Brian Crimmins is a freelance video game critic. Much of his work is critical readings of video games, and he focuses most of his efforts on older Japanese titles.
Before Sega retooled the series for MMORPG audiences, Phantasy Star was one of the most prominent JRPG franchises of its time. It had always remained ahead of the pack by experimenting with themes and narrative models years before its rivals could catch up. The first Phantasy Star game featured a slight political dimension to JRPGs seven years before Final Fantasy would do the same. And its sequel only continued that trend. One of the first RPGs for the Genesis, Phantasy Star II strengthened the political themes with a grim narrative and Daedalian dungeon design.
That last point bears repeating: the narrative and dungeon design are intricately tied together, something that few writers have recognized. In fact, in the twenty six years since the game’s release, I’ve only found one review that sees these two components working toward the same end. Every other piece of writing treats them as distinct entities. Yet when we analyze the game’s dungeon design, we see a series of shifts according to the narrative’s demands. These shifts complement the narrative, exploring new facets of the game’s themes and suggesting new developments where the narrative remains silent.
The first set of dungeons (those before the Neifirst fight) achieves this by puncturing the story’s positive tones. Despite being remembered for its dark themes, Phantasy Star II’s opening moments appear optimistic. In fact, the very nature of the world the game’s characters inhabit stands as a testament to the power of technology. The power of Mother Brain has transformed Motavia from an arid desert planet to a veritable utopia. Its citizens have nothing to worry about; whether it’s the artificial farms that keep the people fed, or the cloning facilities that make death meaningless, Mother Brain provides her people security and frees them from all bodily harm. Their lives are bright and orderly, if the Motavian capital’s vibrant greenery, pristine streets, and symmetrical layout are anything to go by. In addition, the problem that sets the story in motion is relatively minor when considered in context. As an agent for the Motavian government, Rolf’s mission is to find out why the monsters outside the city are growing in population. It’s hard to imagine the general populace noticing this increase in monsters, given the prevalence of teleporters connecting every city on Motavia.
Things change as soon as Rolf wanders outside the safety of Paseo with his partner, Nei. He receives hints about Mother Brain’s failings when he sees the damage Arima has suffered at the hands of bandits, but those hints only come into focus when he enters the game’s first dungeon: Shure. Fans of the game describe this dungeon as notoriously difficult, and for good reason. Shure’s labyrinthine layout thwarts any attempt at making sense of the situation. Its crisscrossing hallways and frequent dead ends cause its visuals to blend into a muddled nightmare. And the top down perspective only adds to this confusion. Not only do the pipes above Rolf and company obscure the player’s view, but the top down perspective also adds an element of temporal confusion. By seeing rooms before they can access them, the player grasps both present and future in the same moment.
Shure’s threatening facade is quite different from the orderly, easily understood Motavia that Mother Brain initially presents to her people. In fact, both its design and its existence directly contradict everything this Motavia stands for. We can’t reconcile Shure with our previous understanding of technology as a benevolent force, because its futuristic trappings actively work against the player’s interests throughout the dungeon. Yet we cannot deny that this technologically advanced future is responsible for its creation. It could not have arisen naturally, but through the conscious effort of Mother Brain’s technocracy.
For what purpose, though, the game never makes clear. The Shure we know now is crumbling apart, forgotten and ravaged by time. It currently serves as a base of operations for bandits. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what purpose Shure could have served beyond this one. All this points to significant holes in Mother Brain’s system: that until now, her solution has been to keep things out of sight for the majority of Motavia; that she hasn’t even accomplished that, given the frequent raids that nearby Arima suffers; that her world is just as hospitable to violent thieves as it is to the ordinary citizens; and that Mother Brain is ultimately not the benevolent force she wants the people to believe she is. Such cracks only develop further with each new dungeon. After leaving Nido, Rolf witnesses a father resort to thievery, kill his daughter, and then kill himself. His adventures at the Bio Systems Lab shake his commander’s faith in the system. As he progresses on his journey, several people who, dissatisfied with the status quo, defect from Mother Brain’s rule for one reason or another and accompany him. And at Climate Control, Nei confronts her doppelganger and dies.
Nei’s death and the events at Climate Control mark a major shift in the narrative, and the game’s design changes to reflect that shift. After Climate Control goes haywire, Mother Brain declares the heroes traitors to Motavia and sends her security robots to subdue them. They’re little more than reskins of the organic creatures that the heroes had been fighting until this point. But more important to this analysis are the changes in dungeon design. Admittedly, these are very subtle changes. The Dams that Rolf explores are more puzzle-like than anything that precedes them, yet they’re still very much labyrinthine in nature. After all, the heroes have not yet escaped from Mother Brain’s system. In addition, the dungeons see a change from hallway-oriented layouts to more room-oriented ones.
This last change must especially be noted, as it is during this shift to room-based design when Phantasy Star II first introduces its themes of self-determination. Each Dam begins with the same moment: a locked door bars the heroes’ progress, and they must use a keycard to unlock the door. It’s a minor moment, but one that forces them to acknowledge the choice they have in the matter. It would be quite easy for the characters to convince themselves that they’re being forced to go through with their actions; that because Mother Brain is chasing them, or that because Motavia will fall apart otherwise, they have no choice but to enter the Dams. Yet the locked doors interrupt their quest, and demand deliberate action. It’s in this moment, when the characters are digging through their belongings to find the precise key they need to enter this specific Dam, where they must acknowledge that they are making a choice for themselves.
This is something the player has to acknowledge, too, for this is the first time they’re able to make a significant choice within the game. Until the incident at Climate Control, the player is forced to complete the dungeons in a set order: they go to Shure, then Nido, then the Bio Systems Lab, etc. Under these circumstances, it would be easy for the player to tell themselves that they don’t have any choice in the matter; that anything they do in the game, they do because the game has told them to do it. While that argument doesn’t disappear the moment the Dams enter the picture, it certainly becomes a much weaker one. The player isn’t being led along a single path anymore; they can choose to tackle the Dams in any order they please. And in doing so, they must confront the fact that they have a choice in the matter at all – much like the heroes they control. Phantasy Star II contrasts both groups against the passive citizens of Motavia, who are willing to trust a rapidly failing system to save them. In any case, the Dams help both player and character to affirm their resolve.
That resolve is finally given greater direction and clarity when the the player reaches Dezolis. Unlike most of the areas the player has explored thus far (Uzo Island being a notable exception), Dezolis stands out for its completely natural design. Out are the neat squares that defined Motavia’s surface; in their place, the player finds jagged mountains and a thick fog hanging over the planet’s surface. Its people have tucked themselves away into depressions in the planet’s natural formations. As tempting as it is to read these connections to nature as being more spiritually pure, Phantasy Star II doesn’t support such an easy reading. Remember that the heroes first land on this planet through a colossal spaceport, and that this spaceport creates much the same compartmentalization that dominates Motavia.
However, both Dezolis’ more naturalistic design and Skure’s interruption of that design allude to why the game views this planet as a solution to Motavia’s problems. The people of Dezolis don’t exercise meticulous control over their environment. Rather, they live within it, accepting that some things are outside their control. This even applies on an interplanetary level, given how Dezolis still participates in Mother Brain’s system, even if only a little. As risky as that strategy might sound, it doesn’t lead to any of the fear-driven actions that we saw on Motavia. There are no tragic murders, no flood, and no planets blowing up. In fact, all we really see are the people of Dezolis living their lives in peace. So by distancing themselves from technology and acknowledging their place in the world, the people of Dezolis achieve greater psychological resolution/realization than the Motavians could ever hope to achieve under Mother Brain’s rule.
And the dungeons only temper that feeling with their spiritual design. While some of that spirituality comes through in their imagery (the fog, the statues, the music), far more of it comes across in the dungeons’ layouts. They don’t display the same chaotic planning that defined Motavia’s dungeons. There’s symmetry in the buildings that wasn’t there before, and their structures don’t bleed into each other as much, rendering them far easier to read. Compare Menobe or Guaron to any of the Dams, and that difference becomes clear. You can tell that this is a tower, and that’s a walkway, and that’s the hallway that leads you into the building. You’re led through each of these structures in a very specific way, as though the architects built these areas with a very specific purpose in mind.
And that’s exactly what those architects did. The most notable actions in these dungeons are often leaps of faith, like jumping down increasingly complex holes in Ikuto or climbing the near-endless tower at Guaron. Thus these dungeons test the heroes for very specific reasons, something we never saw from Motavia’s dungeons. Or if they were testing the characters, that testing was incidental to their purpose. While the key cards at the beginning of each Dam make the player aware of their choice, there’s no greater purpose to their design. The Dams were built mainly to control water flow, and they’re only locked to prevent people from intruding. So even when the protagonists are made aware of their ability to choose, there isn’t much enabling them to do anything with that ability.
It’s only by traveling to Dezolis that they find this purpose, since its dungeons are specifically designed to tease out their heroic qualities. Not just anybody can tackle these challenges. In fact, not just anybody can even see them, as the dungeons are invisible unless you have the Aero Prism. And the only way for the protagonists to advance through them is by trusting themselves, giving up some control, and acknowledging their place in the world. Essentially, they reject Mother Brain’s philosophies and prove that they’re capable of opposing her. This rejection certainly fits with the purpose the narrative gives these buildings: they house the Nei Weapons, the most powerful weapons in the game. They must be gathered before the game will allow the player to tackle the final dungeon.
As a topic in video game writing, world-building is often looked at in the abstract. Settings are there to present a convincing facade, or to establish a mood, or to provide the player some challenge to overcome. Phantasy Star II, though, presents a more complex image than that. Its dungeons and towns affect the game’s tone in a way that complements the narrative, yes, but they also have a specific meaning behind them. They question the world as the player initially understands it, provide that player the tools they need to escape, and then outline an alternative to Mother Brain’s rule. Indeed, these dungeons have just as much of an arc as the narrative they serve. Without the work they do, Phantasy Star II wouldn’t be the same.
Note: All maps in this essay come courtesy of RPGClassics.com.
Great piece; I remember with very mixed feelings my time playing Phantasy Star II as a kid. In retrospect, maybe not the best RPG to cut your experiencing-accumulating teeth on. Crimmins has done a great job in articulating and analysing what it was like to play the game; the characters’ achingly slow progress through the dungeon mazes in the first half creates a certain sense of menace few games of the era could. (Although I’m not sure I’d want them to!)
I’d really recommend for anyone interested who isn’t familiar with playing the game to watch a let’s play video; in addition to the visuals here, it gives a good sense of how hard it was to create a mental map of the early dungeons, thanks to the pipes, teleporters, and frequent random battles.
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