‘Ahead of its time’ – a turn of phrase frequently uttered in reference to both Phantasy Star Online and the ill-fated console on which it debuted.
The game was billed as something of answer to Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda series and the, at the time, PlayStation exclusive Final Fantasy saga, both of which had seen era-defining (and system selling) hits in the years prior. It seemed like a smart move on SEGA’s part – what better way to even the odds than with an online-focused counterweight release emphasising the Dreamcast’s most important killer app?
But alas, Phantasy Star Online was far from perfect; the game’s clunky combat and overwrought boss fights proved irksome, plus the European Dreamcast’s 36.6k modem in particular didn’t make for the smoothest or most reliable online experience. When the stars aligned, though, and networking conditions were favourable, it was at the very least a tantalising glimpse of what might be possible in the future.
Fast forward to the present and SEGA’s online console RPG ambitions have finally come to fruition, albeit from a quite unexpected source. While the company has issued a number of multiplayer Phantasy Star updates and sequels since bowing out of the hardware business, most have been for handheld formats or PC, taking cues from the Monster Hunter series and World of WarCraft, et al, respectively.
Consequently, I’d assert that the monolithic mega hit that is last year’s Destiny is the true heir to the original Phantasy Star Online’s throne; sharing more commonalities with it than many people realise, both mechanically and conceptually.
Their game worlds are built around similarly realised central social hubs, which are, in turn, connected to various isolated gameplay areas by fast travel (read: loading screens). These nexi are places to trade, chat and, most importantly, find other players with which to form groups.
In terms of plot, the nitty gritty details of exactly what you’re supposed to be doing and why differ from each other, but the broad strokes aren’t all that dissimilar. Your characters are part of an elite group of nomadic-when-they-feel-like-it adventurers, taking on the mysteries of a hostile, sci-fi environment, behind which lies a dark and mysterious enemy. Both settings intertwine magic and technology, and offer essentially the same race choices at the character creation stage; robot, human or some kind of post-human (Awoken in Destiny and Numan in Phantasy Star), and very similar classes, again from a possible three.
Furthermore, you explore both Ragol and our post-Collapse solar system accompanied by a floating robot companion. Although Phantasy Star’s MAGs do have some gameplay utility, Destiny’s Ghost is really only present for expositional purposes; driving the plot, such as it is, forward through Peter Dinklage’s tragically wooden dulcet tones of meme fame.
There are some aesthetic differences, of course. Phantasy Star Online’s graphical style is clearly informed by the pointed, angular androgyny of Japanese manga and anime, whereas Destiny is curved, slick and minimalist. Destiny’s interface is also mercifully more intuitive than Phantasy Star’s endless lists, and features a matchmaking system, allowing strangers to team up anonymously. And let’s not forget that Destiny is played primarily in first person and Phantasy Star in third, with the former placing orders of magnitude more emphasis on gunplay than the latter. Predictably, it’s here that Destiny compares most favourably to its Halo series stablemates.
Do these curious points of comparison have any meaningful significance? Probably not. It’s hard to picture Bungie actively chasing SEGA and Sonic Team’s dream, or holding Phantasy Star Online up as a shining example of what they were trying to accomplish all those years ago when Destiny was still at the planning stage, but they are certainly an interesting talking point.
If you’d like to weigh in yourself, feel free to comment below.