Phantasy Star Online: A Beautiful Mess

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Today, I want to talk a little bit about how I went on a nostalgia trip leading up to the release of Phantasy Star Online 2 for PC. That’s right! I’ve been playing a 20-year-old game called Phantasy Star Online, and let me tell you: it’s a beautiful mess.

Table of Contents

A Little Game History

In the summer of 2018, I was getting ready to go to grad school. Back then, I talked a lot of shit about what I aspired to do in research. For instance, I wrote an article about augmented reality music education. Likewise, I wrote another article about procedural spell generation where I mentioned a nostalgic inspiration, Phantasy Star Online (PSO).

As far as I can remember, PSO was my first online video game, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone how often I still think about the game. Of course, many games have taken its place for me over the years. For instance, I played the sequel, Phantasy Star Universe, pretty much all the way through middle school.

By the time I graduated high school (2012), there was yet another sequel set to be released: Phantasy Star Online 2. However, the developers decided this game wouldn’t make it’s way to North America—at least not until nearly 8 years later.

Unfortunately, the release comes as a bit of an Xbox-only exclusive. Considering the history of PSO, this is a bit odd. After all, the original game hit basically all major consoles of the time including the Dreamcast. Hell, I played it on Xbox Live.

In my adult life, I don’t really want to own or maintain a console anymore. In fact, I don’t really want to get sucked into the generational purchases and console wars; I just want to play games. As a result, I’ve slowly morphed into a PC gamer.

Of course, if you show up at my apartment, you will find a Nintendo Switch. What can I say? Morgan and I love a good casual game every now and then. It sure beats the collection of consoles I used to haul around from dorm to dorm in college.

At any rate, what’s a man to do as he waits for the PC release of PSO2? Well, like any sane human, I hunted around for emulators and servers to chase a bit of nostalgia. Before long, I stumbled upon the Ephinea PSO server. So naturally I grabbed all 2 of my friends (remotely, of course—it’s a pandemic after all), and brought them into my nostalgia trip. The rest of this article is a bit of a rant on how that’s going.

The Wild West of Game Design

I think my buddy, Robert, put it best when he was describing our experience of PSO: “the early 2000s were the wild west of game design.” Basically, what he meant by that was that game designers were essentially free to do whatever they wanted. As a result, games were often confusing and needlessly difficult. In this section, I’ll lay out a few examples:

Game Mechanics

Take for example, PSO’s aiming mechanic. I don’t recall exactly how it used to work on a controller, but on a PC, it’s a nightmare. Essentially, you move with W, A, S, and D and attack with , , and —no mouse use at all. Then, to aim, you have to line up your character with the enemy before attacking.

While this alone could be manageable, the movement is really clunky. For instance, a quick tap on one of the movement keys is enough to rotate you like 30 degrees. To make matters worse, rotation stops at 90 degrees. At that point, you begin to walk. Just take a look:

Oddly enough, there is no backwards walk cycle. In fact, everything in the game can only walk forward. This results in some truly hilarious battle mechanics where enemies have to turn around to adjust their pathing algorithm.

In addition, you can’t really hit enemies unless you’re locked on—which is easier said than done. As someone who plays a melee hero, this can mean missing enemies that are right in front of you because you were off your angle slightly. And, don’t even get me started on leading your shots as a caster.

Speaking of battle mechanics, there are at least six other irritating mechanics I can think of:

  • Slowing down near enemies
  • Getting walled out of a room by enemies
  • Being knocked to the ground by enemies
  • Missing enemies because your attacks are out of phase with their hitbox
  • Getting your “ult” causes you to lose access to half of your abilities
  • Getting hit by an enemy that is also hitting a teammate

In the next section, we’ll talk about that last one.

Client-side Combat

For whatever reason, PSO leverages what I call “Client-side Combat”. Basically, that means that enemies are controlled client-side. As a result, four teammates can have dramatically different experiences while dungeon crawling despite killing the same enemies.

As the “tank” of my group, this is incredibly frustrating. After all, how am I supposed to pull aggro when I can’t even see what my friends are experiencing? In the worst case, this involves multiple people tanking the same enemy—effectively duplicating that enemy.

Fortunately, health bars seem to be managed server-side. That said, there have been a few times where I’ve been fighting enemies that my teammates couldn’t see. Basically, the enemies would already be dead, and I’d still be stuck fighting them separately.

Sandbox Gimmicks

Do you remember the first time you played a game that had a sandbox mode? If you’re like me, you probably used to construct a level or two that couldn’t be beaten. For instance, I remember loading up maps in Halo 3 with explosives and other traps to mess with my friends.

Well, that’s exactly what playing PSO can feel like at times. I’m not sure why, but it feels like the developers purposefully put cheese mechanics into the game to make it needlessly difficult. For example, there’s this set of government quests which offer very little in terms of rewards. Instead, however, they offer quite a bit in terms of gimmicks.

Specifically, there are two quests that immediately come to mind for me:

  • 3-2: Machines Attack
  • 4-2: Buried Relics

During 3-2, there’s basically 30 minutes of dungeon crawling which leads to a 6-minute escape sequence. To complete the escape sequence, you have to find a big red teleporter. Of course, they don’t exactly make it easy to get to. First, there’s a red laser that needs to be deactivated. Likewise, there’s an angry wind that needs to be disabled (but can be walked through?).

Along the way, there are enemies standing in the way. In addition, there are various teleporters that are mostly just bait. For instance, one of the first teleporters you see just moves you to the other side of the room. Later, there’s a teleporter that moves you all the way back to the first room which is obviously not ideal during a timed escape sequence.

When I tried to look this quest up, there’s basically nothing documented except a few low quality videos on YouTube. Here’s the one we used to finally beat the mission (for whatever reason, it doesn’t have a thumbnail):

Of course, somehow, 4-2 is even worse. Instead of a 6-minute escape sequence, you get a 20-minute time limit to touch some pillars. As you can probably imagine, more time = more gimmicks.

Every time we tried, we got a little bit further. And each time, we were disappointed to find out that we were not, in fact, in the last room. Of course, the most frustrating part was how easy it was to get lost. Every room looked the same, and it was never clear just how to get certain places.

In the end, it took us about 4 tries and only one rage quit. That’s fair!

Endless Bugs

Perhaps I didn’t have any standard for quality as a kid, but PSO is one of the buggiest games I’ve ever played. Here are several screenshots of bugs we’ve encountered in our first two weeks alone:

Walled Off by Invisible Enemies in Phantasy Star Online
Getting walled in by enemies that the rest of the team can’t see.
Seeing to the End of the Universe in Phantasy Star Online
Seeing through surfaces into the great unknown.
There's No Connection Available, Please Check Your Cable
Randomly disconnecting from the server like the good ol’ days.
NPC Clipping Through Geometry Phantasy Star Online
NPCs clipping through geometry.
This Item Does Not Belong to You
Picking up items that are apparently not yours.
Telepipe Below the Phantasy Star Online Forest
Spawning into the game from under the level.
Teammate Behind Lasers in Phantasy Star Online
Watching teammates open boxes behind a death laser.

In addition to all these bugs, there were a few other issues we experienced along the way. For instance, one quest (4-1) had us touch a few pillars to unlock a door. To save time, my team split up. After finding all the pillars, one of use made our way to the door and teleported us around it. Easy!

When the rest of us went to turn in the quest, we found that we hadn’t finished it. As a result, we had to run back through the level just to hit that “walk through the door” checkpoint.

Unfortunately, this sort of bug happened a lot. For instance, in 5-3, you’re supposed to clear a bunch of rooms. Then, at the end, you talk to a robot who reveals a portal, so you can turn in the quest. Well, apparently, you’re supposed to talk to that robot; you can’t just go back to turn in the quest. Naturally, I learned that lesson the hard way.

But, It’s Still a Good Game

After reading a rant like that, you’d have to wonder what sane person would continue to play the game. Well, here’s the thing: the game is really, really good. See, it brings something that literally no game I know of does: a positive social atmosphere.

Toxic Communities

Think of all the online multiplayer games you play. How many of them have some competitive nature to them? How many of them result in you or someone you love being called racial slurs? How many of them do you leave more frustrated when you started? How many of them do you play because you’re addicted to the feeling of winning?

In all my years of gaming, I would say 99% of the games I played fell into the yes category for all these questions above. For example, here’s a list:

  • Halo
  • Gears of War
  • Call of Duty
  • Overwatch
  • Heroes of the Storm
  • World of Warcraft
  • Smash Bros

All of these games have or had really toxic communities. To escape these kinds of games, you might opt for the solo campaign style of games like Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, or Animal Crossing. Alternatively, you might opt for the old LAN style of games like Mario Party (bad example?) or Mario Kart. After all, that’s why I have a Switch in the first place.

Of course, those options only bring me so close to what I actually crave: a positive social experience. Unfortunately, I haven’t really seen a single game that has matched the culture of the old Phantasy Star games.

Positive Social Community

When I was marketing PSO to my friends, I led with the community. After all, the community surrounding this game is overwhelmingly positive, and I think that’s because the game is incredibly casual. No one is rushing to hit level cap or be the first to beat some new raid; they’re all just trying to feed their MAGs and get cool looking gear.

One thing I really love about PSO is that parties are always wide open. If you are a two-stack, a third and fourth could show up at any time to help you out. Unlike current matchmaking systems, this style of party building is completely community driven.

Naturally, this played out nicely for my friend and I as random high level players would join our games to help us out. Before long, we were loaded with gear and ready to take on some tougher enemies. In addition, we made some friends along the way.

Of course, if you actually decided to play this game, you’d find that there’s no voice communication at all! Instead, the game is text-only. As a result, no one has any idea how old you are, where your from, or what you’re skin looks like. In this game, everyone is equal.

Ultimately, the social aspect of PSO is why I think people still play it to this day—despite the overwhelming amount of bugs. Hell, I think a positive culture can make a person overlook a lot of things. Why do you think I try so hard to maintain a positive culture as an educator? It helps students look past my shortcomings. The same can be said for this game.

Hope for PSO2

Now that my childhood nostalgia has largely been confirmed, I’m really excited to play the sequel. After all, I thought Phantasy Star Universe (PSU) was an excellent game, so I can only imagine how much better PSO2 will be.

In the meantime, I’d love it if you stopped by this article to show the site some love. In it, you’ll find a list of ways you can support The Renegade Coder like hopping on my mailing list or joining me on Patreon.

Also, here are some other articles I wrote about video games:

Part of me wants to start a video game website, but I think that’s spreading myself too thin at this point. At any rate, thanks for stopping by!

Jeremy Grifski

Jeremy grew up in a small town where he enjoyed playing soccer and video games, practicing taekwondo, and trading Pokémon cards. Once out of the nest, he pursued a Bachelors in Computer Engineering with a minor in Game Design. After college, he spent about two years writing software for a major engineering company. Today, he pursues a PhD in Computer Science in order to ultimately land a teaching gig. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his wife, playing Overwatch, practicing trombone, watching Penguins hockey, and traveling the world.

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