Sega Ages 2500 Series Vol.17: Phantasy Star Generation: 2

might have jumped the gun when I declared Virtua Fighter 2 an entirely clean break from the unpredictable days of old, as we have this one last 3D AGES style hurdle to get over before the 2500 series casts the old ways aside for good and then never looks back.

As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, Phantasy Star: Generation: 2 is a ground-up remake of the second game in Sega’s remarkable RPG series, bringing all of your favourite old faces and places up to PlayStation 2 standards. There’s fullscreen cutscene art to see, the ability to import a cleared save from Phantasy Star Generation: 1 if you want to try out the all-new (and convoluted) way to save her, as well as lots of new and/or rewritten dialogue to read as you explore the Algo solar system.

The battle system has also been completely overhauled, expanding upon the updates found in the original Phantasy Star’s PlayStation 2 remake. Everything has been redrawn and reanimated, with magical Techniques and the new skill system showcasing some entertaining and expressive gestures. It’s even possible to replace the new location-based backgrounds for the same sort of stylish blue grid the original used if you prefer the old iconic look.

However you like your background art the battle system itself remains the same, introducing numerous tweaks, changes, and even a few new extras to the classic formula, including a fun reaction-based defence buff: whenever an enemy attacks a ring appears over each character that’s about to get hit (assuming you haven’t engaged the auto attack option), and if you time your button press just right they’ll take less damage than they would have otherwise. It’s not exactly revolutionary stuff, but it’s an honest attempt to bring a little freshness to the genre.

Unfortunately it quickly becomes obvious that this and pretty much every other biomonster-bopping feature created for this remake is ultimately meaningless, because your success in every fight is determined almost entirely by your party’s current level and equipment. The new attack gauge and elemental attribute systems don’t generate enough extra damage to make it possible to outsmart tough opponents, and those timed defensive rings don’t make enough of a difference for them to be any real assistance to the under-levelled. For all that’s been changed on the surface, the only thing that really matters is that your numbers are suitably inflated enough for the current area, and if they’re not then the only thing you can do that’s going to help you progress is to run around in circles for however long it takes—and it’s almost certainly going to be a while—until your numbers have gone up to a level the game deems acceptable.

Which brings us to Generation 2’s ongoing problem: it can’t decide how “retro” it wants to be.

Sometimes Generation: 2’s happy to make sweeping changes, adding entirely new crafting systems and redesigning iconic characters just because it can (although I have to admit I’m really not a fan of Nei’s new frills and ribbons)… and sometimes it seems to be clinging onto 1989 for dear life. Health-sapping damage tiles are back, even though those were last fun… well, never. Meseta and experience points are both gathered in painfully small quantities, creating a noticeable gap between what you need to do (grind some more) and what you could be doing instead (continuing on with the fun story) if only the game was a little more generous. New characters always join your party at level 1 wearing the smallest amount of the worst equipment the game has to offer, causing further avoidable grinding. It’s possible to be in the right place at the right time and… nothing will happen, just because you didn’t trigger Conversation #3 with NPC G back in another town.

Worst of all are the dungeons. Some are virtually untouched, and as patience-wearing as they always were. But others have been redesigned to varying degrees… yet for some reason far too many of them, even in their new forms, have willingly retained the winding passageways and up>down>the other up>the other down>grab the thing>now go back and go through the other other down routing found in the originals. In an ’80s RPG from and for that time period? Annoying, but very much expected. In a short and relatively simple RPG like… let’s say Ys, where these wrinkles stop the game from taking all of ten minutes to clear? Understandable. But in a total overhaul like this, built from the ground up and in many ways going up against the PlayStation 2’s bottomless selection of incredible and inventive RPGs? I wouldn’t call that a great idea; especially as this remake comes with less help in the box than any version of the original Mega Drive game (also included on the disc in good-enough albeit barebones emulation form) did.

Every Japanese version of the Mega Drive game came with an annotated fold-out map of the starting planet, Motavia. You couldn’t see where everything was, but you always had some idea of where to go—or at the very least, where not to go (a selection of strategy guides were also published around the same time). The US/UK release included a similar aid and then added a 110 page full colour guide book on top. With every copy of the game. All of them. The point being: even the earliest and most “basic” release of the game was never meant to be navigated without some form of outside help, yet Generation: 2 keeps the confusing layouts without making any reasonable accommodations for its own (and unique) lack of assistance.

Much of this probably sounds like I’m complaining about a remake of an old game feeling old, but I promise you I’m not disappointed with Phantasy Star II itself—any 1989 RPG that predates Game Boy Tetris and the US NES release of the original Final Fantasy is almost certainly going to have at least a few of these “features”—what I am disappointed with is the way this remake, released around sixteen years later, merrily reworked some major systems while carefully preserving others, and then bizarrely chose to change a few things in a way that left them almost the same as they’d always been. The end result is an uneven experience where the improvements shine a stark and unflattering light on the old, rather than enhancing what was already there. The game feels incomplete, neither changing enough to be a true remake, nor sticking closely enough to the original to pass as a faithful reissue graced with a graphical overhaul, any and all lingering warts easily defended by authenticity’s good name. Generation: 2 needed to pick a side—any side would have been fine—and run with it. Instead it tried to please everyone a little bit, an approach that would inevitably only leave everyone feeling unsatisfied.

[This ongoing dive into the Sega Ages 2500 series wouldn’t be happening without the support I receive through Ko-fi!]