GameSpite Journal 10 | Tales of Phantasia

Tales of Phantasia | Dev.: Wolfteam | Pub: Namco | Genre: Mostly RPG | Release: Dec. 1995 (Japan)

Regardless of what you may think of the eventual trajectory of Namco’s Tales series (spoilers: downward), you can’t fault its origins. The first entry in the series, Tales of Phantasia, was a genuine breath of fresh air at launch. More than that, it was a remarkable technical achievement.

Unfortunately, Phantasia was a late arrival, and the sheer girth of its technical prowess translated to a gigantic cartridge, which means it was deemed far too expensive and risky for U.S. release. This meant that America’s first encounter with Tales was in the sequel, Tales of Destiny for PlayStation. That game was pitched here as a pleasant throwback to the old days, an antidote to the scary polygonal progress of Final Fantasy VII. What a difference three years makes, eh? Where Destiny and its sprite-based graphics and hand-drawn animated cutscenes looked quaint beside Square’s landmark achievement, Phantasia had been a towering colossus of innovation on Super Famicom.

It looked great, for one thing. Aesthetically, you can dispute the case -- maybe you don’t like its sense of style. That’s fine. But in terms of sheer look, Phantasia’s detailed backgrounds and big battle sprites felt head-and-shoulders above even late-era Square releases like Chrono Trigger. It emphasized traditional graphics, so there were none of the odd plastic-like prerendered elements that came into vogue in the wake of Donkey Kong Country, yet both characters and environments packed impressive visual detail. The game also featured voice clips, so it sounded just as good as it looked. Voice clips! None of Star Fox’s animal babble, which was one step removed from the way adults in the world of Peanuts (featuring good ol’ Charlie Brown) “spoke” with muted trumpets. No, warriors called their battle cries in real, live Japanese... or in Japanese-accented English in the case of all those spells whose incantations were oh-so-exotic loanwords like “fireball.”

Phantasia’s plot, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as unquestionably superior to Chrono Trigger’s. In fact, it sort of read like the sort of thing the developers wrote immediately after crushing Lavos in a fit of inspiration only to look at it the next morning and realize, “Oh, crap, that’s the same story, huh?” Not only does time travel factor heavily into the tale, you also find the presumed villain of the piece wasn’t such a bad guy all along. On the other hand, since Phantasia predates FFVII, it also manages to avoid the excessive story convolutions and smug mind-screws that became unavoidable in the Japanese RPG shortly thereafter. Its plot is twisty, but it’s a clean sort of knot rather than a messy Gordian disaster.

Where Phantasia really stood out, though, was in its action-heavy battle system. Eschewing traditional turn-based combat and even menus, Phantasia pitched its random encounters into side-scrolling stages where the player controlled the hero directly, performing pre-determined commands with different button input combinations. The tagalong party members were controlled with simple, customizable AI scripts. The overall effect was a long way from Dragon Quest; it was more like Zelda II meets Street Fighter, with sword strikes and spells piling up into combos, though with less direct control than in either of those titles.

Phantasia loomed large in the import-aware collective conscious for years, so it’s little surprise that it was one of the first games to receive a high-profile fan translation once it became clear that Namco had little interest in localizing it. The game did eventually find its way west in a Game Boy Advance port that Nintendo published itself. The GBA version was badly compromised, but on the plus side it lacked the juvenile tone of the fan patch (which inserted flat “comedy” and interpreted “coarse” characters as “downright filthy”).

By Jeremy Parish? | April 13, 2012 | Previous: Star Fox 2 | Next: Shiren the Wanderer