SEGA wants you online.
It bundled a modem with every Dreamcast, and did so at a significant hit to the bottom line. It has spent millions incorporating online features into oodles of its games, including the majority of its flagship sports titles, such as "NBA 2K3" and "NFL2K3."
And now it has even shown up the mighty Nintendo by jump-starting the GameCube's online program, releasing "Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II" without much help from its one-time nemesis.
Nintendo should be extremely grateful, because SEGA's initiative is helping Mario save face as Sony and Microsoft enjoy the mondo press surrounding the launches of their online services.
Nintendo has an online plan. At least, it claims to. Not that it will tell anybody about it. The company's trademark secrecy is at work again, and even gamers are starting to lose their patience. Whether the big move is actually under way or if Nintendo is just stalling is moot right now, though, because SEGA's here-and-now "Phantasy Star Online" is more than enough to satisfy GameCube owners who might be feeling a little green as their PS2-playing buddies fight for every inch of "Madden's" Astroturf with competitors five states over.
"PSO" is a massive online role-playing game where vidders from around the globe can come together and beat down dragons, robots and vegetables that bite back, all while earning experience and hoping against hope that the treasure chest around the corner contains an ultra-rare weapon. Think a combination of Sony's "EverQuest" and Blizzard's "Diablo II," but with the kind of game-play, control and art direction the console crowd requires.
Sonic Team, one of SEGA's brilliant internal development teams, has crafted a gorgeous sci-fi fantasy universe that brilliantly takes bits and pieces from previous installments of SEGA's venerable "Phantasy Star" series (which has shamefully never been as popular as Square's "Final Fantasy" franchise), and updates them for the latest generation of consoles.
Once you have procured a GameCube modem or broadband adapter (good luck finding that broadband adapter it's as rare as some of the better weapons in "PSO"), getting online is a snap, thanks to a tidy interface. Input your Internet service provider's info and the GC dials in automatically. Within minutes, you'll be in one of SEGA's online lobbies, chatting up potential team members and chartering an expedition to a troubled planet's surface.
Now, you can play "PSO" off-line and still have fun (a new split-screen mode allows it to replicate the online experience in your living room, with mixed results), but the real deal is joining up with vidders from coast to coast. Lag time is zilch, thanks to the game's smart pacing.
"PSO" is a "sorta-port" of a Dreamcast game that enjoyed great success, but it is enhanced in almost every way. The biggest addition is the "Episode II" part. Once gamers complete all the visually goosed levels in the original, they are strong enough to try four new worlds. Because these worlds were created with the GC in mind, they look wildly better than the first half. Veterans will stop to "ooh" and "aah" as a blood-red sunset pierces the jungle canopy and sparkles across cascading waterfalls. Video games as art, indeed.
A status setter
However, those vets will be more interested in the new hard-to-find items and weapons SEGA has sprinkled through "PSO."
Dreamcast gamers who used to boast on message boards that they were in possession of ultra-rare doo-hickeys such as the Egg Buster or Delsaber's Buster will need to hit "Episode II" if they want to maintain their status.
And that's what makes "PSO" so devilishly addictive.
Of course, it wasn't free for SEGA to set up and maintain this sci-fantasy smorgasbord, and gamers shouldn't expect their use of it to be gratis, either. For the first time in console gaming, vidders will have to cough up a monthly fee $8.95. This may seem steep, but that's what "EverQuest" junkies said before they started forsaking the sun. The first month is free, so GameCubies can decide if "PSO" is really what's missing from their lives.
On top of that, there's the cost of the modem (around $40) and the price of the game itself ($50). It starts adding up quickly. And since chatting is a beast with the GC controller, gamers will want to seek out a keyboard as soon as it's released. However, the modem and keyboard will be usable with other games in the near future, so vidiots should consider them a necessary investment.
How near of a future, though? That's the real question. How long can Nintendo count on SEGA to wear the proverbial big pants and get Nintendo's name in articles that sound the hurrah about the future of games online? All Nintendo will say is, "Soon." Nintendo will make that move when it has one or more triple-A games that will make its online service both a must-have and a moneymaker.
Nintendo didn't amass its bank account by going into unprofitable ventures, and it's yet to be seen if the major expenditures Sony and Microsoft undertook to get their boxes online will ever be in the black. Just ask SEGA. All the nice press pieces in the world don't pay the rent.
Levi Buchanan is the former editor of Gamefan.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun