With just four areas, limited characters and the use of a relatively limited modem, Phantasy Star should have been a monotonously dull failure. Like with many Dreamcast games though PSO’s whole was far superior than the sum of it’s parts, and the world of Ragol would become loved and adored by everyone who had the honour of visiting it.
In many ways the reason for the games success was Ragol, and the wider metaphors the planet came to stand for. The world was beautiful, not just beautiful in terms of perfect graphics or photo-realism, but beautiful in one of those deeply affecting ways that is impossible to explain. Ragol never felt like a world created by graphical pixels on a screen, it never felt designed or created, and maybe the reason was because it wasn’t. Ragol was a visiting destination for people the world over, a place to convene and converse, a place to admire the beauty and a place where friendships and bonds were formed. Ragol was truly magical, in a way the finest places on Earth are. Your first trip to the lush and dense forests was like walking through a portal to a new world, a world it felt you could feel, touch and smell. Ragol was like the realisation of every ‘romantic’ poets dream, a Keatsian wonderland, and maybe the best way to describe the world is that it was like what poetry is to literature. No deep characterisation, no elongated story, no perfect visceral descriptions; Just beauty and magic, plain and simple. Phantasy Star Online is however the pinnacle of visceral beauty in a video game. It’s world wasn’t just beautiful, but was solid and real. This partly stems from the fact the game oozed atmosphere from every algorithmic calculation and every pixel. It was effervescent from the moment the Dreamcast whirled into action, drawing you in and affecting every emotional bone in a gamer’s body, to such an extent that the world of Ragol truly came real. Of course it helped that Ragol was actually real, in a way. Ragol was filled with real people, from all corners of the globe, and they were united in a way that no MMO has ever achieved. In PSO you are but a mere journalist, enlisted to undertake a variety of jobs. You aren’t a great hero, you aren’t put into competition with others, and you aren’t compelled to become level 99 faster than anyone else. You felt you where there to enjoy and admire the place, to meet people and to experience. This created an atmosphere and a connection between gamers that no other game has ever managed, and maybe never will. Every time the Dreamcast was turned on you felt you were going somewhere else, transported from your home, or office, and into this ‘other’ world. For those who became addicted, and they were many, you suddenly undertook a double life. This interaction was immensely helped by the simple interface of the game, and indeed the simple combat, story and connection. Nothing about PSO is complicated. From levelling up, to maximising weapons, everything is made simple and enjoyable. Combat should have been dull, and indeed in single player it was, yet in the world of Ragol, battling with other people from Japan to America, it never was. Enemies could be strung out and dispatched one by one with consummate ease, and yet, if they had been more difficult, it would never have worked; It always needed to be that way. Interaction was also helped along by little icons that you could style yourself, known as Emotes. This feature was simply a basic form of paint, where you could construct little icons and faces from basic lines and shapes. Yet, like everything else, it would prove greater than the sum of its parts. By allowing you to interact in you own way, to customise your experience, the game was made yet even more real. Whole teams would form under one icon banner and it injected life throughout the entire game.
The most curious thing is that, broken down into it’s disparate elements, Phantasy Star is a very shallow and empty game. There are but four areas to examine, there are very few choices for character types and the game’s story is virtually non-existent. Yet Phantasy Star didn’t need a story, indeed if it had of had one it would have undermined the whole experience. Whilst some games thrive on stories, and some are masterpieces because of theirs, PSO works because it understands that not everything needs to follow a perfect plot. The world and the atmosphere is what makes the experience, and of course the people. Even the games issues become forgotten in the swirl of emotional connection. The camera isn’t great, the bosses can be dull, but none of it matters. In many ways, and maybe it’s a curious analogy, but Phantasy Star is very similar to Shenmue. Shenmue has a wealth of issues, Shenmue has virtually no combat and yet it’s atmosphere overcomes this. Regardless of the glaring flaws in the game it was, and still is, accepted as a masterpiece. Maybe in some ways that’s the best way to describe the story of the Dreamcast. What is curious is no other system has ever come close to boasting the amount of games that could provide such vivid, and genuinely atmospheric, games. PSO is one of the prime examples that games don’t need perfect photo realistic graphics, tacked on stories or even great choice, if you can make it meaningful, it’ll work; Maybe no other company will ever realise this as much as Sega. What made Phantasy Star Online so wonderful was that every new log in was a new experience, every visit different and endearing, and every departure gutting, like the final day of a holiday. Pulling yourself away to rejoin your mundane world became harder and harder, and every hour would be spent awaiting your next visit. This, above anything else, can be considered Phantasy Star Online’s greatest achievement. That, and the fact, for evermore, those who experienced this wonder will be wishing for one last visit to Ragol.