An NPC in Motherbound, the third of four towns in Breath of Death VII: The Beginning, jokes that she wishes she could go out and see more of the world, but the monsters surrounding the town are too difficult for her to fight; if only, she laments, she started an adventure in Lufestpolis—the player’s starting location—where monsters are far easier. It lampshades a recurring trope: the game’s opening section allows the player to build strength while challenges scale at an appropriate difficulty. She could get strong enough to see the world, if only she found an appropriate starting point. This is especially significant for RPGs given how invested the genre is in player growth while also traditionally dealing in stories of revolution.
Many RPGs begin with a kid in the suburbs venturing into the wild unknown to save the world from a powerful and menacing threat, often in the form of an evil empire. Mobility is a silent privilege in these games: the player-characters will overcome small, manageable challenges while learning the game and accruing resources before larger and larger dangers present themselves. Perhaps this is too generous, but this makes a certain amount of structural and narrative sense: a shooter like Perfect Dark or Halo begins with the shit considerably far away from the fan, only for the former to meet the latter when things become more dire. Similarly, the kid from the suburbs in a JRPG is more likely to have access to resources that the deliberately oppressed might not.
In any case, the player’s mobility is taken for granted. Every lock has a key, but more importantly locks are understood as locks and keys are always within reach.
The 1988 JRPG Phantasy Star, originally released for the Sega Master System emphasises the effect of mobility on societal locks and keys. Most often, Phantasy Star is noted for starring a heroic woman motivated by her older brother’s death in the opening cutscene (Rice, Jason. “Alis Landale, My First Female Protagonist.” Pixels or Death. Feb 3 2014.). However, Phantasy Star is also unique for its mystical, high-fantasy sci-fi setting and style inspired by Star Wars and Flash Gordon (Saga is a more modern example of this aesthetic). Finally, Phantasy Star takes an unmitigated approach to revolution: it is about overthrowing a dictator and nothing else. Everything the player’s Alis and co. do is in service of overthrowing King Lassic. Unlike the its more fantastical contemporaries like Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda, there is no series of MacGuffins and there is no sprawling conspiracy to unlock. There is an oppressive king and Alis’s coup d’état.
While there are no sacred crystals nor any temples to guard them, Phantasy Star does require the staggered collection of keys for ambiguous locks. The game opens with Alis’s brother, Nero, falling in battle against Lassic. Nero tells Alis to carry on the revolution and to start by finding his friend, Odin. This seems straightforward: rumour is that Odin is a strong fighter and weapons expert and Nero believes this is all that is needed of a revolutionary. However, it is important to note that Nero was killed in direct conflict with Lassic. All the player sees of Nero’s adventure is his defeat in a fight, Nero’s revolution is a contest of arms, one he is doomed to lose against an established king with an army of literal machines on his bankroll. When Nero recommends Odin, he’s trying to accrue greater fighting power because that’s what he values. However, as Alis navigates the world, it becomes clear that the most valuable skill to the revolution isn’t combat, it’s mobility. Alis traces a much more roundabout path than her brother, one involving layers of inner obstacles. Every objective—every key—carries sub-keys to sub-locks. Alis succeeds where Nero failed not necessarily because she fights better than he does, but because she weaves in and out of Lassic’s legislation to unbalance him. She moves her physical body (several quests half way through the game are based on finding or building vehicles) and she moves resources where she needs to overthrow Lassic.
The player leaves Alis’s hometown in search of Odin with no clue of who he is or where to find him. Alis discovers that Odin lives in a neighbouring town by talking with townspeople, she visits the nearby town to find that Odin has left to hunt a sorceress, she tracks down the location of the sorceress to find Odin has been defeated (another indication that strength is not all that’s required of revolution) and frozen in stone, she finds a cure for petrification but it’s on a different planet, to visit the other planet she needs a passport, and so on. This is the entire structure of Phantasy Star. Layers of unexpected locks that can only be accessed by hidden keys within the universe’s legal system. Sometimes she must track down a highway pass on the black market, sometimes she needs to use public transportation. She operates on both sides of the law to dismantle it.
Alis has to canvas entire towns just for a hint to what might unlock the next problem, and most of the hints townspeople give are for other keys needed much later down the road. Between translation hiccups and the time-consuming screen transitions it’s a jumbled, abstract mess that will only ever lead to more sets of locks and keys. And it’s a marvellously well-designed system that highlights how mobility is obscured to limit the political effectiveness of poor people (Kunzelman, Cameron. “In Praise of the Worst Design Moment in Final Fantasy 7.” This Cage is Worms. Sep 20 2012.).
Alis is a kid from the suburbs in that her home community is literally gated. Random encounters loom on the other side of the gate, the very first of which poses a threat to Alis before she’s gained higher levels and better equipment. It’s fitting that it’s necessary to fight even though the game feels practically impossibly weighted against the player in those early levels. The first mook can cut down poor Alis if she misses once or fails to flee after suffering a critical hit. If it weren’t for a friendly neighbour who restores Alis’s HP for free, grinding to level 2 would be impossible. As for her suburbs, Alis’s town, the largest on her home planet, is decorated by pleasant looking rivers and gardens; homes are colourful, futuristic domes. Armed robotic guards condescend menacingly but at the very least keep order. Deeper into the game, other towns are populated by people dressed in rags who beg for food in exchange for information, houses are patched together stone huts, the landscape is flooded by rocks and mud. All things considered, Alis has it good.
Interestingly, everybody in the three planets of the Algol system, from Alis’s suburban neighbours to the people in more desolate locales, know that Alis and her friends are looking to overthrow Lassic. They voluntarily supply Alis with information, items or encouragement fully knowledgeable that she’s trying to kill him and usurp his throne. Lassic is not a dictator by design, more by negligence. Everybody welcomes his overthrow but he doesn’t seem at all interested in putting down any resistance: that’s what his paid representatives planetside are for. Given the long string of locks and keys from the game’s opening cutscene to its finale, Lassic’s best defence is his bureaucracy. Most of the keys Alis tracks down are documents to appease the authorities: the greatest challenge in overthrowing the evil king is not unearthing a divine weapon or casting a special kind of magic, it’s navigating his labyrinth of red tape.
Again, at first glance, Phantasy Star is so direct: kill the evil king. But that goal is constantly interrupted. Navigating dungeons reflects the messy confusion of Alis’s coup. Dungeons and caves are explored in a first-person perspective along dark, identical brick hallways with no map to aid the player. Traps and dead ends litter every turn while monsters pop out at the team every few steps. The player can’t even target which monster they attack, giving an impression of wild recklessness to combat. Leaving these dungeons and actually seeing the party’s bodies emerge feels like a breath of fresh air. All this mirrors the actual process of overthrowing king Lassic. The whole game is a process of meandering through tight, indistinguishable paths searching for the one that will lead to the next level of the dungeon. Success only leads to another tight dark hallway, so to speak.
Alis is also able to use a “talk” command during fights with no explanation of what it does. Almost every enemy she uses it on results in a message declaring the party and the creatures don’t understand one another. Alis also gains a magic spell called “chat” that prompts the same response. However, among the random encounters on one of the planets are farmers and nomads. Using “talk” or “chat” here ends combat entirely with both sides lowering their weapons and heading their separate ways. The opponents will chase the player off by calling them thieves or by imparting some secret about an upcoming dungeon. Usually, they’ll leave on a note of good will, telling the player “we want to be friends with people from [Alis’s home planet] Palma,” “We are outcasts. Forgive us,” or my favourite, “hello.”*
This is another instance of the game hiding a solution. The player needn’t fight the nomads. In fact, according to the story, the player is fighting on their behalf as much as their own. But cooperating—or, at the very least, refusing to fight—with the inhabitants of the planet requires discovering a hidden system. Again, the oppressive regime’s best asset is keeping its systems secret. The nomads and Alis are not enemies, but they act like they are until the player experimentally inputs a command they have no apparent use for. The allegiance of similarly oppressed people is withheld from the revolutionaries for the king’s benefit.
Even Alis’s own cohorts can only be recruited by obeying the system’s laws. Myau, Odin’s talking cat, must be exchanged for a valuable pot (one that is later used against the party by one of Lassic’s agents) and Noah** only signs up for Alis’s revolution after a progressive governor writes a recommendation letter. The game begins, ends and moves according to the goal of dethroning an unqualified king, a king who is universally reviled, but that goal is only met by acting within his set of rules.
It’s further appropriate that Alis and co. all established as privileged at least in their connections to Nero, the rebellion and one another. They have access to the roadpass that takes them to the starport, they have access to the passport that lets them into the prison to visit an engineer after they’re grounded and when a mad scientist withholds a tool they need to build their own space ship, they have access to the fighting power to resist him violently. Also, unlike most RPGs, characters are able to purchase their ultimate weapons or armour closer to the beginning of the adventure than the end. As soon as they find the shop that carries their best gear they can pick it up so long as they can afford it. Again, their privilege grants them access to materials that move them closer to the coup against Lassic. They may use their mobility against the king, but only because they are in a rare position of mobility.
Phantasy Star requires a kind of patience that isn’t seen very often. It carries much of the ineffable satisfaction that comes with playing through a JRPG (Parkin, Simon. “Maps.” Boing Boing. May 2009.) and maybe that blunts the edge of its anti-authoritarianism. But Phantasy Star has a unique procedure of hunting down clues for an object or a code that shreds a single layer of legislation. It’s as much about poking holes of an oppressive system from within as it is overthrowing it. It’s about wandering for answers because the player’s party is in the privileged position that they might actually find them.
* I find the imagined scene that comes with the farmers/nomads replying to the talk command with a simple “hello” to be very powerful. I like the idea of two armed adventure teams squaring off against one another, one of them venturing a conversation instead of attacking and the other shakily responding with “Hello” before everyone eases their weapons down and carries on their separate ways.
** In the North American translation Noah is referred to with feminine pronouns because of her feminine appearance, but in the Japanese versions and later remakes she is given male pronouns. Because I played the original translation on the Wii’s virtual console I think of Noah as a woman but I also feel like Noah’s non-binary gendering further deepens the game. I don’t feel qualified to write about it any further but if someone out there wants to take a crack at it I’d love to read more into this.
Further reading: Alley, Jake. “GameSpite journal 12: Phantasy Star.” 2-Dimensions. Sep 12 2012.
Moore, Jasper & Joe Blair. “A Look Back at Phantasy Star.” Cardinal Virtual. Dec 15 2012.
Velunta, Lukas. “Level Up: Phantasy Star II.” Kambyero. Feb 16 2013.