ChuChu Rocket may have made it here first, but Phantasy Star Online was the online game for Dreamcast. At a time when MMORPGs were light years away from Guild Wars and World of Warcraft, Sonic Team’s baby emphasised teamwork and action, but still included all the depth you could ask for.
Using three basic attacks you could string into combinations, dealing damage was a great deal more involving than some more modern MMORPGs, but the key to success lay in creating a team of the three character types – Hunter, Ranger and Force – to maximise their strengths and cover each other’s weaknesses. The fundamental problem of communication across different language was overcome by the innovative Word Select system, which used set phrases and keywords to build sentences that were then automatically translated into each user’s languages.
PSO’s problems, sadly, are fairly wide. Combat is repetitive – move, light-light-strong, move, etc. – and in your first twenty hours you’ll probably finish Forest about twenty times. Hackers reigned supreme on Dreamcast – ask any PSO player about Nol, FSOD or Spread Needles and you’ll hear it all – but later versions mostly escaped in comparison. Version 2 added dozens of new weapons and armour, increased the level limit from 100 to 200 and introduced Ultimate mode: very difficult, graphically altered versions of the four main levels. Episodes I & II added a whole new world with new classes, weapons, stages and enemies, and Blue Burst’s Episode IV did the same again. We don’t talk about Episode III.
After the hundreds of hours PSO has taken from me, it almost makes it in by default, but the truth is it’s still a wonderful game that holds some mystic addictive quality I can’t pinpoint. Its adventure, community and teamwork are still hard to beat, and the sheer thrill of finding a red box is one of gaming’s greatest drugs. Profound, Forrest, Gracia and Claude all salute you, Phantasy Star Online. You really do have the knack.