31 March 2012

Developer Spotlight: Rieko Kodama

Wow, it's been a long time since I last did one of these Developer Spotlight posts. Actually, it seems I've only ever done one. How embarrassing.

Anyway, this time our spotlight is on Rieko Kodama, who's played an integral part in both of my favourite game series, Sonic the Hedgehog and Phantasy Star.

I'm also compelled to spotlight Kodama because of the recent G4TV.com article, "The Unsung Female Game Designers of Japan", which includes her but misspells her name as "Reiko", as well as getting some information wrong - or at least misleading.

Like before, I won't give an overview of their career, since others have done that already (and better than I could do). Instead I will celebrate my favourite examples of their work.

Phantasy Star

She's responsible for the "Total Design" (as the game credits put it) of Phantasy Star I. This includes the design of the world and most of the characters (but not the enemies), as well as the 2D art and battle backgrounds.

screenshots from The Phantasy Star Pages

At a time when most console RPGs were your standard medieval fare, she crafted a Star Wars-esque universe with robots, space travel, and cool, credible characters.

Alis and Lutz have 90% percent of all subsequent RPG heroes beat by miles. And in today's era of overdesigned characters with a billion zippers and chickens in their hair, designers could learn alot from Kodama's strong, economical designs.

(Tyron and Myau, however, are not her designs. Tyron was actually concieved by Naoto Ohshima, the designer of Sonic.)

And, contrary to the G4TV article mentioned above, she did not write the game; that job was Kotaro Hayashida's, who Kodama also collaborated with on Alex Kidd.

She would go on to contribute to Phantasy Star II, and - as the director of Phantasy Star IV - revitalise the series after a weak third instalment and create the best 16-bit RPG in history.

FUCK YEAH. I can't even watch that without getting chills.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Not content to help shape Phantasy Star and Alex Kidd, Kodama also contributed to Sega's next hit series, Sonic the Hedgehog. She was a zone artist for the first two games, making her responsible for some of the most iconic levels in video game history.

sadly, I'm having to guess at which levels are hers from the style, since very little is known about the games' artists' work.

From a brief interview in the January 2007 issue of Nintendo Power:

Rieko Kodama

It was still hard to display polygons back then, but the graphics in Sonic the Hedgehog were designed incorporating polygonal styles.

I drew the whole field using CG-like images. We intentionally created the designs as if they were illustrated artificially with CG tools. To tell you the truth, we drew them bit-by-bit because the software for computer graphics had not been developed much at the time. [Laughs]

So, she had a hand in created both my favourite video game worlds. But that still wasn't enough!

Skies of Arcadia

As the producer of Skies of Arcadia, Kodama is not only responsible for the best 16-bit RPG ever, but also one of the greatest 3D "modern" RPGs as well.

In a genre where most characters are emo, reluctant, and boring, the exuberance of the cast in Skies is a sheer joy. And I've never played a game that was a better "power trip" - I mean, what other game lets you discover that the world is round? A truly awesome experience and an exemplar of what a game should be.


Here are some of the best Rieko Kodama interviews and my favourite insights from them.

Video Fenky
Rieko Kodama

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.

G Wie Gorilla
Rieko Kodama

Throughout the Phantasy Star series, I have included a story of “fellows” with the same purpose, uniting their strength to fight and survive regardless of their sex, whether they are humanoid type or not, whether they are from the earth or from the other space. So, I feel that Phantasy Star should be a world where everyone can bring out their best.

The Next Level
Rieko Kodama

I also enjoy reading fantasy books, like The Lord of the Rings. I like the movies, too. I have a particular fondness for Western style-fantasy.

Rieko Kodama links:

Sega Retro

I know it seems like a minor thing to nitpick - but if supposed gaming enthusiasts can't get these things correct, when all it takes is a quick check at Wikipedia, what are we supposed to think? It's a pet peeve of mine - I've seen relatively high profile gaming media make mistakes this bad and worse all the time: claiming that Koji Kondo did the music for Sonic 1 (he's actually the composer for Mario and Zelda); mistaking Shun Nakamura for Masato Nakamura; G4TV calling Yuji Naka "Yugi" Naka on live television... But what can we expect when Sonic 3's own manual calls him "Yuju" Naka? I can understand CNN or the WSJ doing this, but gamers should know better.

30 March 2012

Sonic 2 HD: Huge Debacle

So, I downloaded Sonic 2 HD, all excited to play the alpha after such a long wait.

When extracting it, my antivirus, Comodo, threw a hissy fit, quarantining the executable. Even after doing everything in my power to disable Comodo short of uninstalling it, the file would still somehow get quarantined.

In the end, I wound up specifying the download path for the Sonic 2 HD folder as an exception so the antivirus would totally ignore it, and that worked.

Game still won't run, though. It somehow fails to find the DLL files that are sitting right there in the same folder. I'm assuming this might still have something to do with my antivirus, but I don't really feel like going through the hell of uninstalling and reinstalling it just to play Emerald Hill with pretty graphics.

But I'm still a bit steamed at being stymied in my attempts; I don't like feeling left out of such newsworthy developments in the Sonic community. Videos salve the wound a bit, but not completely.

So I was totally prepared to blame Comodo for this snafu. It's not like it's the first time it's acted like a punkass dickbag. I had to lock horns with it in a bloody, protracted battle just to run Game Maker comfortably.

But it looks like the only reason why I, and countless others, are having such trouble with running Sonic 2 HD in the first place (due to balking antiviruses or other weird hurdles) is due to the incompetence and general dickishness of Sonic 2 HD's main programmer, LOst, and his insistence on hamfisted DRM.

Yeah, DRM. In a Sonic fangame. As if the obfuscated code and other anti-hacking measures are going to do a lick of good when a barrel full of Sonic Retro monkeys are let loose on it for a couple months. No, it's only going to hamstring the product, preventing people - like me - from enjoying it. If I would enjoy it, that is... but that's the thing, I don't get to find out, do I?

What really pisses me off about this is that the first thing I did when I joined the Sonic Retro was take time out of the development of my own project and start the Sonic Physics Guide, in the vain hope that it would catch on and be helpful.

I noticed a lack, and I wanted to fill it. I never really expected it to amount to much, but beyond my wildest expectations the link I added to the wiki was moved to a more prominent location, others contributed to and improved upon it, and now I quite often get messages and emails thanking me for it. And what thrills me the most is when I see others say things like, "why didn't you use the Sonic Physics Guide?", as if it's just de rigueur these days, a basic expectation.

And why did I bother to do it? For an "altruistic" reason, which - like most altruism - boils down to being basically selfish. I wanted better Sonic fangames! And it's worked - I'm not going to take credit in the sharp rise in quality of Sonic fangames over the last couple of years, but I'm fairly certain that the Physics Guide has at least helped iron out a wrinkle here or there that would have otherwise plagued these games.

Anyway, I'm not here to toot my own horn. In fact, the opposite - I would never have bothered making a guide without the Sonic Community Hacking Guide as an example of what could be done. The whole point is that, by working together, and building off of each other's new discoveries and ideas, fangames benefit across the board.

So I'm just really disappointed by this whole Sonic 2 HD debacle. I'm not really that angry that the code is obfuscated - hell, that's the programmer's choice, whether I agree or not. No, what really puts the sour taste in my mouth is that the horrid DRM is preventing people from playing the game, or playing it comfortably. And that it held the game's development back by maybe a year or more(!) And that it's a compromise the team had to settle for, in lieu of some much worse solution. I mean, come on, Yuji Naka idol worship is all well and good, but when it comes to emulating his egotistical behaviour towards the Sonic X-Treme team, it's gone too far.

You know, I'm the guy who probably broke a few thousand Sonic fan's hearts when I had to step down from the Sonic Fan Remix project because I hated working with 3D. My AeStHete engine which is supposed to be all cool and open and everything is still unreleased, because I'm having more fun working on Sonic Time Twisted than making my engine palatable for a public release. I'm obviousbly not some badass programmer god who can do no wrong.

But I don't feel I'm overstepping any bounds when I say that LOst is an embarrassment to the profession. Making your team miserable, and your product suck, is not cool.

17 March 2012

Top 4 Creationist Arguments

Creationism has millions of adherents, countless think tanks, and has been around for centuries. By now it should have an unbeatable combo of irrefutable knockout arguments, right?

Damn straight. Hold on to your pants, folks, 'cos you're about to be rocked by Creationism's Greatest Hits, the creme de la creme of anti-evolution arguments.

#1: Complexity!!!1!

The universe is beautiful! But it's also really confusing. So God must have made it. I mean, you couldn't make a universe could you? So there.

In other news, God made Windows Vista.

#2: But... you know... God.

He is God, you guys.

#3: Eeeew, monkeys!

They're right, you know. Monkeys are pretty gross. What with throwin' the poop and shit.

#4: Lalalalalalala!

...There's actually no way to argue with that one. These guys are good!

I don't know about you guys, but I find all of this really persuasive. If only evolution had arguments like this on its side! All we've got is stupid crap like evidence.

And more evidence.

And even more evidence.

And... well, you know.

How can we possibly compete?

11 March 2012

Most Astounding Fact

When reading through my blogroll, as is my wont, I found this video at Bad Astronomy, of Neil deGrasse Tyson telling us what he thinks the most astounding fact about our universe is:

The fact? That we are all made of stars.

It's a powerful fact; a beautiful, moving fact. It's also a fact that recently caught Miley Cyrus a fair amount of flak when she called Lawrence Krauss's way of putting it "beautiful".

But I don't think it's a very astounding fact - that is, not to me at least. Of course, I have a skewed perception: I've known it for as long as I can remember. It's one of the perks of being raised by a mother who read Carl Sagan books to her kids instead of Dick and Jane. Next to "billions and billions", his most famous line must be "we're made of star stuff". (It took about 2 seconds to find on YouTube!)

Anyway, Tyson puts it very well and I think it's a great video. It makes me look forward to the new Cosmos sequel he'll be hosting. But this is my blog, after all, and if you think I'm going to get through a whole post without making it all about me, me, me... well, you'd be overestimating my self-control. =P

So what is the fact about the universe that I find the most astounding? Well, I'm glad you asked.


Like a lot of kids, I went through the phase when superlatives were the coolest things ever. Dinosaurs, the biggest land creatures ever! Jupiter, so huge the Great Red Spot could swallow the Earth whole and still have room for afters! Absolute zero, where everything just stops! Any kid who's been through this is surely aware of the stupidly huge number googol (one followed by a hundred zeroes) and its bigger brother, googolplex (one followed by a googol zeroes). Like the fact that we're all star stuff, or the continent of Pangaea, googol and googolplex are quite familiar faces to anyone who was a kid like me.

Which makes the hidden power of googolplex all the more astounding.

Googolplex is so freaking big that it's literally impossible to write out in long form - the number of zeroes wouldn't fit in the universe. ...Well, let me put a finer point on that: it's impossible to write out in base ten; just declare a "base googolplex" by fiat and you can write it out as 1. That would be sort of unfair, though, wouldn't it? But it's good that I brought up bases (or radices, for the verbose), since the subject is an essential part of the astounding fact I'm on my way to imparting.

Your computer, for instance, uses base two (more popularly known as binary). The number we sensible people would write as 255 is 11111111 in binary. But even programmers like me, who "talk" to computers on a routine basis, don't often handle a lot of binary. No, base sixteen, "hexadecimal", is the most common way programmers look at raw data. Since hexadecimal needs 16 distinct symbols, and our damn ten-fingered ancestors didn't have the decency to furnish us with that many numerals, we have to borrow a few letters that don't really want to be there (much like your sister when playing Rock Band 3), and 255 looks like FF. (The saddest cases amongst us, when we encounter "fffffff" in forum posts and YouTube comments, will obsessively convert to decimal numbers. We (*koff* they, I mean they) also get bonus points if we remember to factorial when it's exclaimed.)

So any data on a computer can be expressed in good ol' decimal, as well. It's not convenient for programmers, for a number of reasons, but it can be done. So, technically, any string of data - a program, a file, even (of course) a song or video - is just a really big number; this is just the corollary of the trivial observation that any number can be stored as a string of data on a computer.

So, what kind of program would googol be? No, it wouldn't be Google's source code (seriously, dude, that's a terrible guess). One followed by a hundred zeroes doesn't represent enough bytes of data even to store this blog post! Even a hexadecimal number with a hundred zeroes (which would represent a significantly greater value than googol, considering hexadecimal 100 is equal to decimal 256) could only represent about 50 bytes.

But what about a googolplex? It's got a googol zeroes! I mean, that's got to be enough digits to fit a program in, right? Well, I hope so - even if we considered all the storage devices ever manufactured by humanity altogether, we wouldn't even come within ten orders of magnitude of needing a googol zeroes to represent the data. Remember, we can't even write a googol zeroes in the universe.

So, googolplex is big. Yawn. Anyone can look at a 1TB hard drive on their desk (or Radio Shack if they're unlucky enough to lack one) and be briefly titillated at the thought of how many floppy disks it replaces. (Hint: more than you can carry.) Big numbers can be reduced to mewling kittens simply by giving them names; hell, even infinity can be tamed by giving it a name and a wiggly little symbol. But the thing about a number, when thought of as a string of data, is that by counting down from it to 0 (or by counting up from 0 to it, which makes a bit more intuitive sense when imagining the process) systematically traverses every permutation of data that can possibly be represented by the number of zeroes it has. Try it; count to 100 - there are only 100 possible 2-digit numbers (counting 00, of course).

So, let's count to googolplex. 1, 2, 3, 4... Well, let's just imagine we kept going. By time we finish, we'll have traveled through every possible permutation of data capable of being represented by the intermediate numbers. Sure, at first we'll have "boring" numbers like 8, 13, and 42. But by the time we reach 10,000, we'll have every 4-digit PIN ever used. And by 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 we'll have every possible 8-digit alphanumeric password.

Does that number seem large? Yeah? Does it fit in the universe? Okay, then. Just to keep things in perspective. We've got a long way to go.

Before "long", we've got the digital representation of every novel ever written. Or that will be written. Or even could be written. And every possible combination of the first half of one with the second half of another. Also, every novel possible with increasingly bizarre typos. Not to mention the overwhelming proportion of total nonsense. (In fact, we'll get to this milestone much quicker if we don't use ASCII encoding, which wastes a whole byte per letter. That's 256 combinations where only about three dozen are really needed!)

Lost amongst those novels? Your autobiography. Detailed and accurate to a degree even you wouldn't be able to achieve. Also, your autobiography if you'd lived a thousand years ago, or a thousand hence. Alternate yous that commit unspeakable atrocities or perform amazing feats. Accounts of your journeys to Mars and beyond.

You'd have the Library of Babel on steroids.

The concept is so mind-numbing, I've known people to flat-out disbelieve it upon their first encounter with it. But it's ineluctable; it's even demonstrable to an extent (the 4-digit PINs are an example). It's simply a fascinating fact about large numbers.

But we're still not done. That's just text; we've got so much further to go. Before long, we've got mp3's of every possible song. Digital video of all possible movies. Hell, digital video of everything that's ever happened in history. Always, remember, with a disproportionate heap of total garble, of course.

Long before we hit a googolplex, we'd have danced throughout the total cultural output of humanity. Indeed, of all the sentient species in the universe. Embedded in the ever-ticking stream of numbers would be videos of alien worlds. Real ones - and fake ones. Alpha Centauri Idol? It's in there.

Let that sink in. If you're like me, you probably can't. You could literally spend the rest of your lifetime - and our universe's - and you'd still never be able to list the things that you'd create simply by counting to googolplex. All that did, does, will, or can exist. Lurking beneath the surface of a humble number - a number most of us meet as children, throwing our arms wide and saying, "I bet it's this big!", and quickly forget, relegating it to the bin of cool science-y superlatives with the blue whales and blue giants.

Of course, you could never actually undertake this extraordinary performance. Any computer that could display the results wouldn't fit in the universe (more so if you wanted to store them!) and sifting the Harry Potters from the Graxfasczzaxses would be impossible.

But that's not the point. The point - the astounding fact, that promised astounding fact - is that this journey, this parade of numbers, can be easily imagined. Like infinity, we've tamed it with a name - googolplex. And though none of us will ever see the destination, we can all of us embark on it effortlessly. 1, 2, 3, 4...

One simple rule, maybe the simplest possible rule: Add One. Two little symbols: "+1". And from it? Everything, with the full force of what those ten letters can possibly convey.

Is it any wonder that, knowing a fact like that, another little rule like "copy me" could have created us?

And after all of this? That's just googolplex's zeroes. The amount it represents is huger still - after all, "100" only has two zeroes. And it's not even the biggest number humans have had the chutzpah to name. There are numbers mathematicians kick around that are so much larger than googolplex that the conventional notation that makes short work of it - 10^(10^100) - can't express them. Like googolplex's zeroes, these numbers would have too many exponents to fit in the universe.

...610, 611, 612, 613, 614, 615, 616...


Going back to Neil Tyson's fact for a moment, Starts With A Bang! posted about it, too, and at the head of the post was a cool quotation from Richard Feynman:

Is no one inspired by our present picture of the Universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers, you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.

Well, sadly Feynman is dead, but I like to think we're now living in the dawn of that appreciative age he dreamed of. This blog's very title is a fragment of poetry I wrote, inspired by the picture of the universe revealed by science. In fact, my "About Me" box says I'm a songwriter (though it's something I never really post about, since I'm in a stage of my life where it's taking a backseat to programming), and well over half of my songs are inspired by science. It's without a doubt my greatest muse. Maybe I'll stop playing Sonic long enough to post some eventually. =P