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Tribute to Rieko Kodama, the grande dame of Sega

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Tribute to Rieko Kodama, the grande dame of Sega
Written by madishthestylebar

It was through a simple message, “In memory of Rieko Kodama”, affixed in the credits of the Mega Drive Mini 2 that the world of digital entertainment learned the news. At 58 (she was approaching her 59th birthday), the one who will have spent her entire career at SEGA, has left us. Like Hidekazu Yukawa last June, the announcement of this disappearance was delayed (as is sometimes the case in Japan) and it was in shock that the industry woke up on this 27 October 2022.

Rieko Kodama.

For the vast majority of French people, this name will be completely unknown. On the other hand, for those who are interested in video games and their history, it will have a particular resonance.

Rieko Kodama

Pioneer of the Japanese video game, the one who bore the nickname Phoenix Rie / Phoenix Rie (inspired by Phoenix Ikki from Knights of the Zodiac) – at a time when studios were protecting themselves from headhunters – died on May 9th. We could spend hours on what she has brought to the video game industry and to the place of women in this medium. In truth, to pay him a worthy tribute, it would take a book revisiting his entire career. While waiting for this book to arrive one day, your servant has decided to write these few lines to pay homage to it.


In 1984, she was only 21 when she was hired by SEGA. At the dawn of the 1980s, the company had just opened its section dedicated to domestic machines and it urgently needed games for its consoles, and more directly for its very first Western-dominated machine, the SEGA Mark III – which will become the Master System with us. A little lost in this masculine universe, she receives the support of the one who will become one of her mentors: Yoshiki Kawasaki, the artist behind the game Flicky.

I wasn’t very into video games, but my parents ran a café, so it was something I had known about since high school. After this business closed, I played titles such as Space Invaders and Galaxian and my parents got to know this universe.

He teaches her the basics of game design (via the Digitizer Systema kind of digital tablet) and she manages, month after month, to disentangle herself with the limitations of the machines of the moment by creating beautiful sprites (characters, sets, objects, etc.) and animations.

Tribute to Rieko Kodama, the grande dame of Sega

The Digitizer System, here in its first version, is the tool on which Rieko Kodama started.

We had a special tool called Digitizer and the first thing was to learn how to use it. It consisted of two screens (NDA: one next to the other) and if you tapped with the light pen on the touch monitor, the drawing was then reproduced on the other monitor in the same display format as console. It was then copied to the ROM (basically a prototype of the future cartridge) and the whole thing was handed over to the programmer. Experienced designers showed me documents (from the analog era) and at the time they used colored pencils to draw figures on specialized graph paper.

She thus participates in the development of the graphics of Champion Boxing (Yu Suzuki, at the origin of the greatest successes of SEGA in arcade, goes so far as to sit next to her to give her advice and show her various tricks) and the protagonists of Ninja Princess (adapted on Master System under the name The Ninja). The one who imagined making archeology or painting a profession will finally embrace a very different career. Finally, she will be able to do what she always wanted to do: create something.

Tribute to Rieko Kodama, the grande dame of Sega

Since the tools were rudimentary, Rieko Kodama came up with a cartoon look for the Championship Boxing characters. A masterstroke for a first game!

When I arrived at SEGA, I thought I was going to do commercial graphics, but when I saw the game creation section, I thought it could be interesting. So I was allowed to draw the characters for Champion Boxing right after I joined the company. I also worked on arcade games such as Ninja Princess. There were only a few designers and the production time was short, so I sometimes worked on five or six games a year.

Tribute to Rieko Kodama, the grande dame of Sega

His colleagues notice the talent of Rieko Kodama. Having proven herself in the arcade, she is brought to join the domestic division. In the middle of the 1980s, SEGA was not in a logic of “quality”, but put above all on “quantity” to impose its Mark III (Master System) to the detriment of Nintendo’s Famicom (NES). Despite the pressure, she chooses not to rush her method and ends up adopting an approach that gives a unique touch to her games: color. Not color in the proper sense of the term, but color as visual cachet. Just look at each of these titles, including the most remote, to flush out a leg that lights up the screen. She will thus put a high point on her games being colorful and pleasing to the eye. This touch can be found on one of his emblematic titles: Phantasy Star on Master System!

Dragon Quest was popular and I thought SEGA, as a console designer, needed roleplaying games. The team was made up of people who really wanted to make RPGs and that’s how, I believe, the development of Phantasy Star began.

Under the direction of Kotaro Hayashida (Mr. Alex Kidd) and accompanied by Yuji Naka (programmer), Naoto Oshima (graphic designer) and Tokuhiko Uwabo (music), the young designer models the world of Phantasy Star (and not Fantasy to avoid the too medieval character of the word). Besides designing the main characters, she draws the 2D maps and wallpapers during the fight scenes.

The concept was to create a “moving map”, so that if you look closely at the area of ​​the map where the sea is, you can see the waves moving.

Tribute to Rieko Kodama, the grande dame of Sega

To create the vehicles for Advanced Daisenryaku, Rieko Kodama was inspired by scale models. She was also very good at making these models.

With this experience, Rieko Kodama will then multiply the projects. In addition to being at the controls of Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle on Mega Drive (a development that was not easy because the architecture of the Mega Drive was not finalized), she gleaned the position of lead designer (chief designer) and finds herself helping the developers of Sonic the Hedgehog (yes, yes), Advanced Daisenryaku (she is inspired by models to make the vehicles in the game), Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi and many others. She was also the one who adapted the graphics for the arcade version of Altered Beast on Mega Drive. By his tenacity, his creativity, his kindness and his humor, Rieko Kodama was a real Swiss army knife within SEGA. A gifted and valued jack-of-all-trades who has paved the way for many women in the industry. At SEGA, she always acknowledged that she never felt like she was treated differently, but she probably owed it to a very strong temper. With the Mega Drive, she had fun making games visually vibrant. She loved that time when the atmosphere in the small teams was very good. And above all, she did everything to ensure that the SEGA console displays graphics as impressive as its competitor.

The Super Famicom allowed to do things that the Mega Drive could not, such as transparency effects or the display of intermediate colors. Rather than seeing it as a rival, I was mostly jealous and to compensate, I did various research to find an alternative to make beautiful graphics.

It is finally by a happy coincidence that she becomes a producer, even if the position did not exist at the time of the Mega Drive. There was talk of a new RPG then, and development began with four designers, but there was no one to oversee the project. Rieko Kodama first stepped in to lend a hand to the small team and little by little the game became a new episode of Phantasy Star. She eventually took a liking to overseeing the game as a whole, and she took the reins of the project. Phantasy Star IV: The End Of The Millennium is unquestionably one of its greatest successes.

Tribute to Rieko Kodama, the grande dame of Sega

Rieko Kodama has tried several video game genres, like here with Deep Fear.

Although she was close to SEGA’s RPG productions (ahhh, Magic Knight Rayearth), Rieko Kodama also participated in titles far removed from this universe. We can notably cite the excellent Deep Fear on Saturn, a very immersive “clone” of Resident Evil taking place under water (more exactly in a submarine), or even Atsumare! Guru Guru Onsen, a party game on Dreamcast. Lately, she was a producer on several episodes of the SEGA Ages collection on Switch and also made a name for herself overseeing the 7th Dragon series on handhelds. But of course, we cannot omit one of his masterpieces: Skies of Arcadia.

Tribute to Rieko Kodama, the grande dame of Sega

Again, we could talk for hours about this game, but we invite you to read the article about its incredible creation. On the other hand, and yours truly will end with this, all SEGA developers have always spoken well of Rieko Kodama. It is enough to review his interviews or look at his photos to be convinced, his kindness and his accessibility will be really missed by this industry. And one can imagine the shock caused by this internal disappearance. At SEGA. Rieko Kodama was an essential figure, in addition to being a producer appreciated by all.

Tribute to Rieko Kodama, the grande dame of Sega

Personally, I think it’s interesting to create remakes taking into account the feelings of people who discovered the original work at the time. When I worked on these games, I gave it my all so I have no regrets saying to myself “damn, I should have done this or that”. People get annoyed when I say that, but I make every play thinking this could be my last.

As a woman, it may have always been part of SEGA’s corporate culture, but I never felt devalued. I have been in this universe for more than 30 years now and since my beginnings, I have been able to work without any difference being made between men and women.

In 2019 you won the award Pioneer at the Game Developers Choice Awards and it was well deserved. But if there’s one prize you’ve won, it’s our hearts.

Rest in peace Ms. Rieko Kodama, and thank you for everything.

Tribute to Rieko Kodama, the grande dame of Sega

Sources:

  • Interview Rieko Kodama – SEGA Japan
  • Interview Rieko Kodama – Famitsu
  • Interview with Rieko Kodama translated by Sega-mag.com
  • Rieko Kodama – Segaretro.org
  • Photo of the grave:
    Yuji Naka (Twitter)



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