick out of this action-RPG’s bag, my equipped weapon and all of the meseta I was carrying at the time left on the floor where I died as I’m made to return to the medical centre. If I want them back then I’ll just have to go fetch and them – if I can.
And if I can’t? That’s not PSO’s problem.
Having the experience be this demanding from the start ensures every single room has your full attention: every threat must be accurately assessed and your mind must constantly keep track of a dozen different variables as well as your own swiftly diminishing supplies within an ever-changing environment. Your reward for running this gauntlet is a one-way ticket to a do-or-die battle against the area’s boss, which in this case is the gigantic fire-breathing dragon contained within the Central Dome. The fight’s a long slog at this early stage for any Hunter and a careless trample or heavy landing from the beast can easily finish off the poorly-equipped or the especially fragile in an instant – but it isn’t impossible. After much careful dodging and sneaky hits I felled the great beast and it dropped… a single monomate – the cheapest, least effective, and most common healing item in the game.
It should have felt like a slap in the face but the truth is I genuinely didn’t mind: By this point PSO had already made very clear that lurking underneath Forest’s warm sunbeams and gently swaying Rappies was a game that would merrily punish every mistake and refused to give up even the smallest prize without a fight, so it only felt like PSO being PSO. If you want to play, if you want to own the best and the rarest of everything, then it’s definitely in here – but you’re going to have to work for it.
Really work for it.
And the upshot of all this struggle, a game where you can fight for hours and hours and all you have to show at the end of it is thousands of lost meseta and a weapon that’s got a glowy blue bit instead of a glowy green one, is that your own experiences perfectly match the tone of the story you uncover along the way. Your only guaranteed companion on this journey across an unwelcoming planet is Red Ring Rico – or rather the messages this great hero left behind before she went missing. Her musings start off positive and helpful, a healthy mix of cheering you on and wonder at this new world, before growing increasingly melancholy as she – and in turn, you – piece together the mystery behind the horror lying in wait just beyond the pulsing bio-mechanical walls and eyeless hordes of the Ruins.
But I’m still a long way from that climactic battle against Dark Falz. By this point I could move on to the second area – Caves – if I wanted to, but the forced change of pace brought about by the very real chance of failure gave me a new perspective on this online trailblazer for the first time in twenty-one years: Forest (and the entire Normal difficulty as a whole) isn’t just something to power through before the game gets going, it’s a stage in its own right. There’s skill and satisfaction in fretting over every fiery Foie for fear of the spell missing its mark, in trying to eke as much as possible from those expensive monofluids, in learning how to give a Hildebear the runaround or what’s going to happen when a Savage Wolf howls. I wanted to spend time here in this opening area because the slower tempo had dared to “inconvenience” me and made me see that there was depth, strategy, and interest to be found in here.
To give my repeat runs through a bit of a twist I decide to take on a few quests at the Guild Counter, and in true pre-smoothed PSO style the tangible rewards are already insignificant – and it doesn’t matter at all. The opening quest, “Magnitude of Metal” is technically a simple “Retrieve the item for the quest guy” affair – something we’ve all seen and done a thousand times before – but the twist here is that it turns out you’re dealing with dead Hunters being looted for their mournful Mags just so an uncaring businessman can turn a profit. “Their masters were already …dead…” is his response after learning every Hunter’s metallic companion is a compassionate, caring, being in their own right, as if that fact was just a problem solved. The second – “Claiming A Stake” – involves rescuing a man who greedily went to mark out a portion of Ragol’s land for himself – and who fully intends on going back as soon as the “monsters” (native wildlife) have been exterminated (his words). This unassuming list of extra frivolous quests is in reality a series of harsh tales of large-scale death and personal selfishness; your own hardships and setbacks shown to be not so different from everyone else’s.
This is of course all talking about the solo offline experience, and PSO was always designed to ideally be played online in a group of four even though it relied on dial-up modems and telephone cables to do so. In multiplayer this version of PSO… let’s just say the gulf between online play as it was expected to be and online play as it actually was turned out to be a cruel lesson for everyone on the ease at which an interested online collective could swiftly break their own toys and then complain to the toys creators they had nothing to play with anymore. In this context the moves away from the original’s quirks and friction-generating balance in subsequent iterations of the game (at a time when updates, patches, and to a large extent even basic moderation were an utter impossibility) are completely understandable, if a real pity. In this state and with like-minded friends in tow PSO is an enthralling and moreish experience, an unforgiving trek into the abyss where every scavenged piece of equipment is carefully checked for any benefits, where every room could snatch away so many hard-won advantages with no guarantee you’ll ever get them back. It’s an action roguelike clad in magic and neon, and still as unforgettable and important an experience today as it ever was back then.