First off, the emulation seems to be fairly solid. It uses the Digital Eclipse emulation software, which is currently used for all the games on the Xbox Live Arcade. The only major issues I noticed during play were "heat wave" jaggies in Phantasy Star 1 which were annoying, but did not render the game unplayable. The Genesis games seemed spot on emulation-wise, exception of some jumpiness and jankiness with the scrolling backgrounds in Phantasy Star 3's battles. All the music and audio was as I remembered it on the original systems.
The first three Phantasy Star games are a collection of rough gems, and each has it's own particular strong points and shortcomings. The series is sort of the Star Wars of the video gaming world - a shot of Ye Olde High Fantaseye added to the usual futuristic sci-fi cocktail. Party members will have weapons ranging from swords to laser cannons, you'll encounter both robots and magic users, ancient sealed demons and monsters ride around on spacecrafts and hang out in space stations, etc. All three of these are decent RPGs in their own right, though all three also have pretty serious issues that might make them just a little too unappealing to bother with in this RPG-saturated world we live in now. Let's take a closer look at all three and see what they're made of.
PHANTASY STAR I
Phantasy Star 1 is the story of a young girl named Alis Lansdale, and it opens with the bloody body of her brother being deposited at her feet by Imperial Stormtroopers. We are told that her brother was sniffing around in the affairs of someone named 'Lassic', and Alis sort of vaguely swears revenge. You're dumped off at the game's outset with no real goals though, and Alis certainly isn't in any condition to take revenge on anyone - the first enemies outside the first town in the game are usually more than a match for her. So, you set out to find this dude Odin, who was a friend of Alis's brother and is a fairly beefy laser cannon toting sort of dude. From there you investigate further, eventually embarking on a quest to depose the corrupt Empire and the evil demons that are in control of it.
This one came out during the infancy of console RPGs in the 80s, so the engine is pretty primitive. It is better than most of what the NES and PC had on display for RPGs at the time, but still, it's pretty primitive. In the towns, there's not much to do but talk to a handful of characters who dispense the same advice over and over again (they don't even wander around randomly! they just sit in the same place forever), and buy most basic assortment of standard RPG items - weapons and armor, flashlights and escape warp thingies for the dungeons, and healing items - in the case of this techno-future, burgers and cola (huh? did McDonalds slip a few dollars Sega's way?). Battles are very simplistic - you fight only one type of enemy at a time, but there can be more than one of them - however, there's no way for you to choose which one to target, so your charas spread damage out at random instead of taking one guy out of the fight quickly. Dungeons are even more of a fiendish struggle - the Featureless 3D Walls of the 80s and early 90s that require you to map using graph paper (or you'll soon be hopelessly lost and confused) are in full effect here, and there's no in-game map of any sort. To make it even more fun, dungeons are peppered with traps you cannot see, until you get a certain party member who has a spell that can disarm them. But you really need that party member's limited MP for other things, so you often have to go and figure out where all the traps are first all tediously, then go back through a second time with a map of where they're at. The story has very little plot or character development. The whole thing is basically, assemble the gear you need to kill Lassic, kill Lassic, the end. There's tons of grinding required, common enemies in new areas are both really tough and also stingy with EXP when killed.
The game serves as sort of a rough introduction to what would develop into an interesting world and setting, that was fleshed out better in the later games. It's also notable for being one of the first games to feature a female main character that isn't a shallow sexpot, or a lolita. This first game is just too old-school and rough around the edges though, unless you have a high tolerance for repetitive 3D mazes and lots of hard random combat, it probably isn't going to do much for you.
PHANTASY STAR 2
Phantasy Star 2 is definitely a major improvement over the first game. It hasn't necessarily aged a whole lot better, but it's certainly smoother and more fun to play. That said, it's almost as much of an old-school level grind fest as the previous game - though now at least you've got a smoother battle engine and better plot backing it up.
PS2 opens with your main boy Rolf having nightmares about a young girl (Alis) battling Dark Force, who is the evil malevolent manifestation of all the universe's negativity or what have you - also the controller of Lassic in the previous game (sorry if I spoiled that intricate plot for you). Rolf has to shake the nightmares
off as he's given a special mission to find out why Mother Brain, the environmental control computer that makes this otherwise harsh desert planet all green and livable, is on the blink and producing weird bio-monsters that are roaming the countryside. You set out on your journey with the company of Nei, a half-human half-biomonster creature experiment thingie that Rolf took in and adopted to keep her from being out on the streets getting beaten by ignorant mobs and whatnot.
Towns sport a little more detail than in the previous game, and the interface is generally smoother and more user-friendly. You get a teleport spell that brings you back to any town you've previously been to, and you'll use it frequently to return to Rolf's house and switch between the seven characters you can ultimately collect in your party.
The overworld is the same general style as that of PS1. However this game features much more gruesome monster designs - it also has a smoother battle engine, but you have somewhat limited control of the characters. More than one type of enemy can appear in combat, and you can assign characters to attack particular groups, but not one particular monster in that group. Though not as bad as PS1, the game still has a healthy amount of grinding, though in this one it's more about getting money for the frequent weapon upgrades rather than EXP.
The dungeons are better than those of PS1, but still annoying. They're done in a top-down style, but they're still pretty mazelike and with the very high encounter rate can be a serious pain. After awhile you get a "videophone" which allows you to save at any point (as a kid I felt horribly gipped the first time I found this - I always thought there was some programming reason why games had to have "save points", now all the sudden they're telling me I could be saving at any time instead of wandering through hard dungeons tediously over and over again?! geez.)
Despite a somewhat clunky translation, the game features a better ongoing plot. Despite all the gaming magazines shooting their load over Aeris getting stabbed, this was actually the first console RPG I can remember having a major lead permanently killed as part of the story - some eight years or so before that other game with the jaggy polygons. Phantasy Star 2 also culminates in an ending with some interesting social commentary and a purposefully vague structure that leaves fanboys debating to this day about what really happened.
The game works better than the other two Phantasy Star games thanks to it's focus on speed and smoothness of play. Battles load up and execute fast, there aren't any long sequences where control is taken out of the player's hands, and movement speed in all areas of the game is pretty zippy. It's still mostly a time filler - much of the play time is spent in random battles to gain EXP and money, and plowing through largely uninteresting dungeons with a high encounter rate. It's a much more pleasant time-filler than the previous game though, as well as most other console RPGs from that era. Interesting for it's setting, and quasi-environmental themes, but still not a tremendous amount of fun to play.
PHANTASY STAR 3
PS3 is a game with an interesting overall concept, but it is not at all well written. The game centers around the Orakian people and their prince Rhys, who is your main protagonist. A beautiful girl mysteriously washed up on a beach near the castle or something and now Rhys is all set to marry her. However, as the (rather sparsely attended) wedding is about to begin, some random dragon flies down and grabs the girl. Rhys swears vengeance on the Layan people, even though no one has seen a Layan for 1000 years and therefore has any idea where they might be. Generic King wisely sends Rhys to cool his ass out in the dungeon for awhile, but for jebus knows what reason there is a knife, a compass and 300 meseta sitting in his cell. Furthermore, some random girl is waiting by Rhys' cell to let him out, giving no explanation at all for what she's doing there (nor does Rhys ask for one). Sprung loose and poorly armed, Rhys sets forth to somehow find the Layan people whom he assumes are responsible for the kidnapping of his bride (well, at least he isn't dragging the whole army around the countryside with him).
The opening sequence highlights a couple of major problems that stick with the game to the end - the characters are very flat and poorly fleshed out, and the game world is kind of a sparse and empty and boring place. The castle consists of a few dreary gray rooms occupied by like a tiny handful of generic clone soldiers who spout a line or two of meaningless dialogue, and nearly every other game environ is done up just like that. Also, the plot tends to putter and clutter along not worrying itself too much about stuff like logic and making sense.
This random sampling of dialogue from the first town should give you an idea how much effort PS3's writers devoted to the game -
1) We just saw the very first one about five minutes ago.
2) Actually, no, because no one died.
3) Again, she was just kidnapped FIVE MINUTES AGO. What the fuck do you think, lady?
4) Unless it's a creature out in the field. You kill those by the hundreds. Or a Layan. Or pretty much anything that's not an Orakian, basically.
Additionally, the first major quest of the game nicely showcases the game's general disregard for making a damn bit of sense.
Now, you need to get on to this guy's ferry to go to this cave to get something, see, but he refuses to sail without a cyborg on board. Now where the fuck are you going to find a cybor - oh, hey, there's one just sitting in this other random cave over here just waiting for me to come along! How convenient! Now I can go to this cave that I have no idea why I'm going to other than it's the only other place on the map that I can access right now! This is how pretty much the whole game works, more or less.
Compared to PS2's zippiness, this game moves at a snail's pace. The characters walk around in a slow swagger that cannot be sped up in any way (I always thought Rhys kind of walked like a gorilla), and there is a whole lot of dead space in the environs. The layout is overall rather poor - the game requires constant backtracking from town to town which can only be done through these big caves that have a really high encounter rate. Much of the game's playtime is spent retreading the same ground over and over and getting into the same generic battles.
The battle engine is improved to some degree, but it's lost a couple of things. There's purty backgrond graphics now, but you no longer get character attack animations and the monsters just sort of boringly twitch at you. Two important additions - you can now highlight individual enemies, and you can choose to let only one turn at a time play out rather than having to mash the button to stop the fight and make changes. It's still kind of inelegant, but it's better. The designers tried an experiment with the battle music that turned out kind of weird - it shifts depending on whether you or the monsters have the upper hand, but there's no flow or even similarity to any of the pieces, it's just like four completely different music files that randomly cut off and cut in in a clunky manner.
The music on the whole ... well, the underlying compositions aren't bad, but the Genesis sound chip was not used well and some bad sound samples were chosen, so it has that staticy metallic clanky quality common to many Genesis games. This GBA port has done nothing to improve the sound quality, in fact it may even be a bit worse. One memorable touch - the fairly pleasant overworld theme, which starts out as just a melody and bass, and then adds an instrument for each new character that joins you.
The "generations" concept might have bailed the game out if it had been implemented in a more interesting way, but all the quests and characters and plotlines are just as flat and boring as that of the original group and some of them intersect so closely that they barely qualify as seperate paths at all.
Followers of the series will also note that, though there is continuity to the previous games, it is not revealed until fairly far into the game, and while an interesting idea it also is basically a tangential branch to the overarching story of the series that renders the whole thing more of a side story in the PS universe than a bridge between the second and fourth games.
Also - and I've separated this into it's own paragraph because it's a SPOILER - the endings of this game seem to contradict the ending of the second game. In most of this game's endings the roaming spaceships that you are on encounter Earth, and in one there is a specific communication from a base on Earth. Yet, the Earthlings aboard the ship Noah at the end of Phantasy Star 2 said that they were the last of their race, because they had made their planet uninhabitable. It's a little thing, but it's an example of very lazy writing and fact-checking, and just shows the general sort of lackluster spirit with which the Sega team seemingly approached this game.
All in all the game is a tedious slog, almost as much so as Phantasy Star 1 was.
The Phantasy Star Pages
PS1 Gameplay Video
PS2 Gameplay Video
PS3 Gameplay Video