It seems strange, or maybe even risky, to list as a memorable game one that I haven’t played for over thirty years – or if I had, on some browser-based emulator, it wasn’t a copy of the version I had when I was young, and I didn’t give it the time it deserved. But I can’t just walk by this game without mentioning that it made a deep dent in my mind, even to the point where I harbor a (hopefully not vain) hope of remaking it, or something very like it, someday.
I’m seven, maybe eight years old, and I’m in my dad’s office, sitting crouched on his big cracked faux-leather chair, smelling still of pipe smoke (despite him quitting a couple years before), watching him take out some floppy disks (real floppies, five-and-a-quarter inch, slender black cards that contained mystery within their fragile bodies) that he had gotten (From where? A co-worker? A family friend? I never knew. They weren’t official - the labels all hand-written – and as a kid, I didn’t even know enough to care). He showed them to my brother and I, listing the names, and we both piped up at Phantasie. Dad had read us The Hobbit over many dinners, as my brother and mother and I sat rapt at the table over empty plates, and something evoked in that title instantly intrigued us. My dad popped in the disk, and the game began.
I don’t know how much of that memory is filler and how much is real – the disks, the smell of the chair, the great big wooden desk that held the massive hulk of the IBM PC and its big gray RGB CRT monitor – but I remember this. The town of Pelnor, in bright pinks and cyan, storefronts, the street. Going to the tavern and seeing not just elves and dwarves, but pixies, minotaurs, lizardmen… a vast array of mythical creatures, ready to join my party. No idea what waited for us, no quest that I can remember. Just arming up, and setting out into the overworld, ambling through swaths of cyan-hued forest until random encounters burst out of nowhere, turning the screen black and presenting us with the scene: enemies along the back, facing our heroes in the front, neat lines and formations, and the menu that prompted actions. FIGHT. RUN. There were others, of course, but my brother and I were reckless… until we learned the terror of being confronted with a truly powerful foe. It doesn’t matter that the dragon is the color and rough shape of a banana: it will still absolutely mess you up, leaving the last of your party fleeing desperately towards town, presumably dragging the bodies of their fallen comrades along to be resurrected (provided, of course, you had the gold for it).
There were dungeons, too: needle-thin corridors that unraveled themselves bit by bit as you progressed, random encounters and sudden traps springing on you, making every further step forward a risk. Sometimes moments would present themselves with a drastic choice: a fair maiden and an old man are chained to a wall, and suddenly, lava begins to pour into the room! You can only save one – whom do you choose? That gave my brother and I some pause at first, but we saved the maiden, who thanked us profusely, and – I think – gave us a nice gem. But we kept pondering the old man’s fate. I can’t remember if it was a different game or later in the same one that the conundrum presented itself again, and this time we saved the old man. He thanked us, then wheezed “Remember… stratcon uble and 48.” And died. My brother and I were simultaneously irritated and intrigued. I don’t remember anything about what that code and that number meant, but it still hangs in my thoughts, junk data that stubbornly remains.
I remember keeping a journal, written by our – gnoll? - thief, “Sneek.” No grand work of fan-fic or anything, no deep ponderings of our journey, just a bit of listing where we went, and battles we had. One observation I remember: on the rescue of the old man, after writing down the seemingly-essential information he uttered before he died, Sneek mourned the death of the young woman who was with him, saying it made him sad. Not much depth from a gnoll, I suppose, or an eight year old, but that I felt so compelled to write the saga of the group, to record what happened from the perspective of a character, not just a record of actions, or an omnipotent viewer, is important. It wasn’t just me wanting to remember stuff we’d done in the game. It was a desire in my heart to make it feel real.
I do want to go back to Phantasie, ferret it out from the internet somewhere and start a game in earnest, approaching it with the eyes of an adult, and see what made me so excited to play it as a child. I didn’t have Ultima, or Final Fantasy, and though I borrowed Dragon Warrior plenty of times from a friend, it doesn’t stick with me as much (except that damn princess and her “But thou must!” – but that’s a gripe for another time). I remember being so delighted that you could have beings in your group that many other games would just call monsters (Shining Force 2 carried this immediate appeal for me as well), that they were real people just living their lives and having adventures as well, not just waiting along for boring old humans and elves and dwarves to stumble across them and cause trouble. Minotaurs, gnolls, orcs – they weren’t just bad guys, but incredibly good fighters! And pixies weren’t just shy denizens of the forest but some damn good thieves. And sure, we hit the “reroll stats” button with the infinite patience of two kids under 10 in the 1980s with not a lot of other entertainment options, but when we got the stat jackpot multiple times and walked out of the starting town with the A-Team of adventurers… it felt sweet. It felt like the good start of something. It felt like a story I wanted to experience – and one I wanted to tell.
I think I still want to tell that story.