Feature: Celebrating Global, and PSO on the Dreamcast

As of the roadmap announcement, the plan to extend Phantasy Star Online 2 to the rest of the world has been confirmed for the first time:

We are also working hard to introduce this legendary online action RPG to a global audience this year.

I thought, now seems like a good time to reflect and remember the release of the original game in what was then known as the PAL regions. So I've assembled a series of extracts from my collection of the UK's Official Dreamcast Magazine and my own copies of the games.

Phantasy Star Online was first revealed in September 1999, being reported in ODM Issue 01 (November 1999, sold in October) as the most exciting of four Sonic Team projects. Placed above an ill-fated hope for what became Half-Life: Blue Shift on the console, it gave us an glimpse of the city on Pioneer 2 and an early version of Forest:

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To me an interesting detail is the dating of the series' origin to 1988. Phantasy Star on the Master System released in Japan in 1987, but was first released in English in November 1988. While I believe every Phantasy Star game to be translated to English was released in Europe, Australia and friends, to my knowledge the original Phantasy Star is the one and only game in the series' 32-year history they haven't had to wait after America got it (although they had a tiny print run, a symptom of the era).

I bring this up not to complain, but to point out that the original Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast came a very close second. Though that article hoped PSO would arrive in late 2000, it arrived in the US on 29 January 2001 and in PAL regions just 17 days later, on 15 February 2001.

Prior to that though, the intro movie was released, and included on a demo disc in ODM Issue 15 (January 2001, sold in December):

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This issue also featured a four-page preview involving a play session with Yuji Naka, where all 17 screenshots were of the Caves area. The article concludes with Naka bemoaning the release not being global:

It's still due for release in Japan in mid-December, but will not now be out in Europe or the USA until January. Not such a long wait, really - only a few weeks. "Yes... but I wish that everybody could have it in December," said Naka, sulking like a seven-year-old.

Beyond that the only real talking points are how it describes the game as "Dreamcast's first online role-playing game" and calls the Dr. Montague FOnewm template "that tastelessly clothed Magician". (I'm not sure showing the whole article would still qualify as fair use; if anyone could provide me the guidance on that I would be able to.)

Things went quiet for a month, but then returned with aplomb on the game's release, taking both the front cover and the title of ODM Issue 17 (March 2001, sold in February):

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The issue dedicated a full 10 pages to its expansive review (again, not sure if I can share this) scoring the game a comparatively modest 9:

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One unusual factor was the phone bill! Sadly even by 2001 most of the UK didn't have always-on ADSL yet; we still paid for internet by the minute! If you thought subscription fees to play were bad... by the way, that URL has long since been defunct.

Besides the review, the issue also included two double-page advert spreads:

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This first one was placed before the review and focused on the game's ability to play with others across the world. Sadly Japan and the rest of the world have been kept apart starting from Universe. But with that exception global cross-play has both remained a feature in the western release of all subsequent Phantasy Star titles and is likely to continue with Online 2.

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The second appeared several pages after the review, repeating the game's partially-forgotten tagline of "You Are Not The Only Hero" along with one of the surprisingly few mentions of one of the reasons for the game selling well: It also contained a trial of Sonic Adventure 2 in the form of an early version of City Escape.

But it worked! The following issue shared a Sega of America source that the game had over 200,000 online registrations one month in:

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This amounted to over 200,000 purchases from online players (with more sticking to offline) as each copy of the game included a Serial Number and Access Key required to validate it with the game servers. It is worth mention that the PSO2 visiphone weekly rankings suggest there are 120,000 to 150,000 players each week; with the extra PC releases and accessibility to a global audience PSO2 just in the west will likely reach a comparable number to PSO's first outing!

In spite of what this news said, Ver.2 did ultimately make it to the west as well, though the wait was substantially longer than the first release; while it released in Japan on 7 June 2001 (6 months after the original game!), America had to wait three and a half months to get it on 25 September... and then the PAL countries had to wait a further five for it to arrive on 1 March 2002, more than a year after the first version!

As a consolation though, the PAL version did not require the subscription fee Ver.2 introduced in both Japan and America. Consequently and uniquely for the series there was a brief organised practise of importing the game from the UK to America!

The game continued to be well-liked by ODM; the three subsequent ODM issues included multi-full-page player guides (again, not sure I can share these) and made sure to name-drop the game on the front covers of both Issue 18 (April 2001, sold in March) and 19 (May 2001, sold in April):

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It also topped both the editor's "Playlist" of recommendations:

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This meant it beat both Samba De Amigo (one of the other four Sonic Team games in that Issue 1 feature) and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 (the feature game of Issue 15 that included PSO's intro movie).

Moreover, it was added to ODM's rolling list of recommentations, with mention of both the game's translation features and the phone call expense:

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All of which either paid off or reflected the game's inevitable success; it planted itself at the top of the top twenty for the Dreamcast by the most utilised charting body of the time:

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Most importantly, many hours of fun were had! I personally knew two, maybe three, people who bought a Dreamcast entirely because of Phantasy Star Online, in spite of the console's imminent cessation of production.

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It also caused my own Dreamcast to be very well used, as shown! One detail I'd long forgotten was that PAL units could do 50Hz (being the departing standard for TVs at the time) or 60Hz in support of a new PAL60 format. PAL Phantasy Star Online provided a little card - shown in the upper left of this photo - saying you needed to set it to 60Hz to play with other regions!

These days you will struggle to find someone who owned a Dreamcast - especially a PAL unit with the iconic blue swirl - who doesn't know about Phantasy Star Online. It was the Dreamcast versions of Online specifically that gave the Phantasy Star series enduring popularity in the west, hence its use as a PSO2 Closed Beta reward.

This popularity is owed to all regions. So if PSO2 does celebrate its global launch made up almost entirely of PAL countries with some rewards, I'd like to finish this look back by flying the flag for a really obvious choice! And like the NA edit of the Saturn mask it would be remarkably simple to make, needing only a hue shift:

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Love this post. Really. Brings back memories.I also got the KB peripheral for this game (and it's still somewhere among my stored stuff). When the DC croaked, I moved to the GameCube, and then to Blue Burst on PC. Of course, I also played all versions and episodes of PSU on Playstation 2, PC and xBox 360, AND the PSPortable games.... I can say while I had varying levels of love for those games (Portable 2 had a story I really disliked but the gameplay was still so damn good), I gave this franchise a lot of my time. Mostly since I played 1 in MS and 4 on MD.

Yeah, Phantasy Star fills my need for space adventure soap opera really well.

Steve the robot man. XD

@ZorokiHanuke said in Feature: Celebrating Global, and PSO on the Dreamcast:

Love this post. Really. Brings back memories.I also got the KB peripheral for this game (and it's still somewhere among my stored stuff).

Thanks! And yeah, that thing is pretty solid. In hindsight I'm amused they added a number pad, which is probably a relic of the age. I expect in today's world of condensed peripherals it would have nixed that and looked more like most laptop keyboards. It's also nice they made an international model with the Euro symbol, Alt Gr and regionally-faithful placement of keys such as the quotation mark and @ sign.

@ZorokiHanuke said in Feature: Celebrating Global, and PSO on the Dreamcast:

Of course, I also played all versions and episodes of PSU on Playstation 2, PC and xBox 360, AND the PSPortable games.... I can say while I had varying levels of love for those games (Portable 2 had a story I really disliked but the gameplay was still so damn good), I gave this franchise a lot of my time. Mostly since I played 1 in MS and 4 on MD.

You played way more Universe than me! I'm one of the many who put it down in disappointment after updates for the western release all but stopped, several months before it was terminated owing to lack of customers... because they had put it down... because updates had stopped. What a silly situation that was. In any case I didn't see the need to restart on 360 servers and never owned any of Sony's portable devices, so besides one or two playthroughs of the classic series' games (in various forms) it's been just over ten years since I last played a new Phantasy Star.

@Lorient said in Feature: Celebrating Global, and PSO on the Dreamcast:

Steve the robot man. XD

Yeah! 😅 That picture was always funny in a few ways. I always thought it was amusing how much it makes Elenor look like a complete loner.

I suppose you can still get a used Sony PSP off your favorite online market to play the portable games (or go emulation, but I still encourage buying the games), which are in essence upgraded versions of Universe in terms of content and gameplay. Though they have a completely different story, pretty much all main characters from Universe show up and pretty much all stages found in Universe are playable. The hub in Portable 1 is just a series of overhead pictures of Universe's hub, but for Portable 2, they made a new 3D hub which is much smaller than Universe's but a bit more colorful.

One of the things I liked most about Universe overall was the cast super weapon ultimate moves and the beast transformations. In Universe, Humans and Newmans didn't have an ultimate, but that was fixed on the Portable versions by giving them something akin to the old PSO Photon Blasts. Character models were also very well done considering the age of the game.

@ZorokiHanuke said in Feature: Celebrating Global, and PSO on the Dreamcast:

I suppose you can still get a used Sony PSP off your favorite online market to play the portable games (or go emulation, but I still encourage buying the games), which are in essence upgraded versions of Universe in terms of content and gameplay. Though they have a completely different story, pretty much all main characters from Universe show up and pretty much all stages found in Universe are playable. The hub in Portable 1 is just a series of overhead pictures of Universe's hub, but for Portable 2, they made a new 3D hub which is much smaller than Universe's but a bit more colorful.

I'd heard a lot of that. Moreover being single-player games the experience was surely streamlined (EXP and drop rates for instance). Universe was streamlined offline as well, though much of the content was withheld to make network mode seem more worth the subscription fee. Portable probably just included all that content so it probably would be the ideal way to play nowadays (and I hear getting the original to even work on PCs now is a hassle).

@ZorokiHanuke said in Feature: Celebrating Global, and PSO on the Dreamcast:

One of the things I liked most about Universe overall was the cast super weapon ultimate moves and the beast transformations. In Universe, Humans and Newmans didn't have an ultimate, but that was fixed on the Portable versions by giving them something akin to the old PSO Photon Blasts. Character models were also very well done considering the age of the game.

Yeah, oh boy was it unfair in Universe.

"CASTs and Beasts get special moves and substantially more HP, ATT and DEF!"

"What do humans and newmans get?"

"Basically nothing!"

I remember before release some people were thinking the Crea series would be amazingly powerful to make up for the lack of specials because that was the only thing anyone could find that humans and newmas got and the game couldn't possibly just be badly balanced, right? The abundance of money and cheap Trifluid meant nobody was even using normal attacks at all by the time the level cap was raised to 60.

Having rolled a newman Hunter for the first few months I eventually gave up on it being fixed by the expansion and restarted with a CAST. Made the game way easier, it was silly. But yeah, ever since the start people were always saying newmans should get summons which is basically what they ended up getting. I never understood why that was the idea though; newmans in the series never had any association with summoning. Then again prior to Online they didn't have much association with magic or elvishness either. Universe giving them space bows was probably the nail in the coffin for my interest in the race.

PSO1 is and will always be more immersive and addictive than PSO2.

@Miraglyth From what I remember, the Portable series did have some kind of network functions. Portable 2 even had downloable content, some of it Japanese, but could be played on the NA version. Remember the Sealed J and TJ swords? You could get them as part of DLC in Portable 2 if I remember (do those swords even exist in PSO2? I know Sange, Yasha and Agito are here). You just had to find all that dlc on the Internet.

As for race fairness, yeah, Universe did a disservice to Newmans and Humans by not getting them on par in gameplay mechanics with beasts and casts. The summons came too late and the story behind them (in Portable 2) was kind of silly (Native tribes? Really Sega? Not to disrespect real world natives, but using that society as a crutch to move a story is a disrespect on itself in my opinion). But AT LEAST Sega can claim they made a game where everyone had similar mechanics. I also liked how you could add weapon types to the class you were playing, and the large amount of weapons every class could play with. PSO2 breaking the classic classes in two was a bad move for me, but it doesn't seem to limit the player's arsenal in combat. Still a little dull at first but the sub class thing fixes it a little (JUST a little).

On the bad points, [And Spoiler warning here] . spoiler . spoiler . spoiler

The whole Universe series had the most anti player stories I've ever seen in games. The Original Universe was silly but not that bad since YOU were playing as Ethan, and the player created character was simply a nameless soldier playing in a nameless side quest with no story in a completely separate mode. But for the rest of the games you get to insert your created character in the story, BUT, you get paired with the most obnoxious characters, pull all the weight for them (they died easily and hit like wet noodles), but the story recognizes THEM, not you, as the true heroes. From that tsundere done wrong in Ambition of Iluminous to the love meter visual novel waifus in the Portable series (at least the cast waifu in Portable 1 was likeable). Portable 2 was the worst of the bunch, since your character wasn't even mentioned in the ending, only a bit as sort of Emilia's maid or something (all after you suffered through all her whining). Heck, ((and here's the biggest bomb)) . . trigger warning below .

Sega writers even went as far as pairing the loli and shota beast kids and made them have BABIES! So yeah, skip the story if you want to keep your sanity. . . . Spoiler end..

Other than that, the Universe series gets an A+ in combat mechanics, despite all the unfair things going on there. It was fast, it was fun, it allowed you to run a game based mostly on player skill (until you whip out your cast orbital super laser, that is), and it was all pretty satisfying in the end. Just, skip the damn story.

@ZorokiHanuke said in Feature: Celebrating Global, and PSO on the Dreamcast:

The whole Universe series had the most anti player stories I've ever seen in games. The Original Universe was silly but not that bad since YOU were playing as Ethan, and the player created character was simply a nameless soldier playing in a nameless side quest with no story in a completely separate mode.

Come again? Sure your character was Laia's trainee in Episode 2 but by Episode 3 they were basically the Guardians' #1 operative. Didn't the characters' generic name for them change to something like Commander? I know Portable was set between Episodes 1 and 2 before your character showed up but I never really checked back on the story placement after the subsequent JP only games.

Other than that, the Universe series gets an A+ in combat mechanics, despite all the unfair things going on there. It was fast, it was fun

If anything they deserve points for iterating quickly, in particular Just Attack (then localised Timed Attack) to bring an element of PSO skill into PSU which lost it at first. I smiled when I saw that returned in Online 2 during the tutorial with almost no changes (beyond inconsistent translation), and only quality-of-life iterations like First Attack that did away with the silly prevalence of meta like Normal ➡ Anga Jabroga.

I wonder if Portable onwards did away with other combat problems. For instance if you had high enough DFP, enemies' attacks wouldn't interrupt yours, but if you also had too much EVP, you would instead get interrupted by an evade animation which was more counter-productive than just eating the 3 damage and killing the enemies! Timed Counter (Just Counter) meant you could chain that into a critical but if you just wanted to kill weak enemies it was still slower. (Naturally with the lowest DFP and the highest EVP, this was yet another reason newmans sucked).

Nice post! Nostalgia!

The good ol days.

Remember sitting down to the character creator and hearing this for a good 20-30 minutes while you make a new characters?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IuWoILBZgk

Remember standing in the lobby for a good majority of time and hearing this?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxDP6RI-DMI

Remember the most catchy boss music in the game?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5HbJRsdeYg

I remember the good ol days.

@Miraglyth I felt the "Commander" name was a placebo. See the story and you see how in AOTI Ethan and his waifu steal the show at the end, and in Portable, you are just an escort at most. As for specific mechanics, I don't remember specifics but I do remember how in the original PSO you could raise your defenses so high that you'd pretty much block/evade (the animation was shared between both blocking and evasion) on almost everything minus some boss attacks. And there your def was so high even the last bosses did wet noodle damage to you. I remember in the GameCube version, I took a fonewearl to level 200 and the thing got so broken that I managed to kill Seabed last boss Flowen online, on ultimate difficulty, with basic foie and a melee weapon....

EDIT: Just wanted to add about the story, that these are only my feelings about it. I simply felt like my character was being handled like a footnote in the Universe series. Original PSO, in my opinion, treated our characters in much higher regards, and PSO2 is doing quite well with how it portrays the player character. Yes, we also fell victim to waifu escort syndrome here, but there's more about our characters that makes them more important than just that. Something I never saw in the Universe series.

@ZorokiHanuke said in Feature: Celebrating Global, and PSO on the Dreamcast:

@Miraglyth I felt the "Commander" name was a placebo. See the story and you see how in AOTI Ethan and his waifu steal the show at the end, and in Portable, you are just an escort at most.

I mean yeah, they can't do much about sticking your custom character in FMVs. They really couldn't in, what, 2007? When they needed to be pre-rendered. Having high quality in-engine scenes wasn't really a thing in games until the early-mid 2010s.

But in terms of a sense of identity they did quite well in Episode 3 since most of the leads were either in the Guardians but not active operatives (Laia, Maya) or dependent on you (Lumia, Tonnio, most of the others) or were not in the Guardians at all and had distinct roles you'd cross paths with (Ethan, Karen, Tylor).

Moreover there was the whole deal with your choices changing the objectives of the missions you were doing and opening up other routes in other missions! Yes the main reason for that was to stretch the content by making players do some missions multiple times but it was still cool how that affected characters' relationships and parts of the ending that weren't in FMVs. I wouldn't know if they did anything similar in Portable.

@ZorokiHanuke said in Feature: Celebrating Global, and PSO on the Dreamcast:

As for specific mechanics, I don't remember specifics but I do remember how in the original PSO you could raise your defenses so high that you'd pretty much block/evade (the animation was shared between both blocking and evasion) on almost everything minus some boss attacks.

For defense Online and Universe were pretty similar - If you were hit by a normal attack and your defense was too low (and/or you took enough damage), you'd be smacked to the floor which interrupted anything you were doing. If your defense was high enough, you'd still be knocked out of what you were doing but would recover much more quickly.

The block/evade animation you're talking about is evading, yes. That also worked similar in Online and Universe - if you evade an attack, you do the evade animation. It always interrupts what you were doing, but it also spares you from being smacked to the ground if the attack was strong enough to have done so (or was one of a few specific enemy attacks that always do).

The trouble was, I'm pretty sure only in Universe could you eat a weak hit without your attack being interrupted if your defense was high enough. But for all such hits, you could still evade them. This combination meant you could evade attacks that you otherwise wouldn't care about - when you didn't want to evade them - and there was nothing you could do to change that. You get grazed by a 1 damage attack just before Anga Jabroga lands? Ting! The enemies are all still alive. And since newmans had the highest EVP, they suffered it the worst just like pretty much everything else.

It's just one of many things that Online 2 has clearly reflected on and done better this time around. Another example was hilariously counter-productive effects like Blow Away, caused by several PAs that sent enemies flying halfway across the room. When you have 4+ people wailing on an enemy, the last thing you want to do is have someone smack them across the room because that effectively rescues them from the rest of your party. Tornado Dance was infamous for doing that, and to any competent player it was basically considered a movement PA.

@Miraglyth As for attack and defense mechanics, I also remembered in both PSO and Universe (and now I also see it here in PSO2) that in SOME cases, being knocked down was of benefit to the player, because you get a full second or so of total invincibility. Yes, that's good for players to have a survival chance and reduces the amount of times people die and have to retry content, but I find it illogical. I know that's a view not shared by who knows how many players, but I always found it odd from a sense of perspective that being shown how weak the character is by using a knock down mechanic, gives them their strongest moment ever by also making them invincible while they stand up... Again, mechanics over logic, and that's accepted gameplay not exclusive to this series. And I'm sure we've all been saved by it once or twice.

As for the attacks with push back in Universe, that indeed tore a hole in my patience, because NPCs could do it too, ruining combos that could have killed the mob, but now we have to chase them across the room (the knockback in Universe was ridiculous).

As for the story, all I can say is that it is how I felt about it. I don't think you need to insert the player character into every cutscene to make them feel important. Clever writing can win the day. A creative writer could play around the limitations imposed by having customizable player characters, still making them look more than escorts or foot notes, while still showing awesome cutscenes with NPCs. Now, this is, like other things, not exclusive to this game, and it still happens in modern games. The usual problem that happens in these games is that because devs can't and shouldn't try to code a cutscene with every weapon a player can use, they instead make them weapon-less and that makes them more useless in those cutscenes. Again, I'd say, if a writer or whoever is in charge of cutscenes cannot make a player character look useful, might as well not include them in specific, more action heavy cutscenes (after all, we control the character through the gameplay part of the action). I mean, there are other ways to write the script for a cutscene to make events happen without making use of a player character on it, or to require minimal input from the character. A simple example could be to make the player character arrive a bit late to a situation where an NPC gets attacked, instead of having the player character standing there doing nothing. And if said NPC is in the player's party, you can make the cutscene starting up with an event that separates them briefly. I'd take that over the feeling of uselessness every time. Anyway, I'm talking more in general here, because it happens if too many character creator games.

As I said before, PSO2 did a decent job including the player in cutscenes without making them look useless (at least from what I've seen on the current NA episodes we have). More games should take this as example. There are two games I recommend for seeing how a player character can be awesome in cutscenes. First, the original God Eater games, and second, the Dragon Ball Xenoverse series. In both of these games, yes, the character suffers from silent syndrome, but in action cutscenes, they join the fight and even defeat enemies through those cutscenes. They look important and meaningful, and that's one of the things I pursue when creating a character and tossing them into a story. And it's way more satisfying than seeing them either stand there while their friends are murdered, or being murdered themselves (as it happens with the opposite example that is Blade and Soul cutscenes).

@ZorokiHanuke said in Feature: Celebrating Global, and PSO on the Dreamcast:

@Miraglyth As for attack and defense mechanics, I also remembered in both PSO and Universe (and now I also see it here in PSO2) that in SOME cases, being knocked down was of benefit to the player, because you get a full second or so of total invincibility. Yes, that's good for players to have a survival chance and reduces the amount of times people die and have to retry content, but I find it illogical.

Being knocked down does give iframes. That's not the only situation where it happens but it's the most obvious one. PSO2 continues that, but it has also started trying out having enemies' attacks spaced out specifically to hit characters the moment those iframes end. Dying to that is pretty infuriating really!

The usual problem that happens in these games is that because devs can't and shouldn't try to code a cutscene with every weapon a player can use, they instead make them weapon-less and that makes them more useless in those cutscenes.

I don't think this forum has spoiler tags so all I can really say is I think I understand why you brought up this point!

And if said NPC is in the player's party, you can make the cutscene starting up with an event that separates them briefly. I'd take that over the feeling of uselessness every time. Anyway, I'm talking more in general here, because it happens if too many character creator games.

I imagine that'd get pretty jarring after the first one or two times as well.

And it's way more satisfying than seeing them either stand there while their friends are murdered

In fairness, Phantasy Star did that way before customisable characters was a thing.