Phantasy Star II is one of the greatest JRPGs of the 16-bit era. Its first act was sublime and tragic, a narrative arc that pushed the envelope of storytelling while stirring my 12-year old soul. The second act was less endearing, more of a teenage tribulation wrought with grinding than a genre defining experience. Here is the second part of the Phantasy Star II retrospective where I get a little more into the future of humanity.
The Sad Fate of Parma
After your party defeats Neifirst, the Climatrol begins to break down and the delicate weather balance established on the planet is completely disrupted. Water is overflowing and the whole continent will flood unless you go open up the four colored dams. But you have to learn how to play music first in order to unlock the individual dams using lyrical keys.
The musician who teaches you, Ustvestia, will actually charge your male companions less than the women. His reasoning is that: “He looks cute.” The dialogue was changed for Western audiences and Ustvestia says instead, “He looks smart,” though the price reduction remains. I really liked Ustvestia for making the entire soundtrack available to you by actually performing them live. This great video breaks down why Sega Genesis songs are so memorable, in part attributed to the existence of two audio chips working in conjunction to produce some of the most unique melodies in gaming. I used to plug in earphones in the headphone jack on the Genesis console to listen to the music in full stereo. Phantasy Star II has one of the best soundtracks on the Sega Genesis from the intensity of Pressure to the pivotal boss battle music of Death Place drawing on the opening Phantasy track.
While all the monsters have been vanquished after Neifirst’s defeat, a robot army has been unleashed to take you down (where were they when all the monsters were out of control?). This is where your party member, Kain, a “wrecker” comes in handy as his techniques specialize in robotic extermination.
But an even more valuable party member provides what is probably the most important item of the game. Shir is a thief; unlike most games where thieving happens in battle, she steals randomly from shopkeepers in town, purloining a combination of valuables and rare items. If you strengthen her to level 10 and take her to the baggage claim in the Central Tower, she will steal the visiphone, which lets you save anywhere at anytime (except during battles). For what might be the most difficult JRPG of the 16-bit era, the portable saving system was a godsend. Add to that the fact that Shir is the fastest character in your party, and she’s arguably the most underrated member of your group. Armed with the visiphone, the dams seem much more manageable as you make your way through them. Unfortunately, after you release all four to relieve the flooding, your reward is to be taken captive by a trio of Army Eye sentry robots.
You’re imprisoned in a space satellite called Gaira, stripped of your items and unable to use any techniques. Laser rings restrain motion and painful beams restrict access. The government informs you that you’re here until they carry out their death sentence. Rolf’s vulnerability and weakness is moving in the scene as he declares, “I tried to open the dams because I felt responsible for making too much rain fall, but I was caught. I don’t want to die here not even knowing who was trying to destroy Mota by using the Mother Brain.” Your party has to flee from every fight or they will be overpowered and killed. I’ve written about being helpless and defenseless in games, and this section of Phantasy Star II would be right up there on the list. Just when things seem like they can’t get worse, an explosion rocks the craft and you start plummeting towards the planet of Parma. You hear a burst before everything fades.
Fortunately, you’re not dead yet. But you dream the same nightmare that has haunted you from the opening cutscene. A woman you don’t recognize is fighting against an evil force. When you wake up, a space pirate named Tyler informs you that he saved you just in the nick of time. The satellite you were on collided with Parma (also called Palm or Palma interchangeably throughout the series) and destroyed it. The main planet of the first Phantasy Star and the biggest center of civilization in the star system is gone.
After Nei’s death, I didn’t think anything could make me feel worse. Parma’s destruction did just that. I couldn’t get the question out of my head: did my actions precipitate its destruction? The government was saying so, but were they just trying to put the blame on me? I talked about the implications of reptilian genocide in the Chrono Trigger retrospective. I felt much more conflicted in this instance because even though I hadn’t visited Palm, with the Reptites, at least they were my enemies. I felt devastated that I had both caused the death of millions and prevented it from happening. It’s the Alderaan moment of Phantasy Star and the Kefka moment from Final Fantasy VI combined. I wished I could crawl into a corner somewhere and hide. But a robot army was after us and the party had no choice but to go on the run to the second planet in the Algo Star System, Dezo.
Dances with Dezorians
Dezo is desperate, an ice planet that is as brutally cold and desolate as the sense of guilt that wracked me. The first destination on the planet is the spaceport of Skure, an abandoned station that is infested with monsters. You land your ship without any idea of where you’re going or what you’re supposed to do. The order in how you approach the rest of the game is left in your hands. Just as Mota was all about guiding you from one tubed bridge to the next, Dezo is the opposite, being almost open-world. The sudden freedom is daunting.
The Dezorians are a counter-Mother Brain society. They have rejected the utopian perfection of Mota, believing an over reliance on technology will lead to a civilization’s decline. They worship the holy fire of the eclipse torch which unfortunately seems less comforting than an all knowing AI. In many science fiction or fantasy tales, the Dezorians would probably represent a different type of ideal a la Avatar or Dances with Wolves, an alternative that is more appealing in some way (usually being in tune with nature). But living with the Dezorians feels worse than life back on Mota, and the alien civilization reminds me why I wished Mother Brain was in control. I hated wandering the unforgiving Tundra of Dezo.
When I finally discovered a city, I couldn’t understand a word they said as they spoke a different language (this site tries to decipher the Dezorian language, also revealing that its native name is duTorus^oor buvikvaa). The only way to understand it is to get a universal translator in the form of a Mogic Cap. If you mistakenly get the Magic Cap instead, shopkeepers will charge double the normal price and the citizens will be more deceptive and aggressive.
I wandered the cities, disappointed by the lack of any discernible culture amongst the Dezorians. They seemed like religious automatons spitting back gibberish someone somewhere told them they should say. “The Palm people were punished because they didn’t take good care of the eclipse-torch,” one Dezorian citizen claims, a ridiculously righteous and judgmental thing to say after an entire planet has been annihilated.
Tedious Questing as Atonement
Dezo essentially amounts to a snowy hub where you undergo multiple fetch quests while combating an interminable onslaught of monsters. I made my way through as quickly as I could. Quickly, of course, is a relative term, as you’ll be fighting enemies every step of the way. In the first part of the retrospective, I mentioned I have Phantasy Star II in the Genesis collection for GBA and PS2. For the purposes of this walkthrough, I used an emulator and turned off random encounters for long stretches. Even then, it took me a long time to navigate Skure and the Crevice as I kept on getting lost and running into dead-ends.
It was almost by accident that I finally reached the Esper Mission, a place whispered about by suspicious Dezorians. There, I met Lutz, one of the main characters from the first Phantasy Star. After waking from his hibernation, he informs you that in order to prepare for the final battle, you need to collect all the Nei weapons. He sends you off to tackle the four dungeons with the hardest enemies in the game.
The story revelations in the second act are disappointing. Lutz informs you that he saved you during a space mission when you were young and an accident killed your parents. It also turns out you’re the descendant of Phantasy Star’s heroine, Alis, though its significance was lost on me as I hadn’t played the first game at the time. Unfortunately, these two revelations are never mentioned again and a part of me has wondered if cartridge memory restrictions prevented further exploration of Rolf’s origins.
As for the Nei treasures you have to find, I initially thought your fallen companion, Nei, had left the special equipment for you, giving the journey a special significance. Admittedly, it didn’t make sense how she could place these weapons in four separate dungeons a whole planet away. But I didn’t question it back then. Just recently, I learned Nei means “ancient” which makes more sense although it decreases the emotional impact of the quest. The four dungeons are meant as a rite of passage for the heroes. Each of them are twisted labyrinths, mind numbingly difficult and complex. There’s a mix of gothic statues, genetically engineered trees, and antiquated architecture designed to get you lost, whether through the hole-ridden depths of Ikuto or the wing-like array of Menobe.
There’s no way to get around it. This whole middle section of the game isn’t very fun. There’s almost no redeeming nature to it and it felt like punishment for failing to save Parma. I was in an alien Siberia, paying one random battle after another. Even if it was atonement for my failure to save the Parmans, the whole process was tedious and RSI-inducing.
You need a whole lot of patience and endurance to collect all the Nei weapons, even though it’s never specified what lies beyond. Rolf is driven by his desire to learn the truth and prevent a Parma-like catastrophe happening to anyone else. But it’s an arduous road. This is the part where most of my friends gave up and put the cartridge away, even with the invaluable hint guide helping them. Understandably so as the second act is extremely difficult. At the same time, it’s unfortunate because if they had persisted, their redemption would have climaxed in one of the best concluding acts in gaming history.
Peter Tieryas is the author of United States of Japan (Angry Robot, 2016) and Bald New World (JHP Fiction, 2014). His work has appeared in Electric Literature, Kotaku, Tor.com, and ZYZZYVA. He dreams of utopias at @TieryasXu.