In 1999, Sega released their final home console, the Dreamcast. Among several features it had that were new to game consoles, there was a built-in modem. Few games used it, and even fewer used it well. But one used it phenomenally.
Phantasy Star Online wasn’t the first online multiplayer game on the Dreamcast, but it was absolutely the most ambitious. You could customize your own character, choose your abilities, and pick which weapons you enjoy using the most.
When you’d log in, you’d be transported to a lobby, where you could build a team of up to 4 players. You could take on the main story, or a number of different missions, which would be updated periodically. The story could take place in one of four areas - forest, caves, mines, or ruins - which all followed a pattern of moving through several environments before getting to a boss monster that would take your entire team to defeat.
Playing this game 20 years ago presented certain challenges, not the least of which was getting disconnected when your sister picked up the phone. My broadband speed at home now is a smidge over five thousand times faster than the 56k modem in the Dreamcast, and games still lag for me sometimes. And even with Phantasy Star’s very efficient use of the modem, there was still plenty of lag and glitches. And when the developers wanted to add features, they had to sell a whole new version of the game, since the Dreamcast didn’t have a hard drive to store updates.
Phantasy Star Online operated until September of 2003, when the servers were shut down. A sequel was released in Japan in 2013, and finally released as a free-to-play game in the United States earlier this year.