Thursday, October 1, 2009

Old School Role Playing: Phantasie

One of the "holy grails" of early computer gaming was to bring convincing (albeit unlicensed) renditions of Dungeons & Dragons-style role playing games to the personal computer.  The role of dungeon master was often fun but stressful, requiring meticulous planning before each session and convincing improvisation during it, and using the computer to handle the campaign as well as the dice rolls and other tedious calculations held tremendous appeal.  Early attempts like Temple of Apshai were often ambitious but flawed, but Richard Garriott's Ultima found the right balance of automation and complexity, and the genre was doing great business by the mid-1980's.  Wargame publisher Strategic Simulations, Inc. soon entered the market with its own Phantasie line of RPG games, created by Douglas Winston Wood.  I first encountered the game in its later Atari ST incarnation, and will use it as the reference version for this discussion.

The Phantasie series was successful, but did not last beyond the 1980's, as SSI began publishing the official Dungeons & Dragons line of computer games and had no further need for reasonable facsimiles.  As Asian publishers began deriving their own style of RPG from Western forerunners, the franchise saw adaptations of the first three games for Japanese platforms, along with one final Phantasie IV entry that was never published in the US.  And then the Phantasie series vanished from the scene, without so much as a fan-fiction to its name today.

But the game is worth looking at to see where the state of the RPG art was at the time.  Debuting in 1985 on the Apple II, it reached later systems in an updated, audiovisually enhanced, mouse-driven 2.0 form that was much easier to play efficiently (except for the IBM PC version, which remained a keyboard-driven, 4-color CGA experience right through Phantasie III: The Wrath of Nikademus.)

The game interface is still menu-based in the 2.0 version, but navigation is simplified by the mouse -- the town screen serves as a functional hub, allowing players to manage their party members, spells, equipment, and finances.  Unlike many later RPGs, the player is not directly represented as a member of the party -- while it's common to name a lead character after oneself, any character or even the entire party can be wiped out.  The player's intelligence always survives to build up a new party.

Once equipped, the party leaves town to explore the world map, and soon encounters simply animated monsters.  Inspired by pencil-and-paper RPGs, the party has quite a number of options, though it's usually most fun to just Fight:

No D&D-like RPG would be complete without dungeons, of course.  Phantasie provides schematic overhead views that are auto-mapped as the party explores, very much like the grid-paper maps of yore.  There's no graphical variety in the dungeons, and nothing fancy like the Apshai series' line-of-sight rendering, but there are points of interest with text descriptions and push-button options to provide atmosphere and challenge.  It's a simple approach, but it's enough to implement puzzles, treasures and scripted encounters to keep the action lively.  And when the party leaves the dungeon, the map can be saved so return visits will be more straightforward.

When the party has been wiped out, its members are transported to the astral plane, where a demon (his head, anyway) decrees each member's fate.  A character may be destroyed, or raised from the dead as a creepy but capable zombie warrior.

Control returns to the player, who can continue with new recruits to the party, or revert to the (single) saved game.  And so it goes.  Eventually the party faces down the Big Bad at the end of the journey, and much clanging and whooshing ensues as the final battle plays out.

Phantasie remains very playable today, though it has lots of annoying habits like resetting every party member's battle default to PARRY mode, losing track of "extra" gold pieces when the spoils are divided among party members, and randomly throwing deadly Black Knights at novice adventurers, wiping the party out in a round or two.  The graphics are simple and the story is standard RPG fare, with no modern-style character development or cutscenes at all, but SSI's pre-D&D series is still worth a look for historical purposes.


  1. Spent so many hours playing the original Phantasie... at some point the disk flaked out and all the first and second boards were hosed out.

    My brother and I discovered if you swam south from a certain spot you could get to a later part of the game.

    Where it was very hard not to die in the first fight!

    Good times!

    1. Ha! Same thing happened to me. Got quite far in the game until it asked to enter one of the last disks and gave me some disk error message! Boy did that ever sting :)

  2. I loved Phantasie! But I never finished it, always just ran around fighting and having fun. I need to track down a copy and actually finish the game after all these years!

  3. Those damn orbs!! What a great freaking game. BLACK KINGHTS!

  4. Phantasie I and II were a couple of my favorites. III was weird, because they added the location-based damage, and the dungeons that could only be cleared once. It made the game much shorter, and honestly not as much fun.

  5. One of my fav's from childhood. I played Phantasie I and III on the Amiga... which didn't have Phantasie II. And one of the cool things about the series is bringing things from one game to the next!

    I replayed I recently and am part-way through II. Also playing the Atari ST version this time. Gotta love emus.

  6. I loved this series... I still do even today. On one hand we have MMO's and 3d graphical masterpieces, but on the other we lost the freedom of choice, replay value and customability of the old titles. No wonder I keep coming back to these.

    Someone should kickstart a high-fidelity remake with simply better interface and graphics... with a world/quest editor. Imagine if all of us could write our own 'phantasie' adventures. But just basic remakes would be awesome. (if only to AtariST Phantasie III graphics level + additional music).

    Oh, loved the Dark Knights, when you get level 8+ it's payback time, and they pay good gold to boot !
    -- Francois424

  7. i have 5 elf priests and a minotaur thief .. we head north from northford to that dungeon with the statue of zeus so we can deface it .. then kill zeus with fireflashIV x 6... and get good stuff .. if we all survive, it's worth the trip

    jimthornton5 facebook

  8. How do I get to the Gods floating Castle - I have completed all the other dungeons but it is not on my map?

  9. I have of course 9 rings and 4 runes for all my characters. Teleport to town 99 does not show

  10. I’m obsessed with trying to kill Zeus...and the minor deity with four characters.