It’s debatable if Phantasy Star Online should be considered an MMO or not. The game was marketed as an online role playing game and even had ‘online’ in its title. Whether it is a true MMO or not, there is no denying how much of an impact it caused, particularly to console gamers, as it was the first time many had experienced an online game.
PC gamers had been playing MMO’s such as Ultima Online and Nexus: The Kingdoms of the Winds for years prior to the release of Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast in 2000. However, for console gamers, it was a revolutionary leap in technology, which proved that consoles were capable of delivering gaming experiences that many thought were only possible on the PC.
During Phantasy Star Online’s lifespan, it was on four different platforms:
- Dreamcast (2000)
- PC (2001, Asia only)
- GameCube (2002)
- Xbox (2003)
An enhanced PC version titled ‘Blue Burst’ was released in 2004 worldwide via digital distribution.
In Phantasy Star Online players had the option of choosing from three races: Human’s, Android’s and Newman’s. Human’s were well rounded in both melee and magic, Android’s were more melee orientated, while Newman’s focused primarily in performing magic. After choosing a race, picking a class that corresponded with your race was in order.
Many consider Phantasy Star Online as an action-RPG rather than an MMO. For starters, the game didn’t have a seamless, open world to explore. Instead the game was set on the spaceship Pioneer 2 and the planet Ragol. The Pioneer 2 acted as your general hub. Everything from socialising, accepting missions, shopping, etc was all done here. Once a party of four was formed, you could travel to the planet Ragol and fulfil your missions there. At the time of Phantasy Star Online’s release, the planet was split into four sections: The Forest, Caves, Mines and Ruins. More content came with future expansions.
Essentially all Phantasy Star Online had to offer at first was four distinct level locations, each ending with a boss battle. Four levels may not seem like a lot of content, however, there was a lot of lasting appeal. The party leader had the ability to choose the difficulty setting, before venturing out on a mission. Increasing the difficulty meant stronger monsters, better items, and increased experience. The final boss would become available after completing the game on the hardest difficulty setting. Phantasy Star Online may seem quite basic by today’s standards, but back in 2000 it was pretty revolutionary, particularly for being the first online console game.
If there was one notable thing that stood out in Phantasy Star Online, it would have to be the combat. It was very interactive and required the player to actually time his or her attacks to strike three consecutive hits in a row. Another cool addition was the Mag. A Mag was essentially a little robotic companion that could be leveled up from being fed items. As the Mag grew, it learned specific skills that would come in handy during combat.
While the game had ‘Online’ in the title, you didn’t have to necessarily play it online. There was also the ability to play offline if you didn’t have the Internet, or just preferred playing by yourself. Offline was more story-oriented, while online was mostly for getting loot and having a social aspect to the game.
Generally MMO’s have character data saved on a server, but Phantasy Star Online’s character data was stored on the Dreamcast’s Virtual Memory Unit, thus making cheating very easy. It was as simple as owning a GameShark, and you could have any item and unlimited Meseta (the currency) as you want. The game eventually became flooded with cheaters, which ruined the experience for many players.
Phantasy Star Online received many expansions over the years, which added a plethora of content. The first expansion, episode 2; offered the seaside, mountain and jungle regions of Ragol to be explored, along with new items and enemies. The hub world also received an overhaul.
In 2003, Phantasy Star Online: Episode 3 was released for the Nintendo GameCube, which strayed far from the formula established in Episodes 1 & 2. Episode 3 was a card game set in the Phantasy Star Online universe. While the game was critically and commercially successful, it wasn’t quite the sequel fans were looking for.
In 2004, Sega ported Phantasy Star Online to the PC and added a whole new expansion: Episode 4. The PC exclusive was titled ‘Phantasy Star Online: Blue Burst.’ It is considered to be the most complete version of Phantasy Star Online, apart from the missing Episode 3, which really is an entirely different game. Episode 4 brought new maps, enemies and items. The game could only be played online and characters were saved to Sega’s servers, practically eliminating any form of cheating.
As the years went on, Sega eventually closed down Phantasy Star Online’s servers and as of April 22nd 2008, Phantasy Star Online was no longer supported on any system.
The sequel to Phantasy Star Online, titled Phantasy Star Universe was released on August 31, 2006 for the PC and Playstation 2. An Xbox 360 version was released on December 12, 2006. Phantasy Star Universe was not very well received – both critically and commercially. It was criticised for being far too similar like its predecessor and for not bringing much new to the table. It also came out during the age of games like Guild Wars and World of Warcraft – two games that are pretty darn hard to top nowadays.
In fact, due to a low population and poor support, Sega officially closed down the PC and PS2 servers on March 31st, 2010. Although with the closure fans were left with a little tease.
‘While we are sad to see the PC/PS2 version of Phantasy Star Universe end, the year 2010 is the 10th anniversary of Phantasy Star Online — and this server / service closure is helping to pave the way for bigger and better things for the Phantasy Star franchise in the very near future!’
Phantasy Star Online was a fine achievement in videogame history. It was the first online console game, and the very first taste of an MMO-experience for millions of people. It was a great game and it truly was the pinnacle of what was possible in the year 2000.
With E3 being just a matter of months away now, we’re hoping for a big announcement to commemorate ten years since Phantasy Star Online blew millions of gamers away. It’s time to remember Phantasy Star Online.