The Weekly WhaTiDY – Phantom Dust

The Weekly WhaTiDY is where we here at bit fix radio ask "What's the deal, yo?!" about a different topic in video games each week. If you have thoughts on what's below, or have a suggestion for a future WhaTiDY, email us at Bitfixradio@gmail.com or respond in the comments below. Your thoughts could make it into the next episode of Bit Fix Radio! Thanks for reading!

By Kevin Metz

What’s the deal with Phantom Dust, yo? No seriously, it was one of those “big” announcements at the Microsoft 2014 E3 press conference last week that no one, including this guy, saw coming. And, judging by the luke-warm applause peppered with outbursts of sheer joy that only a special kind of fandom and love for a game can produce, not many knew anything about this “Phantom Dust,” or the enormity of what rebooting this cult classic from the original Xbox, might mean.

Not quite the amazing reception Microsoft was expecting, perhaps? Or maybe, in a year where Microsoft so desperately wants to be all about the games, this is exactly the reaction they wanted. I certainly didn’t know anything about the game. The minute and 34 second trailer of a brooding, deep-in-thought protagonist having a slow motion, glow-battle with a bird-to-cyber woman in a courtyard to classical Chopin didn’t get me excited, peak my interest or curiosity. It came, it went, and it exited my mind.

And then I began to think. What was so special about this original Xbox game from 2004 to reboot it? Why hadn’t I at least heard of it before? And what made those few people whoop and holler with the giddiness of a Halo fan boy getting a lap dance from Master Chief? Suddenly, I needed to know…

What is Phantom Dust?
It’s a fine balance of third-person action and plan-ahead strategy, it’s a single and multiplayer arena battler, and quite frankly, it’s hard to explain because there just isn’t a lot out there to compare it too. My first thought when watching gameplay footage brought me back to high school Kevin (scary thought, I know) going to the arcade to play Virtual On, an arena mech shooter where you fire all sorts of missiles, hover and dash around, etc. Here, you are using your powers, which you apparently get to select before each mission/battle begins in the same way you’d put a deck of cards together for a game of Magic or Hearthstone. The powers that you’ve selected then randomly show up on the battle field – ranging from offensive (freakin’ laser beams, forward dashes) to defensive (freakin’ shields that block and reflect), and onward and upward. You have a limited amount of action points to use these skills, so planning ahead and thinking strategically seems to be a good idea.

The story and the hub-world that you wander around in to pick up missions, skills, and ‘make your deck’ between fights reminds me a lot The Matrix, which makes sense considering the second movie had just come out a year earlier in 2003 when the game was being made. I’m honestly not much of a story guy to begin with, so if you really want to know all about the story and game play mechanics, I highly recommend watching the video below where Nick Robinson from Rev3 Games (revision3.com/games) gives the full break down. Pro-tip: he’s actually played the game and LOVES it.

I REALLY want to play it now too!
I have to admit, searching the corners of the internet for fan sites and history of the game really makes me want to play this game I missed too. The first step in my journey was see if I could find a copy. Now, Phantom Dust is a) an original Xbox game, and b) not that easy to come by. Copies are going online for anywhere from $40 to $100 and up, depending on condition (the dev team of the announced reboot actually said in an interview that the price of the game was going up as they actively tried to buy up copies of the 2004 release) . It turns out that only 70,000-80,000 copies of the game actually shipped worldwide, with a majority of those games being bought in Japan. As I am writing this, I have now learned that this game is apparently backwards compatible with the Xbox 360, as long as you download the Microsoft-released patch (Pro-tip: I haven’t confirmed this myself yet, and this is M$ we are talking about, so you may want to investigate to see if you REALLY can play on 360 before taking my word for it!). Given that the Steam Summer Sale is going on right now, I’m not exactly looking to spend too much on an original Xbox game just quite yet, but it IS now on my radar!

So why did the original release fail?
From what I can tell, it was a combination of bad timing and even worse marketing. The game came out in Japan in 2004 and in the states in March of 2005, not long after Microsoft had started to gain traction with it’s new “Xbox Live” service. And what were we all playing on it, myself included? Halo 2. That game certainly did get all my attention for a good year after it was released in November, 2004. According to an article on Polygon.com titled “The Birth of Xbox Live,” I wasn’t alone. “The previous record for concurrent players on Xbox Live,” says the article, “was just over 40,000. In less than 24 hours, Halo 2 had quadrupled it.”

So Halo 2 had our attention turned to competitive multiplayer on Xbox Live. One would think this would bode in favor for Phantom Dust, which had a very strong multiplayer component to go with a beefy single-player campaign. Unfortunately, Majesco, the company that brought the game to the states, forgot to tell… well, anyone. The game came out with very little to know marketing, relying on the critical praise and above-average-to-great reviews it was receiving. And again, EVERYONE WAS PLAYING HALO 2!

A game before it’s time, and it’s time is now!
The most common thread to commentary on Phantom Dust is that it’s ‘a game before it’s time.” Seeing as how, to my knowledge, no game before or since has truly pulled off the mechanics Phantom Dust strived towards, I have to agree. There have been numerous outcries over the years from a small yet rabid fan base to come out with a sequel or at least port the original to Xbox Live Arcade as an HD remake. And in an age where, 10 years later, console gaming online is the norm, this is a game that should (and hopefully will) thrive now.

The development backing is strong. Yukio Fatasugi, the maker of the Panzer Dragon series on the Dreamcast and, most recently, Crimson Dragon on the XBox One, had great passion and vision when he brought the world Phantom Dust. He will be spearheading this game as well, and he has a strong backing.  “The idea of rebooting old games is something I have a lot of passion for,” said Microsoft Creative Director Ken Lobb before introducing the trailer on stage at this year’s E3.  “Great design is what we should be looking for when we decide what games we should build.” Ken, who also helped with the remake of Killer Instinct for the Xbox One Launch, has been instrumental along with others in getting the game off the ground. Rev3Games has posted a great video interviewing Ken and two others about how their inspirations for resurrecting the game.

So what does it all mean?
It mean’s that Phantom Dust is now on my radar, and I am a happier gamer for it. It means that the thought of having a next-gen arena battler that incorporates my new-found love for card-collecting games (thank you, Hearthstone, for that one) is pretty darn cool. It means that hopefully Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo will continue to bring back and reboot more of their cult franchises for another go-around. It struck me during our E3 episode of Bit Fix Radio that none of us had ever heard of the game called Phantom Dust. We passed it over then, gleaming over the sexier, the indier, the more well known. (In fact, there are two Easter Eggs in the Phantom Dust Trailer – a bulletin board of Gears of War and one of Halo Wars, possibly hinting at upcoming announcements?) But this is a game that shouldn’t be looked over twice. It deserves a second chance, as many games do. What are your thoughts on Phantom Dust? What cult-classic games from your past would you like to see get a second go-around? Leave your thoughts in the comments below and/or email us at bitfixradio@gmail.com, and become part of the conversation in our next episode of Bit Fix Radio! 

One comment

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