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.

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