In compiling some of these deep archive posts to talk about the history of the Marathon, I almost forgot about a critical element entirely. See, while most of the Marathon’s history is easily tracked, thanks to these lovely journals I’ve been writing, one bit of history needed an extended explanation: the origin of the journals themselves.
As it happens, these journals came from a separate game project. At some point in the past, I told Kyle, a long-time Phantasy Star IV fan, that if I ever got all four of the original games, I would play through all four in order. Then the day came: the Sonic Ultimate Genesis Collection came out with all four of the series and the game was on. And since I promised Kyle I would play them, I wrote the journals as a way of keeping him abreast.
And as the games continued to humiliate me, they became a point of entertainment.
The Phantasy Star journals aren’t the same thing as the journals that chronologue the Marathon proper. They’re rougher, more amateurish, and a result of stream-of-consciousness recollection that went straight online and has only been edited now. Nevertheless, I feel that’s a part of their charm. They feel like scraps written by some poor lost helpless gamer, or maybe a belligerent RPer that’s not very good at their roleplaying. One of the strangest elements of this journal is that it’s written almost in present tense! While I might re-write them one day for polite consumption, but I think it’s more likely that one day I’ll start the series over, since I never did finish… preferably with whole new journals!
For the time being I wanted to keep them as they are, just tidied up a little, for the sake of the original feel. Have fun with them!
The first “day” of play was less than ten minutes I spent otherwise pre-occupied making lunch, so wasn’t what you’d call productive.
For those not familiar with PS, they’re sci-fi RPGs that for whatever reason don’t apologize for arming you with fantasy weapons. The original Phantasy Star was on the Sega Master System, Sega’s competitor to the NES that no one in North America remembers (it was much more popular in Europe, though still not really, and unbelievably popular in neglected regions like Brazil, South Africa and, if I’m remembering this properly, Thailand). As a result, it’s from an era of RPGs that has several major failing points that are going to aggravate me to the point where it becomes something more than aggravation and turns into outright hatred. Still, some of it is, well, kind of quaint, like the fact that they don’t have spaces in the middle of item names. Also, PS1 (though not its sequels) is not a top-down RPG: it’s a first-person dungeon crawl (with top-down between-dungeon segments) which means I’ll need to make maps. Maybe a screenshot would help you get it. Why is everything green? I don’t know. I don’t think they’re about to explain that.
The game starts with what passed in the 8-bit generation as cinematics: still images, sometimes partially animated, with text underneath. In this opening display, my character’s brother is killed by someone named Lassic, who if I’m not mistaken isn’t seen in the shot (there are a few legs, but they seem to be soldiers). “Do not sniff around in Lassic’s affairs! Learn this lesson well!” My character, who it turns out is a young woman named Alis, is at the scene of her brother’s murder for whatever reason. Before he dies, the brother tells her to find someone named Odin and to, well you know, save the world somehow.
The game starts in the northeast corner of the town of Camineet. Actually, I’m not even sure if that is the name of this town, just that someone said that Camineet was under martial law and there are soldiers everywhere, so I just put two and two together. NPCs normally talk rumours about towns all over the globe so this could have been more specific. [Editor: while I later learned Lassic was responsible for the occupation, it never became clear whether he was the legitimate authority or just some powerful jerk.]
In the northeast corner of Camineet of those those green dungeons (in a town?), which I immediately left, and also “house of Alis”. A bit of exploration is called for, but that sort of gets stalled when I realize that, urm… that I don’t know how to talk to anyone. A bit of probing finds that you talk to people by walking onto their feet. You have to literally stand on their sprite – but not their head, that’s solid. It takes me a second to work out I can walk into any house, too, because most of the buildings have shut doors, but not all, and that’s usually a sign that they’re locked! This is not the last time Phantasy Star would take a hit for not correctly guessing the ways RPGs would develop over the next decade.
There are three shops in town, but I quickly discover that I’m dirt poor, with nothing but a “Sht. Sword” and “Lth. Armor” to my name. A man gives me some kind of “Laconian” pot or jar or something my brother owned, though I don’t know how to use it (and my trying not to walkthrough thing is going to force me to test virtually every item…). There are guards to the west who make me feel cozily eighties by greeting me with the prompt: “You cannot pass without Roadpass.” They’re keep me from leaving to the west, but strangely enough, the the Guards near a carefully marked “Exit” threaten me with death if I leave… but don’t stop me from leaving? I think the guards might have been trying to warn me about monsters?
I poked my head outside and found that the town is actually just the Residential District of a three-part city, connected to the other parts via Jetsons-esque treadmills. While the second section was only available via treadmill, the third was another residential district. The whole place was walled off, and in an impressive show, there were no random encounters within the wall. Most 80s games don’t have that kind of control over their overworld monsters!
[Editor: Phantasy Star actually seems to have square-for-square control over its monsters, with different monster groups on the coastlines and such. Final Fantasy, for a counterpoint, was still dividing the map into humongous squares populated by different land and sea monsters with no further nuance, well into Final Fantasy V at least.]
Anyway, my plan for day one is to make sure I’m done in town and then to poke around in the dungeon, unless the monsters inside the dungeon shred me, in which case I’ll level up outside. One or the other is going to be weaker. Besides trying to find Odin, who could be anywhere, the game’s not really giving me any sense of direction. Given that it’s from the 80’s, it might never. Here’s hoping!
(Oh, I would be remiss in not mentioning that when I turned on the other Phantasy Star games for an Achievement, I actually did play Phantasy Star 3 a bit, to do the start-of-game jailbreak trick. Classic. I think I’ll do the “skip a generation” trick when I get there just to see it in action, but I don’t plan on carrying through with it.)
The Real Work(tm) began today with a nice exploration of the puke-green dungeon near “home of Alis,” which turned out to be empty, save a box of 50 mesetas (“mes”). Mes, it seems, is the games’ currency. Even a few hours later this is still the most amount of money the game has seen fit to give me in one go.
With this much money to play with, I immediately set out testing everything I could buy at the stores via save scumming. At the First Food restaurant (I can only assume it’s a franchise name), I could buy Burgers and Sodas, which were healing items. Though with my pathetic starting HP I couldn’t tell you if either of them were any good. Another shop sold me “Flashers” that lit up caves and “Escapers” that didn’t seem to do anything at all [Editor: Despite what I said about save scumming, I didn’t work out what Flashers did until later, while it turns out Escapers get you out of battle]. There were also “Transers” that teleported me back home.
Some more poking around showed me that you can only sell things to “Second-hand stores”, which I suppose makes sense, and you can only find your next level’s required XP at a church, like in Dragon Quest. I eventually settled on spending 30 of my 50 Mes on a Lth. Shield, since it was the only affordable item of equipment. That decided, I walked out of town and was promptly mauled to death by an Owl Bear.
Obviously the guards at the doors weren’t playing with me when they warned me about instant death. I tried again. Remember how above, I noticed that there were no monsters inside city walls? Well, there was a small forest inside the walls, and forests always mean monsters. Maybe the ones fought in the safety of the walls would be weaker? I tried, and fought a fly-like monster called a Sworm, which barely hurt me, and then I was promptly mauled to death by an Owl Bear.
Before I move on, I think I should describe this creature to you. Owlbears are from D&D. If I didn’t know better (and the real story isn’t that much more inspiring), I would have assumed that an Owlbear was the result of falling asleep just before the first draft of Dungeons and Dragons monsters were due and having to hurry to a finish: it’s a bear with an owl’s beak. In Phantasy Star, however, an Owl Bear is a disembodied eyeball attached to a set of bat wings – both, of course, features one regularly associates with bears, so I’m at a loss to explain the owl connection. (One source I read online suggests their Japanese name was either “Demon Eye” or “Devil Eye,” meaning someone in the localization team at SEGA has a weird sense of humour.)
After a while, I find the closest thing the game has to a sweet spot: walking around outside the walls but staying the hell out of the forests. All forests. Here I mostly encounter Sworms and settle into a routine of fighting two fights with Sworms and then running back home crying in agonizing pain to the woman in Camineet who’s nice enough to heal me for free (doesn’t Alis have her own home? Haven’t we established that with poor grammar and everything at this point?). One time, I even manage to catch an advanced monster – a Scorpion – when I was at full health and I managed to kill it, only to be promptly mauled to death by two Scorpions on the way back. Wait, these things come in groups? But there’s only one picture! Damn you 80s user interfaces! It’s a good thing I was twitch saving at this point because, despite the fact that the Scorpions had no significant statistical advantage over other monsters at the time, they were worth a lot of cash, and soon became one of my primary sources of income.
Eventually I levelled, which boosted each stat but HP by 2, which made a minor difference against Sworms but pretty much no one else. I bought an Irn. Sword for 75 mes at the other residential district. That boosted my attack by 12, which threw all the old precautions out the window… at least at first. I quickly found I could only go so far in one rampage before an Owl Bear would return from my nightmares to send me bleeding a trail back to my free inn.
Somewhere in this mess I tried my luck on the cave to the south, but I knew I wasn’t ready and so didn’t use a Flasher. When I came back properly prepared, I wandered around randomly (though I made sure I knew how to get back out) and eventually found a man turned to stone. Having heard rumours in town about Medusa coming back to life, I put one and one together and ran for my life, and given my HP it wasn’t a moment too soon. Deciding the monsters in the cave weren’t worth enough mes or XP to justify spending 20 mes on a Flasher every time I wanted to grind, I decided to explore the continent as I “worked.” Lucky me, I found a port town to the east, and then immediately forget its name. [Editor: It’s “Scion.”]
Here I found Armour for sale, followed by a series of bad news: the statue I found was almost undoubtedly Odin, the man I went looking for. He had been accompanied by a “talking animal” who was carrying an anti-petrification potion, but someone had captured it and sold it on the neighbouring desert planet, Motavia. The only way to the desert planet is through the spaceport back home, which is past the guards I “cannot pass without Roadpass”. Crap.
Where could a Roadpass be? I haven’t seen any, like, government buildings to apply at/perform a quest for/break into. I started a massive probing of bad guesses which, via random encounters, earned me about 600 mes with which to buy a Tit. Sword (Titanium? Also, yes, a “tit sword”, go right ahead and laugh), and a Lgt. Suit. Alis also trained herself a Heal spell, a run away spell and another spell that involves talking to intelligent enemies that I have yet to find.
First I tried Medusa’s Cave again, not finding Medusa (though I did find about 40 mes in chests). Then I tried the shrine to the north, which was locked somehow, with weird lion heads on the door. I assumed this was a magically locked door, based on some gossip in town. The peninsula to the southeast was packed with harder monsters I could still handle, but the cave I found there was also locked, this one needed a Dungeon Key. A cave to the far north (past a rough monster called an Evildead that suggested I wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place) was also locked. Fantastic. My best lead was a forest to the south where a plot event informed me that it was too confusing to navigate without a compass (something that’s not for sale). My attempts to go west of town were not just dead-ended, but had me promptly mauled to death by a Fishman.
Having exhausted all other possibilities, my only remaining option was to pay a man in the port town Second-Hand store to sell me “Secrets” for 200 mes. Now I’ve seen stuff like this for sale in RPGs before, and it’s usually worthless “what do you do next” stuff like the fortune teller in Link to the Past or the, well, secret seller in Mario and Luigi. Well, that’s the kind of advice I needed, so here I am. And it turned out it wasn’t that at all. Essentially, I let the future taint the past, because this is exactly the purchase I had to make. After prodding the man a few times, he sold me a counterfeit Roadpass. Finally!
I used the Roadpass to get past the guards and discovered I needed a Passport for 100 mes to leave the planet. A few dead monsters later, followed by a quick questionnaire (“Have you ever done anything illegal?” “Yes.” “Well that’s no good, come back later.” What, when I’ve retroactively not done something illegal?), and I got to the desert planet. [Editor: There is something about the whole “future dystopia and rebellion” in dealing with and faking paperwork like this, it’s lost on a lot of other games but excusing my weird confusion with the “Secrets” item, not very obtrusive.]
There wasn’t honestly much to do on Motavia. The outside was littered with overpowered creatures, including Ant Lions that barred specific paths marked by their pit traps (“You can’t walk on Ant Lions with your feet!”). Inside the capital, Paseo, I heard a bizarre series of rumours that the only way to meet the governor of that planet was to give him sweets, which seem to come from a cake shop… in a cave on the original planet. Oh, 80’s video games.
[Editor: I don’t convey it well in the original journal, but I came away from Motavia convinced someone had said the cake shop was in the peninsula cave back on the original planet. No such text exists in the game, so I’m at a loss to explain why I was so positive. This misunderstanding has… consequences.]
Thankfully, I did find the talking animal, a cat, and traded my brother’s weird Lac. Pot for him, and he joined my party. His name was Myou and he was kind of unremarkable in every way. Immediately there were more monsters in the wild to compensate for my larger party. Sheesh.
Long story short, we went back to the original planet, Palma, and freed Odin. He gave us some advice that helped him locate his Compass. Using it, we navigated past even larger enemy groups and went to the confusing forest, which it turned out housed a town. There, we bought Odin a shield and a Needlegun. Before the Needlegun, Odin had an axe that does more damage, but the gun hits every enemy in a group. It’s hard to say if it’s worth it or not… [Editor: What’s really strange is that you’d think the game would give you a choice of Gun or Axe on the regular, but no, apparently there aren’t any axes for the next few hours of gameplay!]
Inside the village, we talked to the village elder, who told us where to find the famous Dungeon Key: in the apparently empty, bright green “storage shack” near home of Alis. Arrrrrrrrgggggggg. I started walking back to town and was promptly mauled 2/3rds of the way to death by a pack of Werebats. And I mean that 2/3rds: Myou and Odin died while Alin sort of laughed at the bad guys’ attacks bouncing off her like this was hilarious. She’s come a long way. Finally, after resurrecting my party members for almost all the money I had won from the bats, I found the Dugn. Key. Whew.
My plans for Day 2 involve going to the peninsula cave to find the (ugh) cake shop. Once there I’ll go back to the desert planet and try to charm the governor. I don’t know what to do about the cave past the Evildead, since it’s probably out of my league. I need new equipment, too, but that’ll cost me 620 mes for two Brnz. Shields, at least. Or even more for two Irn.Shields. Or even more for Crc. Shields! What I’m saying is I have an unusual number of options for an RPG this early in the game. Long way to go yet!