Remember Phantasy Star Online? The Dreamcast online RPG was Dungeons and Dragons made over with neon-pink hair and lipstick, a pouting Halo Jones blowing cherry gum bubbles in outer space.
But mechanically it was a volley of of firsts: the first console-based MMORPG; the first major genre departure for an ancient and venerable Sega franchise; the first Dreamcast title to show what was really possible with its emergent online service; the first international software to successfully implement a bilingual text mechanism that allowed Americans, Europeans and Japanese to communicate with one another.
In stark contrast to Nintendo, whose experiences with the Satellaview turned the company off online gaming, Sega’s president at the time, Isao Okawa, was vocal in his belief that the future of games was to be found in networked play. History has, of course, proved him largely correct and, while Phantasy Star Online 2 is a very different sort of online game to its predecessor, networked play continues to beat at its heart.
As such, the news that Sega is bringing the game (available on Microsoft Windows, PlayStation Vita, iOS and Android) to the West in early 2013 is welcome.
It’s free-to-play, in the current fashion, but word from the Japanese players is that this is no misnomer hiding endless price-gouging – you can actually play for free. Sega appears to be handling the world with care too. Chris Olson, Vice President of Digital Business said: “Phantasy Star Online was a revolutionary game when it was released, and we want to make sure that its successor in the series is every bit as ambitious.”
Satoshi Sakai, Phantasy Star Online 2 Producer at SEGA of Japan, had encouraging words to add: “The number one thing we want to provide players in Phantasy Star Online 2 is an adventure that changes every time they log in. Just as great table-top RPG experiences revolve around imaginative and unexpected encounters, we want players to consistently be surprised as they explore dungeons and undertake quests.”
Regardless of whether this proves to be true, we can be sure that the class-based leveling system from the first game makes a return, as does that key asset to the original game’s success: expressive visual customization of characters.
It’d be easy to view this project with a mixture of fear and disdain. PSO on the Dreamcast was a game ruined by cheats and hackers, souring the experience, and the choice of platforms for this sequel means a repeat of those dark days seems entirely possible. Likewise, the PSP iterations of PSO in recent years have been lacklustre.
But for many PSO remains our most enjoyable and cooperative formative MMO experience, long after the servers were shut down and the world was left to sink like archaeological remains in the memory. For that reason this excavation is more interesting than most.