I can barely put into words my feelings about Phantasy Star Online. Along with many people it was my first real online gaming experience, and the early days of the Dreamcast version were a gaming Utopia filled with friendly and helpful people. The universal chat interface brought players together in a beautiful way, and spending nights dropping into random games with complete strangers was a joy. The camaraderie was amazing, uplifting. High-level players would happily escort new people through a tough area. Gifts were given freely. The nature of the game engendered a community spirit unlike anything else.
After the hackers started in on things we marshalled ourselves together in more tightly-knit groups, locking games and giving out passwords only to trusted players. This only served to strengthen and solidify friendships though, and allowed for the more focused and demanding aspects of the game to be taken on. Challenge Mode demanded a solid unit, and we took up the challenge and met it. The intense co-operative team play of Challenge Mode PSO remains my pinnacle of gaming experiences.
All this is without talking about the game itself, though. PSO was unique in its aesthetics - everything from the visual style to the music was fresh and new, and so intrinsically linked to fond memories that simply thinking about the opening bars of the Forest theme triggers a wave of emotion. The gameplay was simple - Gauntlet in space, Diablo in space... but it was direct and immediate. An online RPG where arcade game skills mattered. The interface was clean and necessarily fast, with shortcuts configured to vital items and techniques.
Then there was the RPG aspect of it. Level-building, the collection of better equipment. In the pre-hack days we used to marvel at a player unveiling some mythical rare weapon. The Spread Needle, the Crazy Tune, the Twin Brand. Owning these things became an obsessive, almost quixotic quest. Beyond that there was the Mag raising. Your little robotic buddy, always at your side could be carefully manipulated into a variety of forms, and players became obsessed with raising particular types, or better yet finding a super-rare Mag Cell that would instantly transform it into one of eight special forms.
The game comprised only four main levels, split into two or three areas each, yet we played them over and over again for literally years. And happily, too. Just being in the game was cosy, it was so inviting. Everything just felt so right.
For a few years Sonic Team gave us a dose of pure gaming paradise, the likes of which I doubt I'll ever see or experience again.