Wom, wom, wom. That’s the sound of a Saber. It’s also the sound of a Brand, a Buster, and a Pallasch. Eventually, it’s the sound of a Lavis Cannon. The tempo changes but the rhythm stays the same. It’s been glued into my head for more than 10 years.
Returning to the jagged edges of Ragol shows that the years haven’t been kind, but time hasn’t damaged Phantasy Star Online’s sound design. The soundtrack drills a nostalgia-tunnel straight into the back of my brain, and the auditory feedback is superb. Modern gaming frowns on repetitive sound, but Phantasy Star Online’s simple but consistent use of effects gave it an incredible sense of clarity.
Movement speed and combat were relatively slow, and the camera angle was too tight to be useful. The majority of decisions you made in each fight revolved around the radar and audio feedback. Flicking the movement stick towards an enemy within range of your current weapon would lock on with a confirmation bleep, allowing you to fight foes you currently couldn’t see. The sound that followed would provide confirmation on whether or not that attack had hit, while you continued to tap out the three-press rhythm.
Switching equipment in the middle of a fight was an art that relied on effective blindness. The game wouldn’t pause, and the menu would obscure most of your view. Weaving through foes using lock-on cues to identify their locations whilst flicking through menus was a difficult but incredibly valuable skill. In the summer of 2005, this ability reached a natural conclusion when I realised that by occasionally glancing at the map I was able to play Phantasy Star Online with my eyes closed.
Phantasy Star Online was the game that defined the Dreamcast, and for many defined the expectations we had for the future of online gaming. We secretly swapped phone cables at night, and patiently stared at motionless characters while our friends put the controller down to type out a message. We developed a distrust for those who didn’t speak, starting dedicated games to swap SPECIAL WEAPONS for fear of strangers dashing in and looting all the stuff. A French boy stole my Lavis Cannon, sowing a seed of mild xenophobia that I’m not sure I’ll ever truly erase.
The memories I have of this era are powerful, but the legacy of the Dreamcast didn’t seem clear until I bought a copy of the game for the Nintendo Gamecube. After clocking up 200 hours playing on the Dreamcast, I then proceeded to pour another 300 into a brand new yellow HuCast. At this point, it ceased to be Phantasy Star Online.
Let’s be clear here: I did try to get it working. After weeks of fiddling with the broadband adapter, I eventually gave up and just played it on my own. 300 hours, alone. I ran through the first floor of Ruins 34 times waiting for DB’s SABER to drop. It did. I stopped playing TROJAN at lv117, leaving him to gather digital dust on a Pokémon Colosseum-themed memory card. I’ll never own a Gamecube again, but me and the memory card will never part ways.
After spending so much of my time in isolation my memories from playing with friends now seem to somehow evade me, and only the memory of the rhythm remains. I can conjur up each and every sound in my head, but the rhythm of Phantasy Star Online goes deeper than that. Four levels played again and again. Feeding a Mag once every three minutes. The familiar fizzle of a dying mantis. The buzz of spotting a spinning red box.
Predictable, reliable, comforting. Everything else will wither with age, but the rhythm of Phantasy Star Online will never die. Many games since have tried to match the tempo, but none have replicated the hypnotic flow that repeatedly finds me obsessed with Ragol. It’s the classic album I’ll always revisit - the catchy tune I’ll never get out of my head. Wom, wom, wom.
Matt Lees is a pretty cool guy who LITERALLY JUST THIS MINUTE stopped being a staff writer at the UK's Official Xbox Magazine in order to start doing video stuff for Videogamer.com in the new year. Will any of his work involve two naked dudes in a bed, though? Will it fuck.