Rieko Kodama, pioneering Sega developer, dies at 58

Sega's acclaimed designer, director and producer, known for stewarding the classic Phantasy Star series and Skies of Arcadia, has passed away.

Rieko Kodama, the veteran designer, director and producer whose work graced many classic Sega titles including the original Phantasy Star series and Skies of Arcadia, passed away in May, aged 59. News of her passing was made public via a commemorate message in the staff roll of the just-released Genesis/Mega Drive Mini 2 plug-and-play system, with further details withheld out of respect for her friends and family.

Born on May 25,1963, Rieko Kodama grew up in Japan's Kanagawa prefecture, her free time occupied by various hobbies including drawing, manga, archaeology and fandom for booming sports like F1 racing and soccer. Kodama's parents ran a tea-house during the famous "Invader boom", and Kodama would sometimes visit after-hours to play Space Invaders and other games her parents had installed.

After finishing high school, Kodama's interests were torn between art and archaeology; her split focus caused her to fail her university exams, at which point she successfully applied to a vocational school to study graphic design with an eye on a career in advertising. Upon graduation, she successfully applied to work at Sega on the encouragement of a senior classmate who'd joined the year before, with the hopes of being able to contribute and grow within a new and as-yet-undefined industry.

A few months after joining Sega, Kodama made her first direct contribution to a game via the SG-1000 title Champion Boxing where, under the tutelage of Flicky designer Yoshiki Kawasaki, she would contribute pixel art for the opponent boxers and background elements. (This game, which also doubled as the debut title for the now-legendary programmer Yu Suzuki, also made the rare transition from home consoles to arcades.) From there, Kodama worked on a constant string of games across arcades and Sega's SG-1000 and Mark III (Master System) consoles, contributing designs and pixel across multiple projects where needed, including arcade games like Ninja Princess and Quartet and the Master System game Alex Kidd in Miracle World, for which she drew almost all of the backgrounds, contributed to the title screen and drew several of the illustrations used in the game manual. (Kodama was credited under a variety of pseudonyms, the most common  being "Phoenix Rie"; Kodama had offered many answers or non-answers as to the origins of this nickname, but recently revealed it was borrowed from the character Phoenix Ikki from the popular manga Saint Seiya.)

Kodama would take further charge on 1987's Phantasy Star, an ambitious Master System role-playing game that sought to both take on and surpass Enix's Dragon Quest; for this game, Kodama would not only devise the visual aesthetic of the game's universe but also directly designed and dotted two of the four playable characters, including the main heroine Alisa, as well as handling the pixel art for the game's battle/menu backgrounds, event scenes and incidental characters. Upon launch, Phantasy Star immediately established itself as both a marquee Master System/Mark III game and a top-class console RPG, as well as a new benchmark for original home console games from Sega and a feather in the cap for its development team, which included the prodigious programmer Yuji Naka and fellow character designer Naoto Ohshima.

An illustration drawn by Rieko Kodama for the 1993 Mega Drive version of the original Phantasy Star. Kodama famously loathed looking back at her old art and repeatedly requested it not be included with future reissues.
An illustration drawn by Rieko Kodama for the 1993 Mega Drive version of the original Phantasy Star. Kodama famously loathed looking back at her old art and repeatedly requested it not be included with future reissues.

Sega's transition to the Mega Drive/Genesis home hardware would see Kodama contributing graphics as a pinch-hitter on many early titles, including arcade-to-home conversions like Altered Beast and Shadow Dancer, the Japan-only conversion of Falcom's Sorcerian and original titles including The Revenge of Shinobi and Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse, as well as supervising the character design and drawing specific event scenes for Phantasy Star II and editing and contributing to Sega Players Enjoy Club, an internally-produced magazine featuring manga, illustrations and interviews from many of Sega's home staff. Kodama was also chosen by colleagues Naka and Ohshima to assist on Sonic the Hedgehog, the explosively popular high-speed mascot platformer that exemplified the strength of Sega's elite home game developers and catapulted the Sega Genesis to industry-leading success; Kodama contributed stage and background graphics to both the original game and its sequel, Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

From there, Kodama was officially elevated to co-director and team leader on Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium, the final entry in the classic Phantasy Star series and another watermark in early console RPG history; Kodama not only managed and co-ordinated the team and contributed to event structure and game flow but also designed many of the characters and worked on character and vehicle sprites, battle and overworld background graphics and assisted on the game's voluminous comic-style event scenes. Kodama would immediately go on to direct the launch-window Sega Saturn RPG Magic Knight Rayearth, based on the CLAMP manga of the same name, followed by the 1998 survival horror title Deep Fear, closing out Sega's home console era with a production role on the cult Sega Dreamcast "sky-pirate" fantasy RPG Skies of Arcadia, developed by the autonomous Sega studio Overworks. (An expanded port, Skies of Arcadia Legends, was released for the Nintendo GameCube. in 2003.)

Upon Overworks' merger back into Sega, Kodama continued to produce various games aimed primarily at the domestic Japanese market, including the acclaimed handheld RPG series 7th Dragon, developed in collaboration with Etrian Odyssey series director Kazuya Niinou, studio imageepoch and composer Yuzo Koshiro. (Only the final entry in this series, the 2016 3DS game 7th Dragon III: VFD, was released globally.) In recent years, Kodama also worked as lead producer on the Sega Ages legacy reissue series for Nintendo Switch, which not only saw her revisit several of her past works but also allowed her to see real-time impressions and memories from players the world over via social media, an indulgence not afforded to her in decades prior.

Rieko Kodama (2019), photographed for an interview conducted by Famitsu in commemoration of her Pioneer Award. (translation)
Rieko Kodama (2019), photographed for an interview conducted by Famitsu in commemoration of her Pioneer Award. (translation)

In 2019, the the 19th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards (GDCA) awarded Kodama the Pioneer Award, citing her accomplishments as "a trailblazing game artist, director and producer who established her career during an era in which women game designers’ contributions and activity in the industry were less recognized"; in typical humble fashion, Kodama attributed the award to the collaborativebaorate efforts of her various colleagues and the culture of her employer, rather than any particular personal accomplishment. She remains one of just three Japanese developers to receive this award, alongside former colleague Yu Suzuki and Parappa the Rapper creator Masaya Matsuura

Rieko Kodama will be remembered for her creative contributions to many classic games spanning thirty-five years, her direct influence on the broadening of Sega's oeuvre and as an early prominent female leader in the Japanese game industry. Rest in peace.

Selected gameography:

Champion Boxing (SG-1000)

Ninja Princess (arcade)

Quartet (arcade)

Alex Kidd in Miracle World (Sega Master System)

Phantasy Star (Sega Master System)

Phantasy Star II (Sega Genesis/Mega Drive)

Sorcerian (Sega Mega Drive)

Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis/Mega Drive)

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Sega Genesis/Mega Drive)

Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium (Sega Genesis/Mega Drive)

Magic Knight Rayearth (Sega Saturn)

Deep Fear (Sega Saturn)

Skies of Arcadia (Sega Dreamcast)

Skies of Arcadia Legends (Nintendo GameCube)

7th Dragon III: Project VFD (Nintendo 3DS)

Sega Ages series (Nintendo Switch)