Rieko Kodama on Phantasy Star... er, One

(Sega Community, 4/4/03)

You can say anything you want about Sega these days--they're terribly mismanaged, their games are advertised all wrong, they're gonna get bought by Nintendo and forced to make Diddy Kong Racing 2--and, if you're smart enough to post your thoughts on a message board, you'll be just another voice in the clamor of anti-Seganess fomenting across game-dom. Still, as a true gamer, you can forgive them for all their naievete... after all, they made some of the best console (and arcade) titles ever conceived by modern man. Even though the mainstream never seems to understand this for some reason.

When discussing Sega, one cannot hope to possibly leave out Phantasy Star, the publisher's greatest success in a genre that's never been its strongest suit. In this interview published on Sega's Masterpiece Album section of its community site, designer Rieko Kodama discusses the production process that went into the Master System's most well known title.

Rieko Kodama Profile
Entering Sega in 1984, Kodama worked on the design of many early titles, including Champion Boxing (arcade), Ninja Princess (arcade) and Alex Kidd in Miracle World (SMS). She worked on Phantasy Star IV (Genesis) and Magic Knight Rayearth (SS) as a director, and as a member of development studio Overworks, she made her debut as a producer with Skies of Arcadia Legends (GC). Born in Kanagawa prefecture; blood type A.

Q: So you joined Sega as a designer?

Rieko Kodama, Sega: Right. Actually, when I was in college I was thinking about studying one of two things: either art or archaeology. However, I ended up completely failing out of all of my classes instead. I had been studying art before then, so I took this as a sign that I should just continue taking that road, and I ended up entering a trade school for advertising design. There was a student I knew at that school who became a member of Sega, and that's how I ended up joining the company.

It wasn't like I knew very much about games at the time. Most of the industry was still in the arcade field, and for someone like me who never went to arcades it was an unfamiliar world. The Famicom had just barely been released, so there weren't any major consoles to think about, either. As a result, video games to me were a completely new world to explore. That's why I joined Sega.

Q: What projects did you do design work on after you joined the company?
RK: I thought I would be working on advertising and graphic design in the beginning, but after I got to see the place where they made games I started to feel like that could be fun, too. So once I joined Sega I got the chance to draw the characters in Champion Boxing, and after that I worked on Ninja Princess and other games. Sega didn't have a lot of designers and development times were pretty short, so there were times when I was working on five or six games at once over a year's time.

On the console side I did art for Alex Kidd in Miracle World and the Master System version of Quartet. I would get little requests for art from different projects on a daily basis--the dragon from Miracle Warriors, one of the enemies from The Black Onyx, and so on--so I worked on a lot of things. In fact, I worked on so much that I've forgotten some of the games I did one-off art for... (laughs)

Despite the looks, The Black Onyx didn't hit the SC/SG systems until 1987.
Q: How did the Phantasy Star project get off the ground?
RK: Well, back then I was just a designer, so to be honest I don't really know or remember exactly how the project got started. At the time, though, Dragon Quest was really popular, so as a hardware maker Sega felt that they needed an RPG of their own. A lot of people on the team really wanted to make a pure RPG, too, so I think the Phantasy Star project took off from there.

Q: How was the development team structured?
RK: Ossale Kohta [Kotaro Hayashida, who designed the Alex Kidd series and now works at Game Arts] was the main planner. [Yuji] Naka was the main programmer. BO [I don't know his real name but he had a hand in nearly every Master System soundtrack, as well as PSII's] did the music, and I was the main designer. We also had a couple of assistants, so I'd say there were seven or eight of us in all.

Q: What sections of Phantasy Star were you responsible for?
RK: For Phantasy Star I was the main designer. I drew all the character designs, the 2D maps (not the 3D dungeon areas), the battle-scene backgrounds, the townspeople, and so on.

Q: What did you worry about the most when making the maps?
RK: The concept among all of us was to always keep the game animating something. As a result, when you look at the ocean in the world map you'll notice that it's moving, and you can also see the walkways between towns moving. This philosophy made it harder for people to walk around in town, but... (laughs)

Q: Could you tell us where the original images for the four main characters--Alisa (Alis), Myau, Tairon (Odin) and Rutz (Noah)--came from?
RK: Sure. Let's go through each of them, one by one.

Alisa, the main hero, tends to be thought of as this incredibly serious person on the inside. At the same time, though, she's a very passionate and forward-thinking woman--she's on a quest for revenge, after all. Even so, I tried to keep her "womanly" during the design.
Myau isn't there just to be a mascot for the party; he gets involved in the scenario near the end of the game. It wasn't like we wanted to insert a cat into the party for a lark or anything.

...I'm pretty sure it was Choko [one of the sub designers, who appears in the game and also worked on Phantasy Star II] who designed Myau.

With Tairon, the idea was to make this built, muscular heroic-fantasy type of male character. In the battles, he'd be the guy who dealt most of the physical damage. At the same time, though, he's not some affable dolt, either; he's a gentle, manly hero who likes to care for his friends.

At the time I was like "I can't draw a macho guy like this!" so he ended up being designed by [Naoto] Ohshima, designer of the original Sonic. I really wasn't into drawing these muscle guys back then, so... (laughs)

With Rutz, it's not like he's dark or has some kind of shadowy past... really, he treats other people very seriously, and he's able to undergo the training he's taking because of the faith and pride he holds. I designed him because I wanted to have a "silent" character to go with the rest of the party, which are really more "active" types.

Of course, to be really honest, I may have just wanted to draw a "handsome" character. (laughs) I had this image in my head of this wizard in robes, not an old one but a young man instead, so even though Alisa went through about 10 different design patterns, my first drawing of Rutz was almost exactly how he ended up in the final version. (laughs)

During the intial planning stage, one idea we had was to alter Alisa's parameters--make her more boy-like or girl-like--based on the player's actions in the game. Rutz, then, would be sort of androgynous in the beginning, then would become either a man or woman based on which way Alisa began to lean. That was our original idea, anyway, and as a result I initially wanted to make Rutz kind of "in between"... but afterwards we settled on the male character you see now.

Q: RPGs starting women were rare back in those days.
RK: They were. At that time, nearly everyone in the [console] industry was making their first stab at making an RPG, so we were all groping around for ideas. However, all of us at Sega were really challenging ourselves with this game, so we veered away from the main road as much as possible during development. So, for example, we didn't see 3D dungeons in any other console RPGs, so we decided to put those in, and monsters didn't move in any other RPGs so we included monster animation... that sort of thing. We were always trying to do the opposite.
That may have been what caused us to make the hero of Phantasy Star female. Every RPG back then had male heroes, so...

Q: Did you design the monsters as well?
RK: The monsters were drawn by other people. We had four megabits to work with, which was a pretty big amount at the time, so it became a very large project and it was too much for me to work on all of it.

Q: The monsters in Phantasy Star look and feel a lot different from the monsters in the rest of the series.
RK: That was just the style of the artist in action. The designer in charge of the monsters was really well-versed in fantasy art, and he loved the basic fantasy monster standbys. That's why you see things like golems and Medusa show up in this game.

Q: The monster animation during battles generated a lot of buzz as well.
RK: It did, but it was a big hassle because we didn't devote much ROM space to battle animation. For example, when a zombie attacks you he spews out this stuff on the floor, but we didn't have enough space for the entire motion, so instead of hitting the floor, the zombie vomit shoots back into his mouth like a yo-yo. (laughs) We couldn't stop laughing at him.


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