Phantasie from SSI was the first computer role-playing game I ever played seriously, and the first one I ever beat. It came out in 1985, so I would have been around eight years old. I also spent a lot of time playing Phantasie III. Both games are basically the same, with some minor differences. (Phantasie II wasn’t released for the PC, so I never played it.)
One interesting feature was the bank. You could deposit money in the bank, then withdraw it from any other bank in any other town. That meant that if monsters robbed you (see below), you were only at risk of losing the money you were carrying, not all the money you owned.
Before you started adventuring, you needed to roll up a party of six heroes. Here are the hero graphics from Phantasie III:
Along the top row you’ve got your standard hero races: human, dwarf, elf, gnome, and halfling. You could also select “random,” which would throw out all manner of weird monsters — trolls, ogres, lizard men, pixies, minotaurs, etc. (The bottom row.) Pixies and sprites made good thieves, and big ugly monsters like trolls and ogres made good fighters, but the downside to picking them was that training them was very expensive, due to racism on the part of the training guilds. In Phantasie it was helpful to have a minotaur in the party, since there was a city of minotaurs that you could only enter if there was a minotaur in your party.
Once your party’s assembled, you’d explore the world by navigating an overhead map:
On the first few screens you’d get a complete map, but after that you’d see only a black screen, which would get filled in as you explored. You’d also encounter bands of roving monsters. Sometimes you’d spot them first, and have the choice to either sneak off or take them by surprise. Sometimes you’d catch them sleeping, and have the chance to hack away at them as they woke up one by one. Or they might surprise you or catch you sleeping. At any point during an encounter either side would have the option to greet the other party, threaten them, beg for mercy, or run away. Threatening monsters was a good way to get your hands on their gold without having to actually fight, and begging for mercy was a way that you could avoid a fight by handing over all your gold.
That variety of scenarios and options made things interesting, but of course most encounters led to bloodshed, especially if you’d entered the monsters’ lair. (Each dungeon involved a separate map that got filled in as you explored.) Combat was played out on its own screen, with your heroes lined up along the bottom:
Melee fighters could hit the first two rows, and you could choose which row to attack, but you couldn’t target individual monsters. Higher level fighters could attack multiple times per turn, but at the cost of missing more often. Thieves could skulk around and strike at the back row. Magic could also target any row, and the different spells were basically a tradeoff between spells that weakened lots of monsters a little bit versus spells that did a lot of damage to one particular monster.
Mostly the monsters got more powerful the farther you ventured from home, but one big exception was black knights, who could show up anywhere:
They were among the most powerful monsters in the game, so you’d have no choice but to run whenever you saw them, sort of like the Nazgul in Fellowship of the Ring. This made it especially gratifying toward the end of the game when you were finally strong enough to stand up to them and defeat them.
If every member of your party was killed, you’d travel to the astral plane, where each character would face judgment:
It was never clear to me what criteria were being applied. If the powers really didn’t like a character, that character would be destroyed, and would be gone forever. Most of the time the character would be made undead, and would come back as a crappier version of himself who was unable to learn anything new. Or a character might be resurrected, and suffer only a minor stat penalty. Most of the time if the party was killed it was better to just reload your game (there was one save slot, which could only be accessed from town), but if you’d gotten your hands on some spectacular loot or if you didn’t want to spend hours replaying a particular sequence, you might choose to live with the consequences of being judged.
Another interesting feature of Phantasie is that the game kept track of the age of each character, and when the characters reached a certain age their base stats declined enormously. It was really a shock the first time that happened, and it was really heartbreaking to have to dismiss all these characters I’d grown attached to, including my minotaur, “Bully.” (I rolled up a new character to replace him, “Bully II.”) This aging of the characters really drove home the epic scale of the quest — that breaking the stranglehold of the evil wizard Nikademus would take generations. It also limited your ability to endlessly grind up the stats of your characters, though you could still transfer all the magical gear you’d acquired to your fresh young heroes, so it wasn’t as if you were completely starting over from scratch.
Two incidents really stick out for me from Phantasie III. Near the beginning, your party is sent to attend the funeral of a fallen hero. Then the main bad guy Nikademus appears and starts blasting everyone with fireballs. As the mourners lie dead and wounded, Nikademus declares that you are all fools to defy him, and teleports away. Then later there’s a part where you find a hut on the bank of a river, and there’s a kindly old man there serving magic soup that permanently increases your base stats. Nothing else in the game can do that, so it’s a huge deal. Then the old man reveals himself as Nikademus in disguise, and he promises that this is only a taste of the power that can be yours if you join with him. He then vanishes. Both those moments are really just creepy and unsettling.
I never did beat Phantasie III. It’s short, but it’s hard. A lot of the difficulty comes from the fact that the game features body part-specific damage. Powerful blows can now injure, break, or remove arms, legs, and heads:
It sounds cool, but in practice it’s really frustrating, as your characters are now vastly more fragile, and it seems like half the time everyone’s out of commission due to a missing arm or head or something. There’s one part of the game where you have to venture into this giant tent where a battle is in progress in order to meet with Lord Wood, leader of the forces of light. (I imagine the game’s designer Doug Wood was trying to position himself as a video game celebrity on the order of Lord British, but I don’t think it ever really caught on.) I could make it to Lord Wood, but then you have to fight your way back out of the tent again, and practically every step you take you encounter another giant. I don’t think I ever made it past that part.
So for me at least that’s where the story of Phantasie ends. In a big tent with Lord Wood getting pounded on by giants:
If you want to see these games in action, there are videos up on YouTube of Phantasie and Phantasie III (from which I grabbed some of these screenshots). There are also good writeups of Phantasie and Phantasie III over at CRPG Addict.