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