The lights are on
I first read about Phantasy Star Online as a news blurb in a gaming magazine. There was very little information other than “it is coming” and you can “play online with other people”. The sci-fi and fantasy blend of the Phantasy Star world was one that I had already spent countless hours in and I was absolutely ecstatic that I would be able to visit it once again. But the word “online” in the title was concerning to me. I could not fathom how one would play an RPG like Phantasy Star with other people. Was the gameplay changing? Something like EverQuest? Diablo? Those were online. I thought back to the one time I played NFL 2K1 with someone online and hated the whole laggy experience. My heart sank and I prepared myself for the worst.
Upon finally playing the game, a majority of my trepidations were relieved. The 3D visuals and real-time action was undoubtedly a major departure, but the world still felt like Phantasy Star. Moreover, the game was fun. And horribly addictive.
The breakdown is pretty easy to grasp: dungeon crawling, loot grabbing, leveling up. Combat is serviceable, if not by the numbers. But those were obviously not the features that stood out to me. Weapon types were extremely varied ranging from a basic sword or gun to completely outlandish rocket punch gloves or a massive chainsaw sword. Partner Mags, little floating companions that increase your stats, can be leveled up as well and feeding them the right items could transform them into silly things like a Sega Dreamcast. Sonic Team packed a lot of goofy Sega charm into PSO and experiencing them was a good motivator.
My best friend had purchased the game along with me and we made a co-op pact that we’d only play online with each other and some of our local friends. I found myself playing a lot more than he and I had quickly outleveled him, so I was not getting as much experience when we’d play nor was I getting any better loot. The buddy bond had to be broken.
I hopped into a few random rooms with players around my level. The game became fun again as I was making progression, but there was still the unnerving feeling of not knowing who you were gaming with. There was no voice chat and communication with other players was relegated to two line chat bubbles and simple custom icons. For an extreme introvert such as myself, joining games was an awkward and often times scary experience. Still, my MAG needed to be fed and that Spread Needle was out there waiting for me to find. I would have to get over this fear.
Once I fully embraced multiplayer in PSO, the game really ingrained itself into me. Ironically, it was less about the drive for better loot than it was the social aspect. I had eventually reached out to PSO message boards looking for other gamers and found myself hooking up with a dedicated group. PSO was suddenly a daily occurrence in my life and these people were who I spent the most time with. Many of these people became real world and close friends. In fact, I can attribute meeting my wife through the relationships I’ve garnered in PSO.
Looking back on PSO, I can see its blemishes. Certainly, by today’s standards, it was rudimentary and repetitive. But at the same time, it was revolutionary. PSO introduced console gamers to an online co-op experience at a time when AOL disks and dial-up were still a thing. Even with the hundreds of hours I’ve spent in the game world, I can’t say I’ve maxed out a single character or uncovered every item I’ve ever wanted. But the time I’ve invested has been memorable and well worth every minute.
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