The Top 25 RPGs of All Time #19: Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium

The Genesis didn't have Final Fantasy, but Phantasy Star IV is one heck of a consolation prize.

Analysis by Nadia Oxford, .

This is the latest entry in our ongoing countdown of the Top 25 RPGs of all time. This week: Sega's conclusion to the Phantasy Star story stands toe-to-toe with the SNES' best RPGs.

The Super Nintendo is home to some of the greatest RPGs ever made, but that doesn't mean Nintendo faithfuls living in the '90s never felt a twinge of RPG envy when they looked at the Sega Genesis' library. Yes, the SNES has Final Fantasy IV and VI. Yes, it has Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and the first two Breath of Fire games. The SNES, however, lacks Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium. That's a significant omission, even for a console with the full weight of Squaresoft behind it.

Phantasy Star IV is a game worth longing for. Even the SNES' Final Fantasy entries can't boast a universe as well-developed as Phantasy Star's Algo star system. It's populated by an intriguing cast of cyborgs, machines, human-like races, and aliens—all with their own histories and cultures. It has dire threats that plague generations of heroes across millennia, and it all comes to a head in Phantasy Star IV.

Not to say Phantasy Star IV doesn't revel in an RPG cliché here and there. The game starts with two freelance "hunters," Chaz and Alys, on a mission to clean monsters from an infested basement. The story doesn't wait very long before the stakes are thrown sky-high, however. You quickly learn the characters' home planet of Motavia is experiencing rapid desertification, though the realm's rampaging bio-monsters might decimate the population long before the hostile climate gets a chance. Bad times make for efficient dictators, and sure enough, a dark magician calling himself Zio promises to raze the remnants of Motavia and build a lush new society out of its ashes. Unsurprisingly, there's something worse behind Zio—something much, much worse that's been haunting Phantasy Star's hero characters across four games spanning thousands of years.

Phantasy Star IV isn't as visually appealing as Final Fantasy VI or Secret of Mana, but that's by design. Motavia is a dying planet, and its arid landscapes reflect its decline. The bleak brown environments and sterile mechanical corridors you travel through are broken up by bright manga-style cutscenes that make for effective interludes and character development. Phantasy Star IV's fights are technically impressive, too: Each character has a unique attack animation, and the monsters (who are also animated) are intimidating. Some bosses take up the entire screen.

Phantasy Star IV's world is bleak, but its character designs and cutscenes inject a lot of character into the game.

Fights in Phantasy Star IV are turn-based, as per 16-bit RPG tradition, and characters can combine techniques for powerful combo attacks. Phantasy Star IV's combat isn't its best trait, in my opinion. Its rapid-fire random encounters are easy to get tired of—but that's typical of most RPGs from the same era. What sets Phantasy Star IV apart as one of the greatest RPGs of all time is its eagerness to tell a story that never talks down to its players. Main characters suffer permanent deaths. Its narrative manages to tie up the three previous games without making newcomers feel like interlopers. Zio is a genuine threat, and his followers are rabid beyond reason; you come across brainwashed townspeople who thrash in religious ecstasy. Even Zio's paint-by-numbers schpiel about creating a new world from the ashes of Motavia becomes much more unsettling when you notice his right-hand man, Juza, wears a frock with three downward-facing triangles on it—the symbol for nuclear weapons, radioactivity, and fallout.

And it might be wishful thinking on my part, but there's a lot about Phantasy Star IV (and Phantasy Star in general) that reminds me of Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quintet series of young adult novels. The games' mix of magic and science fiction, not to mention Phantasy Star IV's conclusive struggle of heroes versus a black entity that wishes only for the destruction of all life, is reminiscent of A Wrinkle in Time, a Swiftly Tilting Planet, and some of L'Engle's other works.

The icy fog roiling around your ankles means everything's great.

True to its name, Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium was an ending. There hasn't been a follow-up title outside the Phantasy Star Online games and Phantasy Star Nova, and good luck playing those if you live in the West. Much as RPG fans would love to see a Phantasy Star V, Phantasy Star IV's conclusion doesn't really call out for one. Sega deserves some respect for telling a story with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end instead of meandering all over Algo and leaving loose ends and question marks everywhere. Phantasy Star IV is the very end, my friends, and that's just another reason to lend it a few hours of your time.

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Comments 25

  • Avatar for DogNozzle #1 DogNozzle 2 months ago
    Man, that header image... this game leans so hard on the manga aesthetic, it's pretty funny that in 1995 they were still doing the weird VHS-barbarian-movie box art thing for the US release. Must have been the very tail end of that trend.

    Anyway, this game is a legit classic, the flower at the end of one of the branches of the RPG family tree. It's a shame that they never made another game in the series (don't @ me).
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #2 Funny_Colour_Blue 2 months ago
    @DogNozzle What's interesting about the box art is that, the original japanese boxart is not all that different from what we ended up with in America:

    And what's really cool about this too is that, the japanese commercial phantasy star 4 got, actually used western actors!:

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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #3 Vonlenska 2 months ago
    Phantasy Star IV is right up there with FFVI and Chrono Trigger as the absolute top-tier 16-bit RPGs had to offer. I might put it at the very top on some days.

    Much more than a sequel (which is unnecessary), I'd love to see remakes of the Phantasy Stars which just...smooth out a lot of the inconsistencies and mechanical rough spots. The Sega Ages remakes of I and II are fine, but feel a bit cheap and don't really get rid of the grind. I - III have so many fantastic ideas but revisiting them now is...a little painful. IV at least has aged beautifully.

    It's a shame the series ended right as it was hitting its stride, but I guess there's worse things than going out at your best. It's preferable to milking things to the bone with unnecessary sequels and spinoffs, anyway.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #4 SargeSmash 2 months ago
    As someone that didn't really get heavily into the Genesis until the Dreamcast came out, I went bonkers and bought most of the RPG library on eBay. Phantasy Star IV was undoubtedly the best traditional RPG on the system, and can proudly stand among the 16-bit giants.
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  • Avatar for fretto #5 fretto 2 months ago
    I enjoyed Magical Starsign on the DS which I would define as a space RPG, or atleast traveling between planets being a large part of it
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  • Avatar for Flojomojo #6 Flojomojo 2 months ago
    @DogNozzle Boris Vallejo paintings were EVERYWHERE at this time.
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  • Avatar for SuperShinobi #7 SuperShinobi 2 months ago
    Nice to see a Genesis RPG on the list. I don't think most Genesis gamers thought of the Phantasy Star or Shining Force games as a consolation prize though, as JRPGs were still kind of a niche genre in the early '90s. I was a big Genesis fan back then, but managed to miss both series, although I was aware of them and that they were highly rated games.

    Final Fantasy 7 on the PS1 was probably the first JRPG breakthrough hit that even non-RPG fans were into.Edited August 2018 by SuperShinobi
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  • Avatar for mattcom26 #8 mattcom26 2 months ago
    What happened to “THE AXE OF THE BLOOD GOD!” sample starting out the show the last couple weeks? I hope that’s not been “axed” — how else will I know I’ve switched over from Retronauts.
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  • Avatar for RushDawg #9 RushDawg 2 months ago
    @DogNozzle That trend continued a bit longer. Check out the Suikoden 1 box art for the PS1. Publishers didn't really start using anime-style images for their Western box art until anime became popular in the west (around the time DBZ became big) .

    Edited August 2018 by RushDawg
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #10 Kat.Bailey 2 months ago
    @mattcom26 Felt stale and cheesy so I cut it.
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  • Avatar for DarkGlaive #11 DarkGlaive 2 months ago
    Deleted August 2018 by DarkGlaive
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  • Avatar for DarkGlaive #12 DarkGlaive 2 months ago
    Phantasy Star IV is the first JRPG I ever played around the age of 8 or 9. For someone who would go on to be a voracious fantasy reader and JRPG player it was an eye opening experience. Unfortunately, my desire to see the story faster made me run away from battles which inevitably caused me to get stuck. I would go on to rent it a couple of more times but never could get past Birth Valley.

    Eventually, I got an SNES, access to a lot more JRPG's, and learned how to grind and play RPG's properly. I later discovered emulators and came back to Phantasy Star IV the summer before I started high school. I was able to finish it with little problem. I love the style and music of the game. It sits in that peculiarly Japanese sci-fi zone that has enough fantasy elements to keep a hardcore fantasy fan like me interested.
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  • Avatar for Talraen #13 Talraen 2 months ago
    The only Phantasy Star game I've played to date is the original, which I had basically the exact opposite history with compared to Shane. (Speaking of which, love having a Shane Bettenhausen appearance!) I had a Master System as a kid, before an NES (I don't know how that happened), but never even heard the name "Phantasy Star" until well after the original series was done. I finally played it on Virtual Console, and I was pretty impressed with it. Which put the rest of the series on the never-ending backlog.

    Also if we're taking a vote,@Kat.Bailey, I don't think the old intro was stale or cheesy, and I definitely missed it this week. I mean, the name of the show is "Axe of the Blood God," embrace the weirdness! (I hope this isn't a prelude to changing the name... unless it becomes Active Dimension Babble or something.)
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #14 Kat.Bailey 2 months ago
    @Talraen The name stays
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  • Avatar for mattcom26 #15 mattcom26 2 months ago
    @Talraen I have to agree with your sentiments... far from cheesy, the intro added some charming, Blood-God-ian flair.
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  • Avatar for The-Challenger #16 The-Challenger 2 months ago
    @Talraen I didn't miss the deep laughter at all. I prefer that the podcast open with random battle music.
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  • Avatar for DogNozzle #17 DogNozzle 2 months ago
    @RushDawg That's pretty funny... come to think of it, you could take the style they're using there on that Suikoden cover and slap it on the front of a new Witcher game and it wouldn't look totally out of place.
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  • Avatar for Neifirst #18 Neifirst 2 months ago
    What a wonderful episode of Blood God! I remember paying $99.99 for my copy of Phantasy Star IV at Babbage's and it was one of the first late-era Genesis games that came in those awful cardboard sleeves instead of the plastic cases, and (I think) had a black-and-white copy manual instead of a full-color one. I absolutely adored those battle animations from PS2 and 4, and the vehicle combat was really spectacular too! Even though there really isn't a need for a Phantasy Star V story-wise, I do wish Sega had done more traditional JRPGs in the past couple decades. Apart from Skies of Arcadia (also Reiko Kodama), they pretty much have ignored the genre.
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  • Avatar for 123gomovies #19 123gomovies 2 months ago
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  • Avatar for utopianemo #20 utopianemo 2 months ago
    Instead of mirroring what I wrote about this fine episode on Kat’s blog, I’ll just mention that to clarify a few of Shane’s comments, the Mark III wasn’t technically “the Japanese Master System”, nor did it come with FM synthesis. The US SMS was a redesigned version of the Mark III, which had an expensive FM-synth add-on peripheral. It played FM versions of certain games’ music that were programmed to do so.

    For whatever reason, the North American SMS was subsequently introduced back into the Japanese market(kind of like Diaclones/Transformers), albeit with the FM-synth retconned into the console’s architecture. Unfortunately, the SMS was just as big of an also-ran as the Mark III in Japan.
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  • Avatar for Arvis-Jaggamar #21 Arvis-Jaggamar 2 months ago
    I'll put my vote in for a removal of the "scary intro voice" AND a name change for the podcast, please. :p
    The intro is exactly as stale and corny as the name of the podcast. Good thing the podcast itself is anything but.
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  • Avatar for Jonnyboy407 #22 Jonnyboy407 2 months ago
    Man, now I really wanna try this game. Is it only available on Genesis and Wii eshop?

    Do you think you could suggest the best way to play the games on your list as you rank them? A quick Google search could give me an answer of where they're available but not necessarily the best (or most preffered) version
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  • Avatar for Relayer71 #23 Relayer71 A month ago
    What? It's combat is its best trait. It is blazing fast. No twirly swirly, camera panning for 20 seconds before combat starts; the battle animations are quick; combat is over before it even begins in many JRPGs.

    And how can you not mention its greatest innovation (seen much later in FF XII)? Those battle macros you could create, to streamline combat?

    And it's debatable if graphics were better on FF VI, not necessarily an absolute. The comic book panel look of the cut scenes were very effective and the battle animations and perspective were more detailed than FF6's. The characters were large and rendered as realistically as possible, not deformed, squat and cartoony.

    I love FF6 and have no issues with it, just that I feel Phantasy Star IV's contributions are downplayed in this article. In general, the series is always in FF and Dragon Quest's shadows.
    But the reality is that Phantasy Star was innovating way before those other series.
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  • Avatar for Relayer71 #24 Relayer71 A month ago
    @Funny_Colour_Blue except that the U.S. box has generic fantasy characters whereas the Japanese artwork's characters more closely resemble the game characters (as far as I remember, anyway).
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  • Avatar for DrewQ #25 DrewQ A month ago
    If you have a GBA, you can get a cart with all 4 games for $15-20 via ebay.
    not bad for scratching that itch from time to time. I have't played a ton of it, but it seems to be a pretty direct port.
    I prefer smaller screens due to resolution, and it's a handheld so there's room to stretch out with it. Some of the dungeons are loooong however.
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  • Avatar for Jonnyboy407 #26 Jonnyboy407 A month ago
    @DrewQ that sounds like a hell of a deal. Thank for the tip!
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