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Sega Stars: Rieko Kodama
By: Ken Horowitz
In an industry dominated by men, Rieko Kodama is a woman who has managed to make it all the way to the top, becoming one of the most respected designers of the last two decades. You may have seen her credited in a slew of titles as "Phoenix Rie," as she used that as her credit name until 1993. She is commonly referred to as "the First Lady of RPGs."
Born in Kanagawa, Japan, she began her education undecided between art and archaeology. She opted for art and enrolled in a trade school for advertising design. It was there, in 1984, that she met a fellow student who brought her to work at Sega and the rest, as they say, is history.
Quite a history it is, too. Kodama has been involved with some of Sega's biggest projects, including a obscure little RPG known as Phantasy Star. She got her start doing character designs for arcade titles such as Champion Boxing (1984) and Ninja Princess (1984), as well as some Master System games like Alex Kidd in Miracle World (1986) and Quartet (1987). She also did several characters for a smattering of other Master System games. As one of the few designers at the company, she found herself doing multiple games at once, as many as five or six games a year. Kodama built up quite a reputation as an artist and was soon given a chance to work on something big. To counter the release of Dragon Quest, Sega decided to make an epic RPG of their own. The result, Phantasy Star, was not only a major benchmark title for the industry and RPG genre but also launched the careers of Yuji Naka and Tokuhiko "Bo" Uwabo. Brought on as the main designer, Kodama was responsible for creating all the character designs, the 2D maps, battle-scene backgrounds, and townspeople, among other things. From there, her career blossomed and she went on to work on some of the most successful titles Sega ever produced.
Champion Boxing (Arcade, 1984)
Kodama's first game at Sega and one of the simpler arcade titles devoted to the sport of boxing. You basically play the chubby dude on the left and use one of the two buttons to choose a punch and the other to execute. Jabs, straights and upper cuts are your only options and it's possible to totally destroy your opponent with only the upper cut for about the first four or five levels. You fight the same guy over and over, with the difficulty increasing as you go, and it gets tiresome quite quickly. It is possible to TKO your opponent but it doesn't add much to the simple game play. Moreover, there is no music and the sound is minimal at best. Think of Rocky on the Master System without the multiple foes and you'll have an idea of what this is like. A very simple and repetitive game, Champion Boxing can't hold a candle to game like Punch-Out! and Ring King.
Ninja Princess (Arcade, 1984)
Straight-forward and simple in design, Ninja Princess is the Japanese version of Sega Ninja. If you've played The Ninja on the Master System, you've basically played this game. As a princess turned Ninja (I'm setting a record for the most uses of the word "ninja" in a single paragraph), you must shuriken your way through several stages of intense action. I'm not sure why exactly this little lady is so angry or why so many people want to kill her but when you've got a game with ninjas, no storyline is necessary. What are necessary, are the basic mechanics to make the game playable. Bright and colorful graphics are overshadowed by stiff and unresponsive game play. The ability to make yourself invisible for a fraction of a second is useful for avoiding enemy attacks but the brutal challenge will turn off most gamers.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World (Master System, 1986)
The game that launched a neglected franchise, Miracle World is one of those titles that should be in any gamer's collection. Great level design, ingenious gadgets, and some brutal bosses are just some of the qualities this great little game has (I love the copter!). As with many other Master System titles, the horrible box art gave no clue about the great game within (Kung-Fu Kid anyone?) and this is a game that did not disappoint. I'm sure that no one guessed that a kid with floppy ears would kick so much ass. Kodama's designs were great and created a wonderful world of rock-paper-scissors and man-eating groundhogs. I wish Sega would release compilations of some of their Master System titles and an Alex Kidd collection would be very nice. Finding a complete copy on eBay isn't easy but is well worth the effort.
The Black Onyx (PC & Console, 1987)
Hailed as the first computer role-playing game made in Japan, it was released by Bullet Proof Software for the PC8801 and PC9801 computers and ushered in a new era of games in that country. It was eventually ported to practically every computer system and game console in Japan, including the obscure Sega SG-1000. It was comparable to Wizardry (-5 if you've never heard of that game) but had a much simpler interface. Played in 3D mazes, you and your party were on a quest to find the fabled Onyx. It was praised for its great story and balanced game play and remained in the top ten for months, even receiving the coveted Software of the Year award from PC Magazine. I believe it was also released for the Game Boy Color by Taito in 1991 but I've never actually seen it. Kodama is only credited with work on a single enemy in the game (it is unknown which one).
Quartet (Master System, 1987)
Quartet is one of the many arcade games Sega brought home for the Master System. It featured two player co-op play and was fun for a while. Unfortunately, the home version retained none of the difficulty of its arcade sibling, which made it possible to beat in a single sitting. The graphics are pretty decent and the music is quite catchy (as were a lot of MS tunes). The character designs are cool and it's always fun to see a girl in a skirt hovering around, reigning laser death on her foes. I've had fun with it a few times but it's never really kept my interest long. It would be nice to see it upgraded and expanded as a four player title for one of the current systems but I'd settle for an arcade-perfect rendition on the GBA.
Fantasy Zone II (Master System, 1987)
The sequel to one of the more popular Master System games, Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa brings back all the fun of the original but has expanded on its basic premise. There are still eight levels to complete but now each level is broken into areas that can be reached through warp gates. Each individual area is about half the size of one of the levels in the first game and there are between three and seven areas in each level, which means you will need some time to reach the end of the game. Thankfully, a life bar has now been incorporated (which can be refilled and expanded) and the shops are no longer random. My only complaint is the lack of new bosses. Many of the originals are brought back and upgraded a bit but that's about it. It is unknown what role Kodama had in Fantasy Zone II.
Phantasy Star (Master system, 1987)
This was the game that made Rieko Kodama a legend. Her designs were ahead of their time and the game was among the first to feature a female lead. No other console RPG at the time had animated enemies and when combined with the excellent graphics, there was no other experience like it. The creativity she put into this title can be seen in the originality of the lead characters and the intricate weaving of fantasy and science fiction that composed the Algol Star System. Initially retailing at $100, Phantasy Star set the bar for console RPGs and it set it darn high. It is the compelling tale of a girl's quest for revenge that eventually places her as the savior of the solar system. Along the way she finds three companions who aid her in her mission to destroy the evil King Lassic and restore peace to Algol. Using 3D dungeons with a first person perspective, the game gave a sense of immersion that still brings a shiver to my spine. This was a game you stayed home from school for. This was the game you held aloft like an Olympic trophy when your strapped-for-cash friends came over. It didn't get any better than this, until the sequel came along...
Miracle Warriors (Master System, 1988)
Although Rieko Kodama only did the dragon for this game, I cannot help but feel that her influence and creativity is felt through the whole product. Miracle Warriors plays drastically different from Phantasy Star, yes, but it is a great game nonetheless. More akin to the text adventures of old (Might & Magic) player find themselves on a mission to reunite four fabled warriors and defeat the Dark Lord Terarin, who has released the Golden Seal from the Pandora Passage thus unleashing hordes of monstrous creatures. Through five distinct lands, characters must increase their offensive and defensive strength, finding items and talking to townsfolk. Sounds pretty routine, huh? It may not be much to look at but it's a blast to play. If I recall correctly, Miracle Warriors was also released with a hefty price tag and it came with a thick manual and huge, detailed map. There was space to save up to four games, which was essential for experimentation in different areas.
Altered Beast (Genesis, 1989)
The one that started it all. The first 16-bit game released for the Genesis, Altered Beast is fondly remembered by gamers, even though the game was far from good. Simplistic game play and short levels made it zoom by even for novice players but we kept coming back. Kodama was the designer and I now have someone to personally thank for the badass dragon you used on level 2. The problem most people seem to have with this game is the completely mediocre game mechanics. Punch, kick, and jump are your only options (understandable for a dead guy) but even after transformation, the move list doesn't expand. There's no depth to the game at all and it is easy forgettable compared to later games for the system. The fact that it came with the Genesis gave it some leeway and it was always the game I had "just to have one more in the collection." An interesting note is that the GBA version, though almost superior in every way, lacks the creative charm and appeal that Kodama's designs had. Read about it in our feature Better Than the Original?: Altered Beast.
Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle (Genesis, 1989)
Another launch title, Enchanted Castle dropped the gimmicks and shticks of the Master System sequels and went back to the series' roots. It was essentially the sequel fans of Miracle World had been waiting for, although by now the cutesy graphics and childish game play had begun to lose their appeal. The basic style of play from the original is intact here and most of Alex's doodads have made the transition to 16-bit. The graphics are colorful and were a huge step up at the time but they look flat and bland next to other Genesis powerhouses like Gunstar Heroes and Ristar. Next to great games like Revenge of Shinobi, Golden Axe, and Space Harrier II, Enchanted Castle was a great addition to an already solid lineup. It may have been a bit aged by the time of its release but it was still fun to see an anvil drop on Alex's head when he lost rock-sissors-paper. It is unknown precisely what role Kodama had in the game's production but I assume she was involved with the character design, as she had been with Miracle World.
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