Monday, April 12, 2010

Game 15: Phantasie (1985)


United States
Independently developed; published by Strategic Simulations, Inc.
Released 1985 for Apple II and Commodore 64; 1986 for Atari ST, PC-88, PC-98, and FM-7; 1987 for Atari 800, Amiga, and Sharp X1; 1988 for DOS and MSX
Date Started: 13 April 2010

In a response to my first posting, a blogger going by the handle Gooberslot asked a good question: "Why only PC rpgs? You say you don't want to 'frig' around with emulators but dosbox is an emulator too. Plus, you're missing out on playing the best version in some cases. The PC sucked compared to some other computers until VGA came out and it still sucked in the sound department for a while after that."

Phantasie illustrates this quite well. Here, for instance, is a screenshot of the Amiga version of Phantasie:

Here, in contrast, is the same screenshot from my DOS port:

Yuck, right? Here's a nice shot from the Atari ST version in battle:

..versus my DOS version:

I am green with envy. Get with...right. Moving on.

So, at least in the graphics department, the DOS version blows. And a couple of weeks ago, when I posed the question, you were almost all for me trying the non-DOS versions. So yesterday evening, I made an attempt. I Googled "Apple II emulator," "C64 emulator," "Atari ST emulator," downloaded some, and gave it a go. I'll spare you the rest of the details--which involve a difficulty finding Phantasie downloads for some of those systems, an unfamiliarity with their conventions, crashes and freezes (perhaps owing to my running Windows 7), lack of clear DOSBox-like frontrunners in the emulator departments, and so on--and simply announce my recommittment, as bad as the graphics are, to staying with a DOS/PC-only gameplan.

That aside, I like Phantasie so far. The story is simple: the island continent of Gelnor has been conquered by a tyrannical wizard named Nikademus, who maintains fear with a cadre of near-invincible Black Knights. Your party is composed of newly-arrived adventurers seeking fame and fortune, and liberating the land from Nikademus seems like a sure way to both.

Phantasie is notable as the first RPG from Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI), which would soon gain the gratitude of CRPG fans everywhere by making the "gold box" Dungeons & Dragons games. That reminds me: how long is it until I get to Pool of Radiance? One, two, three, four....nineteen games. Damn.

The game is multi-character, allowing you to choose from fighter, monk, priest, ranger, thief, and wizard classes. It offers more races than any CRPG I can think of: in addition to humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, and halflings, you can also play gnolls, goblins, kobolds, lizard men, minotaurs, ogres, orcs, pixies, sprites, and trolls. Wow. The monster classes all excel in at least one attribute (you have the standard strength, intelligence, dexterity, etc. in this game) but they pay for it in increased training costs. And the manual isn't kidding about this: it cost 24 gold to move my human ranger for level 2 to level 3; for my ogre fighter, it was 1,056 gold.

You move about the game world in a top-down perspective, with your entire party represented by a single icon, much like in Ultima III. The perspective changes a bit when you enter a dungeon. The dungeons look like paper maps in which you reveal passageways as you move. Special encounters are represented by little symbols and described in text at the bottom. It sounds primitive, but I actually rather like it.

Since you can save your dungeon progress when you leave, this makes Phantasie the first game I know to automap. The encounters have been fun and fresh so far: levers to pull, a sage with a ring, a door that locked me in a room until I found a secret exit, and a "pile of gold covered with a gooey substance" that turned out to be the honeycombs of a giant bee hive.

The combat system in Phantasie is unusual and, I think, rather fun. Statistically and tactically, I suppose it's little different than Wizardry or The Bard's Tale. Your six characters line up in a single line to face your foes, who can be in up to four ranks. Most of your characters can attack only the first rank, but your thief can dart into any rank and your spellcasters can target the entire field. Like Wizardry, you set an action for each character and execute them all at once. The unique thing is that the animation shows your characters leaping and thrusting when their turn comes, and their blows connect with a satisfying crunch.

The animation doesn't change the basic tactics, though. Each of your characters can attack, parry, or cast a spell. Attacks are split into thrust (more damage, only one attack), attack (moderate damage, two attacks), and slash (minimal damage, three attacks). You also have the macro options to avoid combat by greeting the monsters, threatening them, fleeing, or begging for their mercy (and giving over your gold).

In between adventures in dungeons and wilderness areas, you return to towns to rest, level up, and buy and sell equipment. When you enter a town, the game asks how you want to divide your accumulated experience points among your characters. I can't think of a single other game that does this, allowing you to channel everything into one character for quick development or spread it evenly among your group. The former options means that if a character dies, you can train a replacement in fairly short order. Man, do I wish Wizardry had that option.

The town of "Pelnor." Arthurian influence?

I created a party consisting of a human ranger (Aodin), an ogre fighter (Ghalar), a dwarf fighter (Yalgar), a halfing priest (Sanctavia), a gnome thief (Slissk), and an elf wizard (Arcanius). In my first couple hours of gameplay, I've explored one dungeon and collected a series of scrolls that tell me more about the land and Nikademus. This is actually a pretty cool way to slowly divulge more about the game world and the central quest.

The scroll goes on to say that nine wizards forged nine magical rings to combat Nikademus, but he perverted the power of the rings and used them to turn the wizards into Black Knights. This is starting to sound vaguely familiar...

Finally, I'll note that the game has been challenging so far. I've lost a few characters, and there's no temple in the towns (at least, not the first town), so I've had to create new ones. Gold looks like it's going to be a problem; I have a few characters ready to level up but not enough money to pay for it. You can only save in towns, but at least (unlike Wizardry and The Bard's Tale) you have the option to quit without saving if the battle goes badly.

In short, Phantasie has tactics as deep as Wizardry, stuff in dungeons as varied as Telengard, a lore as rich as Ultima III, and a difficultly level as pleasing as The Bard's Tale in its early stages. I hope the rest of the game lives up to its beginnings!

(If you're interested in a video of the gameplay, including the combat, here's one on YouTube, albiet for the Atari ST version. Hopefully I'll finish setting up my new laptop soon and I can make my own.)


  1. Wow what a great game and quite a nice write-up. We had this little baby on the Atari ST and I have fond memories of trying to raise my stats to be able to use Fireflash IV and kill the Black Knights. It isn't original in story, but it certainly is an overlooked gem that deserves much more attention and praise than it has received in the past. Your post helps quite a bit.

  2. Hi,

    Enjoying your blog a lot. Phantasie is one of those games I've never really sat down and tried to play through properly but I think I'll give it another try after reading your comments here.

    Regarding playing versions other than the MSDOS ones it can be a pain getting some of the emulators to work. I'm currently working my way through the C64 version of Ultima IV as I've never completed the game and its working very smoothly but I'm using a fan modified version that fits on a single disk rather than the original 4 disk version. Part of the Ultima games for me has always been the music which I think the C64 version does really well.

    Keep the posts coming. Looking forward to some of the later games you'll cover.

  3. Thanks, guys. Acrin, when I replayed Ultima IV about six years ago, I used the DOS version, but some fans had made a patch with the original music plus improved graphics. Ultima IV is coming up for me, so I'll post that link when I come across it, in case you want to try it on another platform.

  4. Your ogre's cost for training was higher due to the charisma score.

  5. A little late but... I just started Phantasie using DosBox 0.74, but there's no sound at all. I know the sound for the game was minimal at best but... not having any sound is a downer.

    Anyone have any suggestions?

  6. Emlyn, I'm using 0.73 and having no problems. I didn't do anything special to the configuration either--just using the defaults. I suck at solving problems like this, though. I usually just Google them until I figure it out.

  7. woot!!! Thanks so much for replying. I installed 0.73 and it works with the sound.

    Thanks so much for your blog. I played this when I got my first PC and had fond memories of it. and seeing you play all these golden oldies like the 7 spirits of ra (almost no one knew that game) has made me yearn to do the same.

    I probably won't finish even 1/4 of the games you do but... for a few hours at least I get to relive my teenage years.

  8. try this:

    it's an "online" emulator for the apple iie/iigs systems; there's also one for the atari 2600

  9. Phantasie is one of my favorite "obscure" CRPG series. Since I played on an Atari ST, I also got to experience Phantasie 2 and Phantasie 3. Phantasie 3 was noteworthy because of the quest (in the end, you have to travel to the underworld, making your way through a maze of lava to fight the god Pluto) and the mechanics: in combat, critical hits could result in severing limbs. So as you progressed in the game, your characters would show their battle scars in the form of missing limbs. It was exceedingly rare that a given character would survive to the end of the game unblemished in this way. So the veteran party would contain at least half grizzled amputees, hurling spells and imprecations in the face of Pluto. The Phantasie series - and particularly Phantasie 3 - are some of my favorite CRPGs of all time. It's been quite frustrating that, every time I've checked, there has been no emulation of Phantasie 3 anywhere.

  10. I never played the first two, but I have been playing Phantasie III on my Hewlett-Packard Pentium from the mid-1990s (which for all the grief the company received, has made a wonderfully sturdy DOS machine) for brief spurts of a few days at a time for about a decade, and I have to say that the game really is always somewhat satisfying. It swings wildly between overly challenging and completely non-challenging in some locations, but as you said, unlike games like Wizardry you can at least bail out if you feel like something unforgivably awful has happened, even if you cannot always guarantee that your good progress will be kept (a fair trade-off, really).

    It is also funny how Phantasie III looks noticeably better than Phantasie despite both games being in CGA. I did not realize there were really levels of CGA quality, haha.

  11. I remember having the gold issue but I found a way to gain a lot of gold, but at an kind of expensive way.....

    Kill Zeus.

    Yes, I played this game in an ATARI 130XE and at first, I thought it was not possible, but with a high level enough party that are lucky enough to dodge the dozen attacks he does, it is possible to kill him.

    Just be careful not to drop your constitution to zero when reviving.

    1. If you say so. I was pretty sure that the only time I encountered Zeus, it was in a cut-scene and there wouldn't have been any way to kill him. Maybe there were platform differences.

    2. I used to go to kill Zeus regularly on the PC and stocked up on the God items ;)

      I remember being shocked that I could attack and kill a God. Flamebolt IV, Quickness IV, Confusion IV, and Protection IV was absolute necessities for survival. Not to mention Resurrection and Healing

    3. Huh. Well, it's been a long time since I played the game, so clearly I'm forgetting some mechanic that made that possible.

    4. Two items: Yes I used to kill Zeus repeatedly on C64 back when I was ~12 years old. Six character casting spell 8 would usually do it.

      Secondly, this blog has inspired me to try this. I found WinVice and some old C64 disk images. Whenever I hit the second pool my game gets corrupt - 'inspect' in town crashes the program and the game will literally no longer boot into saved game after that. Anyone have any advice?

      PS - *Thanks* for the many walks down wonderful memories with your blog.


    5. I played this on the Apple II. I agree. Kill Zeus for more gold. It might be hard at first. Some people told me you won't get God armor or weapons afterward but I haven't seen it.
      Or if you want to be cynical about it, create new characters, swap them out with some of the weaker ones and bring them on raids around the lower level towns. The game tries to average out the strength of the monsters so you'll get some strong creatures and a few weak ones. Don't give the new guy any gold or exp. Then go back to town and dump them.
      If you want to be cynical about it.

    6. Yup, Zeus runs. You have to go to the Minotaur temple and deface his statue: he shows up and attacks you. There is a small but non-zero chance of getting a good armor or weapon from the fight as well. Generally you'd be close to winning by the time you could do this, though.

  12. The final fight in Phantasie isn't with Nikademus, it's with the Black Lord, the leader of the Black Knights.

    In Phantasie II, there is no big bad guy for a final encounter. The goal of the game is to find and destroy the Orb of Nikademus.

    Nikademus is the final fight of Phantasie III. It's the only time you fight him in the entire series.

    1. Wow. That's an interesting revelation. I'd been under this misapprehension for 5 years, and no one corrected me in this game or in Phantasie III. The Internet bears out what you say. I need to make some strategic edits.

  13. Your intro to this post is exactly why I wrote a book to introduce (and re-introduce) folks to the C64 with an emphasis on emulation and how-tos. But I see that since this review you have indeed moved on to much greener (no pun intended) pastures than the awful IBM Purple-Cyan has to offer! Good on you for the effort. On this title, Phantasie is one of my favorites due to the way it holds up today. On screen text, no difficult keyboard commands or having to mix reagents (Ultima 4 looking at you) etc. Also love the odd character races. All in all very playable!

  14. I played Phantasie many moons ago in the 80's about the same time I was playing the original Atari 8-bit version of Alternate Reality. Played the Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit and PC versions. Absolutely loved this game! Played Phantasie II as well.

  15. DOS version has best graphics imho. I love that CGA palette :D

  16. P1 was a great game for novices in Crpgs, was fun, easy and the lore scrolls was great for atmosphere gaming.

  17. Just a note that the Phantasie series is on GOG now. Fired up the first one last night and wow yeah the graphics are...dated. I played it on the C64 in my youth; it didn't look that much better but every little bit helps with these older titles, I guess.

    This was the first party-based CRPG I played. Our version was cracked and had already been played through, so there was an insanely powerful party already on the disc; I tinkered with them for a while then rolled up my own party. For some reason I always had to have a lizard man.

    Since we didn't have the manual (had to learn what spells did what by trial and error as in the C64 version they were only ID'd by number) I sort of free-formed my play, making use of the guild system to form parties of varying membership and pretending they were exploring Gelnor in a manner similar to how I guess people today play "sandbox" RPG campaigns at the tabletop. So I never finished the game, just explored everything I could.


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