I remember the last time I ever encountered a Crimson Assassin. I was a Ranger, attached to a group of Hunters sent into the caves on a rescue mission. They were like Praying Mantises, only they were fifteen feet tall and they had knives for hands and feet. Glistening in the red glow of the lava vents around us, they came at me in a pack of three, and all I had with me was my Yashminkov 3000R. It was an antique model, popular with the more hardcore weapon fans. It sported a walnut stock, iron sights, and fired slugs the size of a soda cans. I named her Sasha II.
I put the first round between the Assassin’s eyes and it dropped with a sickening pulp. The next two rounds took the closest bug’s limbs and it stumbled backwards into a fiery pit of molten rock where it baked and sizzled. I failed to get a fix on the third Assassin. It circled the room and came at me from behind, and I turned just in time to see its scythe-like pincers come down at me.
That was when Nida, our group’s Hunter, showed up. She met the blade with her own, a long-handled sword made of pure energy. The Assassin reeled back and shrieked as green blood spouted from its stump, splattering us and the floor with brown-green sludge. In a whirlwind of violet energy, the beast was cut down to cubes of quivering chitin. A green supply box dislodged itself from the monster’s innards, and she dropped to her knees to search it. In the end she only ended up pocketing a handful of Mesetta, not even enough to cover the cost of a Dimate stimpack. Huffing, she stood to look into my eyes, behind the security of my protective visor.
“Are you alright?” she asked. I shook my head.
“I HAVE NO IDEA AT THIS POINT, BUT MY TEETH ARE NUMB LOL” I rapidly typed into my keyboard. The words appeared above my head in a bright yellow speech bubble. She responded with the image of a laughing face in a word balloon of her own.
I was fifteen at the time. I had my wisdom teeth removed and was confined to my bed for a week. With the healing powers of the Novocaine still flowing through my veins, there was nothing left for me to do but spend my time exploring the alien world of Ragol with my friends.
The game was called Phantasy Star Online.
Aboard the space colony Pioneer 2, something has gone horribly wrong. A previous expedition down to the planet by the colony Pioneer 1 has resulted in nothing but radio static following a bright, tachyon-saturated explosion on the surface. As one of the Hunters—elite mercenaries hired to protect the colonies—you are tasked with finding out exactly what happened. Your investigation takes you from the forests topside, to a network of caves populated by mutated insects, to an abandoned, robot infested factory. The whole time, you have Rico Tyrell as your guide, a Huntress who went ahead of you to investigate herself. Eventually you happen upon the ruins of an ancient starship, where something dark and incomprehensibly evil lurks and waits.
To find out what happened, you must navigate these environments with the help of your friends, all of whom are located in real-time on opposite ends of the planet.
What set the game apart from others was that it was a fully immersive MMORPG, and one of the first on a console. While this may now sound like much in this age where console based MMO’s are a dime a dozen, for 2001, on the Sega Dreamcast no less, this was a very impressive feat.
Now, PSO wasn’t the first online game on consoles. I couldn’t even begin to count the attempts made during the previous console generation. Many of them, such as the Nintendo 64’s DD (Disk Drive) failed shortly after launching in Japan. Others didn’t pick up enough steam here in the states to be popular, like Catapult Entertainment’s Xband, which was abandoned as soon as the 16-bit generation ended. PSO was one of the first games that brought the idea of constant, networked play to the mainstream, and it did so in one of the most ambitious ways possible and on the last console that Sega ever made. It didn’t do this with any gimmicks or tricks either, it was possible only through solid design choices centered on making the game addictive, but more importantly fun.
The game itself was a loot-based action RPG, similar to games like Diablo. After assembling a party of Hunters aboard the Pioneer 2, players would teleport down to levels and have to fight their way through expansive rooms full of random enemy encounters. The levels themselves were pre-made, but the progression was not. When you clear a room of enemies and loot, one of several doors open leading to other rooms where you would fight your way through more enemy encounters. At the end of each stage, you would fight a boss, which would always prove to be a challenge to take down. The progression was set up in such a way that each “run” of a stage felt unique, and the worlds that you explored were engaging enough to keep players coming back.
It was a world in which every single creature on the planet wants you dead and they are all being directed by an evil force impossible for the human mind to comprehend. It was pure Lovecraftian horror in disguise as a colorful dungeon crawler with a science fiction setting. The hostile environment was tempered by bright anime-inspired visuals and an addictive techno soundtrack which gave the game an appealing flair. Nothing ever felt out-of-place in this world, even when I was fighting back dimension shambling cosmic horrors with a frying pan.
The loot, the various weapons and gear you would acquire throughout the game, also greatly contributed to the player population. Weapons ranged from gritty and militaristic sci-fi hardware like assault rifles and plasma swords, to goofy parody weapons that were absurdly powerful like a parasol, Knuckle’s the Echidna’s spiked gloves and the aforementioned Frying Pan.
Every playable class had access to each other’s weapons, but they were limited in ways that could easily be explained in-universe. The Rangers, elite space marine marksmen, had access to rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers. They could also use combat knives and some smaller swords. Meanwhile you had the Hunters, swordsmen that could also dabble in pistols. And then you had Forces, your mages who specialized in magic-based attacks, or “Techniques,” but were otherwise limited in their weapon choices.
Further diversifying the gameplay was the choice of playable races at your disposal. The highly evolved Newmans were physically weak, but excelled in their magical abilities which made them ideal as Forces. CASTs, sentient combat androids, couldn’t use magic at all, but they could regenerate their health and detect traps in the world. And then you had humans, who were the balanced race that could use Techniques, but could also take and deal out their fair share of damage.
With its multitude of gameplay options and ways to play, Phantasy Star Online is worth remembering. Even today, the community is still alive and well. Though the official servers are long dead, Sega has graciously allowed fans to run their own private servers, ensuring the longevity of the series while its official sequel remains trapped inside of Japan. The one I played on back in the day was Schtserv, one of the more heavily populated servers. It is still active today, and still maintains a high player count. I highly recommend that people give it a look, at the very least to see what online console gaming in the early 2000s was like.
The main webpage can be found on their official website.