There have been several occasions where videogames have seen me through some rough patches in my life. The active engagement required in playing certain games helped to distract me from my problems long enough for them to subside or be dealt with properly.
I mitigated the agonizing pain of last year’s pair of abscessed teeth with some all-night sessions of Katamari rolling. I worked my way past a really bad break-up with a college girlfriend by completely losing myself in the NES port of Sid Meier’s Pirates.
Then there’s the matter of Phantasy Star and how it helped me cope with the trauma of my mother’s death in November 1988.
Phantasy Star loomed large in the weeks prior to that terrible event. The American version of the 1987 role-playing game had just hit the shelves, and my thoughts were focused on how to scrape together the eighty bucks (thank you, battery memory and extortionate retail markup policies) to buy a copy.
I was making pretty good money at the hospital kitchen at the time, but over half of my take home was gobbled up by the room and board money my parents demanded and the mid-week “Oh, fuck, we need cash for port wine” surcharge they inevitably tacked on to that.
So I was left counting pennies and trying to hide my envy every time my better-funded pal Damian raved about game in Woburn High lunchroom’s nerd ghetto.
On the evening of November 30, 1988, I was summoned to the office by my supervisor, who told me that the hospital’s emergency room just called. My mother had taken a fall down our attic staircase and was in really bad shape. I made a beeline to the ER, the halls of the service corridor echoing with my boss’s reminder that I hadn’t properly signed out yet. (What a fucking tool she was.)
My mom was shipped to Beth Israel Hospital shortly after, where she passed away just before midnight.
Though I spent that first horrible night at my father’s sister’s place, my maternal grandmother insisted I move in to the spare room at her house. I was kept home from school for a week as the funeral plans were hastily made. My whole world had been upended and I was left with nothing to do but sit on my hands and think about it. Or, me being me, overthink about it.
I took to aimless walks around Woburn to kill time. One of these meanderings brought me back to the hospital, where I figured I’d pick up my paycheck from the previous week and let the powers-at-be know I hadn’t quit. Alongside my paystub was a sympathy card, signed by the kitchen staff and enclosing five twenty-dollar bills.
It was a grand and unexpected gesture, and one I felt incredibly awkward about. I offered the money to my grandmother to cover some of the burial expenses, but she refused to accept it. A couple days later, my aunt and uncle took me to the Burlington Mall in search of a pair of dress pants for the funeral that would fit my 6-foot-2, 120 pound frame. While we were there, I stopped by K-B Toys and blew the bulk of my sympathy money on an overpriced copy of Phantasy Star.
Phantasy Star was (and still is in many ways) a phenomenal game, if perhaps a bit primitive for folks weaned on the cinematic action and elaborate plots of later console RPG titles. The narrative is tissue thin wrapping around the standard “wander and grind until you discover the item which grants access to the next area, then repeat” template. The first-person dungeons, a remarkable technical achievement for the time, have become exercises in tedium and — with the lack of an automapping feature — sheer frustration.
As such, Phantasy Star isn’t a game I would recommend to even a enthusiast of the role-playing genre, except, perhaps, within a historical context. (Current-gen console owners who wish to experience the game can do so through Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, where it appears as a hidden unlockable…providing you have access to a second controller.)
For me, however, what had been just another “must have” ended up being an important, if bittersweet, therapeutic experience. Guiding the (oh-so-crushworthy) Alis Lansdale and her allies across three planets to free the Algol System from the dread tyrant Lassic and the malevolent Dark Falz/Force/Phallus (depending on which translation you consult) offered a much-needed dose of escapist distance at a time when reality had become nigh unbearable.
That, more than anything, is why Phantasy Star (and, by extension, the Master System itself) will always hold a place in my fickle affections.
Recommended listening: ‘Bo’ – Title Theme to Phantasy Star
(originally posted 4/18/2009)
2015 Postscript: In recent months, I’ve been using my PSP to take the edge off of the hellish evening commute, thanks to a sideloaded Master System emulation app. I started off with the 1990 port of title-puzzle game Shanghai, but have since moved on to a methodical playthrough of Phantasy Star. The simple and straightforward nature of its JRPG grind mechanic works great in short bursts, though anything involving its dungeons requires a separate session with my laptop’s browser open to a FAQ page. As my party tore through its umpteenth wave of randomly encountered monsters this morning, it didn’t even occur to me that today marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of my mother’s death.