Nine years ago, Sega killed Phantasy Star Online for good, shutting down its last remaining servers for Windows and Xbox in the United States. That was PSO's third death. The year before, Sega unplugged the GameCube and Dreamcast PSO Ver.2 servers. Its first death was all the way back in 2004, when the servers for the Dreamcast's rickety version 1.0—a groundbreaking online console game infested with hackers who learned how to kill others players in a co-op MMO—went dark.
But Phantasy Star Online refused to die. In 2017 I can still step onto the deck of the Pioneer II and beam down to the surface of Ragol, clumsily fighting the keyboard controls of a game designed 17 years and half a world away from me. I can make a new HUnewearl, a lithe hunter with low HP but a penchant for knives and specialty skills, and find a party of players happy to walk a beginner through an opening mission they've done a thousand times before. What's really remarkable is that I can do all of those things and have options. Where many of today's derelict MMOs like The Matrix Online and Planetside struggle to sustain a single fan-emulated server, nine years after its third death Phantasy Star Online has at least four communities of active players, often with anywhere between 50 and 100 people idling in a lobby or grinding a 16-year-old grind.
Phantasy Star Online didn't just refuse to die. It's alive and well, and everyone has a story about how PSO fits into their lives. That's especially true of the people who run the servers keeping the Pioneer II in orbit.
"Back in 2008, my father passed away unexpectedly, and I needed something to do. I decided I had wanted to write my own Blue Burst server software, [Phantasy Star’s server technology]. I had written some proxy software in the past for the Gamecube version, but I really needed something to keep my mind occupied after my dad died, so I decided to start writing Tethealla," said Terry Chatman, who runs the PSO server Ephinea. Chatman, a systems administrator, goes by the handle Sodaboy online, and has been in the PSO scene almost since its beginning. Tethealla is the name of Sodaboy's server emulator for Blue Burst, the 2003 PC version of Phantasy Star Online, which is now used by almost every fan server. The exception is SCHTHack, the longest running fanserver, which Sodaboy also contributed to at one point before starting his own project.
"I've always been a fan of Phantasy Star Online. Playing it from the first Japanese version 1 on Dreamcast until Blue Burst on PC back in 2007...Before I knew it, I had something that worked very well, in some ways better than the only other working Blue Burst server out there, Schtserv, at the time. I threw up a test server did had a lot of people helping test the software until, finally, I released the source code to it which started the boom of PSOBB private servers. I'm pretty sure it was 2009 by then. Shortly after releasing the code, I took my test server down because people started moving to their own servers and I couldn't really get the results I wanted from testing anymore! I then stopped working on the software and retired from PSO development for a few years."
In 2015 Sodaboy was coaxed back to the community by developer tofuman, who had continued working on Tethealla. Together, they teamed up to launch Ephinea and improve the server software, adding in new optional features inspired by Phantasy Star Universe and Phantasy Star Online 2, like individual player drops, a lobby jukebox and character transfers from other servers.
One of those other servers, Ultima, has been around since 2008, with a total of 20,000 registered forum members. Where Ephinea is the shiny new server interested in adding new tweaks to a 16-year-old game, Ultima is more established, with a longstanding community, and it's where I decided to spend some time with PSO. Ultima is still run by its founder Oscar Canizales, who goes by the handle Larva.
"I have always loved PSO since the Dreamcast, that's where everything started," Larva wrote me over email. "Back then in 2008 I was working in a little computer shop and had a lot of free time during job hours. I was helping a friend to launch his Ragnarok Online server and while I was doing some research I found out about the software to run your own PSOBB server, I went totally crazy about that. The Sega US servers for the game closed just a couple of months before that. I didn't really play much online back then due to my economy but still loved to jump on my Dreamcast and play the classic way. I already had two machines that I could always have online in the shop, one was for the Ragnarok server of my friend, and the other one was the one I used for work. I decided to take my computer and give a try to the software and that's how Ultima started, in a local computer shop… using the internet of my job."
Larva invited his friends to play and started advertising Ultima on forums and other sites, and it was slow going at first: he'd be lucky to have five players online at a given time. Initially all the players were hispanic like him (Ultima's forums have sections dedicated to Spanish and Portuguese, a rarity in online communities), but as he tinkered with the server configuration to make it more inviting for more players, over time Ultima became the alternative to SCHTHack.
"By the middle of 2009 we moved to a VPS server [because] the internet of my work couldn't handle more than 30 users online," Larva wrote. "I guess from there we just keep climbing the mountain. I have always been here with Ultima and I plan to be the last person in the server if some day it has to be taken down."
Like going home again
Larva's dedication to Ultima nine years later is a common theme with PSO players I've spoken to: for whatever reason, the game stuck with them. It reminds me of a common sentiment I've seen time and again from game studios over the years: our fans are great and passionate and incredible and loyal. Maybe they mean it wholeheartedly, but it often just feels like what you're supposed to say. There's something different about communities like Ultima, built up around a totem of mutual love. And even then, Phantasy Star Online stands out.
Logging into Phantasy Star Online and walking into one of these communities feels like walking back in time, to a moment perfectly preserved: playing a game on the internet is still achingly novel. Avatars loiter in a lobby on a Saturday night, content to chat or idle or grind for the comforting familiarity. The community is small enough that you recognize names. And everyone is confusingly, unfamiliarly, disturbingly nice to newbies and strangers.
Hasn't anyone told them the internet today is supposed to be callous and hateful? That Xbox Live is all party chats; that open mics are all but dead; that the biggest games in the world are synonymous with 'toxic' communities? Apparently not.
The first time I play on Ultima I fumble around with PSO's archaic keybindings and arcane menus to figure out how to chat and emote. It feels less like learning a game and more like learning how to play games, and I don't want to look stupid.
I definitely look stupid.
But no one cares, and a player named LadyMegid offers to show me the ropes and patiently guides me through joining a match. I'm level one; LadyMegid is level 200. After a few minutes of killing beasts in the forest of Ragol in the first quest, LadyMegid pulls in another player (a mere level 193) to hang out. As long as I get a hit on an enemy, they can finish it off and share the XP. They laugh when I accidentally teleport to face the first boss by myself, locking them out of the battle. It goes about as well as you'd expect. The second time, they let me get in a hit and then kill the boss so fast I think it's transforming, but it's just dead. Back on the Pioneer II, they do something I've become familiar with playing PSO on fan servers: they go to their item storage and pull out high level gear to give away like candy.
Five years ago I gave PSO a shot on SCHTHack, and I still remember being stunned by an identical experience. Two players sherpa'd me through the early missions and showered me with items. It happened again last weekend, when I jumped back onto Ultima and a player named ZEN OH talks to me about why he loves PSO.
"I actually met a homie on PSO pc about 12 years ago," he types. He was in elementary school. "First and only girl i got prego so far i met from PSO," he adds. Then we talk about Puzzle Fighter and he occasionally interjects with song lyrics like "whyyyyyyyyy areeeeeee u myyyyyyyy clarityyyyy" and tells me about how he hacked a middle school friend's PSO character to look like Sonic the Hedgehog. They'd met on PSO before realizing they went to the same school. Later we grind for an hour and he gives me items so good my character is far too low-level to use any of them.
I have no nostalgia for Phantasy Star Online. My first experience on SCHTHack five years ago was the first time I'd played, period, and that was long after Sega had pulled the plug. But this game embodies nostalgia: it evokes a sense of simple complacency that I think may be the draw for players who, like me, have no lifelong history with the series.
When I ask Ultima's forum members to share their PSO experiences with me, I get stories like that. "I'm 19, started here on Ultima when I was 17. I only joined Ultima originally because of my Fiance, @KarmaTheFoney," wrote Auli'i. "He kept prodding me to try it out, until I got fed up with his begging and did it. Haven't looked back since then... I've made friends that affect my life outside of PSO, and that I think about regardless of where I am or what I'm doing. To take it to a bit of a darker place, I was very sick for 8-9 months, and only recently got better. The people I know on Ultima (along with @KarmaTheFoney) are probably the only reason I'm actually still here at all. Their words gave me hope, and that hope stuck with me. I cannot thank them enough for that."
"I don't even know how to write about how it's impacted my life. It's been such a huge part that it's kind of a daunting task to pick apart where it's not affected," wrote Lemon, a 21-year-old moderator at Ultima. "One of the biggest things I can think of off the top of my head is when my grandfather died. It was a Thursday in winter. I was living at school at the time. When I got the phone call, I needed to be alone at first, so I went home and cried. It sounds weird, but after that I needed to hear people talking. So I logged onto the voice chat here, and just sat in and listed to the banter and bickering. I logged in and did a run or two with some friends. And by the end of the night when I went to sleep, I was feeling much better."
"It's nice to have a game I can just pick up when I need some time to unwind," wrote JanebaDMS. "Maybe it's the nostalgia talking but I find playing this pretty therapeutic."
A common theme is how many players were introduced to PSO in elementary school, playing on the GameCube with siblings or friends, but never experiencing the online community. Finding a fan server years later hooked them, preserving that childhood experience with a new group of friends. Clans and guilds in other MMOs no doubt lead to friendships just as intimate, but here PSO's small, obscure community is a strength that leads to fast friendships.
Another strength: PSO's code is old enough, simple enough, and well-understood enough to be more malleable than more complex MMOs, and servers like Ephinea and Ultima have built upon the original game in large and small ways, drastically amping up the EXP gain rate and adding new items and quests and special events to keep players engaged.
"PSO was never really a static game; it has changed pretty drastically since its inception as Dreamcast v1 and v2," wrote Ultima staffer Fyrewolf5. "The negative aspects such as extremely excessive grind (the default experience leveling is really slow compared to other games), and the lack of decent enemy scaling for higher level characters has been changed to be much more manageable to get to high levels, while also still providing a good challenge at the top level... I think that aspect is truly the greatest strength that we could give to the game. It's easy to set up a private server for any old game and it will attract a select few people simply looking to satiate their nostalgia urge, but that feeling will wane and eventually lead to a dead experience with nothing left to offer. Instead, Ultima has taken this old game and built upon it, actually breathed fresh new life into it and created a new living experience. That is something that is rare and truly special."
Phantasy Star Online forever
As much as my time with PSO has felt like stumbling into an oasis of early-era internet innocence, I know the communities aren't always like that. Of course they have their own problems and dramas. SCHTHack, long maintained by a member named Crono114, has had its fair share of controversy around selling in-game items and deleting user complaints, and the server would often go down for weeks or months at a stretch. But it also offered (and still does, to this day) something none of the other active PSO servers can: support for GameCube and Dreamcast players logging in with the original hardware.
"There was items being sold from myself, to the community, which I did keep track of," Crono114 wrote to me over Skype. "Of course so I could keep Schthack up and running. So it was all donations from people to keep it up. But I did try as best I could for the longest time. And when donations were at an all time low I even moved the server to my home connection... A lot of people don't believe me when I say, I really just love to help people and make them happy."
SCHTHack went through a crash and reset in recent years, but has picked up 2,000 new and returning members and often has 50 or 60 people in-game at a time. Ultima's admin Larva says PSO players tend to be loyal to the community they pick, and it seems like those small tribes help insulate the fan servers from drama or disasters that could threaten to tear apart a more centralized community. Ultima once suffered DDOS attacks; SCHTServ lost years of data to a dead drive; and large servers can be costly to run, especially for fans maintaining a server on the side. For Sodaboy, it's a point of pride that he keeps Ephinea running without asking for donations, but if it was the only PSO server online, the bills could pile up.
As a result, every Phantasy Star Online server offers its own flavor version of a 16-year-old game, each paired with a freely downloadable Blue Burst client that Sega seems happy to turn a blind eye to. Ephinea, Ultima, and SCHTHack are the big names, but there are others, like Eden and Sylverant (which also supports Dreamcast and GameCube connections). And anyone can use Sodaboy's open source Tethealla code to start a server of their own.
Sega has long since moved onto Phantasy Star Online 2, which has sadly never made its way to the west, though there's an English patch out there that makes it playable. Someday PSO2's servers will go dark, too, and perhaps it will have fans dedicated enough to preserve it with communities like Ephinea and Ultima. But I wouldn't be surprised if the original PSO outlives it, surviving on in small pockets decades after so many MMOs that followed it have turned to dust. There's something primal in re-experiencing your first innocent brush with the internet, and PSO still has that magic.
"It's easy to get into, the graphics are honestly still surprising sometimes considering the game is 17 years old, the soundtrack is legit and the online experience is a once in a lifetime thing," wrote McLaughlin86 on Ultima's forums. "Over the years I've made some intense connections with some of these players... A lot of this game is nostalgia, even nostalgia for some of the old people I used to play with. However, looking past that, I'm still able to see there has been some truly special moments in my career of playing this game that are more than just infatuation.
"Play this god damn game before you die."