By the turn of the century, Sega’s console division had fallen to a definitive third place. They couldn’t beat PlayStation on install base and they couldn’t beat Nintendo on first-party exclusives. Struggle breeds innovation, so Sega’s increased willingness to take chances over the competition made the Dreamcast one of their finest consoles. One of their boldest moves was the 56k modem built into every device, paired with regional services (like SegaNet) to support it. Much about the Dreamcast was ahead of its time, but Sega was definitely correct that connectivity and online play would form a large part of gaming’s future.
As specs for the Dreamcast were finalized, I imagine orders came down from headquarters for games that could make use of these online features. Yuji Naka and the creatives at Sonic Team answered the call. Directly inspired by Diablo and Ultima Online, they set out to create a similar online action RPG for console players. They pulled Sega’s Phantasy Star RPG series out of mothballs and attached it to a game that shares practically nothing with the previous titles, barring a general adherence to a techno-fantasy style and the names of some spells and villains. Phantasy Star Online would essentially take over the franchise, which is still running with PSO2 today.
Phantasy Star Online casts you as a privateer aboard the enormous colony ship Pioneer 2. Humans have stripped all the resources from their world and need a new one to conquer. Pioneer 1 has found just such a home in the lush forests of Ragol. Pioneer 1 was the advance scouting ship, so Pioneer 2 is now rolling up with everyone needed to reshape and populate the world. Except, upon arrival at Ragol, the crew of Pioneer 1 can’t be found, the headquarters they built has been damaged by an explosion, and the surface now crawls with angry, mutated wildlife. What happened? Did anyone survive? Was there more to Pioneer 1’s mission than the public was told? It’s your job to explore the planet and find answers.
PSO was a big success upon release in Japan. It would go on to serve as clear inspiration for games including Monster Hunter and Digimon, plus Sword Art Online and the .hack series – both in anime and video game form. If there’s a 2000’s era Japanese story where someone’s playing an online game, only to get trapped inside the digital world, that world is probably informed by the author’s experience with Phantasy Star Online. Not to mention, its basic structure shares a lot in common with modern “service” games like Destiny or The Division, arguably influencing those as well.
But from a U.S. perspective, multiplayer in the early 2000s was still dominated by deathmatch, and no one I knew with a Dreamcast had it connected to the internet. PCs were for tying up phone lines, while consoles sat around the TV. It probably doesn’t help that our huge slab of a country has always made cheap broadband access a challenge, but I never got the sense that taking consoles online was a common consideration until the Xbox. Clearly my experience doesn’t match everyone’s, as PSO had 70,000 registered users in North America and 30,000 in Europe by its heyday in 2001. But I do believe most people never experienced PSO online, given that the game sold at least 1 million copies worldwide, and only a quarter of those ever signed up for online play.
PSO would soon get ports to the GameCube and the PC. Blue Burst represents the final PC release; a download-only exclusive combination of all the PSO content released up to 2004-2005. That’s two story chapters from the GameCube and Dreamcast, plus an exclusive 4th episode, loads of additional missions from throughout the years, with extra cosmetic and end game weapon options. The third episode is absent, exclusive only to the GameCube, but it’s easy enough to read up on the missed plot. All this collected content makes Blue Burst the definitive version of Phantasy Star Online, except for one critical point – it cannot be played in a true offline mode.
The console releases understood you might not have Internet access, or be willing to pay a monthly fee. The full storyline was balanced for offline, solo play, while difficulty and drop rates would rise as more players joined the party online. With Blue Burst, you’re always online and you can never play the story missions as balanced for solo play. You can set a private game, but you will always be slogging it out with enemy counts, timers, and bosses meant for at least two players. The difference between playing a mission offline on the Dreamcast and loading the same mission in Blue Burst is quickly obvious. If you have absolutely no intention of ever playing with others, one of the console releases is a better choice for you.
If co-op with friends or strangers doesn’t chase you off, then PSO is kept alive today through player-run private servers based on reverse-engineered code. Some servers boost XP rates for power leveling, some sell high level gear for paid “donations,” and some even let you connect your actual (or emulated) Dreamcast or GameCube. You can pretty much choose your flavor here, with no real consensus on which is the best. I spent my time on Ephinea, and got everything out of it that I could want. Ephinea has three servers and there were a steady 30-50 players on at all times of the day on the U.S. server I played on. Events happen around major holidays throughout the year, including an anniversary event that ran through September which easily tripled those numbers for the whole month.
Characters break out into ranged, melee, and magic classes. Any character can use a bit of all three, but the best weapons, the best spells, and the maximum stats are locked to the specific classes. You also choose your race between Humans, Cast (androids), and Newmann (elves?), who have different inherent specialties. Even the gender you choose tweaks your stats and bonuses in stereotypical ways – male magic characters get boosts to attack spells while ladies get bonuses to support and healing. Again, anyone can dabble in anything, and these stats mostly only matter for weapon access and end game min-maxing, but seeing looted weapons you can’t use does at least make you curious about rolling another character.
PSO was designed for a gamepad with a single joystick, so there’s no free camera control. It’s a very outdated combination of tank controls and a button to re-center the camera behind you – the original Tomb Raider is the closest similarity I can think of. The mouse is supported in Blue Burst, but barely, and again can’t be used to swing the camera. You’re going to want a gamepad, or to use a combination of WASD to move and the arrow keys to launch spells. Rotating in place to aim is rough. It is woefully easy to swing too far left or right and miss, or to lose track of enemies as they (frequently!) surround you. Melee simply swats at the nearest enemy – which is probably why the game recommends the melee class to beginners – but selecting the specific enemy you want to strike out of a group becomes troublesome as the game goes on.
Combat is based off of a 3-button combo system. Starting an attack creates a narrow window in which you can chain two more strikes, with appropriate animations customized to class/species/gender. If your timing isn’t perfect, you’ll have to wait about a second before you can start a new attack. I assume this is designed to reduce server load, but has the effect of ensuring you can’t mash your way through the game. You have three basic attacks – light, heavy, and special. Light attacks are faster and more accurate, while heavy attacks are stronger and slower. Special attacks trigger an equipped weapon’s power (if it has one), but have the greatest chance of missing.
This introduces some light strategy that gives extra value to the different moves. Most of the game’s enemies are slow melee creatures that have to close distance to land a hit. Depending on the situation, I could chance landing three special attacks and likely kill one outright, I could lead with a light attack and follow up with two specials for a balance between accuracy and damage, or I could insert some heavy attacks (which include a slight pushback effect) to knock back any foes too close for comfort.
This system stays true across both melee and ranged, so you can still shove enemies back with heavy gun attacks. It further gets mixed up by those weapon specials, letting you do anything from adding fire damage to an attack, to stealing life or XP, or even a low chance to kill an enemy on one hit. It all depends on the random abilities of that weapon drop. Weapons and spells can further have three basic alignments (fire, ice, lighting) and enemies can be susceptible to one type over the other. You just have to experiment here, and it’s usually not a bonus significant enough to give up your best weapon for. However, it does mean there is some value to planning your loadout ahead of a mission, plus some reasons to keep multiple types of strong weapons stored in your personal bank.
We should pause for a minute and talk about PSO’s multiplayer structure. The game was designed to manage tens of thousands of players on early server hardware. The relics of this show in a fairly convoluted lobby system meant to filter players into easier to manage groups. Each time you log on, you must select a Ship (server), then a Block on that server, then a Lobby within that Block. Ultimately, you’ll never see more than around 20 characters on screen at once, while you can never play with a group larger than four. It should have been obvious, but check any expectations of an open, modern MMO at the door. Fortunately, it also means that low player counts these days aren’t as noticeable.
A central set of terminals in the Lobby let you list and create or join any running games. You can also virtually chat with those you see around you, greeting friends, setting up games, or learning about handy quesadilla makers. Jumping to new lobbies can be done from a teleporter, if the one you’re in is sparsely populated. There’s no cross-Lobby chat, which mostly only matters if you’re looking for a specific friend. The game gives tools to help with this – a “Simple Mail” service that’s mostly good for in-game emailing someone reminders or plans, or tradeable Guild Cards (think business card meets friends list) telling where that player is if they’re currently online. You can make secure trades in the lobby, but annoyingly, you cannot shop or manage your inventory. You’ll have to get your character into a game for that.
In the game’s heyday, it was entirely possible to meet and play with players around the world. PSO contains one of the absolute best – and most elaborate – ways to facilitate communication between players across languages that I’ve ever seen. By default, you can simply hit the space bar and type out a message – since you’re on a PC, you won’t need to buy an expensive keyboard/controller combo. Alternatively, there’s the Word Select function. Like the communication system in Sentient, you can navigate lengthy menus to fire off quick responses (“Yes” “Need help”) or build some fairly elaborate pre-made sentences (“Which area do you want to go to?”). All of these messages then appear in the native language of the player reading them. The menus even helpfully change order based on location (lobby vs particular game level) or in response to being asked a direct question. I was able to chat in a limited capacity with two players who had been typing kanji, and I can see how you could effectively clunk your way through a game like this. Very unexpected, and pretty damn cool.
Once you create or join a game, you’re dropped into a main hub containing shops, banks, the hospital, and the two main sources of missions. The Hunter’s Guild gives quick, repeating tasks that pay out a monetary bonus at the end. This is the clearly preferred way to level, especially if you’ve already played through the story.
The game’s overall plot is uncovered through the Government missions, given to you by the Principal at the top of his command tower. These are the story missions that make up the offline gameplay of the Dreamcast and GameCube versions. They tell an interesting tale that definitely twists what Pioneer 1 seems to have been up to and definitely keeps you asking questions and making guesses. As a reminder, these are the missions that cannot be played in “One Person” mode. You are free to create a password-locked game that just has you in it (super common, going by the game browser) but again, in this version, you can never play these missions as balanced for solo players. We’ll talk about why this is a problem in a minute.
On the flipside, this means the entire main storyline is fully cooperative across all three episodes. It’s simple to create an open group that other players can join in the middle of your mission. I had a pretty fair balance between missions where no one showed up and missions where I did get help, so newbies need not worry about the elders ignoring you and your piddly low level content. Players well on their way to the level cap of 200 would drop into early missions and be surprisingly patient and helpful. There were even a number of self-professed new players (or returning Dreamcast players) showing up throughout the months I played, possibly spurred on by the game’s recent 20th anniversary.
Entering a mission, immediately, the ghosts of MMOs past show their age. Players have no names above their characters. A dialogue bubble pops over them when talking, and you can discern who’s who by matching the color of their health bar to the color of their arrow icon on the minimap, but it’s certainly not as intuitive as it is today. PSO also hails from the era of the common loot drop. Everything that falls can be picked up by everyone, so the group will either need to stop and sort out who needs what or sift through it afterwards like kids dumping their Halloween haul in a pile on the living room floor. You also have to do some amount – any amount – of damage to be credited XP for a kill. Politely, the Ephinea server allows you bypass this by allowing XP sharing and individual loot – but you may be stuck in old-style PSO, depending on the settings of the mission you choose.
While the game works better in multiplayer, it also undeniably works best with friends or similarly-minded folk. An early mission saw me paired up with another new player and a Blue Burst veteran. With the vet knowing exactly where to go next, I and the other newbie toddled behind at the breathless go-go-go pace anyone who’s done a public group in an MMO is probably familiar with. PSO isn’t immune to this. Tackling the story from the start with a regular group is obviously going to be the best way to play, but that’s usually a tall order.
Your inventory fills up at 30 items – including what’s equipped – with each item usually limited to 10 copies per stack. My bag filled up quickly, and while a “town portal” spell does exist, I’m not about to ask strangers to stop and accommodate me. Reams of loot passed by uncollected until I figured out how to take advantage of the picture-in-picture ability of PSO’s menus. The game shrinks to a live window where you can still move your character while navigating your inventory or checking a map. You can’t fight – this mode’s only real limitation – but I soon found it easy enough to shed unwanted inventory between rooms while still keeping up with the team. It’s yet another very smart feature that shows just how much thought (and testing!) was put into this project from the very start.
Playing with others, you quickly notice how easy it is to support each other. There’s one catch-all healing spell that will top off anyone within a generous range. Any character can buy and use Moon Atomizers to resurrect another player without relying on a spell to do so, and rezed characters come back instantly with full health. There’s only one attack buff and one armor buff, with both lasting about as long as it takes to clear a room. There are no taunt commands, but characters can nudge their gear and consumable stat boosters toward preventing knockdowns and blocking blows, making them an effective de facto tank. AI is generally focused on picking a nearby player and dogpiling them, so a stout melee character can hold them in place while ranged characters lob hot death from safety. Cooperation like this comes easily and organically without the need for much communication, especially when the competitive needs of grabbing loot and kills first have been removed.
There are four zones in the first episode of PSO, and each zone has three maps. The layout of these maps never changes, but the placement of door switches, props, and entrance/exit teleporters can and will shift based on the mission. Like mirror mode in a racing game, the developers try to squeeze as much variety out of the handful of static maps as they can. Maps are divided into rooms – either literal or generally defined with gates in outdoor areas – and gameplay usually finds the doors locking as you enter while waves of enemies teleport in. Slay all the waves and doors unlock so you can proceed. This moves incredibly quickly with a full compliment of four players and is clearly how this version is balanced for play.
After blasting through two levels, the third area of every zone is always a boss encounter. Defeating the boss gives a piñata explosion of XP, money, and loot. Scoop up the goods, head back to town to sell what you don’t need, and repeat. My impression was tempered by having experience in more modern MMOs, but if this was your first experience to an online world – as it was for many players – it’s not hard to see why the rush for fortune and glory with friends or friendly strangers would be catnip.
For longevity, PSO has a number of hooks in how to maximize your character stats and collect quasi-secret unique items. Guides on the net obviously have existed for decades, but the game does retain some alluring mystery if you choose to avoid those guides and see how things play out. One part takes a page from Pokémon; when your character is created, you’re assigned to a color group. At the end game, the rarest items are divvied up between the specific color groups (8 groups in all) and will only ever spawn for that group. So if your character is Red and you want a special item that only spawns for Orange, you’ll have to pair up with a group led by an Orange player to have a chance of seeing it. Gotta catch ’em all!
There’s also the MAG system. These are cute little flying robots that perch over your shoulder and follow you through combat. The game treats them as pets you must level up and grow like little Tamogochi. Every five minutes or so, you can feed your MAG up to three of your aid items – yes, the same items that would heal your health or magic. Depending on what you feed them, they will grow stats that get added to your own. Want to focus on maximizing your magic damage? Melee power? Defense? Feed your MAG items that make those stats go up.
At level milestones, MAGs will change form and learn power attacks you can fire off by getting a combat gauge to 100%. Boost their synchronization level and they will randomly decide to help you in combat with a heal, buff, or maybe even a revive. And if you don’t like your progress, new baby MAGs can be found as loot. There’s no level restrictions on these little dudes either, so you absolutely can give a veteran MAG to a brand new player and start them off with stats far higher than they should have.
While everything probably sounds pretty great so far, there are some fundamental aspects and game mechanics that stand to turn a lot of people off. PSO owes a whole lot to Diablo and its creators have always been open about this. It works fairly well as a 3D spiritual successor and the same constant drive for better gear and stats feeds your reasons for playing. However, this is not Diablo – it’s not quite as streamlined, the controls and combat are noticeably clunkier, and it can often feel like a chore to play in ways that its predecessor did not. This is the complexity of Diablo II, with all the awkwardness of an early 3D game trying to work out how to adapt to the space.
I think the biggest culprit is the room system. Every map tells the same story on repeat – enter a room, the doors ahead are locked, fight wave after wave of bad guys to proceed. They teleport in, so you never know what’s next or how many are coming. Six waves is not uncommon, with final “boss-ish” areas easily doubling that. Since you cannot play with weaker, offline enemies, missions literally drag on for hours as you wander through enormous levels with these same repeating enemy waves, broken up only by finding your limited inventory has filled up and you need to teleport home to sell it off.
Groups make much quicker work of these rooms, but if you can’t find anyone to join you, it can be a painful commitment. Only a handful of side missions give you an AI partner to work with, while none of the main story missions do. The online nature means you can’t stop without losing all your mission progress, and there’s no way to continue a mission if you leave it. If you’re out, you have to replay it from the start. I can’t imagine trying to do this while tying up your phone line, with the ever-present threat of a disconnect looming over hours of struggle. At least there’s no penalty for death in this version, as there is on consoles.
Then there are the missions that time you. They’re luckily rare, but not finishing them in time means you have to play the entire mission over again. Special hate is reserved for mission 3-2. You fight through to the end when – surprise! – the reliable teleporter technology you’ve been using this entire time suddenly stops working and you have 5 minutes to run to a specific point to escape. You have to try multiple warp gates to find the ones that move you ahead, while the wrong gates send you back to the start of the area. I played this entire level at least five times before I finally trial-and-errored my way into the solution for this little end section. I don’t see how it’s possible to pass this without wasting hours of restarts. It was the first time playing PSO that I definitely wasn’t having any fun.
Once you hit lvl 40 or so, the pace of progress noticeably slows down. Like most established multiplayer games, there’s lots of players at the early levels, lots of players at the end game, but it’s much harder to find people sharing your level and quests in the mid-game. Finishing Episode 1 and heading into Episode 2 was a lonely experience, and where the missions balanced for multiple players really started hurting. Doing those later missions solo was an absolute chore, requiring many more attempts than I expected or enjoyed. In those moments, I really felt like I was doing myself a disservice by playing this version over the GameCube.
Also owing to the tougher foes, the earliest levels are much more difficult that you might expect. Your defense and accuracy stats suck ass as a new character – even if you’re playing a character matched to the gear you’re using. My Ranger regularly missed his shots until enemies were right on top of him, and my Hunter would whiff his sword right through them. You’re at the mercy of random numbers, without stats high enough to mitigate them yet. Cue lots of Benny Hill running around the rooms, chased by groups of enemies that could floor me with one claw swing. In multiplayer, you could at least thrash enemies focused on someone else. Alone, they’re all targeting you.
There are four difficulty levels. Oddly, any progress only counts for the difficulty level you played in. Story-linked missions must be played in linear order, so you’re locked out of selecting or joining any mission ahead of where you left off. This means that even if you completed a mission on Normal, you’ll have to play its prerequisites again if you want to play it on Hard. This makes for a real conflict if you don’t want to play every mission in the game four times. It also left me finishing Episode 1 way overleveled for Episode 2 on Normal, but fairly underleveled for Episode 2 on Hard – forcing me to either grind elsewhere or start an Episode 1 Hard mode run. This isn’t fun, considering I would happily never play many of those missions solo again. It almost encourages you to wait to play all the content until you hit the highest difficulty (Ultimate), so you can join all the end-game players. But again, you wouldn’t be able to join lower difficulty missions if you wanted to help someone out.
Original PSO was based on peer-to-peer connections and didn’t protect its network packets at all, so hacking was rampant once tools to do it spread. Your experience here is probably going to depend on the private server you choose. Ephinea prevents any funny business (at the cost of freaking your antivirus software out), so I never encountered an obvious hacker during my time. According to players I met, that’s just not how it went in the Dreamcast days.
Surprisingly, some of the best stories can be found in the side missions, which are the only ones in Blue Burst that cannot be played in multiplayer. When setting up a game, you can opt to change the mode to “One Person.” Doing so unlocks additional Hunter’s Guild missions that introduce reoccurring characters and additional intrigue happening aboard Pioneer 2. Many of these are surprisingly good. There’s multiple missions with an android who works for a lab doing some kind of mysterious research project. You’ll help a girl receiving internet messages from her e-boyfriend down on the planet, who is absolutely not leading us into a trap. You’ll mess around with a shrink ray. You’ll help an aged Hunter who is 1,000 kills away from his goal of slaying 100,000 monsters, before he dies in exactly 30 minutes. There’s a good balance of drama, humor, and clever ideas here, and it make no sense that you can’t play these cooperatively.
Phantasy Star Online is in a strange limbo in 2020. I should first say that I am delighted I got the chance to play it and am exceedingly grateful for all the work that’s been put into making it available, updated, and supported for free. That said, it’s going to take a certain kind of player to break into it now that player counts are relatively low and it lacks the polished intuitiveness of modern games. If you’re lucky enough to bring a friend (or 3!) your squad will probably have a grand old time ripping through all the content together. If you’re alone, well, you’re going to need to be a bit more aggressively social than you might expect. I’m currently stuck on a timed mission in Episode 2 that I’m not sure my character will ever be able to finish on their own, but I’d rather work on a different character than simply ask for help. In that regard, PSO is really not for me.
However, if you take away the teamwork, chatting about game mechanics, and the ability to show off unique loot or practiced skill, you’re left with a stumbling combat system and a pretty forgettable overall story. This makes the offline console versions very difficult to recommend. You’ll absolutely spend less time getting through all the content than you would here, but I don’t think it will be as enjoyable. Even with only a handful of people online, PSO always felt “alive” whenever I logged on. This is a game meant for online, so it’s missing its soul if you’re playing disconnected and alone.
It’s free to make an account on just about every private server, so I definitely have no reservations recommending you try it out. However, I would not expect to get very far. Those early levels are pretty miserable, when it’s a struggle to even land a hit. Game mechanics are a bit cryptic in a Dark Souls sort of way, and, as said, you’re going to be playing through the same labyrinthine maps over and over again for increasingly weak reasons. Not to mention, there are countless MMOs these days that are more advanced, more streamlined versions of what’s on offer here. However, if you’re interested and willing to bring (or make!) some friends, this is a fascinating look at the genre’s humble beginnings. It’s amazing to see what they got right, it’s teamwork at its most satisfying, and it can still be a surprising amount of fun to play.
More strategy to attacks than the usual action RPG. Lots of stats to feel good about watching go up. Useful spells and attacks that naturally help your teammates. Tons of content, with many private servers writing/scripting new missions. Surprisingly forward thinking with its social aspects. Max of 4 players in a group means low player counts these days is much less of a problem than expected.
Missions balanced for multiple players will take hours to solo, if you can’t get anyone to join your game. Controls are noticeably outdated. Tons of replaying the same maps for slightly different reasons. Like most MMOs, a rush to the end game before you can really start to participate. Some very old-school mechanics the base game – shared character bank, shared loot, shared group XP all depend on modern quality-of-life updates that may or may not be on the server you choose to play on.
“Forget the investigation! We should just leave this planet!” — a smart scientist