The genre of horizontal shooters had early been set with standards nobody dared to break anymore. Instead, the race for perfection was on - mainly in the arcades, but also on the computers and consoles of the time.
What makes a good shooter? Great graphics, big explosions, many extra-weapons, fierce enemies and of course the biggest possible bosses? Of course! There is another thing which is too often overlooked, but is in fact the most important feature: fairness! What is all the stuff out of the first set of features worth if a game is unplayable? What if you won't even be able to see all the great stuff because you keep dying at the very beginning? Let's get back to this question later.
The introduction wouldn't make much sense if Phobia wasn't a shooter. The evil Lord Phobos has captured a princess (daughter of some ruler of the universe) for whatever reason. You have been sent to rescue her. So much about the forgettable part. The effect is more important: Phobos has - after as the manual claims having studied the human psyche - set up a system of planets on the way to the princess each of which represents one of humans' worst fears.
You are controlling some spaceship (?) flying through the solar system set up by the villain. To pass a planet, you have to clear its surface (one level with a boss) and then on to the planet's core (through a psychedelic labyrinth) both to destroy it and retrieve a rare element needed to survive on the sun - the final level. After completing a planet, there is a small space journey in addition.
Every planet is very well themed. The very first one for example (with the sound name Arachno) has spiders as well as other nasty insects. Planet Ornitho has all kinds of birds (Hitchcock anyone?), Ufo has ufos (oh, really?) and so on, but there are also more subtle fears being addressed such as claustrophobia (attacking key, closing doors,...), fear of darkness and such.
Variety and originality is thereby assured. One of the two big pros of Phobia! Let's get back to the question of playability and fairness now. Surprisingly enough, the game is best played with the mouse. Most enemies don't shoot bullet-like projectiles (i.e. small and fast ones), but bubble-shaped ones (i.e. big and slow). Both that together always makes it possible to avoid being hit, but of course not easy.
As for lives and continues, Phobia goes an extremely fair way, too: In each level, you can collect certain blue objects which, as soon as you've collected enough, turn your red ship into something in the shades of grey. If you keep collecting these power-ups, you will be awarded extra-lives galore! As long as you're in the grey state, fewer enemies will shoot at you, too.
These two major points combined with several smaller ones make it perfectly possible to reach the final level even for an average player without using cheats or trainers - it'll just take him/her longer than a pro.
This is also what makes Phobia my favourite shooter ever! It's original, the world is fun to explore, there is some strategic planning involved and it's maybe the fairest of its type.
Of course it's not perfect. Collecting lives at the beginning can get a bit tedious. Some levels are better, some worse. Most importantly, there is the final level though: It is virtually impossible to beat it! Suddenly, all the usual bad designing kicks in: enemies which are impossible to get by, unfair traps and last but not least a completely unbeatable boss. As if that wouldn't be bad enough first round, the deadliest quirk in shooters ever comes into action then, too: if you die, you loose your extended firepower, making you even more vulnerable. Consequently, you'll die even more, making it impossible to regain the power you need.
With the exception of the last level, Phobia is everything shooters should be. Nothing better has ever been made in this genre! If it only wasn't that frustrating because it can't be completed...Technical note for emulation: at the time of writing, it ran only in Fellow!