(Warning: I know it's hard to avoid spoilers for a game from 1989 anyway, but in case you do care, major Phantasy Star II spoilers are on their way.)
On Christmas Day, 1991, I carefully removed the tape from the colorful wrapping on the big box. I know that most kids just rip away, but that was always how I did it. I was already pretty sure I knew what was inside, but when I actually saw it, my heart felt like it was going to leap out of my chest.
Here is what I saw: Coming at the absolute beginning of the 16-bit era, the game might not grab you at first.
However, forced to give it a serious chance, I found out that I had barely scratched the surface of a massive old-school RPG classic. I'm kicking myself for only having played through it now; this game was MADE for people like me, people who ground their way through Dragon Warrior and loved it. If I'd gotten this game with my Genesis in 1991, it would have blown me away - I can only imagine. Better late than never.
The story comes along as you get further in - it's simple and one wishes there were more of it, but it's surprisingly compelling nonetheless. Phantasy Star II is about loss. The text on the back of the box (which is fantastic; somebody had fun writing it) says "be ready to die!" and I think this sets the tone for the game. Mota is a planet where all needs are taken care of by a computer called Mother Brain (because nobody had used that name in a video game before, right?) , an Eden - until the lab that creates the planet's lifeforms starts creating monsters, the climate control stops working, and everything goes wrong. Their support yanked out from under them, the people are utterly lost.
A lot of RPGs tell you that the world is in crisis, but in a lot of them, things certainly seem to be going OK in most of the places you visit. This game does not shy away from the realities of death and ruin at all. Desolation reigns. The first town you come to is a bombed out husk, its survivors only able to despair and to soullessly ask you, "why would you want to come here?" Bandits are responsible for this, but they too have met a grisly end before you ever get to them. Their society shattered, people sink to unthinkable depths to get by and still fail. Even you, our party of heroes, are faced with a hopeless task. You don't even really know what you're doing, and neither does the authority sending you on your mission. You may become strong enough to meet your objectives in the savage world outside, but you never seem to accomplish anything. You fail to save a kidnapped girl. When you finally accomplish what you think your goal has been since the beginning of the game, it only makes things worse. You are not rewarded or thanked for your efforts. Even at the end of the game, the fates of many things remain unclear, and even those you have managed to save have hard times ahead of them. You struggle, you hope, and that's really the best you can do. But you never stop, as the human spirit is indomitable. The game's hero Rolf and his comrades fight against relentless hopelessness, as they struggle even to find out what their task really is.
One thing that tends to undermine the impact of death in RPGs is that you can bring people back, and when you suddenly can't, there's no explanation as to why. Maybe your party members are just "unconscious," maybe they're magically revived. I think the way it's handled in Phantasy Star is brilliant. You have to make a clone of your lost comrade. The "grandma" at the clone lab looks so harsh as to not even seem human, and this underscores the feeling of unease that goes along with what you're doing. You haven't brought back your friends - they're dead. You've only made a new person with their body and memories. I have to admit that whenever a character died, I felt bad in a way I don't in other games. It felt real.
And now let's talk about the spoiler. It's hard to avoid spoilers for a game from 1989, but I wish no one had spoiled it for me. Still, I felt like I had to talk about it.
Nei's story is akin to that of the game as a whole. When you get to the source of the biomonster problem, it turns out to be a twin called "Neifirst," a genetic experiment that was deemed a failure and whose creators tried to kill her. Nei broke off from her somehow, representing that part of her that didn't hate all humans. Nei and Neifirst are the same being, so her struggle is ultimately against herself, and it's made clear that she knows this all along. She also knows that she is doomed from the very beginning, as Neifirst's death will mean her own no matter what. Still she fights. This is what makes her death meaningful to me. It's not just killing off a main character for the sake of doing so. By the way, speaking of how the game handles death, this is just about the only game I've seen tackle the "why not just resurrect them?" issue with plot death head-on. After Nei dies your party automatically
marches straight to the cloning lab, only to be told there's nothing they can do. This is a brilliant touch.
Neifirst kills Nei before the battle really starts, but although you really shouldn't have any way of bringing back dead characters in the field at this point, there is one really obscure way. I did it. I felt like she deserved to finish what she started, at least. Nei gets up for one last fight.
In the end, though, what's inevitable cannot be changed. Yes, I named the main character SEGA. It's an homage to those old Dragon Warrior manuals where the hero would be called ENIX.
Goodbye Nei. I won't forget you.
In the end, of course, you destroy Mother Brain, but the result is far from the "everyone is happy" endings of practically every JRPG ever. But even though Phantasy Star II shows us a desolate world and teaches again those old lessons that life is struggle, the good life can't last forever and that loss is inevitable, its ultimate message is one of hope.
"Those who give up are doomed." This is why I didn't get to experience a classic game much sooner than I did, and it's also made me think about the struggles of my own life. I suffer from debilitating anxiety and depression, and giving up is frequently on my mind, but you can't. This is why I value stories like these, even though I can see the tropes that make them up as plainly as anybody else. The story of the struggle of the brave few against hopeless odds keeps coming up because it has powerful meaning to us in our everyday lives. The forces between you and happiness might seem so wide and tall you can't see the end, or there might be more of them than you can count, or it might just seem to be a wall made of material you can't scratch or dent. Still, as long as you can try, you try. Even if it's just for trying's sake, it's worthwhile.
Long live SEGA.
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