Format:Dreamcast Genre:RPG Released: 2001 Developer: Sonic Team (Sega)
I obviously play a lot of video games (I can’t think of too many other people I know who have a blog dedicated to reminiscing about old games), but there aren’t that many games I would say I’ve been truly addicted to. Phantasy Star Online, however, is one of them.
I must have been addicted to it – how else can you explain the fact that I spent nigh on 80 hours hacking and slashing through repetitive enemies, all for the dubious glory of occasionally finding a ‘rare’ weapon – which was usually the same as the normal weapons, albeit with slightly higher numbers attached to it. Let’s face it, PSO has got to be one of the thinnest RPGs out there – no extravagant plot lines, no branching skill trees, no complicated levelling system, no option to do anything but hack, slash, hack, slash, ad inifinitum.
But it was brilliant, and perhaps its simplicity was the reason why. It was the first MMORPG for consoles, and as such it was designed for the masses. Compare it to something like EverQuest or Ultima, the PC equivalents at the time, and you can see what a breath of fresh air it is: with no fiddly navigation through reams of meaningless menus it was an RPG that anyone could pick up and play. What’s more, it looked fantastic (and, in my opinion, still does today). For a start it was set in space, which makes a change to the usual parade of orc-filled dungeons and castles, and the whole thing was awash in classic Sega-blue skies and crisp green meadows. Lovely.
I have three stand-out memories of PSO. The first is the (almost) brilliant translation system, the idea being that anything you typed in was instantly translated into the other users’ language. I remember the first time I went online and ended up hanging around with some Spanish guys – I thought it was absolutely amazing that I could be having a conversation with someone who spoke a different language and who lived hundreds of miles away… It was at that point that I first glimpsed what Sega was attempting to create – an online community of Dreamcast gamers, unseparated by language or country. Of course, it wasn’t perfect – I remember having some amusingly unintelligible conversations with a few Japanese gamers (although whether or not that was because I’d just got back from a night out in the pub is open to debate), but overall it worked pretty well, and the implications were huge. I suppose the technology has now been surpassed to some extent by headsets, but it’s a shame that the translation ability has been lost.
The second memory is the worm-type boss thing on the second level – which took FORTY-FIVE MINUTES TO KILL. No joke. I suspect that it took so long because my character wasn’t sufficiently levelled-up to fight the boss at the time, but even so it ranks as one of the most simultaneously intense and frustrating gaming moments of my life (punctuated by shouts of disapproval from my house mates, who had wandered into the lounge to watch The Simpsons and were instead treated to watching me club a giant slug to death).
My third memory isn’t so rosy. PSO was notoriously easy to hack, and this caused several problems when playing online. I remember one bizarre episode where another player ‘lost’ a weapon and accused me of stealing it. Of course, I’d done nothing of the sort, and I’ve no idea what happened to said weapon, but he didn’t believe me and soon the situation escalated to the point where I was surrounded by several players who were threatening to ‘wipe the save game from my memory card’ (I’m not even sure if that’s possible, but after all the other dodgy hacks I saw in PSO it wouldn’t surprise me if it was). It was a pretty nasty episode – it felt a bit like I was being mugged. However, unlike a real mugging, the problem was easily solved by simply switching off the console. If only real life was that simple.
It was partly because of several incidents like that and partly because of the repetition that I eventually stopped playing the game, but Phantasy Star certainly ranks up there as not only one of my favourite gaming experiences but also a game that was way ahead of its time.