Ahhh Phantasy Star. For fans, SEGA’s sci-fi action role-playing series is the greatest thing in the world. The devourer of hours, afternoons, days, weeks, months… even lives. It takes no prisoners and, for all its flaws, has an iron grip, an unwavering bite that, once hooked, never lets go.
Phantasy Star also gets about. From its 1987 debut on the SEGA Master System, through Phantasy Star Online, which made wonderful use of the Dreamcast’s underused online features, to Phantasy Star Portable on the PSP, the series has, in one way or another, reared its head on almost every available platform over the last 20 years. Now, it’s the turn of the Nintendo DS to receive the Phantasy Star treatment, with Phantasy Star Ø (pronounced “zero”), due out this winter.
Comparisons can be misleading, but in this case it’s useful - Phantasy Star Ø is most akin to Phantasy Star Online. We know because a lovely chap from SEGA says it’s so, almost as a disclaimer, before we begin our hands-on with the game at this press event in London. Why? Atmosphere and the job system, apparently – both are designed with PSO firmly in mind.
We’re here though to give the game a test run in what will undoubtedly be the best way to play it – indeed what it was designed for – classic four-player Phantasy Star co-op. The big problem with handheld co-op games is that they normally don’t support online play. More often than not only wireless play is supported. In Japan, where playing games in public is almost as common as playing them at home, this isn’t a problem. Over here though, it’s a death knell. It’s why Monster Hunter and Phantasy Star Portable and their ilk will always struggle on western shores. Well, perhaps until now.
That’s because Phantasy Star Ø supports online play through Nintendo Wi-fi, using Nintendo’s very own servers to make the magic happen. That’s right kids, you’ll be able to get a group together online and play like it’s the year 2000 and your Dreamcast is the greatest thing in the world. Because Phantasy Star Ø supports online play, it instantly moves up ten places in our most anticipated DS games list (this list doesn’t actually exist).
The first thing we’re shown is the new touch screen-based Visual Chat interface, which is basically the DS’ inbuilt PictoChat software cribbed to make communicating with team mates easier on the battlefield. It works as you’d expect – you use the stylus to draw something, then it’s sent to everyone in the group.
When played online, you’ll have to have the appropriate Friend Codes (sigh) traded in order to communicate with the Visual Chat system because, well, the potential for sending random ten-year-old strangers crudely drawn nobs and other private parts is just too great. Hell, as I sit here in among four complete strangers, one a lovely chap from SEGA and the other three video game hacks like myself, it’s the hardest thing in the world not to do exactly that.
If you can’t be arsed with Friend Codes but you want to play online with random matchmaking, you’ll have to make do with the pre-set text messages. Hello, goodbye, that sort of plain old stuff. While there are loads to choose from, I can’t imagine it’ll have anything on actually communicating with stuff you’ve drawn. Like nobs.
In this wireless situation it’s not an issue because there’s no need to fumble about with codes. It’s a simple, intuitive process to get into a group. From the town headquarters, where you buy items and weapons and talk to quest-giving NPCs, one of the group is able to pick a mission from the Quest Counter. In this case, our lovely SEGA chap picks a quest called “Dragon’s Roar”. Let me guess – we need to go into a dragon’s lair and kill it? Thought so.