If there’s one game I can say changed the way I thought of storytelling and narrative, it was Phantasy Star II. Hands down one of the greatest JRPGs I played, it is a powerful work of science fiction. It was also what convinced me for the longest time that Sega had the edge in the 16-bit console wars.
One of the most fascinating elements was that rather than a dystopia, Phantasy Star II presented a pretty awesome utopia. All needs were taken care of and people no longer had to work as everything was provided for by a big AI called Mother Brain. Weather was perfectly regulated, food provided for, and animals generated by the biolab to keep the environment in balance. I also greatly appreciated the way the worldbuilding was so integrated into the gameplay, making the experience seamless. Of course, even in paradise, humans find a way to make a mess of matters. That’s where you’re thrown into the mix as a government agent, tracking down why everything has gone helter skelter.
I loved how dynamic the science fiction world felt. This is 1989 we’re talking about. The only RPGs I’d played until then were on the NES and in the fantasy genre (Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Ultima). Because of memory limitations, there was a finite cap on what could be stored on the cartridge, so story often took a backseat. But in Phantasy Star II, there was so much more narrative included, gorgeously drawn out like an animated film. Depending on your actions, the dialogue of the citizens actually changed. You traveled between two worlds and even saw one world get destroyed. The pervasive details drip into the game mechanics. Saving isn’t just some random act, but you actually store your memories into a computer that you re-download later. You can’t bring characters back to life. Rather, you clone them, which, in retrospect, is pretty eerie to think about. On top of that, Phantasy Star II featured the very first permadeath I experienced in a game for a character I cared about deeply, Nei. I was devastated by her death. I didn’t know that was even allowed in games.
(Video Review of Phantasy Star II)
I often cite the first evening a friend’s older brother told me about the game as a pivotal moment for me as a writer. We were actually outside, looking up at the stars. He explained the whole background for Phantasy Star II, the epic space opera that honestly sounded like a film. I remember even asking him a few time, wait, this is for real? I wondered if they were teasing me because games like this weren’t possible.
Fortunately, I was wrong.
My family was going through financial difficulties at that time, so I couldn’t afford to buy the game. What I did instead was spend the night over my friend’s house multiple weekends so I could play it. It was even better than I could imagine. I was in awe and loved everything about Phantasy Star II, from the cybertech character designs to the catchy music. Even the weapons sounded cooler than the usual fantasy weapons most RPGs had from slashers (the coolest boomerang type weapon ever) to pulse cannons.
That feeling of awe and wonder I had as a kid hearing about, then playing Phantasy Star II, is what has driven me as a writer. In every story I write, I want to recreate a similar emotion in my readers. Often, when I was going through tough times in my childhood, I thought of the character in PSII and found encouragement in them as they persisted through one difficulty after another. I would be a devoted follower of the Phantasy Star series with its almost perfect culmination in the fourth part.
As much as I loved Phantasy Star II, the story and characterizations in IV took the series to a different level. The gameplay was perfected and the balance made the experience a whole lot of fun (as much as I enjoyed II, the gameplay and grinding was really hard). The banter between party members, the motivations that drive the characters as they hunt Zio, the touching moments like when Rika first sees the outside world, and the connections to the earlier Phantasy Star games were amazing. On top of that, IV concluded the story in a rousing finale that has been a continual source of inspiration for me in writing sequels to USJ (I’ll get more into PSIV in a fuller retrospective later).
As some of you know, last year, I published a book called United States of Japan which came out in Japan in October from Hayakawa. I cited the designer/director of the Phantasy Star series, Rieko Kodama, as one of my major influences. Her brilliance as a developer would continue in the remarkable games, Skies of Arcadia and Magic Knight Rayearth. Some of the book’s fans tweeted the director about my citing her as an influence and I was shocked when I heard from her on Twitter. On top of that, she actually got my book and tweeted about it!
I felt like a circle I didn’t even know existed had come about. If you would have told that ten-year old kid that he’d one day become a writer, inspired by games like Phantasy Star, and that the director would tweet about it later, he would not have believed it. I felt incredibly honored and deeply gratified. I still get emotional thinking about it.
It’s the power of games, not just to inspire, but to connect people across continents together. The game wasn’t just a “phantasy,” but rather a reality for which I’m forever grateful.
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