Here in the West, we tend to think of Dragon Quest (née Warrior) and Final Fantasy as the grandfathers of modern JRPGs. While both titles were immensely important to the foundation of the genre in North America, we often understate the role the first two Phantasy Star games played. Phantasy Star 2 is a particularly disappointing omission. Looking back, it's remarkable how Sega's 16-bit JRPG confidently overturned genre trends that had barely taken root.
In some ways, Phantasy Star 2 for the Sega Genesis was way ahead of its time—and even though I must beg your pardon for resorting to a cliché, it's just the best way to describe the adventure. Phantasy Star 2 came west in March 1990, two months before the much more primitive-looking Final Fantasy came to the NES. But Phantasy Star 2's contributions to JRPGs go beyond its lush graphics, big sprites, and animated battle scenes. Its expansive story is still worth paying attention to now, 30 years later. It gradually links back to the first Phantasy Star game and continues to build upon the series' Algo star system, a small collection of habitable planets deep within the Andromeda galaxy.
Phantasy Star 2's main character, Rolf, begins the story as a government grunt who's tasked with discovering why the Mother Brain computer that controls the climate on the desert planet of Mota has gone ga-ga. Unsurprisingly, Rolf's destiny turns out to be bigger than he ever guessed, which is standard JRPG stuff. The Algo star system, however, isn't standard. It's the base of a compelling universe that tells stories about aliens, rocket ships, and super computers rather than tales of dragons and princesses in distress.
It's clear Sega regarded RPGs as a powerful storytelling medium from day one, and it opted to built on that. But as much as I'd love to give Phantasy Star 2 an easy recommendation, its gameplay hasn't aged quite as well as its story. Its random battles are frustratingly frequent, its sprawling dungeons are confusing to navigate, and the general experience moves slower than the Second Coming of Space Christ.
True, fighting can be a real slog in most 8- and- 16-bit RPGs. Even Final Fantasy 4, which came west a year later than Phantasy Star 2, suffers from overworld sprites that crawl and random fights that get in your face when you have the audacity to take more than three uninterrupted steps at a time. But the fights in Final Fantasy IV—and even the practically-prehistoric initial Dragon Quest game—are brisk compared to Phantasy Star 2, which forces you to watch enemies gradually fade in before you enter your commands and then watch your party execute attacks that are impressive but slow. Worse, every time a foe hits you in Phantasy Star 2, the screen flashes red and you're subjected to a tinny klaxon. It's not exactly seizure-inducing, but it's a lot to endure for the 30 or so hours you're expected to put into the game.
And while Phantasy Star 2 is very forward-thinking with its themes and story, its dungeons are an unfortunate step back to the most tedious cellars we waded through in 8-bit RPGs. Phantasy Star 2's dungeons are largely flat, featureless, and pocked with stairways and teleporters that whisk you from one similar-looking floor to the next. Picture the Dragonlord's castle from the first Dragon Quest game. Then picture traversing it over and over. Good times.
The first Phantasy Star game's dungeons are arguably its weakest trait too. While Phantasy Star's faux-3D corridors echoed the dungeon in 1987's Megami Tensei for the Famicom (which paid tribute to Wizardry and other PC dungeon crawlers), they proved to be a real pain to explore. But M2's recently-released Sega AGES upgrade for Phantasy Star made the adventure much more palatable with options like auto-mapping, reduced encounter rates, and an in-game cheat sheet.
Yes, this is my way of insinuating Phantasy Star 2 would probably be hugely improved by the same small but significant tweaks M2 gave the first game. In its current raw form on the Sega Genesis, Phantasy Star 2 is a bit of a rough recommendation. It's a shame because there's still so much to admire about how the game presents its sci-fi world. I love walking into weapon shops staffed by delightfully '80s anime cyberpunk ladies. I love reviving downed party members through a Cloning Lab instead of the usual Church or Shrine—and I super-love how the Cloning Labs are run by pale-faced scientists who keep jars of fetuses on their shelves. The implications are incredible. When you revive a party member at a Church, you generally get the sense that you're bringing their wayward soul back to their shell. Walking around with a clone is so much creepier. Who are you? For that matter, who am I?
If you're still intent on giving Phantasy Star 2 a go, there are certainly worse ways to spend your time. Just steel yourself for a lot of slow-moving encounters, and don't feel bad about consulting some maps online (as an older game, Phantasy Star 2 is preserved in a few delightful '90s-era RPG fan pages that continue to hang in there while the rest of the Internet buzzes around them at light speed. I'm reminded of Carl Fredricksen's tiny house flanked by the huge skyscrapers in Pixar's Up.). It also helps to play Phantasy Star 2 on the Sega Genesis Classics collection; the fast-forward feature comes in real handy during enemy encounters.
If you want an RPG that echoes Phantasy Star 2 but improves its molasses-gummed mechanics, Phantasy Star 4 ranks on our list of The Top 25 RPGs of All Time. It also carries on Phantasy Star 2's story, though it's easy to jump in and appreciate without any previous knowledge about the Algo system.
Your homework is to wish hard for a Sega AGES upgrade for Phantasy Star 2, and then hope those wishes aren't eaten by a bio-monster.
In many ways, Phantasy Star 2 is a highly unique RPG that doesn't get the credit it deserves for revolutionizing RPG stories and settings 30 years ago. Unfortunately, it's bogged down by a high encounter rate, a slow battle system, and confusing dungeons. M2, please work your Sega AGES magic on this game. It deserves it.