Sega was going down. The signs were on the wall with the failing Dreamcast. A wonderful machine with many amazing games, the console was still a sinking ship. With retailers looking to sell their remaining stock, I jumped in on the system for cheap. Among the handful of games I picked up was Phantasy Star Online. Not really knowing what I was getting myself into, I booted up my 56k modem and dived into my first MMORPG.
Everything in the game stemmed from the level design, which was simplistic to say the least. Players started in a hub world called the Principal office, where shopping, trading and such occurred. From there, they could explore on of four(!) areas with such imaginative names as the forest, the caves, the mines, and the ruins. Each area had an end boss, with a final boss, Dark Falz, ending the game. Character creation was just as stilted. Three classes across three races were available. Players chose Hunter (warrior type), Ranger (ranged weapons type) or Force (magic type) for the class and either Human, Newman (elves), and CASTs (robots) for the race. This was limited by some race stipulation as for example, CASTs’ cannot use magic, making the race limited to Hunter or Ranger.
Gameplay was equally simplistic. Two modes were available, on and offline. Essentially, the purpose to to grind, and grind, and grind, earning better gear and increasing levels and stats. It was a game of numbers addiction. Offline, completing the game unlocked a new difficulty, from normal to hard, very hard and finally ultimate. Online, up to four players can work together, with the difficulty being level gated instead.
There was no story, no purpose other than to earn new equipment and grind through the same bland arenas ad nauseam. Aside from a few aesthetics, this had little in come with previous games in the series. This was a new type of RPG. Well, new to me. I had heard of these type of games before, EverQuest and the like, but at the time, I wouldn’t touch PC gaming with a 10 foot pole. It’s easy to knock the game in retrospect, especially with modern game design in mind. In truth, this did a lot to evolve the genre. But compared to other games of the era (EverQuest), it was still simplistic.
Many versions and sequels were released. Another iteration was released on Dreamcast, called Ver. 2, adding the ultimate difficulty, a new level cap (200), and player vs. player combat. Eventually the game was repackaged for the Xbox and Gamecube, entitled Episode I & II. The game was a natural fit on Xbox, with Xbox Live coming into fruition. As for the Gamecube, a modem, purchased separately, making this one of a handful of games, next to Mario Kart: Double Dash!! and 1080° Avalanche, to use the peripheral. Episode III, subtitled C.A.R.D. Revolution also came to the Gamecube. As the title suggests, it used a card based battle system.
I remember playing on Xbox, baffled by the strange witchcraft bringing far-off voices into my living room. I played a few levels with a dad and son, each on their own machine and Live account. I thought they were rich. The dad muted his mic to yell at someone about the mail or something, and I heard it all over his son’s mic. It was awkward.
Phantasy Star Online was a solid game for the time. Nearly every aspect has evolved, leaving PSO behind. What’s sad is how this was the first of many games that stagnated the entire Japanese game industry for an entire console generation. At least it came with a cool demo of Sonic Adventure 2.
How many hours did you put into PSO? Which console? Comment below!
This is when I realized I should not play MMORPGs.