Might Have Been: Phantasy Star III

[Might Have Been tracks the failures of promising games, characters, and companies. This installment looks at Phantasy Star III, released for the Sega Genesis in 1991.] 

Phantasy Star III is the one no one talks about much, and when they do the compliments are sparing. It’s Devil May Cry 2. It’s After War Gundam X. It’s Robocop 3. It’s Friday the 13th Part V. It’s Star Trek: Insurrection. It’s every Alien or Predator movie made since 1991.

It mostly deserves that. Phantasy Star III is a standard RPG of the early 1990s; short on story, long on battles, and lacking the inspired touches of the Phantasy Stars that came before and after. Though not an abysmal game, it doesn’t have much to show for itself.

But its potential? Good heavens, the potential it had.

Phantasy Star III may rate the lowest among the four proper 16-bit Phantasy Stars, but it’s the one that caught my attention the most. In 1991 it sounded amazing: a sprawling adventure across a world of castles and mutants and cyborgs, a world where we could control three different generations over the course of the game. Sega even told us that in the grimmest possible way.

Not every kid might want to “age, marry, and die” thrice over the course of a video game, but for me it evoked a sense of grandeur as few games had. This was a saga so ambitious that it was effectively three games in one, and it carried the promise of an epic well before the Internet pounded all meaning out of the word.

Phantasy Star III at least lives up to that promise with its introduction. There’s a unique aura in the piercing soundtrack and the arc of an otherworldly sunrise. The tale it initially spins offers fantasy templates with some lingering mysteries. The land remains divided by a millennia-old war between a witch named Laya and a knight named Orakio. Both of them disappeared in battle, and their descendants still squabble. Any astute fantasy reader will know what really happened between Laya and Orakio, but it seems it might be fun to find out more.

Other possibly interesting clich├ęs appear: a woman washes ashore in the Orakian kingdom of Landen, lacking all memories of who she is. She knows her name is Maia, though, and after two months she knows that she wants to marry Prince Rhys of Landen. Rhys appears less enthusiastic due to his default character portrait, though he’s dutifully outraged when a dragon swoops in and steals Maia away on the day of their wedding.