Time Machine: Phantasy Star

When Sega wanted a piece of Square and Enix...

Even back in 1987, Japan was obsessed with Dragon Quest. Seeing its popularity, Sega were acutely aware that their Master System (Mark III) didn't have an RPG that could compete.

The company wanted to rectify this, and fast, so they assembled a team with the task of making the finest RPG their resources would allow.

That team included two people who would prove to be vital to the series: Reiko 'Phoenix Rie' Kodama, who took up design duties, and Sonic creator Yuji Naka, the main programmer.

The RPG they created was Phantasy Star - and they'd made a conscious effort to make their game as different from the competition as possible.

It was a sentiment that resulted in an adventure way ahead of its time, and stands as the finest game the Master System had to offer.

One giant leap Weighing in at a hefty 4MB (which was massive at the time), it was exceptionally well crafted. Three-dimensional first-person dungeons, animated monster encounters (unheard of at the time) and a fusion of sci-fi and mythology that really set it apart from RPG's staple Dungeons And Dragons diet.

Perhaps even more groundbreaking was the fact that it was one of the first games to have a female protagonist. Despite winning plenty of admirers and critical acclaim, it wasn't a huge commercial success.

Nevertheless, Sega stuck with it as their flagship RPG upon the release of the 16-bit Mega Drive, setting Kodama and Naka back to work on a next-gen instalment.

This time Kodama went for a straight sci-fi setting, laying the foundations of the visual style for which the series is known. The ambitions the team had for PSII made the 3D dungeons impossible (to fans' annoyance), and they were replaced by a featureless blue grid.

The extra room on the cart, however, allowed for an epic adventure bigger than anything we'd seen before. The dungeons4 were so huge that Sega, worried about intimidating western gamers, packaged the game with complete maps. A wise move, as finishing the game without them is a truly Herculean feat .

PSII's most prominent feature, however, was its detailed story and rounded characters, the most memorable of whom was Nei, who's killed halfway through the story in a bold move that pre-dated Final Fantasy VII's 'Aeris incident' by almost a decade.

It was an impressive 16-bit debut, but one that was soured by its sequel. Fearful of Nintendo's impending SNES, Sega rushed out another Phantasy but unable to use Naka and Kodama, assembled a new team, who took the series off on a regrettable tangent.

With a more traditional RPG aesthetic, PSIII lacked innovation and was a huge disappointment to fans. However, it had one smart feature: the story spanned three generations and at the end of each one, players could choose a character to marry and the resulting child became the next player character, with four possible endings.

Disappointed by the dip in quality, Sega asked Kodama to reassemble the Phantasy team for PSIV. With the series' finest designer back at the helm and Naka on programming duties, Sega delivered not just the best Phantasy Star to date, but one of the finest RPGs ever.

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