What was the first game any of you played that felt like more than just a game, it felt like a whole world, a huge story, an actual quest or a living breathing society?
There is only one game I can to talk about when that question is asked. A game I hold near and dear to my heart. One that is intrinsically intertwined with my teenage years and going from childhood to young adulthood. A game that only people who played it can really understand the way I feel about it.
I’m going to have to talk about Phantasy Star Online….
It is a game that defines my teenage years and one of the few games that I have bought multiple times for different machines. Over the years my PSO journey spanned across:
- Phantasy Star Online [Dreamcast]
- Phantasy Star Online Ver.2 [Dreamcast]
- Phantasy Star Online Episodes I&II [Gamecube]
- Phantasy Star Online Episodes I&II [Xbox]
- Phantasy Star Online Episode III [Gamecube]
- Phantasy Star Online SCHTHACK Private Server [PC]
As you can probably guess I have put a lot of time into it as a game and that’s not including Phantasy Star Universe!
I’ve always been a fan of RPGs and PSO blew my mind when I first played it at a friend’s house because you could share your love of RPGs with other players and play the game with them. Killing monsters and sharing the spoils. Also it was online gaming on a console which seemed like some kind of witchcraft to me because only PCs could use the internet!
I enjoyed it so much that I spent ages trying to save up for a Dreamcast, eventually my dad found someone selling one via Loot (the classifieds paper) in our area at a steal with over 50 games. While the guy I bought it from turned out to have no morals (the majority of the 50+ games were illegal copies) and terrible taste (he said Shenmue was the worst game he had ever played ) I still gleefully bought the best console ever made and then proceeded to what was Electronics Boutique at the time and bought a shiny new copy of PSO. Which I promptly registered incorrectly and wiped causing it to become a dud copy of the game! The manager at EB took pity on me and allowed me to swap the game for a new copy which I set up correctly this time.
And thus an obsession was born!
To begin with it was just me and my friend who introduced me to it that played together but soon we found other Dreamcast owners at our school and encouraged them to play the game. Our lives quickly became school all day PSO all night and I mean all night. For about six months we hardly slept and any free time at school was dedicated to talking strategy, grinding techniques and how to avoid those god damn hackers that “killed” so many of our characters. We all upgraded to Ver.2 with its new items and improvements (it was basically the equivalent of buying a patch on disk) and continued to play happily. With a few hiccups here and there like racking up huge phone bills because the internet on the Dreamcast was pay per minute! I had to spend months working off my debt to my parents and was restricted to playing at weekend! But it didn’t matter the game was great and I loved adventuring with my friends and hanging out with randoms in the game’s various lobbies. PSO had one of the nicest communities I have ever encountered in an online game, even with all the hacking and backstabbing that went on, it all became part of the game. Everyone took the bad parts and made them fun somehow.
It was crazy the amount of freedom the game gave you. You could freely switch between severs and lobbies playing with Americans, fellow Europeans, and Japanese players. Regular excursions were made to the Japanese servers for high level trading and rare item acquisition and the American servers were a great place to find players at 4am GMT!
When Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II was announced it was like Christmas and my birthday all rolled into one!
A whole new bunch of levels to explore and grind! Two new character classes! New weapons! Better graphics! System improvements! New game modes! SPLIT-SCREEN! The Gamecube broadband adapter that would make the game more stable and get rid of the per minute charges! (They switched to monthly subs but it was still cheaper than the Dreamcast version) Just when I thought I was done with it Sonic Team pulled me back in. Everything was new again, mainly because everyone had to start from scratch. The game was a lot more stable and the abilities of hackers considerably reduced. Regular temp saving meant you wouldn’t loose everything if the worst happend and pretty much the whole Dreamcast community moved to the Gamecube version. You would be running a level with a random group chatting away then someone would remember you or you would recognise someone else and then you were suddenly reminiscing about the Dreamcast days.
I dabbled with the Xbox version because voice chat appealed to me but I quickly grew tired of it because people would talk absolute nonsense or inexplicable put their headsets next to their hi-fis to give you shitty tinny extra soundtracks to the game that you didn’t ask for.
Anyway the Gamecube version was superior anyway because Sega actually supported it and it was always chock full of players. Everyone running around, having a laugh killing every monster in sight. It was more than a game to me and many others. I even loved Episode III which was a pretty poor TCG game when I look back on it. It didn’t matter, it was new PSO and more importantly new story (and a good story at that too!). Yes in a game of grinding endlessly I am one of the rare ones that got stuck into the story. Looking for snippets of it in every nook and cranny. Playing all the missions and running all the limited events when they popped up. I lived and breathed Ragol, living on the Pioneer II and being a Hunter.
Eventually all good things must come to an end and Sega announced Phantasy Star Online BlueBurst which would be the final version of the game. Exclusive to the PC and with the brand new Episode IV added to it along with a full remit of story missions across its entire length to make the game more interesting to play. But I was done. I was happy with my set of characters and items on the Gamecube version and while Episode IV was appealing to me it would have taken ages to get to that point. Also playing it on a PC was an off putting idea to me because PSO was a console game. I could only play it infront of my TV, sat on the couch. Sitting at a desk somehow made it seem less fun. So I gave it a miss. I still popped back online for a month or so periodically as the Gamecube community slowly dwindled down to nothingness and support was pulled. The lights switched off and the servers shutdown for good.
A few years ago BlueBurst was closed down too but people still wanted to play so several private servers where set up the most popular being SCHTHACK which is still up and running today and which supports multiple versions of the game including the Dreamcast and Gamecube ones. I still pop on it occasionally when I want to wallow in nostalgia and think about my school days. Because like I said PSO is intrinsically tied to my teenage years. School, partying, girlfriends, getting into trouble, reading comics and playing PSO. That was my life from 13-18 and it was awesome.
I am however eagerly looking forward to Phantasy Star Online 2. It is a return to form from the looks of things. Ditching Phantasy Star Universe’s more MMO style structure for the original PSO’s Online ARPG structure but this time in a free to play model on PC and the PS Vita (many are also assuming that there will be a PS4/Next-Xbox version at some point too). I keep being tempted to download the Japanese version of the game and install one of the fan made English Language patches but I am happy waiting for full EU release so that I can play across PC and Vita with as few problems as possible. I doubt it will be as good and all consuming as PSO but I should hopefully get a lot out of it. Maybe even paying for a few micro-transactions in the process (because I am weak!)
Damn I feel all emotional now and want to start playing PSO again…