10 Years On, Looking Back At a Defining Dreamcast Game
Phantasy Star Online could have been the most influential piece of entertainment in console gaming history. Instead, Sonic Team's magnum opus was dead on arrival; Peter Moore announced Sega's decision to become "platform agnostic" on January 31st, 2001 - the day Phantasy Star Online ver. 2 hit retail shelves. Considering the first PSO was a buggy mess on the scale of Battlecruiser A.D. 3000, how many had the oppurtunity to sink 100+ hours into the first really good PSO game? What a bummer that was.
Sega had the rather unfortunate proclivity to release their best games on hardware that was either dead or completely untenable to the requirements of the gameplay. See Panzer Dragoon Saga, which many believed the best RPG of the 32-bit era. This is nearly impossible to confirm, however, because Sega pressed maybe 10,000 copies of the game. Until I have at least $150 dollars to spend on a 13 year old Saturn game, I can only assume those hyperbolic GameFAQs forumgoers who have devoted so much of their brain to loving Panzer Dragoon Saga that the basic tenants of the English language have been evicted are right.
See also: Phantasy Star Online I & II , regarded as the apogee in the Phantasy Star Online franchise, being released for the freaking Gamecube of all things. An initial investment of, oh, $200+ dollars in modems, peripherals, subscription packages, and lord knows what else, to say nothing of the $50 for the game itself, got you an online game on the least online-friendly gaming system in the history of forever. Yeah, so maybe that's a bit too much scratch for the average human to spend. Sega, you broke my heart.
This is depressing - let's get back to the Dreamcast game in question.
I believe PSO was the first real time Rougelike (to simplify for now, let's call it a Diablo clone) on a home console system worth a goddamn. Although I am sickeningly fond of the kind of mindless, grindy loot gathering action- rpg, I never got into Diablo. I didn't enjoy spending a lot of time looking at a series of dank, stinky corridors. Also, it turns out, I find the act of hitting a button repeatedly more kinetically pleasing than I find the act of clicking a mouse repeatedly.
Diablo did not endear me like PSO did. Of course, I might have a little bit of a predisposition towards a game set in the Phantasy Star universe. After all, the Phantasy Star series is one of my favorites in all of gaming.
I'm still amazed at how well Sonic Team captured the spirit of Tohru Yoshida's designs when transferring them to a 3D environment; despite being a totally different style of game, it is still unmistakably Phantasy Star. The 80's anime look served the game extraordinarily well, both by looking awesome and by connecting the Algol star system's primitive Sega Master System & Genesis appearance to a contemporary system.
PSO lacked only the incredibly sophisticated, ambitious narrative of its namesake, which is a bit of a shame. Phantasy Star II was a remarkable first attempt at classical tragedy in the videogame medium -- it's still one of the best stories ever told in an RPG -- and to discover the most perfunctory excuses to fetch-quest without any serious overarching storyline in the Phantasy Star universe was disappointing, to say the least. Still, I had a lot of fun in the single player campaign. God knows I spent sophomore year in high school doing little else but play though it, again and again.
Sadly, I didn't play online PSO that often, because online gaming was a seriously janky affair back in 2001, but I have vivid memories of the few time I did get the thing working. Like most slightly monotonous but oddly compelling game genres (the Final Fights and the, erm, Diablolikes of the world), playing cooperatively can exponentially improve the experience. However, the main benefit of co-op gameplay rests largely in the communal environment and in the communication options available to you in said environment. Shit-talking with your friends at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade cabinet inside Chuck-e-Cheeses is an experience one can look back on in their twilight years with nostalgia; playing Final Fight on your SNES (no co-op!) in the garage is just sad, man.
Which makes PSO's masterfully implemented symbol chat system so important, and so great. Using the tools within the game, you could create your own series of symbols or modify pre-existing ones to articulate your thoughts to other players. The symbol chat is still amazingly versatile; given a little creativity, you can create a symbol to express some freakishly deep (usually disturbing, as was my wont) concepts.
So yeah. PSO was the last Dreamcast game I bought and the one I feel most needs acknowledging. I demand you acknowledge it. Now!
PS. The other Dreamcast classic Diablolike, Record of Loddoss War, came out after the first version of PSO (I think) -- in any case, I played Record of Loddos War long, long after I got into PSO.