While I played my share of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy on 8-bit console machines, I never really touched on Phantasy Star. Sure, I knew about it. I knew that it was good enough that someone decided to do a spoof of it on the PC, as we on the PC never got many of the console style RPGs. Coming to it now, after religiously playing Phantasy Star Online, the whole Phantasy Star corpus on one Game Boy Advance cartridge appears like the best ticket to RPG heaven.
Phantasy Star Collection on the Game Boy Advance has the distinction of being one of the first compilations to be sourced from two different gaming systems; the Sega Master System and the Sega Genesis. You'll note that for the earliest game, even for a top down 2D console, there are few if any textures and large swathes of plain colors. As technology advanced, Phantasy Star caught on with PC titles like Eye of the Beholder. So you begin to see pseudo 3D dungeons that work more like slideshows.
The mechanics, however, aren't the spotlight of the show. It's really the story, which mixes the swords and sorcery of traditional RPGs with space, machines and in the third edition of Phantasy Star, even time.
There's something inherently attractive about mixing up melee weapons and robotic monstrosities. In the way it's presented, it gives the sense that the two are a natural fit; the same eclectic mix that Phantasy Star Online tapped into so successfully as well.
Aside from the charms of nostalgia, there is plenty of solid gaming time to be found in Phantasy Star. That is, if you enjoy the level up, buy weapons, beat boss move to next town routine. The first two titles, in particular, have a tough learning curve. You struggle and writhe just to get to a point where you don't get overwhelmed by the stock creatures in your starting region. Then when you move on to a more difficult area, you'll start all over again at the bottom of the ladder; weapons, armor, sheer damage your character stats deal out. These titles are so dated it's expected you level up around a dungeon before you actually enter in it. There are no disclaimers offered by the game about this, though, and death is a rather permanent state. I recently came off playing Lunar Legend, a more gentle RPG experience but with a story just as involving.
Things ease up in the third edition of Phantasy Star but by then, the design takes a spin. Like games today, it spans multiple characters so you're able to view and play the story from different vantage points. Also like games today, it has multiple endings dependent on actions you make.
The technical aspect, both audio and visual, however, simply cannot compare to the level of today's titles - on the Game Boy Advance. That's to be expected though. Some people would prefer it not being brushed up but then I find myself thinking how they shrunk a Sega CD game into a Lunar Legend cartridge and I think how much more the developers could have done with Phantasy Star. One glaring omission is the lack of a save game feature. Breath of Fire and countless other titles ported to the Game Boy Advance have this at the top of their feature list. Yet it's conspicuously missing here and we're already well underway with the Game Boy Advance, so much so that an improved hardware model is coming out to replace it. There is no excuse for being unfamiliar with the system anymore.
Is nostalgia enough to sell a game? How much value you put into this nostalgia trip is ultimately dependent on you. Nostalgia works differently for different people simply because it is based on the experiences of a single person. If you loved Phantasy Star and had fond memories of it, the time invested now to revisit it is worthwhile. If, on the other hand, you have no idea what Phantasy Star is and don't exactly have an open mind, you may think this is all a gimmick to grow the Game Boy Advance library. I find myself falling in between both. I've seen, mainly from Square and Enix titles, what a console RPG was capable of back then. But I never touched Phantasy Star until it hit the Dreamcast so when world maps, parties and pseudo 3D dungeons are considered earth shattering in retrospect, I've already seen it done before - and quite possibly done better.
If you want to travel around, talk to NPCs, read epic storylines from two-three line dialogue, level up, buy new weapons and deal out more HP damage, it has to be mentioned that there are other games on the market that can do this. Porting a nostalgic RPG alone, even if you do it twice perfectly, doesn't necessarily guarantee excellence. At least with Phantasy Star, the baseline is pretty good to begin with.