#ThrowBackThursday: Phantasy Star Online

I often use these #ThrowBackThursday posts to reminisce about some of my favourite games that I’ve played since I first picked up a controller, occasionally I’ll cover something old that I’ve been playing recently (usually if its something I’ve picked up cheap on PSP or its one of the Retro Game Club games, which I’ve not actually joined in with this month). So far though the only one that I’ve written about that had any long-term impact on me is Metal Gear Solid, but even that game didn’t have as much an impact on my life, for better or worse, than Sonic Team’s Phantasy Star Online.

Like many games of its era, I came to learn of Phantasy Star Online through a friend, most of the time it was Aaron and this time was no different. He was properly hyped about the Dreamcast prior to its release and would obsess over every image and article he could get his hands on. I remember him showing me screenshots of PSO in some magazine whilst on the bus one day, I don’t recall where we were going but I thought it looked pretty cool. There were two legged bear wolf things (I later learned these were called Booma’s), lightsabers, massive rifles and scantily dressed girls casting magic, what more could an adolescent boy want?

Now, obviously Aaron was first to get a copy, I think he must have used money he got for Christmas to get it. I didn’t have the cash initially, so I bought a VMU (the Dreamcasts answer to the Memory Card) and made a character at his, not knowing that it would be tied to that console/copy of the game and thus I wouldn’t be able to use it elsewhere, and it would take a couple of months doing my five hour a week supermarket job to be able to actually buy a Dreamcast and a copy of the game, at which point Aaron was miles ahead and already has made friends with a group online so wasn’t massively interested in running round with a level 1 character.

So once I had the console and game for myself I decided to start a different type of character. Gone was the purple haired, Disco Stu inspired HUmar (Hunter Male Human) I called Dibley, and in his place (until I had enough VMU’s to have too many characters) was a RAcast (Ranger Male Robot) titled Mumunk 2001, I designed it in such a way that the sliders were at their maximum.

I chipped away in the offline mode, a little afraid to go online, not because of other people, that bit excited me, but it took a while to wear my Mum down to allow me to take the Dreamcast online as at the time we’d have to pay for every minute I spent online. Plus I only had a 50hz TV in my bedroom and the game would ask you upon boot up what refresh rate required and if you went online you’d only be able to play on servers with players of the same. Anyway, she succumbed, I’d be allowed an hour every other night where I could go online using the “big telly” (the one in the living room, a big wide screen Panasonic with surround sound) once my Step Dad had gone to bed.

She was right to be apprehensive though, as I soon started to push my boundaries and ran up huge phone bills, often forcing us to be cut off and her scrambling round to pay the bill before my Step Dad notice and flipped his lid. You see, I’d made my own friends on the game by this point, most of them older or on the other side of the pond (as I was normally playing later at night than my local friends would have been), and wanted to spend as much time as them as possible. When I wasn’t on the Dreamcast with them, keyboard on lap and Feeder, Muse, System of a Down or Linkin Park playing over headphone, I’d be on forums with them discussing more about the game, among other things.

Eventually our tariff changed, I can’t remember if we changed suppliers or if the supplier changed how they handled the internet. I cant remember if we were on BT to begin with and then changed to NTL or if NTL changed things up, but eventually the internet would be free for an hour and then you’d be charged for any time you were still online after that, but there was a way around the restriction. If you disconnected before the hour was up you could immediately reconnected and go online for another hour and so on for as long as you could keep going. Soon enough I’d be using chat shortcuts to signal when I’d have to do this and as many of us were on the same provider we’d often all disconnect and reconnect then meet in our regular lobby for a chat, see who wanted to run what quest (rooms were limited to four players, whilst lobbies could hold many more) and then break off, sometimes communicating with the others individually via the games in-game mailing system.

Eventually the community became fragmented, SEGA released Version 2 of the game which had additional modes, equipment, and additional difficulty level with new bosses and a raised level cap (although it took as long to get to level 101 as it did to get from level 1 to 100), and again I was left behind. I could still communicate with my group of friends but some moved on to other things and some moved onto Version 2 whilst I was still on the original game and they, rightfully, wanted to explore the new content. I made other friends and it was here that I truly became addicted. I’d be up all night, the moment my Step Dad went to bed I’d turn the Dreamcast on and then I’d be on all night, most of the time not even actually playing the game, just chatting in the lobbies, before sneaking upstairs when I knew my Mum’s alarm was about to go off. I started missing college due to lack of sleep and before long was on anti-depressants.

Other problems arose, I started to really enjoy spending time with one particular person on there, and yes it was a girl. She asked if she could phone me one day, so I gave her my number and she called and we spoke for an hour or so, and she made me promise that I’d not tell the rest of our group, thing was I knew she’d done this with almost everyone, and most of them spoke about it via the private messaging system. I happened to mention it to the wrong guy, who seemed to take on a role as her protector, and after that I was ostracised from the group as she got them to close ranks (and none of them admitted to her they’d also told each other about her phone calls). That was bad enough, and I struggled with it for ages, trying to get her to talk to me, either one to one (I wanted her attention and I wanted to apologise for breaking her trust) or with others around it didn’t really matter, but I begun to give up, and chat with a different group, mostly people from an American forum I was also a member of. Occasionally I’d see people who I knew were part of her clique appear in the same lobby, run past my character and then warp to another lobby. This went on for a while, then she would appear, hang round in the lobby, try and chat to the people I was talking to then disappear. I’d tried to say hi the first few times but received no reply and gave up, it was all a bit weird.

As time went on, and even when I eventually got Version 2, I grew tired of doing this routine and moved onto chat rooms and MSN Messenger on the PC instead, which is where I met my partner who I’m still with nearly 17 years later. We have three children together and now I look back on those moments and laugh both at myself and the behaviour of those around me within the game. I played other versions as they were released, the Gamecube one in splitscreen with my partner and the XBox version via XBox Live with a few people I was on a different forum with. I’d played the PC demo SEGA released around the time of Version 2 coming out, although that was mostly to get screenshots and the like to cut up for fan wallpapers I’d then stick on Deviantart or fansites, and ultimately I had a blast at Blue Burst when that came out but was reluctant to buy into SEGA’s subscription model at the time but have since dipped in and out of private servers such as SCHTHACK or Ephinea over the years, often having to restart when the mood takes me to give it a go again as my character would have been wiped due to inactivity.

I even once went through the convoluted process to play PSO2 on PC when that came out in Japan, but there was no translation file then and my PC wasn’t upto snuff for it anyway so I soon stopped playing, but now SEGA and Microsoft have announced PSO2 is to be released on PC and XBox One outside of Japan for the first time and I was genuinely excited, unfortunately there’s nothing on the cards regarding a European release at this time. But when there is I’ll definitely be there!

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