By now, the influence American action movies have had on (early) Japanese video games is both well documented and widely understood. There are logical explanations for why these two spheres would come into contact with each other: action movies’ focus on spectacle leaves very little that needs translating/altering, making them easy to market to international audiences. I’ve also heard arguments that phrase this pairing as an inevitability: the simplest form a video game can take is essentially one or more players in conflict and projectiles to eliminate that player from play. (Or so the argument goes. This doesn’t explain why so many early video games were sports-based, and many others were even simpler than this.) Combine that with technological progressivism and follow-the-leader design philosophies, and action movies almost seem like a perfect fit for the industry.
Still, I can’t help but feel like these arguments leave something to be desired. They leave no room for an individual developer’s autonomy, which the games themselves suggest is a very significant factor. That pairing wasn’t accidental, but the product of a very real and very genuine love for American action movies. These games often have an air of absurdity to them, but they’re never critical of their source material. In fact, they celebrate the over-the-top spectacle that fuels action movies. Games like Bloody Wolf, Streets of Rage, Final Fight, Bionic Commando and most of Konami’s output in the 80s and 90s are fun specifically because they have fun with themselves.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how we (the video game community at large) think about our own past. Because any time we do so, we represent that history through the known hits that we’ve cherry picked to a certain degree. I’m certain you’re familiar with them already: Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy, Earthbound, etc. Thinking about the history of video games solely through examples like this paints a very neat, very optimistic picture where aesthetic refinement becomes the status quo. Rough games and sort-of-successes are hidden from view. The only games represented in this history are those that advanced the medium in some important and noticeable way, implying that the only experiments worth paying attention to are those which were immediately vindicated as critical or commercial successes.
Note: For consistency’s sake, I’ll be using the characters’ Japanese names throughout this review.
For everything I liked about Phantasy Star II, I have to admit that characterization wasn’t its strong suit. Only a few of the characters were fleshed out enough to be considered individuals. The rest serve as props for the narrative to use in service of its ideas. Granted, this doesn’t detract from the quality of the story Phantasy Star II wants to tell, but you get the sense that Sega wanted to correct it, anyway. In enter Phantasy Star II Text Adventures, a compilation of side-stories focusing on the heroes of Phantasy Star II. While it was ostensibly made to expand our understanding of the characters, the game’s more notable achievements are expanding on world and mood. Despite the uneven quality from story to story, there’s a meticulous understanding of the Phantasy Star II ethos and how to render it within this new space. What we’re presented with is a dismal world that’s unafraid of uncovering the firmly entrenched problems that plague Motavian society.
Video games about the past (like Fire Emblem: Awakening and Final Fantasy IX) must always have an ambivalent relationship with that past. We like to envision these games as love letters: as passionate yet somehow impartial reflections on what made their predecessors great and unique. Such a limiting view fails to understand these games as the autonomous works they hope to honor. Their very existence is a statement, telling us what’s worth remembering about a set of games and what specific aspects were and weren’t important in forming those games’ identity. What’s more, that statement can exceed a simple recitation of love. Sonic Generations, for instance, combines old and new Sonic to show what the two can learn from each other.
But the game I want to talk about today is Phantasy Star IV: End of the Millennium. Originally released toward the end of 1993, Phantasy Star IV sought to wrap up a story that had spanned seven games in six years. And to that end, the game compiles as many nods and allusions to those games as it possibly can. Yet to look at this game only as a celebration of its past would be constricting and perhaps a little ahistorical. Instead, it’s better to look at the game as a reflection on the past. It reveres its predecessors’ accomplishments, yet brings its own humanistic focus to the table to advance those accomplishments in its own way.
Before I go any further,it would be wise to stop and consider what kind of past the game envisions. As easy as it would be to catalogue all the minor references Phantasy Star IV makes to previous games (like the shortcake or the utterly worthless nod to Phantasy Star III), I’m not sure how valuable that exercise would be. Phantasy Star’s strengths never resided with its constituent parts or even how it played with generic convention, but with the stories it told through them. A keen political awareness, and willful characters who reject an oppressive status quo to set the world right.
Looking at Phantasy Star IV through that lens, we see that while it doesn’t completely fit that mold, the game operates on a clear enough understanding of the series to justify breaking away from it. The story begins with bounty hunters Chaz Ashley and Alys Brangwin recruiting comrades in their fight against the evil wizard Zio. They slowly find themselves enveloped in a larger conflict, one that eventually culminates in a fight to save the slowly dying world of Motavia. Judging the game solely by that description, it’s hard to tease out a political dimension similar to its predecessors. The closest I could find were the game’s thoughts on science and religion, but Phantasy Star IV looks at them more along philosophical lines than political ones.
More specifically, the game looks at these topics along much welcome Nietzschean lines of thought. Each beat in the story feels like a carefully orchestrated movement through his major ideas, whether that’s the insufficiency of value systems (science, religion) in one moment or the detached, every changing nature of life in the next. It’s a comprehensive and well realized reading of those ideas, but what makes this such a smart pairing is the reverence the two hold for the the individual. On the one hand, Nietzsche’s love of the individual fits snugly with themes the series had been developing for years; it’s easy to imagine Alis Landale, Rolf, and now Chaz Ashley as Übermenschen asserting their own ideals on the world.
And on the other hand, introducing Nietzschean thought allows Phantasy Star IV to advance past its legacy, realizing a fascination with character that previous games didn’t. That’s not to say heroes like Alis and Rolf were poorly developed characters; just that the writing envisions them as tools above all else. Compelling tools, yes, but still tools whom we don’t understand well outside their narrative roles. For example, what kind of relationship did Alis have with her brother Nero? The kind where his death sets her quest to overtake the violent dictator Lassic. And while Phantasy Star II begins on Rolf describing a recurring nightmare of his, that detail (and the personal focus that comes with it) vanishes as the game moves into larger conspiracies.
I won’t deny that Phantasy Star IV views its characters as narrative tools, as well. In fact, most of the characters are best understood as allusions to previous Phantasy Star heroes. However, the game clearly wants to see them as more than that. That’s why it leans more heavily into a manga style of presentation that brings the characters’ emotions to the surface, and why the writing devotes so much space to their personal details. We get a clearer sense of what defines these characters as people and what they value in life, whether that’s the pseudo-filial relationship Chaz shares with Alys or Kyra’s admiration for Lutz and his legacy. Granted, part of why the game reveals these details to us is because they lend the story a stronger feeling of drama. Some of the story’s most powerful moments deeply challenge the characters on an emotional level, and its personal approach lends their quest a certain level of purpose that other games would definitely envy.
However, a much more important reason for that new approach is a genuine interesting in representing these characters as people. The first step to that end is to represent them as active agents. A difficult task, given that fictional characters begin life as objects their writers might do with as they please. Yet the key to overcoming that challenge is to represent them as active agents; to provide us with the convincing illusion of their autonomy. This is exactly what happens with Phantasy Star IV. Never once did I get the feeling the characters were following a script, even when the game readily provides them with a script. No matter how much they resemble some character from a past game, you don’t see the characters sacrifice themselves to that role. They negotiate it; contemplate it; even transcend it. To provide just a few examples:
- As much as Rune resembles his ancestor Lutz, he’s ambivalent about carrying on his legacy. For most of the story, he finds himself caught between accepting the responsibility that legacy entails and disavowing it so he can follow his own path in life.
- Chaz struggles to find his own value in life (indeed, his own unique identity) after Alys’ death, and initially casts off the role of the hero because he doesn’t want to be a cosmic pawn like Zio. It takes Rune’s guidance to help him find his own value as a hero.
- Nei’s death in Phantasy Star II marks a loss of innocence and illustrates the dark consequences of a future that’s overly reliant on technology. By averting her ancestor’s fate, Rika is able to form a more optimistic outlook on life.
Writing the characters this way is a convenient tactic for the game. Not only does this allow the game to move past and wrap up every thematic issue previous games had explored, but it also allows the characters to lead more meaningful lives.
Which is why I found myself as disappointed with the battles as I was. Despite how closely they can mirror the story’s careful characterization, they bundle along with it a clumsy grasp for meaning. It’s called the Macro system: by chaining characters’ attacks together in a certain way, they combine to form flashier, more powerful attacks. Think of it like the double and triple techs from Chrono Trigger, although Phantasy Star IV did it first.
Anyway, while the Macros are meant to present the characters as something more than a lucky collection of otherwise-unrelated individuals, the story ensures that’s all they’ll ever be. Characters shuffle in and out of the party at such a reliable pace that outside a core group of three or four characters, the game has trouble fostering a true sense of camaraderie between them. This kind of narrative works wonders toward creating a world of uncertainty and constant flux, but it doesn’t do the Macro system any favors. Because you can never rely on anybody to be in your party for too long (certainly not long enough that you’ll want to painstakingly search for whatever Macros they can perform), Phantasy Star IV effectively trains you to see the characters as nothing more than a ragtag bunch of individuals. Worse still is how some of the monsters you fight get more opportunities to work as a team than you ever will.
This doesn’t mean that battles are completely lacking in value. In fact, some of the more plot-important fights are effusive with character, whether that’s the frantic tension that defines the Dark Force fights, the ominous futility one feels when confronting Zio, or just how shaken up the characters are once they lose Alys. Yet it’s important to remember how ancillary Macros are to delivering that mood. In fact, the one time the game allows you to explore the system to its fullest potential feels utterly contrived from a narrative perspective. Why have all your previous allies returned to your side in this final moment? One could say it’s because they felt the gravity of the situation and decided they couldn’t watch from the sidelines anymore. Yet in light of the fact that some of them went off to lead lives of their own (so long ago that they couldn’t have learned what exactly is at stake), it’s more likely they were dragged into the conflict for the sake of gameplay. So the best case scenario for Macros is that they’re squandered potential: while the game can work wonders with them, its best moments lay entirely outside them. And the worst case scenario is that they contradict other parts of the game, denying the personal bonds the narrative works hard to establish.
Maybe this kind of failure is just another part of the game’s legacy. I seem to remember criticizing Phantasy Star III along similar lines. As strange as this is going to sound, that reassures the optimist in me, since it suggests that Phantasy Star IV’s problems aren’t insurmountable. That doesn’t mean we should overlook (read: deny) the problems that hold it back; just that we should make ourselves away of what we want out of the game and how these issues affect it. So while my own enjoyment of Phantasy Star IV can’t completely escape the problems I have with it, the well realized characters and relatively exhaustive story still lend the game considerable worth.
Through no fault of its own, Phantasy Star III has always been the black sheep of the Phantasy Star series. Its predecessor set a very high bar, one that the many drastic changes to series tradition prevent it from passing. The game eschews all the cool sci-fi elements that give the series its identity and replaces them with a generic fantasy RPG facade. What’s more, the game doesn’t even feel finished. Its worlds are barren, and minor plot foibles frequently gnaw away at the story. No wonder fans were less receptive to Phantasy Star III.
I’m not going to deny all of these problems. However, I still want to give the game credit, because it’s not as though it’s completely lacking in value. In fact, I see it as a conscious rebellion against Phantasy Star tradition. It makes the gameplay more meaningful than it’s ever been and tempers its predecessors’ positive outlooks with something more grounded. Is the break complete? Of course not. Yet I still find myself intrigued by what the game does.
If there’s one thing I remember the Phantasy Star series for, it’s its constant willingness to experiment with form. If there’s another thing I remember the series for, that would be its many stances on sci-fi conventions. The series has always been very good at incorporating these conventions into its structure and then commenting on them in a thoughtful way. I’ve written about this before concerning Phantasy Star Online, and Phantasy Star II is no different. Well, the message and tone are certainly different, but the level of control remains the same. Phantasy Star II maintains careful control over its structures to talk about the dangers of trusting too much of ourselves to technology in a very intelligent way.
Sometimes, I like to see what games a company made prior to hitting it big. It’s a fun exercise, trying to tease out what their design philosophies were before they started following a standard template that’s harder to tease out. Game Freak serves as a good example. The company originally started off as a fan magazine, reviewing anything the Japanese gaming scene of the 1980s could offer. After a few years of doing this, the staff realized they had the knowledge to make games just as good as the ones they reviewed. And so Game Freak was born.
That story might not seem important, but it contains important hints as to how Game Freak designed their games, including Magical Taruruuto-Kun. An unlikely candidate, I know. This obscure Genesis title might look like just another licensed game, but there’s more to it than that. As you’d expect from a developer that found its start reviewing game, Magical Taruruuto-Kun shows a wide influence. The game borrows liberally from many other platformers, from Mario to Monster World to Castlevania. Yet it still bears the Game Freak seal. It doesn’t blindly copy these games, hoping to gain what they already have. Instead, it breaks from the action aesthetic they’re known for to pursue something warmer and more whimsical.
Monster World IV is an intriguing game. It bills itself as a 2D platformer, except it doesn’t use the genre’s tropes for the same action-y purposes that its contemporaries did. Rather than going for constant engagement, the game shoots for the exact opposite. Somehow, that plan works. Monster World IV holds the potential to be one of the more relaxing experiences in video games, and to be fair, it reaches that potential quite a bit. Unfortunately, simple enemy AI just as often keeps the game from fully realizing said potential. That doesn’t mean the game is bad; just that it can never quite live up to its own ambitions.