Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
I did not realize this when I first played the game as a child of nine, but as adulthood and its losses arrived, the allegory of my favorite video game seemed clear.
[In Level Up, we discuss games that made us, and the industry at large, evolve.]
The premise was unusual for its time, and in many cases, remains so to this day. Set a thousand years after the original Phantasy Star, the game opens on Motavia, second planet of the Algol Star System, a former desert artificially transformed into a lush utopia by the central computer, Mother Brain. Life has become such that no one needs to work save for a handful of specialists— the state provides all. Teleportation is the primary means of intraplanetary transport, healthcare is of minimal cost, and those who die may be cloned, creating an indefinite cycle of revival.
Until one day, Mother Brain began to malfunction. Motavia’s central lake dried up completely, signaling a return to the desert of the past. Biological monsters, or biomonsters, horrible mutations from Motavia’s local fauna, stalked the countryside, driving citizens to the protection of the cities. Humanity regressed: bandits pillaged and kidnapped, former soldiers became monster hunters, and doctors and biologists adapted their skills towards harm.
With their civilization on the brink of disrepair, the governor-general of Motavia tasks his most promising agent, a young man named Rolf (or in my case, Luke), to investigate the origins of the crisis.
The Algol star system, comprising Palma, Motavia, and Dezolis, has changed dramatically in a millennium. Under the guidance of Mother Brain, the saga of Phantasy Star protagonist Alisa Landale, hero and queen, has passed into mere myth in this once-idyllic society. However, some continue to remember. Luke is no ordinary Agent. For the past several years, he has been haunted by apocalyptic nightmares every night, dreams of a young woman fighting for her life, facing a monstrous demon— these are portents of his mission and of the battles to come.
“Mother Brain is watching over us, right? Then, why do accidents happen?”
The mistakes of the past make their significance felt throughout the story. Luke is not alone in his journey— Nei, Luke’s adopted sister, insists on accompanying him. Nei is a woman with both human and biomonster DNA, an outcast from a society that both fears and hates everything to do with the creatures tearing their world apart.
As Luke and Nei travel across Motavia, they witness firsthand what the world has become, seeing towns populated only by children and the elderly, and a father unknowingly killing his only daughter. Starving people deprived of hope, people who have come to fear other people as much as the biomonsters themselves. Luke’s resolve to discover the truth behind the biomonsters strengthens. Others join Luke and Nei, each a product of the new society, such as Rudolf, whose wife and child were killed by biomonsters.
Beyond his relationships with other NPCs, Luke’s bond with Nei grew organically, using the tropes inherent to JRPGs— she could not be removed from the party, leveled up at twice the rate, had a unique weapon, and was the primary healer in the early game. As Nei’s adoptive elder brother, Luke witnessed her rapid growth from the physically weakest member of the party to the strongest, invaluable and irreplaceable.
“Those who are left here are just the powerless, who are only waiting to die.”
These encounters encapsulated the state of Motavia better than cutscenes ever would. There was a persistent lurking horror, but the game only ever showed tiny sprites and a line or two of text— all other conclusions came from all other elements working together. Hints at societal decay, coupled with the despair of the citizens wandering aimlessly about, were in stark contrast with the futuristic look of the cities. Motavia was indeed a utopia— but only for humans. Native Motavians, indigenous to the planet, had been relegated to the dregs of society, occupying structures built from garbage. All of the music, while appropriately high-tech, carried with it a sense of foreboding.
This atmosphere comes to a head to the first climactic scene of the game, as Luke and his companions learn of the origin of the biomonsters— the unfortunately named Neifirst. A product of experiments combining animal and human DNA, the scientists at the Biosystems Laboratory felt that Neifirst was a failure, and tried to discard her. She escaped, and using stolen DNA, she created the biomonsters to terrorize the human race, punishing those who had played god, establishing her own legacy. However, this being of chaos also housed a being of order— Nei herself, who came into being to stop Neifirst.
The battle that ensues represents all Luke had been fighting for up to this point—the desperate hope of people struggling to keep their society alive, against she who symbolized the fruits of its corruption and evil. Regardless of the outcome, Luke, who so strongly clings to life, is shaken to the core. Questions remain unanswered, and the stakes are raised astronomically higher.
“The heavy atmosphere of this planet somehow stays the same…”
Phantasy Star II comes brilliantly into its own at this point, showcasing the rest of Motavia and Algol, and the evil that plagues this utopia. As catastrophic flooding occurs and a planet is destroyed— a horrific, genocidal act— still nothing is revealed, spurring further discovery. Clearly, something is rotting in the system of Algol. Throughout it all, Luke and his companions continue to fight— to fight despite their vilification, to fight against overwhelming odds, facing a state that cries for their heads for attempting to save it.
There lies the difference between Phantasy Star II and other games of its time. Luke and his friends fought for what was right, for what was just, for what was fair, for a people that were beyond caring. Not for recognition, not for any potential reward, but simply because it had to be done. Ordinary people standing up for what they believed in, becoming extraordinary in the process. These were the ideals projected to me, the player— not least because of the very act of naming the player character after myself. Throughout Luke’s travels throughout Algol, I saw a reality that had been rejected by most everyone else in the game, and the mission that was once Rolf’s had become my own. An entire solar system’s history, represented only by facsimiles of people and buildings, had been fully realized by my imagination and investment into the world.
When the truth is at last revealed, it is one of shocking inevitability. The evil behind Algol’s corruption, behind Mother Brain, is one so real, so tangible, so likely, in its implications. As the twist hits, the reaction of Luke and his friends is the only true solution— the only act against such a powerful, malevolent force.
We make a final stand.
“I will be the master of my own future!”
However, this was not an act in vain. The Algol Star System is freed from that which controlled it, and its residents are free to make their own destinies once more. In Phantasy Star IV, which takes place a millennium afterward, the deeds of Luke, Nei, and their companions are the subjects of lore, tradition, and even worship. Despite their passing, there were those that remained who knew of their sacrifice and what it represented. Like Alisa before him, Luke too became legend, remembered for eternity, standing for the perpetual triumph of good against evil, of courage against fear, of hope against despair.
Death is is not the end. In a fit of terrible coincidence, my grandfather passed away this week. Yet we, his family— his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren, and all who love him— forge onward, keeping his memory. Death then becomes a celebration, a celebration of fulfilled potential, a celebration of happiness made possible by the foundation laid by the ones who dared act first.
Phantasy Star II is a game about life.