21 December 2009

We're Back!

Chrontendo is back, from an ultra-brief Southwestern vacation. One interesting and marginally related fact I discovered regards slot machines. In Las Vegas casinos, the predominant manufacturer of slot machines is IGT, the largest such company in the US. However, the other two big names on electronic gambling machines will be familiar to video game fans: Konami and WMS (i.e. Williams, of Defender/Joust fame). You won't see too many new Konami video games in arcades nowadays, but Konami slot machines are a common sight. I don't recall seeing any machines that weren't from those three companies.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, Chronsega 4 and Chrontendo 26 will form sort of an RPG showdown mini-series. You see, these episodes will include two of the most popular 8-bit RPGs, Phantasy Star and Final Fantasy; those games were released just two days apart in Japan.

Phantasy Star is a strong contender for the title of "Best Master System Game." It's certainly the SMS game with the biggest post-mortem following. Even though PS never achieved the massive success of Final Fantasy, it did spawn three numbered sequels, a remake, various spin-off games, and a series of MMORPGs. The US will see a release of Phantasy Star 0 for the DS next month, and Japan will get Phantasy Star Portable 2 for the PSP in December, so the series is still quite active.

The original PS is a notable game for a number of reasons; not the least of which is that is marks Sega's most determined attempt yet to make a great original title for the Master System. It is the first Sega game which could seriously compete with similar titles being released on the Famicom. And in one category, PS topped anything on Nintendo's console -- the graphics.

Yes, Phantasy Star was one fantastic (phantastic?) looking game. The Master System was capable of some pretty nice graphics, but PS surpassed all previous expectations. Beautiful character portraits; huge, detailed enemies; eye-pleasing colors on the overworld; and most impressive of all -- excellent first person dungeons. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, PS couldn't be beat.

And from a gameplay standpoint? Well... Phantasy Star owes a lot to Dragon Quest II. From a high level perspective, the games are identical. The object is defeat the evil ruler. To do this you'll need to roam the world looking for your fellow party members. Along the way you'll need to acquire some transportation in order to travel to previously inaccessible areas. You move from town to town, fighting random battles, picking up gold and experience, finding new towns, and purchasing better weapons and armor. You'll also be making your way through various dungeons and towers, usually in order to get a some sort of quest item. Once you've gotten all the necessary quest items and the special armor and weapons, head on over to the final dungeon and fight the boss. The battle mechanics, level up system, magic system and menu system are all taken virtually unchanged from DQ II.

But the devil, they say, is in the details. The addition of many, many, large first-person dungeons makes PS feel quite a bit different than DQ II, whose top-down dungeons were much more limited in scope. Larger chunks of text and more detailed character graphics allow for more personality from your party and the NPCs. The game's science fiction setting sets it apart from the majority of RPGs. However, PS is set in the sort of sci-fi universe where you battle dragons and skeletons while equipped with a sword and leather armor, so its really just "Elves in Space." (You would think a futuristic society such as the one in PS would have taken some action to thin out the populations of dangerous animals. We don't all have laser guns and talking robot companions here on planet Earth, yet we can somehow travel from San Francisco to LA without being constantly attacked by bears and wolves.)

Phantasy Star
took DQ II and gave it a snazzy new coat of paint. Then it added some racing stripes, bolted a spoiler on the back, and maybe even added some of those rims than spin around. Sure, it looks like a completely different game, but under the hood, its still DQ II. That's not a bad thing; virtually all JRPs coming out about this time owe something to DQ. But I do beleive that Phantasy Star devotees tend to overestimate the game's originality and innovation. Many of PS's lauded aspects - a female protagonist, the science fiction setting, first person dungeons, being able to occasionally communicate with enemies - are all things we've seen before.

We'll see Phantasy Star in action in the upcoming Chronsega 4. Incredibly enough, that episode will feature two Master System RPGs. The other is Miracle Warriors, a much less interesting game, and one that we mentioned in Chrontendo 23. Hopefully, Chronsega 4 will be ready before too long.


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