In 1995, at the height of their popularity and the pinnacle of their creative careers, the Sonic Team developed the fourth installment of the Phantasy Star series, entitled Phantasy Star: End of the Millennium. The largest RPG for the Sega Genesis and available for download on the Wii’s Virtual Console and as part of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, this classic is best described with the word ‘balanced.’ Sounds boring, but balance is the hallmark of quality design, and Sonic Team’s steady hand in crafting this gem resulted in a game that solidified Phantasy Star’s cult following and ensured its continuing relevance.
Starring teenaged mercenary Chaz as he and an ever-changing band of heroes examine an unexpected surge in the monster population, Phantasy Star IV’s story is not particularly new or innovative. Its textbook twists will only surprise those not already familiar with the clichés with which most narratives are built. That said, you probably won’t care about that. The setting is immersive and the characters, though shamelessly plucked from The Standard Character Stockroom, are infused with enough personality that you genuinely care about their exploits. Additionally, the script includes enough background that one can easily follow the story without having played through the (substantially harder) previous games in the series. Sealing this already-sweet deal are the soundtrack and comic book-style cut-scenes, both of which serve to add enough style to pull the player into the well-paced story and intriguing setting, even if the underlying plot is on the simple side.
The game-play in Phantasy Star IV is some of the best of its time, and compares favorably even against much more modern games. Elements like random encounters and turn-based combat may be dated by current standards, but they’re paired with a smooth difficulty curve and smart world design in a way that keeps the whole package compelling from beginning to end. There is little, if any, call for the mindless grinding for experience and money that characterized earlier RPGs, and dungeons and fields are populated by an array of finely tuned enemies ranging from one-hit wonders to wandering mini-bosses that manage to challenge without frustrating the player, keeping the random battles from growing stale. Also keeping things interesting, and no doubt at least partially responsible for the immaculate tempo of the difficulty, are numerous optional dungeons that reward exploration and occasionally serve to expand the story. Throw in a set of side missions and a macro system that makes it easy to execute the game’s then-revolutionary combination attacks while at the same time helping speed combat, and the result is impressive to say the least.
Phantasy Star: End of the Millennium is not perfect—there are disruptions in the difficulty and story pacing around the three quarters mark that stand out against the game’s otherwise outstanding flow—but it is doubtless the best RPG for the Sega Genesis, and easily among the upper echelons of the retro gaming’s offerings.