Phantasy Star Online (Sniper)
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega

Remember the colorful, oddly-proportioned pre-rendered characters from Micro Cabin classic "Guardian War", which are unforgettable once seen? Now imagine that same look but in real-time: bright yellow or blue or red characters whacking spiky-headed werewolves in lush green forests. As in "Sonic Adventure", clear blue skies with sun-induced lens flares meet up with lava-filled caverns and high-tech space ships, all to great effect. Menus are clean, with a nice looking font-- they even shrink the playfield when open, so the player can continue to move while doing d-pad menu navigation. Character NPCs and faces are reminiscent of those from the first two "Phantasy Star" titles, and it's fun to see what that universe's inhabitants look like in 3D.

Other than a few-second "Phantasy Star II" motif at the beginning of the pre-rendered intro, the music has nothing to do stylistically or compositionally with the Mega Drive titles. But that's ok, because what is here is a wonderful selection of "fake orchestral" keyboard music: think the "Warcraft II" soundtrack, but with a science fiction twist. The songs are "tracked" so that they can fade in and out of the various modes as the player engages with or disengages from combat. Some of the tunes, such as the forest song, do a great job of establishing mood, while the other melodies are equally memorable outside of gameplay.

With some games, one can tell a great deal of effort was put into the core play movement: this is one of those titles. The player moves with the analog stick, and the rate of turning plus acceleration couldn't feel better. When close to an enemy, the player "locks on" automatically, with a perfectly-defined threshold, at which point light and hard attacks can be mixed and matched into two or three-hit combos. Techniques are cast by mapping them to face buttons just like the base attacks, while an alternative hotbar can be toggled by holding the "R" trigger. "L" trigger snaps the camera behind the player.

Yuji Naka and crew were inspired by the PC's "Diablo" in the creation of this quasi-MMORPG. While the game is perfectly playable in single player, with its beautiful aesthetic and enjoyable combat loop, it really comes alive when playing co-op with up to three other people. Stacking the basic-yet-rich core control mechanics on top of watching action unfold with multiple players, then being able to excitedly trade loot with them, is pure joy. Phantasy Star Online can still be enjoyed online today via advanced Windows ports like "Ephinea", or even on physical Dreamcast hardware with some simple Raspberry Pi-based intermediary hardware. The game's elegant simplicity feels refreshing decades into the twenty first century.

Sniper's verdict: