The concept of Nintendo Hard is tossed around when comes to more classic video games. Some titles, back in the day, were a bit more demanding. This did not just apply to Nintendo games, though. Some Sega games fit the bill, and the original Phantasy Star was one of them. The game had had no maps for its frustrating, first-person dungeon, no information on the items and equipment found around you and was filled with hazardous enemies which would appear frequently. While the classic mode that keeps all of that intact remains in Sega Ages Phantasy Star, it also has the improved M2 Ages variation that lets you adjust appearances, choose from the FM soundtrack and, most importantly, fix all of those nagging issues that might have turned people away before.
The improved map is the biggest improvement that completely changes the way the game works. In the original version of Phantasy Star, you would be heading into these first-person dungeons and left to your own devices. You would almost always need to buy flashes (or one magic lamp) to light the way, then aimlessly wander your way through while dealing with hordes of enemies that were all much stronger than you. Now, there is an optional automapping system that constantly displays the map alongside the screen. It notes staircases, shows chests that are open or closed, lets you know when people of interest are in a dungeon and even lets you know about some potential hazards. When I got to Maharu cave, I never expected the map to let me know about the secret door that would let me access a part of the dungeon with extra challenges, but it did! The part of the wall where it appeared was not the same shade of black, alerting me to the secret location. It really showed the attention to detail, but did not compromise or ruin the original intent of the game.
The better organization of information is another way in which Sega Ages Phantasy Star helps this game stand out. If you go into the pause menu by pressing the plus or minus symbols on your Nintendo Switch, you can get information on equipment, items and monsters found in the game. There are prices, details on stats and information on what each person can or can’t use. Sure, we know that the Ceramic Sword would be better than the Titanium one, due to there being an 800 price difference, but the game never tells us exactly how. It also never says who can equip what, so it all came down to guesswork and guides years ago. Now, all you have to do is bring up a menu when you are playing, and you are set.
But what I appreciate most about the Ages mode in Sega Ages Phantasy Star is how it handles the enemy encounters. To start, the enemies do not swarm you like they would in the original Phantasy Star. The Sega Master System game was the sort where you would take a few steps, get into a fight, take a few more steps, find yourself in another fight, then eventually find yourself overwhelmed before you had the opportunity to get any sort of teleportation items that would take you back to a safe recovery place. Things are vastly reduced here, which immediately improves the pacing of the game. But, that’s only part of how this new mode makes the game more playable. While the encounter rate was higher in the original, it was also less fulfilling.
In Sega Ages Phantasy Star, all experience is pretty much multiplied by four. The enemies are all as difficult as they were originally. Their movesets don’t seem to have been altered; when I compared the Ages version to the Classic, they seemed to appear in similar strengths and numbers. But when a battle is over, you get around four times as much experience and substantially more money. It makes it actually possible to purchase the better equipment you see on the different planets early on, without having to worry about wasting a lot on keeping your party alive. You aren’t throwing yourself against a wall in the hopes of leveling up enough to survive, because the experience being doled out is reasonable. Things feel much more fair.
Sega Ages Phantasy Star improves the game. This RPG has always looked good and offered some revolutionary ideas, but it was mired in trappings from the era that made it difficult to push through. The Nintendo Switch port with M2’s updates applied makes it an enjoyable experience. Things can still get challenging and some thought has to be put into surviving, but the new map, altered encounter rate, rebalanced reward distribution and in-game encyclopedias are a big help.