It is a surreal experience, to play Phantasy Star II on a Gameboy.
Here we've got one of the most important videogames of all time, prohibitively expensive when it was released for the then-new Sega Genesis console. If I recall, it cost around eighty dollars at the time. Even now, thirteen years later, an original cartridge and packaging can still set a person back several dozen bucks in good condition.
Now the game sits on a one-and-a-half by two-and-a-quarter-inch wafer of a cartridge, alongside two of its closest kin. The three games together go for less than thirty dollars, and can be played anywhere that I can safely tote my Hello-Kitty-pink Gameboy Advance.
After circling for the warmest place to huddle on a New England December afternoon, I dragged my new copy of the game into bed with me. Despite the roughness of this compilation -- the mildly garbled, monophonic music; the washed-out colors; the complete absence of concessions to portability -- the familiar wave still hit me. My breathing became laboured, and my spine sparked with a chill. Before I noticed where my emotions were leading me, tears began to well in my eyes.
This reaction came as little surprise; I knew what I was getting into when I opened the package. There's never been another game like it. Even to the day that I write this, toward the end of 2002 -- after a lifetime of obsession over, love for, the medium -- I have never encountered another videogame on the scale of Phantasy Star II. I can't help but wonder why Rieko Kodama's masterpiece, which set the tone for our current generation of gaming, has never received more recognition as the landmark achievement that it is. Perhaps it was just released on the wrong console, at the wrong time.
To say that the game was ahead of its time, would be an understatement. In the maturity of its emotional depths, Phantasy Star II is still ahead of our own time as far as videogames go. For anyone who cares to study the artistic potential of videogames as a medium; for anyone who wants to design a videogame; for anyone who merely wants to understand how we got to where we are today, and when videogames came of age -- PS2 is a crucial piece of literature.
Its significance can hardly be overstated. Phantasy Star II is the first truly great videogame epic, and one of the few tragedies attempted within the medium. It is the ultimate coming-of-age game. It is the Lord of the Rings of videogaming (especially when compared to The Hobbit of Phantasy Star 1). To be sure, at times it can be just as inaccessible as Tolkien's rambling saga. And yet, for those with persistence, it offers a chillingly poignant experience that can haunt you for the rest of your life.
And it did all of this before most Westerners had even played Dragon Warrior yet.
That such a monumental, larger-than-life game is widely available again, in as convenient form as this? That the vital backstory and side-story (PS1 and PS3, respectively) are included in the same package? That the games have all been so carelessly treated, despite countless opportunities for greatness? What a conundrum.
How am I to review a cartridge such as this?
Perhaps it is best to start from the beginning.
[Next: the beginning]