Phantasy Star – 1993 Developer Interview

Phantasy Star – 1993 Developer Interview

This long interview with the original Phantasy Star development team (except Yuji Naka) was found in the 1993 “World of Phantasy Star” book. It’s filled with interesting anecdotes and trivia about the seminal RPG, and the common theme of freedom in the early days of Japanese game development is also sounded. There's also a short message from composer Tokuhiko Uwabo at the end.

Rieko Kodama (Designer)
Phantasy Star I and II character designer, Phantasy Star IV team leader. Editor for the Sega publication “Spec.” Champion Boxing, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Zillion, Miracle Warriors, Hoshi o Sagashite, Fantasy Zone II, Altered Beast, Shadow Dancer, Sonic the Hedgehog, and more.
Miki Morimoto (Designer)
Game Designer. Phantasy Star Series, Hoshi o Sagashite, Sorcerian, and others.
Kotaro Hayashida (Designer)
Game Designer. Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Phantasy Star, and others.
Kazuyuki Shibata (Designer)
Graphic Designer. Phantasy Star I and II, Pyramid Magic, Surging Aura, and others.
Toru Yoshida (Designer)
Graphic Designer. Super Thunder Blade, King Colossus, Phantasy Star II, Phantasy Star IV, Phantasy Star Text Adventure, and more.
Tokuhiko Uwabo (Composer)
Sound and music. Alex Kidd, Fantasy Zone, Space Harrier, many more.

—Why did you choose the Phantasy Star title? Did it simply mean something like “a planet/star of fantasy”?

Morimoto: That’s basically right, but the origin was different. The main programmer, Yuji Naka, was a fan of the idol singer Noripii (Noriko Sakai), and her liked her new song “Nagisa no Fantasy” (Beachside Fantasy). From that he took the word Fantasy, and played around with it till he came up with Phantasy Star. It ultimately ended up matching the image of the game.

Miki Morimoto, game designer.

—That reminds me of the story of the Advanced Daisenryaku sample rom, where you can find the hidden graphic of idol Chisato Moritaka dressed up in a military uniform.

Hayashida: Yeah, the designer Minami liked Chisato Moritaka so he just added that in there. If you don’t know about it and it suddenly comes up, it’s like, what the hell? Anyway, naming things is always tough. Even after thinking and thinking it’s very common to just come up blank, and sometimes you get hints from strange places. I’m sure it’s the same with people who have to think of titles for movies or songs.

—Even today the original Phantasy Star has many passionate fans, with the Tokuma Published strategy guide having been reprinted many times. What do you think is the enduring appeal and charm of Phantasy Star?

Morimoto: There’s a lot of elements in RPGs today that seem rigidly defined, almost cliches. For example, getting a boat, getting an airship… with an airship you can cross the mountains, but can’t destroy them or anything like that. In Phantasy Star, we had the audacious idea of the Ice Decker vehicle where you could actually enjoy mowing down icebergs on the terrain.

Mowing down mountains with the ice-digger.

Then there’s the spaceship which lets you fly to other planets. It’s a more free, unrestrained world. In most RPGs there’s only one world, right? In Phantasy Star the story straddles three planets, and I think that kind of freewheeling sense of adventure is one of its main charms. The fact that it’s a science fiction RPG also sets it apart, but since we mixed sword and sorcery into the science fiction, it’s a really open, wild world.

—Can you tell us about the origins of Phantasy Star?

Morimoto: Phantasy Star came into being when, during the Master System era, Sega decided that it also needed to create an RPG. So they started soliciting game design ideas from us, and Chieko Aoki had this story idea she’d been mulling over for awhile. We used that and worked it into what became the original story draft for Phantasy Star. Even at that early stage, almost all the dialogue was already written–that was how much Chieko loved Phantasy Star.

Kodama: In the original draft for Phantasy Star there were four planets. But we realized it would be very difficult to properly depict four planets. There was also an issue with memory limitations, so we changed it to three planets. Today you can use a lot of memory for a game, but back then even 4 megs was a huge amount.

—Speaking of the memorable characters in Phantasy Star, Lutz had quite an impact with players, didn’t he?

Kodama: Actually, when I created the first draft of the characters for Phantasy Star II, I made Lutz the main character. By the way, since so many people have asked whether Lutz is male or female, let me say a little about that. In the original story drafts of Phantasy Star, Lutz was a hermaphrodite, and as Alisa grew up, Lutz could become male or female. I thought that was interesting so I depicted Lutz that way.

Yoshida: In the earliest drafts for Phantasy Star II, the main character is Lutz, and it opens with him awakening from cryosleep. In the 1000 years since Phantasy Star, his abilities have changed. He’s more of a warrior now, and he sets out to wander the world. There was also a part where he warps back in time and has to save Alisa at the time of her birth. In the end he defeats his enemies and vanishes again.

Early concept art for Lutz from Phantasy Star II.

Kodama: We even brought him back for PSIV at first. We didn’t have any ideas and just started playing around with the characters.

—Please tell us how the dungeons in Phantasy Star were designed.

Shibata: You originally scrolled through the 3D dungeons in Phantasy Star much quicker. But we couldn’t have done them in 3D without Yuji Naka.

Kodama: Regarding the 3D, we would get an image of the dungeon in our head and draw them out on paper, but there were little details that bugged us and it wasn’t getting across to the programmers as we had envisioned it. Yuji Naka learned of this and, on his own, made a wireframe 3D imaging program expressly for us. That program was also the start of Shibata learning to draw 3D graphics.

That was what was amazing about Yuji: he would never just say “that can’t be done” to a planning or design idea. He thought about our wishes seriously and would always figure out some ingenuous way to make our ideas possible. He was very considerate of the designer’s vision, in other words.

Hayashida: Right, and it was Yuji who fixed the speed of the dungeons. The scrolling was originally so fast they made your head spin, like some high-speed STG.

Morimoto: They went so fast you got dizzy, like you were drunk or something.

Kodama: We got many requests to make the dungeons in Phantasy Star II 3D too. But to make dungeons that would look satisfying to us, with rotating floors and other features, would have taken up too much memory on the Megadrive. It would have been almost impossible.

Rieko Kodama, PSI/II character designer.

Hayashida: And 3D dungeons aren’t really the essence of Phantasy Star, anyway. By the way, being able to save your game in the dungeons led to a huge problem. If you were deep in a dungeon and very close to death after a battle, you could then save your game. But in doing so, you’d always start out in that weakened state, and if you encountered an enemy you would never win, thereby getting trapped in the dungeon forever. It was especially tragic if it happened in the latter part of the game. With tears in your eyes, you’d have no choice but to start a new game.

Kodama: Back then, we developers didn’t know much about RPGs. (laughs)

—Just before Phantasy Star was released, I remember hearing that it would have both battery backup saves and a password system…

Hayashida: Yeah, we did have those plans, but we had to cut the password feature out due to memory problems.

Yoshida: With RPGs today it’s almost impossible to implement a password-save feature. If we had tried to add one for Phantasy Star IV, first, it would have to be absolutely perfectly entered (just having one character off would mean it wouldn’t work), and the password would be so long it would take two screens to write out–not the kind of thing you can just write down on a notepad. Anyway, compared with the original Phantasy Star, the sequels have many more party members and the amount of data isn’t even comparable.

—One of the most memorable things about Phantasy Star was the ending. Making your way through the brutal final dungeon, beating the boss, and thinking the game is over… suddenly the screen scrolls up and you’re dropped back into the dungeon! I remember seeing that text on the wall and thinking, “who is that?! is there a true final boss?” My heart started racing. Whose idea was it to do that for the ending?

Kodama: I don’t actually remember who suggested it. Who could it be…

Hayashida: After you cleared it and the final pictures were shown, I remember being like, what shall we do for the ending staff roll? Someone came up with the idea of using the 3D dungeons, and we thought it would be cool to put the staff’s names up there.

Kodama: Yeah, I think it just came about in one of our random conversations. Though I remember the decision to just drop you back into the dungeon came at the very end of the development. We were thinking about how to get the player back there to show the credits, and we decided to just plop you back down in there.

Hayashida: There was a routine in the program for falling through pitfalls, so it was easy to do. But the result was that surprising ending, so for its psychological impact I would call it a success!

—Can you tell us any interesting stories or episodes about creating the monsters of Phantasy Star?

Morimoto: We all thought the Zombie looked funny, so one time we tried to see how many we could put on-screen at once. It turns out you could have 8 of them there. But could they animate? They did, and everyone was completely grossed out by it!

But the weirdest of all was the “Lich” character (spelled “Rich” in Japanese katakana). Despite his name this guy dropped no money when he was defeated!

The “gross-out” Zombie animation… now imagine 8 of them at once!

By the way, the Luveno spaceship was actually the very first mecha graphic that Kodama, our team leader in PSIV, had ever drawn. She had never drawn anything like that before, so I was wondering if she’d be nervous about it, and what kind of image she’d come up with. But I remember she was really relaxed about it. Back then when people came to visit our development room, it wasn’t like today where you have a more systemized organization of departments and such; rather, it was more like there’d be a teacher and pupil working together. It lent the development area a special atmosphere.

—What do you mean by “teacher” and “pupil”?

Kodama: Yeah, there were “teachers” for music, graphics, all the different aspects of development at Sega. That’s how I learned to do graphics, from Yoshiki Kawasaki, who now works in the PR department.

—What, really?

Kodama: Yes! Kawasaki did the sprites for Flicky and other older games. He’s extremely talented. That’s how I learned all these things: from the know-how passed down from older employees.

Yoshida: Now you’ve got some people with Famicom experience, some with Megadrive experience, and just a whole variety of people joining the company. That old apprentice system is fading away, and I suppose you could say something of the old Sega is disappearing too.

Morimoto: Maybe the Sega-ness of our games was nothing other than the humanity imparted by the apprenticeship system…

—In Phantasy Star, there were some extremely powerful enemies in the last dungeon and last planet. They were stronger than the boss, Dark Force, weren’t they?

Hayashida: That would be Mammoth and Golem. Mammoth, especially–if he appeared in a group, your heart started racing. I seem to remember they were really hard to flee from, too.

Morimoto: I did all the enemy stats, and the flee percentage parameter was actually an enemy stat. You could run easily from monsters in the first half of the game, but by the second half it was very difficult. (laughs)

Hayashida: Monsters sometimes appear in unexpected areas too, like the Serpent inside that one house of the Air Castle. Speaking of weird things, in the backstory the Centaur enemies are supposed to be these knights under Lashiec’s control, but when you use Telepathy on them and talk to them, they sometimes give you information. There’s a part of them that’s very “human.” Even the monsters in Phantasy Star were something unique.

Morimoto: Yeah, and they weren’t monsters, but the village of lying Dezorians and truthful Dezorians was also different.

Hayashida: We had a lot of fun designing the monsters and events for Phantasy Star. Ah, that reminds me… one of the most difficult things about this game was how hard it was to get money. Mixed in with the standard necessities were some surprisingly expensive items, if you tried to save up money for them.

—Was the chemistry between the development staff a large part of the excellent balance Phantasy Star achieved? If the staff doesn’t get along, it seems like any good ideas would just disintegrate in that hostile atmosphere.

Hayashida: I think the success of Phantasy Star lies in the fact that the development staff was given the freedom to make the game we wanted, without restrictions or control. I wanted to create something that the Famicom wouldn’t have been able to do, so I wanted the dungeons to be in 3D. When I think back on the story now, there were a lot of ridiculous things in it, but we were able to do it how we wanted, had fun while we were doing it, and the result was a good game. After all, if you’re having fun, you can give it your all even when things gets tough.

I think that synergy resulted in a good game. However, until the game was completed, there were a lot of unknowns. We had to give our full effort to the very, very end. RPGs have especially long developments, so by the latter half everyone is just run-down, you know? But if you relax and slack off at the very end, your game will feel sloppy regardless of all the previous work you did. In that sense, the difference between a good game and a bad game really depends on whether the staff can maintain their efforts in that final stretch. The deadlines are bearing down on you, and it’s very common for people to experience utter exhaustion at the end. There will be a difference between the image the designers had for the game, and the game you actually created, and figuring out how to adjust that gap at the very end is an important point.

—I’d like to talk about Chieko Aoki, who created the backstory and world of Phantasy Star (and was a game designer for Phantasy Star II). What was she like?

Morimoto: She was a very quiet, shy person, but she also had a strong inner core. During the development, when everything was getting crazy, she’d be unfazed, working steadily at her own pace. I think she had a lot of attachment to the story and world of Phantasy Star. That reminds me, I hardly ever stayed over at the company office, but one time we had to work on bug checking late into the night, so Chieko and I made some makeshift beds out of office chairs and spent the night there in a conference room. It felt just like a field trip.

There would also be questions about the game circulating around the development room, and Chieko would often answer them. So we gave her the nickname “Otegami Chie” (Letter Chie).

Letters from fans to “Gamer Miki.”

—And what were the origins of the other nicknames for the development staff, like “Gamer Miki” and “Choko Oneesan” ?

Morimoto: “Gamer Miki-chan” refers to me. I got that nickname because I did a lot of the playtesting and bug checks. Sega’s publication “SPEC” featured a manga called “Hataraku Kaihatsu-san” (the hardworking developers), and there’s an interview with “Gamer Miki” there too. I got a lot of postcards from fans addressed to that name. As for Choko Oneesan, there used to be a Telephone Answer line Sega ran called “Joy Joy Telephone.” She was the “Oneesan” from that early period. She was really popular with the kids and would receive a lot of fan letters. You know, it makes me wonder, in Phantasy Star, why was I the only one to be found in such a strange place as the jail???

Anyway, speaking of characters, I wonder if any Sega fans today remember “Professor Asobin” and “Doctor Games” ? They were characters who appeared in the back of Sega game manuals, and they’d give you hints and tips…

—Can you tell us a bit about the sound/music development for Phantasy Star?

Morimoto: Since Phantasy Star was made at the time of the Sega Master System, it was very difficult to create sounds for it. In that sense, you can’t talk about this game without mentioning its sound and music. Sometimes we’d ask Bo to create a certain songs, but if the image didn’t match up he’d have to rewrite it. After reworking it, he’d bring something to us all excited, but everyone would say “maybe the old version was better…” while Bo quietly wept. (laughs)

Despite all that, Bo and the rest of the staff had a lot of love for this game. Back then we all worked together in the same room: sound, planning, programming. That was also where Bo made nearly all his music and sounds. It must have been tough.

Speaking of music, I think the SST band, a group composed of Sega Sound Staff, was formed just around the time Phantasy Star was released. They did a show at a park outside the east exit of Ikebukuro station, and I remember they were worried if people would even come. It was a big turnout though. Many things didn’t go right because it was their first live show, but it was a rare sight back then to see a video game sound team form a band, and the park was packed with people. It was a huge success.

SST band plays the PSIII ending theme.

At that time the SST Band was using sequencers for the live show. A sequencer is something that lets you play back music you’ve programmed into it, and since they used sequencers in their early days, you often saw pictures of the band just standing there, not appearing to do anything. (laughs)

Hayashida: With video game music, whether the songs are poppy or more complex, they need to have catchy melodies you could easily hum to yourself. Then the music has to match the development team’s ideas (graphically and otherwise), so it’s really quite difficult work. If the songs are too long they may not get fully heard in-game, or they’ll eat up too much program memory… it’s no easy job.

—Are there any plans to port Phantasy Star?

Morimoto: We often get requests from fans who never got to play the Master System Phantasy Star and want us to port it to the Megadrive. But the truth is, if you do a thorough search you can find toy stores where they’ve still got copies of the original game for sale. I’ve seen people write on message boards stuff like “I found a copy at XXX-store,” but when I went the next day myself to check, it was sold out. So it seems there’s still some left in some small, out-of-the-way places, but if you find one you had better snatch it up, or they’ll all soon be gone. However, as part of the promotional campaign for Phantasy Star IV, we’re giving out copies of the original Phantasy Star as a present. Make sure you enter!

—One of the weirder events in Phantasy Star involves the cake selling girl in the middle of the dungeon. What was that about?

Hayashida: People ask us a lot about that, even today. When Yuji Naka got back from America after finishing Sonic 2, I remember he saw that and said, “Why the hell is someone selling cake in that dungeon.” Yeah, everyone thought it was weird.

Well, I’ve forgotten who exactly came up with the idea originally, but I believe it was a girl. I remember we talked about the event in the story where you go to meet the Motavian governor, and someone pointed out that since the governor is such an important person, you should probably bring him some kind of souvenir. Then we asked what it should be, and a girl said cake was good, so that’s what we did.

Dungeon Bakery

But then the question came of where the cake shop should be located, and we agreed that it would be boring if it was in some normal or easily accessible place, and I think that was how we decided to put it in the dungeon. I think the woman who suggested it was probably Morimoto or Aoki, but whoever said it probably no longer remembers themselves. But yeah, that event reflects the large number of women on the Phantasy Star development staff.

Message from Bo, Phantasy Star Composer

Bo: Today there’s almost 20 people working as Sega Sound Staff, and I’m focusing on producing. But back then all our console game sound was done by me and one other person. And when I say “sound,” when you include things like sound effects, it means having to create over 100 sounds for each game.

When we were busy I had to work on nearly 16 titles at the same time. For each game the image and world were different, so you couldn’t just put out shoddy knock-offs, nor could you expect to finish everything if you only worked at the office. All day, every day, I had to be constantly thinking about writing music: if I woke up in the morning with a melody in my head and could remember it through the train ride to work, then I figured it was a good melody and I’d end up using it. Time management was key to finishing everything. I’d parse out my time in blocks, working on songs for each game in a given period, then moving to the next.

Phantasy Star was made during the Master System era, so there were restrictions in both the sounds available and the memory available. It was very difficult, but also very fun. The sounds from that game were a result of experimenting, trying this and that… not the kind of sounds you could create if you just relied on your theoretical knowledge. Even today Phantasy Star stands out as some of the most memorable work I did.

Bo and his sound studio at Sega, 1993

Another aspect of the Phantasy Star development was that we all shared the same room: game designers, programmers, and sound. That meant everyone could peek in on everyone else’s work. I could check out where the game designers were at, and the designers could look over and see how the sound was going. It made for a very different atmosphere from what you see today in game development.

The fans then also had a very refined appreciation for the sights and sounds of video games, too. I’d get letters from fans expressing support, or sharing their thoughts on the music. It was a real motivator for writing music. There were no sound tests in our games that time, and a fan once even sent me a tape she had made with all the game music carefully recorded on it. I was so surprised–she even recorded all the sound effects!

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