Nostalgia is a funny thing—it often has the tendency to make games from the past look much better than they truly were. However, just like some wise pundit pointed out, "you can't go home again"—and you can't go back to old games, either, at least not without shattering the fond memories of how things were. This is particularly true of games from the 8-bit and earlier era. What was once cutting-edge and fun beyond words is now often almost unplayable in comparison to today's games.
Many game critics (yours truly included) are often quick to label the role-playing game (RPG) as a genre that hasn't changed much since its inception. This is, technically, the truth. While the RPG hasn't evolved in any Earth-shattering way from the days of Dragon Warrior until now, it has at least managed to tweak its gameplay formulas from the days of yore. Menu interfaces have been streamlined, players can generally run through towns and dungeons (instead of crawling along at the walking speed many of the early games required), text can be sped up for those who read faster than a third grader, and so forth. Yes, the RPG has evolved—just not in the typical way that games grow. It's almost as if the developers have decided that the core gameplay elements of the first RPGs were so good they never needed to radically overhaul them, concentrating instead on making the game aesthetics more pleasing.
This seems like a really minor thing until one realizes just how much these aesthetic changes have improved the RPG. To truly get a grasp of this, a gamer needs to go back and play one of those classic RPGs from the 8-bit era and then compare it with today's games. The results are pretty astounding.
The games that drove this point home for me were Sega's classic Phantasy Star I, II, and III. All three titles have been released on one cartridge for the Game Boy Advance, and while it's nice to have these classics back in playable form, the execution really leaves a lot to be desired.
Eschewing the more popular fantasy settings of Square's Final Fantasy games and Enix's Dragon Warrior series, Phantasy Star goes for a futuristic cyberpunk feel. This alone made it intriguing to a niche group of gamers who were already falling in love with the genre. Even more impressive was the fact that the first Phantasy Star actually featured a story with relatively well-drawn characters. The first Final Fantasy game featured a party of four non-descript archetypes, and Dragon Warrior wasn't a whole lot better. In this regard, Phantasy Star was relatively ahead of the curve for what was being done in these games. This would continue in the sequels, which would feature even larger stories, more characters, and in the case of the third title, an adventure that spanned generations.
Despite all of this, Phantasy Star has always remained something of a niche series. It's never had the mainstream appeal of Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior (in Japan, lots of people get the day off when a new Dragon Warrior game releases—this keeps them from all calling in sick—imagine that in America). The reasons for this could be anything—the fact that the games were Sega RPGs and not Nintendo, because they featured a different turn-based battle set-up than the other two franchises (aesthetically speaking; the battle systems themselves were essentially the same), or even because they went with first person dungeons as opposed to the more traditional three-quarter overhead view. Whatever the reason, Phantasy Star has always been sort of the forgotten little brother of the three big RPG series.
I'd hoped this would change with the release of Phantasy Star Collection. After all, for the very first time a whole new generation of gamers would be exposed to the Phantasy Star phenomenon (there hadn't been a new game in the Phantasy Star universe since Phantasy Star IV way back in 1993, and I'm not counting Phantasy Star Online since it's a Phantasy Star game in name only). Unfortunately, the dated look and gameplay will turn off most of the gamers today.
This is not to say that Phantasy Star Collection is bad, because it's not. Instead, it's simply a throwback to another era, when RPGs were harder, more focused on level building, and less concerned about being interactive movies. However, it's really a time that's come and gone—these games just haven't aged particularly well—a fact that will keep many players from experiencing some classic early role-playing.
Perhaps the most daunting thing about the collection is the difficulty level. By today's standards, the challenge of the games in Phantasy Star Collection is almost nightmarish. Leveling up is essential, and even the little dinky monsters outside the first town (which are usually just fodder for the party to beat on these days) can take players out with minimal effort. Gamers who hate spending hours fighting an endless succession of random battles simply need not apply.
The bosses—and the dungeons—are even harder (particularly in Phantasy Star II, which is right up there with Seventh Saga on the SNES for hardest console RPG of all time). Part of this is due to flaws in the game design (there's a certain element of cheapness in a lot of the bosses in these early RPGs—they're really overpowered) and the other part of it is that games have just gotten easier in the intervening years.
Navigating is equally challenging, particularly in Phantasy Star II—a game that features some of the most difficult dungeons I've ever experienced. Those of us who are older can remember having to draw maps of dungeons as we explored them back in the old days, and this is a game where drawing a map as you progress is essential. Failure to do this will leave the player stuck, traveling around in circles as his health slowly dwindles and the inevitable death occurs.
Yet, while those things will certainly factor into whether or not one enjoys the experiences of Phantasy Star Collection, the real problem lies in just how antiquated the game design is. The original Phantasy Star (which debuted on the Sega Master System) looks almost primitive by today's standards. Unlike Final Fantasy Origins (which offered up an old game with some enhancements), the games in the Phantasy Star Collection compilation are exact recreations of the original versions, flaws and all. What this means is that there's no dash feature to navigate faster, the graphics are untouched, and all the little things that date the game (like the miniscule number of frames of animation for any movement) are present and accounted for. Whether this is a detriment or not depends on whether the player is into retro-gaming. Those who are won't mind, but those who think that SNES era games look primitive are bound to be shocked by this release.
The one area where the ports aren't particularly faithful is in the music. It's been a long time since I played any of the Phantasy Star games on a console, but none of them sounded this bad. I'm assuming they had the same problem with the sound quality here that was present on the ported version of Phantasy Star II that appeared on the Dreamcast Sega Smash Pack disc a few years back.
Finally, I'd be failing in my duties if I didn't point out that the games have a few bugs and glitches in them. The most annoying is the save glitch in Phantasy Star I that has the game lock-up during saves from time to time. When this happens, the file doesn't save and the player is forced to go back to his last save and start again. So, save often—I got bit by this bug numerous times during the quest.
Phantasy Star Collection is an interesting yet flawed port. I can appreciate having these classic games contained all on one little cartridge (that's portable, no less), but I can't shake the feeling that Sega should have done more with the production. I'm not expecting a complete overhaul, just some of the same touching up that Square's done for all of their re-releases. The Phantasy Star games are classic RPGs (yes, even the third one--which everyone seems to hate), and they deserved at least a little updating.