The release of Tales of Phantasia on GBA may have been the second of multiple remakes/re-releases, but it was the only one that actually made it to the US. It's the first game in the now massive Tales series, and is in some ways indicative of the problems with timing the series has had in the states. The SNES version came out near the end of that console's life cycle in 1995, and spending the time to translate and release it in 1996 at the earliest probably didn't seem like a moneymaking opportunity. I'm not sure why, but the Playstation version never made it over here either, so it's sequel, Tales of Destiny, became the first Tales game to come out here.
Though the GBA version was released in 2003 in Japan, it didn't come out here until 2006, well after the DS had already taken over. Even though the DS was backwards compatible, this was well past the point when it made sense. Maybe they thought they could cash in on the relative success of the GBA versions of the SNES Final Fantasy titles that were coming out at the time. So, this was our first chance to play the game that started Namco's long-running RPG franchise.
My experience with the Tales franchise has been extremely limited. I rented Tales of Destiny back when it was new and I don't remember anything about it other than the unique battle system. Playing Tales of Phantasia, I can understand why. There just isn't anything special about the game other than the battle system. All of the character designs are typical fantasy anime-looking generic stuff. The story practically defines the standard fantasy JRPG, with a strapping young hero that has destiny to destroy evil because of some events in the past he doesn't know about, and he's thrust into action as evil befalls the quiet village he grew up in.
The game does do some interesting things with audio. Particularly, it uses voice samples all over the place. The surprising thing is that they don't sound terrible even though this is a GBA game, and apparently even the SNES version had them. The music is pretty high quality, though the tunes aren't particularly memorable. Even though the sound design is impressive, it isn't the thing that stands out about the game.
The battle system is really neat. The best way to describe it is as a mix between an RPG and a fighting game. It is set at a side-view and you completely control a single character, which includes walking back and forth, doing individual attacks, and using special skills not unlike special moves in a 2D fighter. If the fast-paced minute to minute control isn't your forte, you can pause the battle to select skills or items from a list similar to a traditional RPG. There are other party members, but they are AI controlled and you can set their basic routines, attack, defend, etc.
Even with this interesting battle system, the structure of the rest of the game is very much in the traditional JRPG mold. You travel through towns, get in random encounters on the overworld and in dungeons, collect money, get loot, and level up. And that is the main factor that will be keeping me from putting serious time into the game. I think the battle system is cool, but I can't really bother committing to another standard RPG story and structure. The generic anime designs don't help to endear me to the characters either.
The story behind Tales of Phantasia is actually kind of interesting. It was developed by Wolf Team and late into development Namco began demanding changes to the game. These changes to story, characters, and art style ticked off most of the creators and also delayed the release of the game by a year. After the game was released there was a mass exodus of talent, whom formed a new company, tri-Ace, which are now known for the Star Ocean series. The people that stayed, as well as the people that were brought in to replace those that left, are mostly the same people that still make the Tales games to this day at the Namco Tales Studio.