For Phantasy Star 1 fans this post might really be something special. The following is an interview with Rieko Kodama who is the woman who designed and created Phantasy Star (with a team of seven or eight people) for the Sega Master System. Like very few others Rieko Kodama is able to (and has) given us very knowledgeable and intimate details about this revolutionary game. Phantasy Star had a big impact on my gaming life and it’s a video game that I still enjoy even twenty five years later.
I found this Interview with Rieko Kodama at smspower.org. And according to the poster it was originally posted April 4, 2003 on Sega’s community forum called Masterpiece Album but has since been removed.
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)
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 staring 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.
Q: What sort of problems did you run into while drawing the backgrounds?
RK: Well, background scenes like this one are mirrored vertically to save ROM space. On the Mark III mirroring sprites requires a separate tileset, but you don’t need to worry about that with fixes.
“As a designer, I’d always get asked by the planner to make some background or another within 150 tiles… then once I finished it, he’d go up and say ‘Sorry, but can you cut out 20 tiles?'”
[Fix: An internal Sega term for the background image in games.
To display graphics stored on a cartridge, images must be divided into 8×8-pixel tiles (also called cells). These tiles are stored in a character-generator RAM and then are placed onscreen based on the character map data, which determines what tile goes on which location in the screen.
However, you also need to keep space open in main memory for the program, sound, and other assorted data, so only a certain number of tiles can be used in one scene. When the scene changes, new tiles can be loaded into the character generator.
Tile mirroring information is stored in each scene’s map data, so when mirroring a scene, the overall amount of memory used does not increase. However, this does not apply to sprites–the player character and other objects that move around freely onscreen–so even if some sprites look mirrored, they are actually two different tiles.]
I wanted to include a shadow on this part of the dome, but thanks to the mirroring, you’d never actually see shadowing like this in real life… but I just said “Oh well” and moved on. (laughs) I wanted the backgrounds to take up the whole screen, and that’s how we ended up doing it.
Q: A lot of players probably remember the infamously difficult scene where you had to buy a shortcake in a shop at the bottom of a dungeon in order to meet the Governor… Who designed that?
RK: Hmm… I think that was Otegami Chie, the planner. The trend back then was just to make everything as difficult as possible, I think. The encounter rate in this game’s pretty high, too. So I think that event was built under the stance of “You think you can beat it? Just go ahead and try!” (laughs)
Q: Were the 3D dungeons included in the game from the planning stages?
RK: They were already in the planning document by the time I joined the project. As far as 3D dungeons go, if you want to make them run as smoothly as possible, then it’s not that hard; all you have to do is draw all the frames for the advancing walls. However, if we did that, then we wouldn’t be able to get all the frames into the ROM, and it wouldn’t look as good if we dropped some frames and left others in… so, we thought, how about we make a wireframe 3D dungeon in the program itself?
That’s how I ended up having [Yuji] Naka build a wireless 3D dungeon program for me. The basic idea was to take art and place it on top of the wireframes. After that we just had to experiment with which frames we could drop and still keep things smooth and pretty. Once we got it right, we found that we could run around the dungeon faster than we ever expected–several times faster than it is right now, in fact; it was almost to the point where the program, not the graphics, was the main bottleneck. …So, anyway, the 3D dungeons were already decided upon in the planning phase.
Q: In your eyes, what do you think of the world and basic image of Phantasy Star?
RK: I think all the designers and programmers have their own thoughts, but as the designer of the world itself, I naturally had my ideas.
Take Dragon Quest, for example. I thought it was a pure, simple fantasy game, so I wanted to make something that wasn’t like that. Like Star Wars, maybe… except not the whole thing, but just a few parts. As for which parts–well, with Star Wars, doesn’t it feel kind of like they took Western culture and added Japanese things here and there sometimes? I mean, it’s an science fiction movie, but Luke’s outfit looks like a judo uniform, and the light sabers are used a lot like samurai swords…
In designing the Phantasy Star world, I wanted to use what I learned in Star Wars about borrowing something from a completely different universe. So that’s why I thought that it’d be neat if the people in this world wore medieval clothes, even though it’s a science fiction story and there are robots running around. That was the image I had when I made this world.
Q: Finally, tell me what your favorite piece of art is from the game.
RK: Well, for the ending sequence, I absolutely wanted to include a picture of Alisa and the four-member party, but by that time we had pretty much used up our four megs, so there was no space to put a picture in anywhere. But then, however, Naka squeezed the program code down a little and went up to me and said “I freed up a little space, so get me some art to fill it with,” so…
Really, it was a tiny amount of memory, but I wanted to repay him for cleaning up the code, so I stuck in this picture.
As a result, it might not be the greatest piece of art ever made, but it’s a picture that’s stayed in my heart for a while now. Phantasy Star was the first RPG I made, after all, and I have a chance to get involved with it again almost every year. I’m glad to see that I’m still not talking about it in the past tense–“It was this kind of game.”
Thank you Rieko Kodama!