Phantasy Star / ファンタシースター

Entry vector

Note: I just started noodling on this page (Jan, 2013). I need to do more illustrations, especially isometric (tactical gameplay) shots to help quickly sell the concept.

Here's a rough draft showing how the game might look.

Perhaps the figure frames need to be based on batch-rendered 3D models, given that there are several races (Motavians, Dezorians, Humans (m/f), all with different armour levels, and there are also enemy humanoids which are armed and armoured. I do prefer hand drawn figures over 3D. The biggest hurdle is to keep the shapes and scales consistent as they rotate in space, so a rough 3D model to paint over would help. Legs, torsos heads and weapons would be separate images. Because the game is grid based, I feel that super smooth animation is unnecessary and even jarring. Only a few snappy frames might be needed.

If you looked at the images above, you might have figured out where this is going. Could Phantasy Star be X-COM? Yes, I believe many of the components are there, though they might need a little nudge.

X-COM (I'm talking about the original game here) is about the gradual invasion of Earth by a technologically superior group of aliens, unsuspecting in their arrogance. This allows a small team of human elite scientists and soldiers to assimilate the new alien technology and eventually hunt down and destroy the telepathically potent puppet master, the alien mother brain located on Mars.

In the Phantasy Star games, we often play as a small team of soldiers, magicians and sometimes scientists, who discover lost technology and knowledge as they travel the world(s). In opposition, we have monsters, and a sort of Lovecraftian entity which awakens every now and then to corrupt political leaders (it can even turn your party members evil). One of the games has a mother brain, too.

There are spaceships which can shuttle the party to different planets within the same solar system, though some of the games limit the player to a single colonized planet far away somewhere.

rough line up illustration of a Dezorian and a Motavian from Phantasy Star

The first game had three primary races, The Dezorians, Motavians and Humans, each inhabiting a planet in the Algol solar system. However, you could also talk to some of the monsters. The later games polished the idea of the genetically modified humans and robots/androids, so those kind of count as races now.

In X-COM, getting an interplanetary ship is a part of the endgame, so it's best to restrict the game to a single planet before that. In later Phantasy Star games, the alien races do share a single planet, and resetting technology levels (via catastrophe) isn't something the series is unfamiliar with either. Perhaps, the "fallen colony" concept has been overused, even. On the other hand, there's a period of colonization clearly marked in the official timeline.

I'm not sure when and where this game would take place though. There are a few things which need to make sense, such as a matching monster fauna. If the game takes place right after the first one, then using the bio monsters from the 4th game might not work. Newmans and beasts also make an entry later in the series. The three guardian races (Humans, Dezorians and Motavians) don't share a planet until later. The setting also needs a certain amount of mystery, something which has been unveiled throughout the series.

I'm not very knowledgeable about the setting, having only watched a few Let's Plays and read the Compendium, but here's my tentative setup.

Setting and history

In the Phantasy Star timeline, eons ago, we had these powerful disembodied entities which created the Algol solar system. The planets were actually vaults, or prisons for wicked disembodied entities, and a guardian race was created on each planet. I'm not sure if they were given technology and later rediscovered it. It almost seems like it, because they go from feudal to space-age in about 200 years, after 300 000 years of (no doubt monotonous) guard duty. It's possible that their society and environment was engineered to be rather static, but eventually broke (simultaneously on the three planets?). There was also another force which eventually wiped out most of the vault makers, but I'm not sure if it needs to be involved.

So, perhaps other prison planets were created, with other races to guard them. Using such a planet, let's call it... Xulos, as a setting solves a few problems. The local guardian race could, unlike their Algolian counterparts, actually be destroyed rather than simply forgetting their role, leaving only ruins and artifacts behind. Since the disembodied entities created all of the guardian races, they might have given them similar technology, which allows us to use recognizable dungeon architecture, weapons, armor designs, at a fresh location.

Xulosian skeleton

<--- This rare Xulosian skeleton can be seen at the New Dezzo national museum. The Xulosians are believed to have been gray skinned, with squid-like appendages covering their mandibles, but little is known about their culture (because the guardian races had none, and produced no art).

What about the monsters now inhabiting the Algolian planets? The vault planets could have been connected by portals in a network, allowing exchange of information and security checkups every few thousand years. It was normally a dull procedure performed by the culturally devoid guardian races. However, the last time Algol connected to Xulos, found the Xulosians (squid-men of feeble frame) were not there to greet them. Their installations had been abandoned for decades, and there were traces of fighting, dead Xulosians and dead other-things.

According to protocol, the Algolian races attempted a speedy recolonization of Xulos, but were suddenly ambushed and overrun by the monsters which had wiped out the Xulosians. To make matters worse, the monsters spread through the portals to the three Algolian planets, nearly wiping out the guardian races there. The ensuing, lasting terror caused the guardian races to forget their role, and the portals were lost in the process.

Now we have a dead mystery race, ruins and artifacts, all of the Algolian races and monsters on a fresh new planet, struggling to keep their prisoner at bay. The wicked entity could be using the weak minded monsters as puppets, patiently evolving new sinister forms, so it can eventually free itself.

This all happened maybe, 900 years before the first game (BW 0550), and the failed colony (of Humans, Dezorians and Motavians) at Xulos have since persisted in a rather primitive state, with settlements and small nations scattered all over the planet. Most are ignorant of their past, or what the future might bring, busy as they are with local problems and skirmishes. Recently though, the monsters seem to have changed, evolved, grown more aggressive. There are even reports of people who have been turned into monsters. Most people do not believe it, and that meddling with the past and the forbidden ruins is dangerous.

A new elite organization, the X Hunter Guild (X for unknown), is formed to investigate a theorized prime force, the idea that an evil spirit of legend might be behind it all. Ill funded, the XHG (aka Sage?) establishes a secret headquarter from where to launch investigative teams. Monster incidents, each worse than the last continue to plague the world. Nations who feel that the XHG is useful in providing protection will provide funding to expand the operation. The XHG will send out teams to intercept invasive ships (coming from where?), stop terror attacks, investigate rediscovered ruins, and purge monster lairs. During the course of this, they discover and clumsily reverse engineer powerful old technology, discover the androids, and even create a new hybrid race (the elf-likes).

Their quest eventually leads them to the inhospitable moon where they find the last Xulosian. Badly wounded, he took refuge in a cryo-med-bed a millenia ago (making the setting contemporary to PS1), but ended up being possessed by the wicked entity during his long repair... or perhaps before, as he may have been the rogue who created the first batch of monsters, unless they came from elsewhere in the portal network. Recently he has been toiling away in his lab, evolving new monsters to shuttle to the planet. Once he has rid the planet of the guardian races, and procured the hidden keys to open the sealed vault, he can set the wicked entity free at last, and perhaps be free of it himself.

This means that anything which he evolves can not be present at Algol (since the portals are closed), unless there's some kind of convergent evolution going on, or a telepathic link between the possessed LaShiec and our Xulosian counterpart. It's mentioned in the PS1 manual that LaShiec created some of the monsters, such as the Mermen and Batmen, so maybe they have a little collaboration going on.

The later, more evolved monster designs could simply be more buff and capable looking versions of the old familiar monsters (so we retain some morphological familiarity). Also, our evil squid-man needs to be very gradual in his invasion and introduction of new technology, to allow the XHG / player to keep pace. He's got a bit of a lead though, not really having reverted to a very primitive technological state. He simply lacks mass-production capability and maybe some blueprints.

Monster evolution

Phantasy star monsters

I really need to do more early robot things. Which of these early enemies appear might be an indication of what's to come (every game has a different selection). In X-COM, we mostly see the small feeble Sectoids at this stage, but Phantasy Star has nothing quite like it, so I forced guns into the hands of the Skeletons (which are a midgame enemy in PS), and the strange plant thing. Also made up some "imps", because I wanted something small but humanoid.

Tier 1: Encounters are primarily composed of the now naturally occurring creature-type monsters such as the flies, bats, slimes and imp'ish weapon wielders. Scout ships are trying to locate superficial ruins containing less advanced technology, which if found can be infested and become lairs, perhaps for breeding and "conversion" (such as using dark magic to create skeleton-men).

Phantasy star monsters

Mutons and Cyberdisks will appear some time into an X-COM game.

Tier 2: The monsters become bulkier and/or more humanoid, using weapons and armor. The hidden ruins they squat are harder to discover (requiring a special scanner). They use larger and more powerful ships, as the robotic shipyards on the moon are coming online. To keep each game different, and the player on his toes, there's some variation to the evolution lines here. The player needs to capture tech and bio so he can engineer the PSI potent elves and PSI immune robots.

Phantasy star monsters

At this stage in X-COM we get Chryssalids (aka Aliens) and Ethereals (mind control nasties).

Tier 3: His highly evolved minions have mass produced powerful technologies such as exo-armour, shields, mind control (and resistance), homing... plasmoids. Battleships. But, perhaps, so does the XHG, if they have been diligent.

Endgame: Worst case, the ruins containing the hidden keys to the vault are found and he frees the entity. Game over.

Question: If the guardian races had weapons and armor, how were they defeated by monsters which the player has little trouble with, even when using subpar equipment? Could it be "lampshaded" as another mystery? Or, is the XHG simply crafting weapons out of ancient artifacts of other function (as well as newly developed enemy weapons)? However, it seems unlikely that the guardian races were completely unarmed, being prison guards and all. Perhaps the monsters left now are simply a residuum. An additional force might have been with them in the past.

Random insight: I think the death of characters works in X-COM because it sets a hostile tone with the very first mission, making it seem like losing soldiers is normal procedure, and not losing them, a luxury.

Game variants

I'm not a big fan of game difficulty settings in games which are supposed to have a certain immersion and integrity. If I can change how weak an enemy is at a whim, it makes the game seem, well, gamey, and as a player I almost want to be forced to take on the game as it is. On the other hand, the game has to be able to scale with advanced players, or players who need a handicap. Perhaps a reasonable solution is to hide the difficulty settings away in a text file, so it feels a bit like cheating to change them. The game difficulty could be set with several values:

Feedback and numbers

A game should inform the player about the state and history of the important actors and components on the play field, so that the player continually has a basis for fun and exciting decisions. Phantasy Star is originally an cRPG, but I feel that in an X-COM game it is inappropriate to focus heavily on numbers like cRPGs generally do (damage dealt, levels, etc), because it breaks the fourth wall a little. The resolution of numbers is a bit too high for a game which is more concerned with it's emergent narratives. It's enough to say "Gandalf sent a fireball at the Troll, turning it into a giant flailing living torch, which ran into a gas station and blew it up, also setting Gandalf on fire, who later had to spend weeks in the infirmary back at base, getting a cybernetic body replacement.".

In X-COM, we're up against an "unknown enemy", so I think that it's actually a good thing to not fully inform the player about how much damage that laser blast did to the alien tank. The game needs to use numbers of course, but I feel like bars are more appropriate (for the player's soldiers), because they are a bit more fuzzy and the original X-COM used them.

In a turn based game, it's perhaps extra important to show history and continuity. A lot of work can be done here with ingame effects such as smoke, footsteps, and actor animation. Player-character attachment is important, so it would be great if the graphical system allowed some variation in terms of playable races and head/face appearances. I've talked about personal diaries a bit in my Xexyz project too, and replays and player logs in my MoO project (something to support the Let's-Play community, and be used by players who come back to a game after a long time).

There needs to be a certain richness to the actions available to a soldier too. In X-COM it always makes me giddy when I form a firing line with standing soldiers shooting over the heads of kneeling soldiers. I might be overestimating the practicality of such a setup, but allowing it serves an important narrative function. Not everything a player does in a game makes game-sense and in X-COM it's extra important to allow the player to do some... embroidery. I have expanded a bit on the soldier poses with a prone position and a ballistic shield (see my sheet with poses). Aiming could be visually separate too. I'm thinking that after movement, a character defaults to an idle, gun-at-hip stance and action points have to be spent to go into an aiming position, prone and kneeling giving better accuracy and lower view point of course.

Programming obstacles

Programming an X-COM game, or a TBS in general, is different from tacking a project like, say Assasin's Creed where a lot of tricky 3D parkour IK NPC scripting I-don't-know-what has to be solved. TBS games tend to have simply structured playfields and a lot of data structures for units, technologies, etc. Almost nothing tricky has to be solved elegantly in realtime. Mostly, we take our time to manipulate the data and show an almost static display next turn/step. The largest obstacle (aside from the sheer width of content, not to be underestimated) is probably AI and pathfinding, but somehow I don't mind if the Aliens in X-COM are being retarded, because it can be written off as "Hmmm, mysterious alien behavior... What are they up to?" and "Phew! They didn't kill my guys, this game is difficult enough as it is!".

I'm thinking that most of the game could be developed a long way with abstract graphics / placeholders. Hey, it works for Dwarf Fortress! This would allow the graphic artist(s) to work in parallel with the programmer(s), streaming in finished assets gradually.

I did a simple isometrical game engine in 6 hrs for a Ludumdare, and I can't imagine adding variable heights and floors, slopes and maybe obscuring wall transparency makes the task somehow insurmountable. The biggest problem is making shadow stacking (avoiding VENN type overlaps) and line of sight look good (i.e. a wall or tree can have one side visible and the other blacked/grayed out). Shadows and characters on slopes might be a problem too, but it's not a huge deal if it looks a bit wonky.

General development obstacles

I do these kind of pages because I enjoy it. It's my way to play games, I suppose. Sometimes people ask me to realize a project, but to do this I'd need permission from the company holding the rights (SEGA in this case), a great degree of creative control, as well as a programmer or two available (and paid) for maybe two years of work. An X-COM game doesn't really require a lot of sound stuff, so that would be a minor position. Though this would be a 2D game, having a 3D guy available for some time would be great (to help with reference models for all the turn-around frames). If things get too laborsome for me due to the sheer mass of art assets needed and my RSI, I'd need an assistant. Again, 3D models would help to keep things consistent here.

The biggest hurdle is probably my own inability to focus, but who knows... X-COM is something which I happily come back to. Another big obstacle is someone insisting that it'd be done in Unity (the Poser of the programming world?), or that the project is too complex for the existing markets and needs to be simplified and maybe released on the iPhone.

Were I pursue this project in a more serious capacity, first on the order of things would be a list of art assets needed, as well as a complete layout of the data structures (class structures). Next, this needs to be pruned in a scalable manner so a prototype can be made and later added to.

Programmer's tasks

Sprite tangent

I've started redoing some of the original GFX, because working with a 16 color SMS palette seemed like fun. The SMS has two separate 16 color palettes (FG/BG) and a 2bit RGB space (64 colors).

Phantasy star sprite edits Phantasy star sprite edits

Peeking into the game data tells me that the game streams some tiles into VRAM to animate them on the display (coastlines, characters, vehicles, etc). The NES couldn't do that without a fancy mapper I think. Anyways, these streamed tiles were probably stored in a plain VRAM format so the data could be sent quickly. The rest of the graphics might actually have been compressed because I can't see them anywhere. Perhaps they're RLE'd, so the best hope to find them would be to search for highly dithered graphical rows, which are not practical to compress. At any rate, compressed graphics take up variable space, so I don't think my plan to inject substitutes is going to work out.


Art by Arne Niklas Jansson