Phantasy Star IV – 1993 Developer Interviews
originally featured in BEEP, Dengeki, and Marukatsu Megadrive
Rieko Kodama – Director/Designer
Toru Yoshida – Director, Story Plan, Graphic Designer
Kazuyoshi Tsugawa – Battle Planner, Graphic Designer
Akinori Nishiyama – Designer, Scriptwriter
—Please share your feelings with us now that the development of PSIV is nearly complete.
Kodama: There was a lot of chatter around the office that we weren’t going to finish by the end of the year (laughs), but we somehow just made it.
Everything has calmed down now, mostly. The instruction booklet is finished too. It was a really long development. Now that we can finally relax, my brain is kind of a mush. (laughs) At this point a lot of the pressure is off our shoulders, but as we now move toward the actual release date, there’s a new kind of stress. I saw the commercial for PSIV and was like, “is this really ok…?” (laughs)
Yoshida: For me, at the halfway point, a lot of the visual cutscene work still remained to be completed. I really thought it might never end. I actually started to think of an escape plan to bail out. (laughs) But now that we’ve safely crossed the finish line, I’m glad I didn’t. All that remains now is the release date… though I am a little worried about all the other big titles coming out around the same time. To be honest I’m just hoping it will sell ok. But yeah, either way I’m really relieved right now.
Top to bottom: Rieko Kodama (director), Yoshiaki Endo (main programmer), Daisuke Yamamoto (field/event programmer), and Kazuyoshi Tsugawa (graphic designer).
Nishiyama: The large size of the ROM made it harder.
Tsugawa: (laughs) It was a lot to handle, but I don’t think it made things harder, exactly.
Kodama: The hardest period was definitely transitioning the development from a 16Mbit cart to a 24Mbit. We were very worried whether Sega would give their approval for the change. However, once they gave the go-sign, the pace got a lot more aggressive. (laughs) By the end, we weren’t even sure that 24Mbit was going to be enough! (laughs) But we made the game we really wanted to make, and I’m very thankful for that.
—What was it like being team leader for PSIV?
Kodama: Well, I’m the “team leader”, but it’s not really a big deal. I continued to work on graphics for PSIV, just as I had before. But while doing that, I also coordinated with the sound team, the graphics designers, and the programmers.
—How did the PSIV development get started?
Yoshida: It was some really good timing: right as we were thinking about doing another Phantasy Star, Sega asked if we would make another. After that I went around the office asking people if they’d like to work together on it, and so the development officially got underway.
Kodama: That’s also partly why this development was a lot of fun, I think: we (the developers) started the project on our own initiative, and many people on the team had worked on PSII and were able to address the shortcomings and unfinished ideas they had from that game in PSIV.
—How is PSIV connected to the other games in the series?
Yoshida: It’s a direct continuation of the first two games. PSIII was like a collection of side-stories, but with PSIV, we’re returning to the main storyline, with PSI and PSII forming the historical backdrop. I wanted to make one more game where you get to explore the whole solar system and travel from planet to planet.
When our team made PSII, we were stretched pretty thin, and we couldn’t include all that we had imagined. We felt that leaving the story at PSII, therefore, would have been a real waste, and that’s how the idea for PSIV got started.
Also, PSII’s battle animation system still stands out today, I think. It allowed for really great visual presentation, and again, we thought it would be a huge waste to not revisit it. But PSII and PSIII also had a lot of flaws, and we wanted to fix all that and make a game which players would consider the definitive Phantasy Star. So in that sense, we also saw PSIV as a sort of remake of the best elements of the series.
Toru Yoshida, like most of the PSIV devs, worked in a variety of roles: co-director, graphic designer, and story writer.
—What were some of the things you wanted to improve or fix?
Yoshida: In our design plans, we really wanted to include the vehicle battles that we had been unable to do in PSII.
Kodama: When we began the PSIV development, I said we absolutely have to do vehicle battles this time! I really just wanted to make moving around the map more fun. It’s super convenient for people who want to get to the next place, and if you’d rather gain experience, you can always just walk. The vehicle designs themselves may make you shed a tear of nostalgia as well. (laughs)
Yoshida: With regard to characters, the first game had 4 player characters, while PSII had 8, but when we looked back at those characters, it appeared to use that their characterization and psychology was rather shallow. That was something we wanted to change if we made another Phantasy Star, to give the characters more inner depth.
In our first staff meetings for PSIV, we already had four of the characters down: Chaz, Rune, Rika, and Wren. They were the “successor” characters to the previous protagonists. Chaz, of course, we envisioned as a descendant of Alis. Rika was like a remake of Nei, Rune tied back to Noah (Lutz), and Wren was like Siren from PSIII.
It wasn’t until we had these four characters that we began working on the story in earnest. We wanted, of course, to feature the unique and quirky aspects of Dezolian and Motavian culture, so we then made Raja and Gryz. They were also partly our attempts to remedy some of the complaints from PSII, you could say.
Also, I never really understood Nei’s background from PSII, so we thought a lot about her when developing PSIV. Nei ages 1 year in 1 month, right? If that’s the case, then she would reach age 12 in one year, and before long she’d be unable to co-exist with humans. That’s why when I made Rika, in order to allow her to live with humans, I added the fact that when she reaches the age of 20, her development returns to a normal human pace. That kind of stuff—adjustments that make the world of Phantasy Star more cohesive and whole—were what I wanted to do with PSIV.
Concept illustration for Rika, by designer Toru Yoshida.
—What can you tell us about the story of PSIV?
Yoshida: One primary goal for the development was to bring a conclusion to the saga and put everything in order. Naturally we want it to be fun for new players, but we also want the fans who played PSI through PSIII to experience that feeling of revelation— “ah, so that’s what that was all about!”
Kodama: This time, we knew we didn’t want to have a dark ending like PSII and PSIII. The previous games ended in a way that left you with a lot to think about, which contributed to the somewhat dark, heavy atmosphere. That’s why this time we aimed for a traditional “happy end.” Everyone on the staff right now grew up with anime, you see, so maybe there’s a bit of influence from that.
—Will there ever be 3D dungeons again in Phantasy Star?
Kodama: Whenever you release new hardware or equipment, users are going to have high expectations for it. For example, with the Sega Master System, the 3D dungeons in Phantasy Star probably grabbed a lot of attention for that reason. I know we’ve had a lot of requests to add the 3D dungeons back in for the Megadrive Phantasy Star games. However, players won’t be satisfied with SMS-era technology for the 3D dungeons in a Megadrive game, and it doesn’t make sense with our design plans either: everything has to be rotatable, floors, ceilings, etc, and that would take up far too much memory.
Anyway, developments always have to be try push beyond what players expect. For that reason, we abandoned the idea of 3D for PSIV. The first games that were developed for the Megadrive, like Alex Kidd and Altered Beast, graphically speaking it’s kind of surprising now to look back and see how many flaws they have, but no one was used to developing for the Megadrive then. To be honest, it wasn’t until Phantasy Star II that we really became competent with the Megadrive’s capabilities—which is why, in that sense, that game had a very high level of technical polish.
The cutscenes for Phantasy Star IV were meant to evoke manga panels. The large volume of drawings required apparently pushed artist Toru Yoshida to the edge.
—Can you tell us any behind-the-scenes stories or background about the making of PSIV?
Yoshida: The Motavians have been a part of Phantasy Star since the first game… you know the Jawas from Star Wars? The Motavians were inspired by them. They weren’t depicted very clearly in the previous games, but we’ve taken some of their traits, like their propensity to collect garbage from PSII, and their love of creating things, and added a bit more background to help flesh them out.
Now we know they live communally, without a designated leader. Owing to their animal nature, they herd together. They’re more knowledgeable of technological things than the Parmians, but they don’t necessarily understand all of it. There’s other details too, but that’s the gist of it.
Kodama: For the bounty sidequests, the person who designed them loves Sherlock Holmes, and the titles he gave them are meant to evoke those stories.
—Which parts of Phantasy Star IV that you worked on are you most proud of?
Nishiyama: I did the dialogue, so probably the funny parts there? I hope players enjoy the frivolous parts that aren’t connected to the story in any way. (laughs)
Kodama: As team leader I was involved in most aspects of the development, but the “multi-window” system for cutscenes was the first thing I worked on, and I really want players to see that. Yoshida created an unbelievable amount of images for it, and it’s sure to delight players.
Yoshida: That was something we designed specifically for Phantasy Star IV. We wanted it feel more like a manga layout, rather than the typical single-screen anime presentation you see in most games.
Tsugawa: For my part, it would be the flashy fight scenes, and the nose-bleedingly hard bosses.
—Are they really that hard?
Tsugawa: They’re tough. Especially for people who have grown too comfortable with easy games—they might actually get a nose bleed for real. (laughs) There’s lots of bosses who you have to use your head to defeat.
—Right, but if you just level up, you’ll be ok…?
Tsugawa: Even if you raise your levels, if you just mindlessly press “Attack” you still won’t win. It will be much quicker if you think strategically instead of just grinding levels.
—Why didn’t you include an auto-battle option for PSIV?
Kodama: It was basically the preference of the programmer who created the system, and he didn’t like auto-battles that much. They make for an experience that is too disconnected. We would rather have players see the battles as “real fights”, and be more engaged with using their techniques and abilities.
Rieko Kodama holds forth on the finer points of RPG design.
Rieko Kodama – 1993 Developer Commentary
from the “New Wave of RPGs” feature of Famicom Tsuushin
The first thing we worked on for PSIV was getting the details of the world and setting solidified. Take a single candle, for instance: we asked ourselves, would that be something you’d find in this world? Is there electricity? Do the windows have curtains, drapes, shades…? Just a lot of little details like that. For the characters, we figured out most of their personalities as we drew them. With each detail and bit of background we added to the characters, the story itself also expanded. The world of Phantasy Star IV came into view for us very incrementally.
During the game, however, those backstory elements aren’t made explicit. Much of it is kept secret on purpose, which is an experience we want players to have. The Phantasy Star series takes place on a different world, in a different age, so we want players to be asking “I wonder what that is…?” while they play. When they first see an Android, we want them to ask, “what in the world is this…?!” That’s also why we titled this game “Phantasy Star: End of the Millennium” instead of “Phantasy Star IV”.
I think recent RPGs have become too user-friendly. For example, if you buy a Battle Axe in a store, the game will plainly tell you that it gives “+20 power”. But I don’t like everything to be displayed in numbers like that. In order to preserve the integrity and illusion of the world we’ve so carefully built, I’d rather players just get an impression of the weapon being stronger because it is made of stronger material. We do display hit points, though, somewhat to my chagrin.
Honestly, if I could have my way, I wouldn’t use any human language for the monster names, or names of towns and places. I mean, Phantasy Star is the story of a completely different world, right? But of course, for players it won’t work to have a game that’s nothing but nonsensical, unintelligible words.
I think the innovation of the Phantasy Star games has mainly been in terms of graphics and visual presentation. However, when you consider that RPGs evolved from table-top gaming, and that characters exist as something in the players’ imaginations, then the perspective that you shouldn’t display too much overtly is also correct. For my part, though, I think the main draw of video games is their overt use of sound and visuals, and that’s what we have pursued in the Phantasy Star series.
Akinori Nishiyama (designer, script), Rieko Kodama (director/designer) Kazuyoshi Tsugawa (battle/graphic designer).