Guest Article: Shooting For The (Phantasy) Stars

It's been a while since we featured the work of a guest writer here at the Junkyard, so I thought it was about time we invited another Dreamcast fan-at-large to give us their own unique perspective on a subject close to their heart. Enter Damon Fillman. Damon is a former SegaAddicts and XBLAfans contributor, so he knows a thing or two about both Sega and the good ol' Xbox. His love for the Dreamcast is unequivocal and he makes no attempts to appease fans of those 'other' consoles (his words, not mine!). When not making the internet angry at him, he lives in sunny Philadelphia where he makes fun of men walking small canines. Now, he has the floor here at the 'Yard and explains just why the seminal Phantasy Star Online is a game he holds in such high regard...
Image credit: Emergent Landscapes
If you’re reading this article, the Dreamcast likely occupies your mind because of a defining moment in your gaming career that separates the little white crate from the rest of the console pack. For me, that moment was awaiting confirmation of my school’s closing due to wintry conditions so I could veg out and spend countless hours playing Phantasy Star Online on a dialup connection.  I’ve yet to replicate the sheer joy of slaughtering Rappys and other unpronounceable enemies while my neighborhood became a sheet of ice and snow. In hindsight, Phantasy Star Online (or PSO as internet hipsters like to label it) is more than a nostalgic event—it’s the best “loot-driven” game I’ve ever played.

When presented a choice between an anime-inspired video game and one about demons with a more Western flair I almost always choose the latter, except when it comes to Phantasy Star Online. Most of the time, I’d much rather slay demons against the backdrop of what looks like a cheesy metal album cover (I’m, of course, talking about the Diablo series) than to duke it out with flamboyant rabbit/chicken hybrids against the backdrop of something that looks like a marriage between Studio Ghibli and Hideo Kojima.
For Dreamcast aficionados somehow unfamiliar with one of the most popular games on the system, Phantasy Star Online is a sequel (of sorts) to an RPG series from the Sega Master System and Sega Genesis. While earlier entries in the series contained traditional turn-based RPG mechanics, PSO adopted more PC-centric systems like real-time combat and the ability to matchup with players around the globe to battle foes on the fictional planet Ragol. Cooperative online play was practically unheard of on consoles at the time but PSO managed to also be one of the first MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) on home consoles. And it worked. Really well.

In PSO, players create an avatar and advance their character through four stages each with its own unique setting, enemies and end bosses. Defeating enemies earns players XP and a random item drop. While the storied goal of the game is to defeat the nefarious Dark Falz, PSO addicts understand defeating him isn’t the real draw. PSO is about leveling up your character and pursuing rare loot. Loot in PSO is the following: handguns, rifles, swords, sabers, staffs and other tools of destruction. Specialized versions of each weapon type would drop from various enemies and bosses across the game world. In order to obtain the rarest of the rare loot, players had to endlessly adventure on the game’s hardest difficulty. Initially, the hardest difficult was “Hard” but a later version of the game included a more intense difficulty level called “Ultimate.”
In addition to weapon and armor loot drops, players could also retrieve items to transform their MAG which was basically a Tamagotchi hovering over your character’s shoulders that needed to be fed and caressed. Okay, you couldn’t caress your MAG but it was too easy to become attached to it. A well-fed MAG empowered the player with new abilities but its existence served as a sort of meta game to the standard gameplay loop. Every PSO player was determined to retrieve the MAG “cell” that transformed their digital pet into a miniature Dreamcast. I can attest to the rarity of that MAG cell. After hundreds of hours of online play, I never encountered a player with a Dreamcast MAG.

Games like Diablo 3 endlessly supply the player with new items to dress their avatar with and while PSO contains the same carrot on a stick gameplay, it doesn’t reward the player nearly as much and, admittedly, this turns off quite a few gamers. Personally, I find the ridiculous rarity of certain items to be the driving force behind the game. Witnessing players online equipped with sought after swords and handguns motivated me to try harder and play more.  Although plenty of players obtained these items through illegitimate means, rampant cheating didn’t deter my eagerness to obtain them legitimately. Even when my character was hacked and wiped by a disgruntled player a mere hour before I reached the game’s then level cap of 100, I created a new character and journeyed on. If that’s not a testament to the game’s quality then I’m probably delusional or even worse, old. A new gamer would never accept the erasure of a character they invested hundreds of hours improving in one of the many “games as service” titles out there now.
Image credit: Emergent Landscapes
PSO, nearly twenty years after its initial release, still holds my heart and mind hostage. While sequels and prequels and spinoffs to PSO are certainly out there, none of them possess the magic of the original on the Dreamcast. Call me crazy, but my Lavis Cannon pursuit will only end when my flesh is insect grub. Let’s just hope my Dreamcast survives long enough so that I can procure this meaningless digital sword.

Thanks to Damon Fillman for this thought-provoking look at Phantasy Star Online, a game that clearly defined the Dreamcast era for a great number of gamers. Personally I never got to experience it online as the phone line in my house was under military-grade surveillance by the bill payer (which wasn't me, funnily enough). However, the high regard in which it is held as an online experience is almost universal and it represents yet another amazing memory for those Dreamcasters who played it back in the day. I have a feeling we'll be hearing more from Damon in the near future, but if you'd like to follow him on Twitter you can do so here.

1 comment:

hoogafanter said...

I loved this game back in the day but was never able to play online. Solo only was fun for awhile but ultimately boring. It wasn't until recently I acquired a dreampi and have been able to play this game online for the first time ever. It's amazing, every bit as fun as I imagined it to be...