A Link to My Past: Phantasy Star Online Part 1

As many of you probably already knew, the Sega Dreamcast is one of my absolute favorite consoles. What many of you probably don’t know that the Dreamcast was a first of many things for me.

  • It was the first disc-based gaming console I ever owned.
  • It was the first console to get me into online gaming.
  • It was the first to introduce me to the Phantasy Star series.

On October 1, 2001, I got a Sega Dreamcast for my 16th birthday. At the time, my most current console was a Nintendo 64. I didn’t own a PlayStation or a Saturn because once the 32-bit/64-bit era came into full swing, my brother and I were only allowed one console per generation. By this point, Sega had announced several months before that they were dropping out of the console race, so Dreamcasts were dropping in price. The Dreamcast was bordering between $50 to $75 at this point, with retailers trying to get rid of whatever stock they had left over. Obviously this was also to make room for the upcoming PlayStation 2. Among the first games I ever got for my Dreamcast was an RPG titled Phantasy Star Online.

It all started when I had told my best friend while at school that I had gotten a Dreamcast, since he had one as well. He helped write up a list of games I should look into playing and offered to lend me one that he thought I would really enjoy.

The next day, he pulled out his copy of Phantasy Star Online and guaranteed I’d enjoy it. I scanned through the manual to read up on the story and how to play the game. I was greeted with a full color manual (something new to me considering Sega game manuals had a habit of being printed in black and white). What really stuck out to me was the character introduction page, which explained the different types and professions of characters you could choose from in the game. I read through the entire manual that whole day and couldn’t wait to get home to give the game a try.

I popped the disc into my system and started it up. I let the title screen sit as I soaked in what would be my first taste of the game. The music had drawn me in. Then, the opening movie began to play…

I was now really hyped. I wasn’t used to hearing games with such a passionate sounding opening. Afterall, the Dreamcast was my first disc-based console, so I initially missed out on a ton of other RPGs that weren’t on cartridges.  Nevertheless, I started a new game and got to create my own character. Now, what made PSO different from other console RPGs at the time was that you could decide how your character looked. Most RPGs only allowed you to change the name of the characters. In PSO, you could choose the name and look of your character, on top of what race and profession you wanted. You were the hero. Now, the class I ultimately went with was the HUcast based off his design and what I read about him in the manual. He had the highest Attack stat and could handle damage very well. His draw was that being a Cast (an Android), he could not use Techniques (Magic). That was okay, since he was versatile enough to use a variety of different weapons.

Yes, that IS a golf club he's holding.

I named him “Tsukento” (I’ve been using the alias a little before even then) and went with this design. After you select your character, you’re given the option to either play Offline or Online. At this point, I did not set up my Dreamcast to play online yet, so I chose Offline Mode. Both modes are almost identical save for a few key differences. In Offline Mode, the monsters were weaker, Quests were mostly based on the game’s story, some rare weapon drops were unavailable and you could only play solo unless part of a quest that paired you up with NPCs. Also unlike most other RPGs at the time, PSO was a real-time action combat game. It could not be paused (as its entire structure is based off the Online Mode, which obviously cannot be paused) and required timed button presses to pull off 3-hit combos with weapons. You could attack enemies and run off, as well as avoid their attacks. As the days went by, I had gotten hooked.

I returned the game to my friend as I had ultimately decided I had to have the game. My dad and I took a trip to Circuit City and I picked up a copy for $30. This time, I was ready to play online. I had yet to clear the first area, the Forest, but my friend was willing to help me. I hooked my Dreamcast up to the net and managed to hook it up with a free ISP (at the time, I was using AOL, which was incompatible with the Dreamcast). There, I tried Online Mode for the first time. I was greeted by a new tune.

This was the music played when in the online lobby. There, players could talk amongst each other, perform actions with their character models (provided they had a keyboard plugged into their Dreamcast), as well as start and join games. To this day, I find this tune to be extremely soothing. My friend had suggested to me prior to logging in that I join a lobby of his choice. The reason for this, I will explain later. As I joined the lobby, there was a solitary player waiting around; another HUcast. This one was orange and black, while being differently designed from mine. This was my friend. He showed me the ropes of how to start up and join a game. We played for a while until we reached the boss area. I hadn’t fought the boss before, so I didn’t know what exactly to expect. By this point, I was level 10 and equipped with a measly Saber.

What we encountered was a massive, fire-breathing dragon. I was literally floored as this thing was quite bigger than the both of us. In order to fight the Dragon, you have to attack its legs as it roams around on the ground. You have to avoid being stepped on, as well as being hit by its tail. Should you charge in from the front, you run the risk of being hit by fire. Upon knocking it down, the dragon will topple over (as well as hurting anyone that happens to be under it). From there on, the group has to attack its head to deliver harsher damage. This was no easy task for me as I didn’t know its pattern at first, but we managed to kill it. Cue a cutscene of the dragon roaring and falling over as it died…landing right on top of me and killing me as it did. Yes, the dragon managed to kill me by falling on top of me, ruining my chance of gaining any EXP from the fight. Needless to say, we had to wait a while to continue as the two of us were dying of laughter from this (no pun intended).

In PSO, there are four areas; Forest, Caves, Mines and Ruins. What the two of us cleared was merely the tip of the iceburg. I eventually got the hang of playing PSO with my friend for a while and decided to try playing online with others. I soon learned why my friend suggested we play together or with his friends. Upon joining the firs lobby available, I noticed it was extremely crowded…until large groups of them had vanished. I thought it was odd for so many players to vanish. Then something else had happened; my game had froze. I restarted my Dreamcast and thought my game was bugging out on me. After a quick search online, it turned out the lobby had received an FSOD – Frozen Screen of Death. The culprit? Various players using cheat devices online to boot people. This was not only my first online game experience, but it was also the first time I’d experienced online trolling/griefing. There were people who were playing the game solely to annoy those who were trying to play legitimately. It sadly did not end there.

Among the other things people did were:

  • PK (Player Kill)
  • VMUK (VMU Kill; corrupted the VMU)
  • RSOD (Reset Screen of Death; restarted the Dreamcast)
  • BSOD (Black Screen of Death)
  • NOL (turned player’s characters into a weak level 5 offline quest NPC named NOL)
  • God/HP — (an item that, when equipped, turned a player’s HP into a negative digit, infinitely killing them)
  • Item stealing (upon death, players dropped their equipped weapons and money)
  • Bank stealing (they would access your bank inventory and lift whatever was stored inside)

Just to name a few. Needless to say, online was very hectic to get used to. I made some friends along the way, but the game was becoming hard to enjoy due to the problematic players. I eventually got a keyboard to further enjoy the game and managed to complete it with some online friends.  Along the way, I noticed something odd. Some player names were gold, while others were white. From there I learned something; there was a second version of the game. Players with gold names were those playing Phantasy Star Online Ver. 2. Just what the heck was Ver. 2 and what was different about it? I’ll explain more in Part 2.

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