As you may have already known, the Mega Drive struggled to compete in Japan. While it was extremely successful in the West, Sega was unable to garner much key support from big Japanese publishers, and in no genre was this more obvious than the RPG. With hardly any backing from Japanese 3rd parties (barring some notable support on the Sega CD), Sega would have to rely on in-house development for action RPGs (Landstalker), strategy RPGs (Shining Force), and traditional turn-based JRPGs (Phantasy Star).
Phantasy Star I on the Master System was very technically impressive for 8-bit hardware, featuring animated enemies and some impressive-looking 3D dungeons. Phantasy Star II's plot and setting really went the extra mile to make it stand apart from its peers. Phantasy Star III, while only tangentially connected to the other games in the series, is notable for its story that spans multiple generations, the last of which changes entirely depending on the decisions you make throughout the game.
And while the previous three games in the series have their fans, I have to admit that I was never really able to get into any of them. Being a latecomer to the series, I found the first three games difficult to approach without the nostalgia factor for various reasons, be it clunky user interfaces, gargantuan sprawling dungeons, grind-or-die difficulty, or sub-par scripts/localizations. I find 8-bit RPGs difficult to enjoy, period, so PSI's technical advantages over its peers of the day mean nothing to me. PSII is a first-generation Genesis game, preceeding the likes of the original Sonic the Hedgehog by about two and a half years, and it shows. PSIII is regarded by most to be the weakest link in the series for a variety of reasons.
I'm of the opinion that it took Sega precisely four tries to get it right. But oh man, when they did...
Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millenium landed in Japan on December 17, 1993 and in the States in February of 1995. It represents to me, perhaps moreso than any other game, the golden age of JRPGs, the point where the capabilities of gaming consoles and the programmers and designers who utilized them had advanced far enough to convey sufficiently epic adventures, varied gameplay, and user-friendly interfaces without the shitload of FMV, obscenely-long and time-consuming summons, and long-entrenched cliches that have been dragging the genre down ever since then. Most of the little (but important) things in PSIV are done oh so right. Your default walking speed isn't painfully slow. The combat system places a lot of (not-so-obvious) tools at your disposal, making it almost completely unnecessary to grind provided that you take the time to learn how to work it. The battles themselves move at a brisk pace while being sufficiently animated. Instant death spells WORK! With high success rates, even!
I could go on, but just let me say that if you play one traditional turn-based RPG on the Sega Genesis, make it Phantasy Star IV.
The universe of Phantasy Star is unique among its contemporaries in that it blends traditional fantasy staples of wizards and magic with futuristic sci-fi worlds populated with androids and high-tech weaponry. Unusual as it seems at times, I think the combination works out just fine, at least in this installment.
The story of Phantasy Star IV, as copied from the in-game intro:
Phantasy Star IV begins as hunter Alys Brangwin is summoned to investigate some mysterious finds in the basement of Piata Academy. As with the heroes of the previous games, she and her companions have no idea just what they are getting themselves into.
The long, long struggle of ancient times finally ended...
The victor sacrificed the vanquished to the heavens.
Four bells tolled. Four torches were lit.
And the world continued for thousands of years...
The Algo solar system, somewhere in space...
Once a brilliant civilization flourished here. The citizens devoted themselves to the art and the sciences, and life was prosperous and good.
Then a series of disasters struck. The system-wide management system, 'Mother Brain,' was destroyed. So was the first planet, Parma. Over 90% of the system's population died, and the advanced technological culture was lost. Society declined, spiralling downward until at last only a few scattered groups even remembered there were once better times.
A thousand years passed.
At last, civilization is once more on the rise across the Algo system. People are once again turning to the thought of an easier life. Old knowledge is being rediscovered. But just as things look brighter, beyond a threshold long thought closed, a dark and very ancient evil stirs...
(Partial) Cast of Playable Characters
An extremely talented mercenary employed by the Aiedo Hunters Guild. Adored by many and feared by others, she's the one in command. She calls all the shots. Alys' primary weapons, Boomerangs and Slashers, hit all enemies at once. Make sure to keep two of the strongest types of available Slashers equipped to her whenever possible.
A hunter-in-training and apprentice of Alys. Somewhat naive and prone to acting on impulse, Chaz starts out as a bit of a weakling but soon earns his place among the party as its most-skilled sword-wielder. Chaz will be the primary damage dealer for single enemies throughout the course of the game, and he can also heal single allies should you need him to (though not as well as some of the other characters). Make sure he has a sword in his hands whenever possible.
A gifted scholar of Piata Academy, disowned by his father for abandoning the family business in favor of his studies. Engaged to a school teacher from Krup. Also rather naive, trusting, and prone to panicking, traits Alys uses to manipulate and string Hahn along quite frequently. While Hahn may initially seem to be a useless character, physically weaker than Alys and Chaz and lacking in offensive spell-casting compared to Rune, he will eventually become one of the most versatile party members in the game. He learns a wider variety of techs and skills than any other character, which makes several more team attacks possible (see the section below). It's up to you as to whether he should carry two knives/daggers for an extra physical attack boost or two shields for defense while he casts magic instead.
A mysterious young wizard adept in several disciplines of supposedly-forgotten magic. Also a bit cocky and forever on Chaz's bad side. Seems to have a previous history of some sort with Alys. Rune joins your party briefly near the beginning of the game, then leaves for a little while, then returns. Feel free to experiment with his destructive magic as much as you want at the beginning of the game, and toss out his canes for a pair of Silver Shields when they become available, as the defense boost is much more useful for him than a physical weapon.
A Motavian whose village was burnt to the ground by the dark magician Zio. He seeks nothing more than revenge on the main who killed his family and friends. Gryz is fairly straightforward, battle-wise. An axe-wielder who learns few techs/skills, he'll be your most potent physical attacker while he's in the party.
The control android responsible for overseeing the operation of all of Motavia's environmental systems. Very enthusiastic and child-like, especially when working with various types of machinery. Also very bashful when installing internal weapon units. Has to walk rather fast to keep up with the taller characters. (Her walking sprite is lol.) Androids are unique in that they heal themselves by 1 HP with every step they take, and they also automatically recover from 0 HP at the end of a battle should they happen to be wiped out during the fight. Otherwise, with some rare exceptions, the only skill that can heal them is RECOVER, and the only item that can do so is REPAIR-KIT. Since enemies are more prone to attacking the first person in your party, place Demi at the front when she joins, as her auto-regeneration attributes allow her to absorb a lot of the damage dealt to your party.
While Phantasy Star IV was developed in 1993, it didn't see a release in the States until 1995. This makes it look and sound a bit dated in comparison to other later-generation AAA games on the Sega Genesis, to say nothing of those on the SNES. It is a big improvement over its predecessors in this regard, however, and any technical deficiencies in the presentation are offset with one cool feature: the cutscenes.
Almost all of the major events in PSIV are accompanied with illustrations that play out like comic book sequences. Along with the at-least-decent localization for its day, I feel this does a lot to flesh-out the characters and universe of PSIV. You could make a good argument that the major plot points and twists of PSII actually make it superior to PSIV story-wise, but PSIV's presentation makes it seem so much more full of life. My only complaint is that there aren't enough of these cutscenes in the later parts of the game.
The music isn't universally great, but there are plenty of standout tracks. Two of my favorites:
Phantasy Star 1 Dungeon Arrangement
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