I picked up Sega Ages: Phantasy Star on the Switch a few days ago. I'd briefly tried out the original maybe ten-fifteen years ago but I didn't get far and couldn't get into it. With this enhanced port, I figured it'd be interesting to look into the game from a historical perspective and see what mechanics worked and what didn't, and see what lessons could be grabbed from that game for today's games.

This isn't really a review, so I left out stuff like presentation and combat that I didn't have much to say about.

1. The plot and gameplay are primarily driven through random NPC dialogue.

This is true for most games of the era, but it really stuck out for me with Phantasy Star. There's brief cutscenes, but they're rare and amount to the beginning, ending, and recruiting new characters. The vast majority of gameplay leads come from town NPCs, and most people will give clues as to where to go or what to do next.

On one hand, this is cool world-building and also allows the game to give you hints as rewards for exploring and finding a new town in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, it becomes a nightmare to categorize and remember all these hints, especially as many may not be relevant for hours. It didn't help I couldn't remember the names of half these towns, so when a NPC said "Go to X!" I was like "Where's X?". That could be just a problem with me however, as I kinda sped through the game thanks to fast-forward and doing the port's easy mode, so the pacing was much more brisk than how the original was designed.

That said, it's pretty telling that I only needed to use a walkthrough twice to get roughly 100% (it helps that the mini-map added for this version tells you where fake walls are). The first was finding the Hovercraft, because I didn't say "Yes" instead of "No" to a specific NPC asking if I heard of it, and the second one was finding the exact location of the Mirror Shield, which honestly I could've found if I spent more time searching instead of wanting to be done with the game (it was literally the last thing I lacked). Otherwise, I was able to find everything else on my own, and even with a poor translation I was able to eventually figure out most of these things, though a lot of it was just exploring every nook and cranny I could. It's difficult, but you don't really need a walkthrough in this game, which is pretty impressive for a game this old.

Obviously generic NPCs driving the entire narrative doesn't work quite as well as cutscenes do in modern RPGs, but games could definitely make more use of that than they currently do. There's a wide middle ground there to incentivize exploration a bit more, at least!

2. The plot, while simple, is surprisingly well-told, probably because it's simple.

My favorite plot moment was early on. At the beginning, you're told to look for Odin, but he's been petrified by Medusa, so you first need to find his companion Myau. NPCs hint that Myau was sold and traded to a vendor on another planet, so you go there and trade a pot for Myau. Rather than having your protagonist, Alis, act confused about a talking cat or whatever like most JRPGs would, she knows exactly who Myau is and why he's important because, well, the player has by now figured out from NPC context who Myau is and why he's important. It seems small and insignificant, but it sticks out for me because the game shows it respects not just your intelligence, but also Alis's intelligence. She's doing this along with you, after all, so it'd be concerning if she wasn't paying attention. Of course, it feels like so many other JRPGs have the player far ahead of the protagonists as far as paying attention, so that's probably why this is sticking with me so hard, but this one thing made me like Alis a lot more than I probably would have otherwise.

The game has one, and only one, goal: Kill Lassic. Everything revolves around achieving that. Your first lead is to find and recruit Odin, but there's a couple hoops to jump through to accomplish that. Then you get help from the Governor, who leads you to another party member. From there, you have to figure out how to reach the last planet, and from there your goals are focused on 1. finding and getting to Lassic and 2. finding the Laconian gear so you'll be in better shape to actually take him down. The game is structured well around that simple narrative, giving you focused goals that eventually expand until you're given complete freedom to explore every nook and cranny of all three worlds to find everything you need. Your overall goal never changes, and because of this the game never steps in its own way since everything you do is leading up to this one singular goal.

Every dungeon looks like this.

3. The game needs the mini-map that the Sega Ages version includes.

Yes, many players were able to navigate those labyrinths back in the day. Yes, the Compass exists to help with navigation. The main issue with this game's dungeons however are a lack of landmarks, which makes navigation a nightmare once you get into the multi-floor monstrosities in the late game. I also have no idea how you're supposed to find some of those hidden paths without it, and there's at least one you need to find to progress in the game. That said, it's difficult to really fix any of that using the first-person perspective Phantasy Star opts for. It was likely a kick for many to explore dungeons this way, but it also meant the actual process of exploring these dungeons was confusing and at times frustrating.

The Sega Ages port adds so many quality-of-life features such as a bestiary, lists of all items and equipment, and HP/MP pools, but the most important to me by far is a mini-map for dungeons with helpful hints for treasures, pitfalls, secret paths, and so on. It does spoil a small bit of the surprise of exploration, but the trade off of actually knowing where you're going and being able to navigate dungeons (and re-navigate previously-visited dungeons!) is significantly more than worth it. Dungeon design in general is underrated, and the most important thing for me is making dungeon diving fun instead of frustrating. This is a simple fix that doesn't require completely overhauling the system, and it's why I hope more older games get at least the Sega Ages treatment in the future to make them more accessible to modern players. 

It's a pretty solid first attempt at a series that probably should've lasted longer than it did. It does a few clever things in how it has you explore its worlds, established a solid structure for plot progression, and overall respects your intelligence without being too obtuse. It definitely has flaws in dungeon design, and the combat system is pretty generic, but I think there's still enough merits to play it.

Maybe I'll do more of these write-ups in the future.