Phinally! A post about Phantasy Star IV

Four years ago, in the middle of a muggy DC summer morning (we’re talking 3am here) I was engaged in a battle with the Profound Darkness. My only back-up? A single Georgetown student keeping watch over his parents’ house. In other words, I was alone. Really alone.

But unlike those terrible memories from my childhood in which the Profound Darkness had profoundly humiliated me, this time I slew the beast. To put it more succintly: I deleted him. We’re talkin’ more f’ing brutal than a System Admin using “deltree” commands in MS-DOS. And so… I was treated to one of the finer cinematic sequences of the 16-bit home console generation. Phantasy Star IV had become, in scary prison/street slang, “my bitch.” It was the end of the game and the end of an era, really. That would be the last time I played a working Genesis.

Back in February 1995, Sega of America imported that little supernova for the Genesis we all call Phantasy Star IV. It cost $99 upon release. The only other games I remember being so remotely expensive were Final Fantasy III ($80 for SNES), Super Monaco GP II ($80 for Genesis) and Virtua Racing ($99 for Genesis and it only had three racing tracks!). I, being something of a wizard/frugal-genius, managed to snag a copy at Kay Bee Toys in the mall when it was re-released briefly in 1996 for only $30. The original Phantasy Star was a first-person RPG for the Sega Master System (Sega’s answer to the original Nintendo) and is considered one of the finer games for the system. For those who remember, Phantasy Star II was a Genesis launch title (or thereabouts) and is a classic old-school sci-fi RPG. I think there is going to be a collection coming out soon with PS I-IV for Playstation 2 or PSP or something soon. It should be pretty nice, although I don’t play any of those systems and the people who do have terrible taste. LOLZ.

But check out this insanely original plot: Your protagonist, Chaz, is a young orphaned apprentice to an experienced bounty hunter called Alys. Your job entails removing bio-monsters that have begun to appear in human cities, a result of strange fluxuations in the environment. Your first job is an investigation of the basement of the University in the town of Piata. Eventually your investigations lead you to discover old technological sites and a sinister black magician who utilizes his magic with technology. But this is only the start of your adventure! Later you travel to other planets and encounter reincarnating demons and gods from previous Phantasy Star games. The plot is really quite rich, even if you haven’t played the earlier games. I’ve seen a lot of newer RPGs which have tried to rip off these elements from PSIV and they never do it nearly as well.

Looks like New Mexico…I’m about to chop him up and take all his gold coins

But I’m here to write about the music, my dear humans, not epic life-changing video games that melt the cold, cynical hearts of the jaded suburban kids who play them. The music to PSIV is succulent and sweet. There are themes of certain characters and situations that reflect a sense of awe and vastness to the universe, like a great primordial innocence. And there are pulsing techno soundtracks that accompany the exploration of forgotten military and scientific installations and ancient satellites. The techno tracks stick out in my mind for their exceptional use of octave oscillation synchronized with the drum beats and hard percussive square and saw waves which could not have been done as effectively on major competing consoles. Don’t get me wrong, Super Nintendo had a great sound card, a groundbreaker for the price. In fact, SNES was the first cartridge console and one of the first home consoles to allow live audio samples to be captured and used for its sound bank (I know there’s some technical imperfections with what I’m describing, but save it for your anime club). It had a sound memory cache at least four times the size of the Genesis and was not limited to using only one or two samples simultaneously.*

Chaz is kind of a nerd

The Genesis sound card was probably made with techno music in mind. All the music on the Genesis sounds like it’s out of a cyberjunkie story. PSIV really uses this to it’s full advantage. I loved the mix of technology and myth in the Phantasy Star series because the meshing felt so organic, as opposed to Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy did some of it well, but it still felt like it was trying a little hard to be dark and angsty, which I personally think went over the edge once Square got to Final Fantasy 7 and its successors. I haven’t played the later Phantasy Star Online incarnations, but I don’t think they’re as story driven. I should also point out that Phantasy Star did the whole anime thing with it’s character portraits and story-telling way before anyone else (stateside, at least). Now anime is nothing special and actually rather annoying in video game art. Anyone remember Fabio on the cover to Ironsword?

Izuho ‘Ippo’ Takeuchi – ‘Pain’ – Phantasy Star IV
Izuho ‘Ippo’ Takeuchi – ‘Organic Beat’ – Phantasy Star IV
Izuho ‘Ippo’ Takeuchi – ‘Behind the Circuit’ – Phantasy Star IV
Izuho ‘Ippo’ Takeuchi – ‘Motavia Field’ – Phantasy Star IV

To me, Phantasy Star IV is a very beautiful game and a very nice example of modern storytelling. It’s appropriate how impersonal and one-pointed the villains are. Monsters are monsters because they have lost the eyes to see what is important to them and those around them. The main conflicts are ones of self-discovery within our protagonist. The negative forces in the game are just there to throw nature out of balance, disrupting the equilibrium of life and testing the will of our party. Kids’ games are always going to have a somewhat simplified theme of good vs. evil – this ain’t the bloody Greek myths if you get what I is getting at, but there is a significant amount of depth to the way the game explores its ideas. A lot of the plot in Phantasy Star IV has more to do with kinship and trustworthiness developing among the characters. I think some other mainstream RPGs tried to do this on a grander scale, but it works much better here.

Welcome to the club, buddyAnime? ON DA GENESIS?

Finding people one can depend on is an important and necessary part of life. It is a major theme that this game explores in an unexpected way. Characters realize that to depend on other people appropriately, one has to also depend on oneself in a responsible way. That the path out of cynicism and hopelessness lies in finding people who have also taken the responsibility of manifesting a virtuous and responsible character. Ultimately, those people who fail and give up easily become pawns of the grotesque side of creation. I might be a little heavy-handed here, but I’m old enough now to vocalize what I was able to feel playing this game. Check it out. It shouldn’t take more than a few days of solid playing to finish or at least get to the last battle. I mean, really… if you have the time to read this, why the hell aren’t you playing this game?

*The first SNES and home console game to use actual instrument/orchestral samples is Actraiser (Yuzo Koshiro, duh).

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~ by chaosrexmachinae on July 18, 2007.

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