The Game Archaeologist: Phantasy Star Online

The Dreamcast was a brief but shining aberration in the gaming world. Coming along years after Sega had fallen out of its position as a top-runner in the console market, it represented the company’s last-ditch attempt to reclaim its former glory. While it failed to succeed in that respect and ultimately closed up shop in 2001 (ending Sega’s interest in the console market), the Dreamcast became a gaming cult favorite responsible for some of the most innovative titles ever made. Games like Jet Grind Radio, Space Channel 5, and Shenmue have remained fan favorites long after the Dreamcast’s demise, which shows the legacy that these dev teams left behind.

But perhaps the Dreamcast’s greatest gift to the gaming world wasn’t crazy taxis or space dancing but a surprisingly forward-looking approach to online gaming. In 2000, the Dreamcast took the first steps to bringing an online console RPG to market, and while it wasn’t a true MMO, it certainly paved the way for titles like EverQuest Online Adventures and Final Fantasy XI.

It was bold, it was addictive, and it was gosh-darned gorgeous. Ladies and gentlemen: Phantasy Star Online.

The year of the network game

“After we finished Sonic, we researched and experimented for a while and we reached a consensus that we wanted a game that uses the network for its basis. However at first, we weren’t sure what genre this game would be,” Sonic Team’s Yuki Naka said in 2008.

Forged in the fires of 1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog, the acclaimed Sonic Team continued a hot streak of Sega console classics through the decade. Following two big Dreamcast titles, Sonic Adventures and ChuChu Rocket, Yuki Naka and his team started investigating several possibilities, including online gaming. Ultimately, it was Sega Chairman Isao Okawa who sent down the proclamation from on high that 2000 would be “the year of the network game,” and so the Sonic Team settled on making that happen.

The problem was, it had never been done — at least not on consoles. In 2000, online gaming (including MMOs) was the sole domain of PCs. However, Okawa was convinced that it would be the future of the console market. While he was certainly right, it came a little too early for the rest of the market. Nobody, including Sonic Team, had any inkling as to how to make the technology work while selling the concept to console gamers.

That didn’t stop them. They were Sonic Team, after all.

The Dreamcast was shipped with a built-in modem, but up to that point, it had gone largely unused. Sonic Team had plenty of freedom to figure out how to utilize dial-up connectivity, no hard drive, and the console’s other tech to make a kick-butt game.

The first thing the team decided was that the game’s graphics would have to stand out, as many online titles of the time had subpar visuals. The second thing the team settled on was the resurrection of a popular Sega franchise — the long-running Phantasy Star series — and use it for this massive project (fun fact: PSO was originally called Third World before it acquired the Phantasy Star IP).

Sonic Team also created a mission statement of sorts when it came to this new game. It would allow players across the world to mingle and interact, it would focus on co-op play, and it would be the spark that ignited a Japanese online revolution.

Designed as an action-RPG that was more focused on group combat than any overarching narrative, Phantasy Star Online stripped RPGs of complexity in favor of bringing friends together for a singular purpose. “In the end, we decided that everything will be tied together into a common goal, similar to playing baseball or soccer. So in Phantasy Star Online, we decided that this ‘common goal’ will be for the people playing the game to adventure together,” Sonic Team’s Takao Miyoshi said.

Double-downing on Diablo

The end result of Sonic Team’s skillful work was a product that would have set off bells in the heads of many PC gamers — if they had been paying attention, that is. While it had sci-fi trappings, Phantasy Star Online was, for all intents and purposes, a console clone of Blizzard’s Diablo series. The setup of a player hub that would allow small teams to form and head out into the scary world beyond for endless sorties was already proven to be a hit in Diablo, so why not on the Dreamcast? It wasn’t a coincidence, either, as Phantasy Star Online’s main programmer was a self-professed Diablo addict.

Naka recalls how the effort of doing a console version of Diablo-esque gameplay was more difficult than anticipated: “The biggest issue with online games was memory. They require a lot of it, and the graphics suffer as a result. I was impressed with how smooth the gameplay of Diablo was, but it was a 2-D game. We wanted a game with Dreamcast graphics and the same level of gameplay as Diablo.”

Whatever the difficulties, Sonic Team pushed out a product that launched to strong reviews and an enthusiastic playerbase. Sega’s Isao Okawa believed in the idea of network gaming so much that he paid out of his pocket for a free year’s worth of internet access to be bundled in with every copy of PSO. This was a big deal because in 2000 dial-up in Japan was often charged by the minute — and broadband had yet to hit the scene.

Phantasy Star Online grew in popularity — and not just in Japan (as was expected) but across the globe. Unfortuantely, Okawa passed away mere days before PSO won the Japan Game Award for the year.

Pixelated pioneers

While nobody can fault Phantasy Star Online for a deep story, it did have a basic narrative in place to give players a reason their characters were slaughtering their way through an alien world.

The planet of Coral — your character’s homeworld — had become so trashed that the populace was fleeing en masse to a new world known as Ragol. The plan was for several “Pioneer” colony vessels to travel to the virgin planet to set up civilization, but when Pioneer 1 goes missing after a huge explosion, it’s up to the crew of Pioneer 2 (your ship) to investigate the disappearance.

Players were given choices of three races (Human, Newman, and Android) and classes (Fighter, Ranger, and Force). The classes mimicked standard RPG setups, with the Fighter/Warrior, Ranger/Archer, and Force/Wizard. However, one thing made classes more than just cliches: MAGs. A MAG was a robotic pet that could “evolve” into different forms depending on the player’s whims.

While most MMOs that we know and love feature persistent worlds, PSO would create private instances for small groups. All of the instances reset upon leaving, which meant that the core of the gameplay was players running the same levels over and over again. Oddly enough, while PSO was criticized as “boring” for those playing it offline (more on that later), people loved the same gameplay when it came packaged with fellow human interaction.

The tao of quirky game design

Phantasy Star Online had three interesting game design elements that are worth mentioning. The first is that the title could be played in an offline as well as online mode, which proved to be its downfall. The problem was that because of the offline option, the game was saved locally (versus on a remote server) and was fairly easy to modify and exploit. This led to no end of duping and hacking — and customer dissatisfaction.

On the positive side, PSO was certainly innovative when it came to connecting its players together no matter what their nationality or language. The game utilized a time system of “beats” (one beat per minute-and-a-half, roughly) that was syncronized globally, putting all players everywhere in the same time zone.

And while the Xbox had voice chat and most version supported keyboard input, many players were more than satisfied with PSO’s chat function that allowed you to pull words or symbols out of menus and then have them translated in the native tongue of your conversation partner. As a result, the language barrier was lowered, albeit not removed.

Going forward, one episode at a time

PSO is well-known for its long string of updates, “Episodes,” and adaptations, so we’ll just gloss over them quickly here. After PSO’s launch in 2000, Sonic Team transitioned to work on an improved version of the game known as Phantasy Star Online ver.2, which came out in 2001. Ver.2 raised the level cap and added new content as well as took the game from a free model to a subscription one ($15 for three months). As production on the Dreamcast came to a screeching halt in 2001, PSO ver.2 was ported to several other platforms: the PC, GameCube, and Xbox.

PSO Episode I & II added a whole new chunk of content when it came out for the GameCube in 2002 and the Xbox in 2003, although players who waited for the Xbox version got treated to voice chat as a major feature. It wasn’t until the next iteration, Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution, came out in 2003 that the series really tried something new (in this case, card-based combat with deck-building).

The PC got an improved version known as Blue Burst in 2005, which included the standard Episode I & II gameplay as well as a fourth episode.

Sonic Team tried to replicate its success with Phantasy Star Universe in 2006, but fans were much more lukewarm about the team’s efforts this time around. People balked at the monthly subscription and complained about lag, billing issues, and lack of content, leaving PSU to flounder in mediocrity for years.

Today PSO is a thing of the past. Console servers were shut down in 2008, and the PC version followed suit in 2010. In September of 2010, fans erupted into glorious shrieks of surprise when Sega announced the development of a “true” sequel to PSO, Phantasy Star Online 2. Unfortunately, PSO2 looks like it will never come out to the west, which means that the series’ legacy is fading fast in this hemisphere.

Did you play Phantasy Star Online back in the day? Let us know your memories in the comments!

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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37 Comments on "The Game Archaeologist: Phantasy Star Online"

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overbyte

Spent *sooooo* much money on per minute internet

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Jeff

I liked the bite sized gaming. You just logged in and went into a dungeon with people. Didn’t like the group then you just left and went into another one. Maybe not a deep narrative but I liked just doing some hack and slash with people and not having to devote an entire evening to some big raid.

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Loyal Patron
Byórðæįr

I think that was one of the many fileplanet betas I signed up for years ago and would log into the game once it went live but while fun really standing around that funny globe seemed to be more of the game watching people cosplay funny things than the actually missions. You can see homages to that in many later games.

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mysecretid

I’m pretty certain I played some version of this on my PC. I liked it well enough, but it was my first-ever experience with asian-made gaming (I missed the whole Rise Of Nintendo when I was coming up), so it took me some time to wrap my mind around the various unique design tropes which many asian-made games favor.

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Totakeke

It’s not Android. It’s Cast.

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nobleeinherjar

I was a huge PSO fan back in the day. I got my start on the GameCube and made the jump the Blue Burst when it became available. Eventually I even played BB on a private server for a while. I’ve forgotten it all now, but I used to know so many things, like what to feed mags to get certain forms and abilities.
I was also hugely disappointed with PSU. I just didn’t “feel” right. If that makes any sense. I actually kinda feel the same way about PSO2. I tried out the English patch and stuff and played it for a long time, but it just wasn’t the same. I dunno.

But these days I have Monster Hunter, which in a lot of ways fills the void left by PSO.

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Ian Wells

Loved this game a lot, back in the days. I have to object to the “no deep story” comment, though. Play through the single player side missions and talk to all the NPCs you can see on Pioneer 2 during each mission, an you get treated to a pretty tangled web of intrigue arcing over the first chapter, and being expanded upon in the second. I played through the chapters on each difficulty because I liked finding little tidbits that I missed that explained some little detail of the story I missed the previous times around.

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Totakeke

Yeah, there’s a pretty rough story that goes along with the game. And there’s a bunch that gets fleshed out while playing through the side quests. It’s just you wouldn’t have noticed the storyline that’s bread crumbed away in the game if you only every played online. Message capsules weren’t around in the online portion.

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Ian Wells

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Sorenthaz

Pretty sure the Gamecube’s Broadband adapter/56k modem expansion slot was only ever used for PSO, lol.

Still better than the hell that was getting the internet extension stuff for the original PS2 to play FFXI and Monster Hunter.

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plotnikon

I remember playing Quake and UT ALOT on my Dreamcast. The Keyboard and mouse for thing were actually pretty good.

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Suicide King

Huh, I’ve been looking to buy this game. Either Ver. 2 for DC, Xbox, or Gamecube version. Found out my old Xbox Live account is still on my Xbox, so thinking of getting that version, since it is the cheapest to be found.

cmdr_cotic
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cmdr_cotic

PCGamer recently did a great article about PSO’s emulator scene, you might what you want there http://www.pcgamer.com/phantasy-star-online-will-never-die-how-the-nicest-fans-in-gaming-keep-a-16-year-old-mmo-alive/

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Sorenthaz

Can also just download Blue Burst and play it online via the SchtServ private servers.

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Chosenxeno .

Hacked Monkey King Bars and J Swords 4life!

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Chestnut Bowl

So many memories with this game. It was the first online RPG I ever played, though I spent most of my time with it offline. I still played it on occasion.

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mechageist

i used to play PSO at a friend’s house and enjoyed it quite a bit despite never going online with it since at the time there was only one phone line for dial up and it’s rude to hog someone else’s phone. Spent a lot of time aiming for specific Mag evolutions. i always wanted to try teaming up online, but it never quite worked out. When i bought my own Dreamcast i mostly played Soul Calibur, Skies of Arcadia, and Soul Reaver, but that was after the Dreamcast was discontinued and there weren’t any copies of PSO in the local stores.

Despite having a bunch of friends with Evercrack addictions my first MMO was CoH several years later.

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Loyal Patron
Suikoden

PSO was the first MMO I played. I was in college when it came out, and it blew our minds. EQOA was the second MMO I played, and had to throw the disk in the dumpster because I wasn’t getting any sleep, lol.

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P3lli
ekurisona
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ekurisona

comment image

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Sorenthaz

I think I still have a controller like that somewhere. God that thing was ridiculous.

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Kickstarter Donor
flying_dutchman

I dumped soooooo many hours into Crazy Taxi and Ready To Rumble Boxing on Dreamcast. Good times.

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Mr Poolaty

Ditto!!

Tamanous
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Tamanous

I was hardcore in to Asheron’s Call at that time but Phantasy Star on the Sega Master System as likely my all time favorite single player rpg (taking into account my youthful excitement back then). Genesis was the last console I ever owned however.

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Danny Smith

Dreamcast is love, Dreamcast is life.

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Jacobin GW

My first mmo, I still remember the spread needle +99 gameshark dupping.

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drelkag

4 player NGC split screen co-op on this game was the best. Frame lag and all.

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Sorenthaz

I remember the first time my brothers and I managed to kill De Rol Le, felt so good.

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Arngrim

While i never owned a Dreamcast, this wasis the go-to game for me on the Gamecube. Still love playing it today.

Kinda sad when i think about it, two of my top Gamecube games, both originated on the Dreamcast. This game, and Skies of Arcadia.

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Schmidt.Capela

SEGA games left without a home after it stopped making consoles.

For my part I love most SEGA games (to the point I have purchased 54 of the 58 SEGA-developed games that made their way to Steam), but I never purchased a SEGA console because I found Nintendo better and I wasn’t going to purchase multiple consoles.

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Sorenthaz

My grandma actually got a Sega Genesis and Saturn for me and my brothers/cousins to play on when we visited, and honestly the controllers were convoluted as hell. Plus some of the games were just really weird, especially on the Saturn which was basically their version of the N64 before it came out.

cmdr_cotic
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cmdr_cotic

This game was my first dive into online gaming and I thought it was brilliant. Home internet was still quite new at that point and only 56 kilobit but being able to chat to people all over the globe while within a computer game made it a fantastic experience. It wasn’t until I played WoW in 2004 that I felt anything close to what PSO had delivered.

The Dreamcast really was a gem of a machine and deserved to do far better than it did.
Digital Foundry did a really in-depth look at the sublime Soul Calibur recently https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WCflFtHzAc

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Sorenthaz

Yeah, but a big problem with Sega and their later consoles (and honestly their earlier consoles too) was that their controllers and everything always just felt so weird and complicated. Dreamcast got smashed by the Playstation unfortunately but even like the Saturn before that was just… weird. They tried a lot of different things and honestly were ahead of their time in a lot of areas, but their execution was always off in some bad ways.

ekurisona
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ekurisona

cmdr_cotic
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cmdr_cotic

I had forgotten about that commercial, that is fantastic :)

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Koshelkin

Another title which proves that the Dreamcast was ahead of it’s time.

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Sorenthaz

Actually PSO is still available to play online.

Home

Via private server of course, but they have servers for Gamecube, Blue Burst, hell even the Dreamcast version.

To me PSU’s biggest issue was that it didn’t feel good at all. The combat NEVER felt good and the way to progress felt very tedious and confusing as you largely depended on crafting. It just felt so slow paced and floaty. Yeah PSO1 doesn’t feel the greatest nowadays, but its pacing felt good. PSU for its graphics and everything just didn’t feel good to play at all, and it felt like they were trying to do too much different things that didn’t really feel good in the long run.

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