Sega made a surprise announcement back on October 29th: Sega Ages Phantasy Star for Switch launches in Japan on October 31st. The game was initially supposed to come out on September 20th along with Sega Ages Sonic the Hedgehog and Sega Ages Thunder Force IV.
To celebrate the game’s release, Japanese news site Game Watch published on October 31st an extremely long interview with the key developers of the game: developing studio M2’s CEO Naoki Horii, Sega producer Kagasei Shimomura and director Rieko Kodama. Kodama-san, also known as Phoenix Rie, used to work as an art designer on the Phantasy Star games, and later on, ended up directing Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium. She participated in many other games over the years. She was, for example, the producer of Skies of Arcadia. In short, she’s one of the best game developers of all time.
The interview deals with Phantasy Star’s development, (both the Switch version and the original version of the game), the differences between game development now and 30 years ago, and the upcoming retro Sega games coming to Switch, which includes Dreamcast games.
At the start of the interview, the trio comments on how they really wanted to release Sega Ages Phantasy Star worldwide on September 20th along with Thunder Force IV and Sonic 1, but they encountered many unforeseen problems, which they detailed later on. The staff at M2 put in their all to solve everything, and this is why the game’s release date was suddenly announced two days before release in Japan. As for overseas, Kodama-san says the game will release a bit later, on November 15th.
Including Phantasy Star in the first 3 Sega Ages games ported for Switch was an idea of Kodama-san and M2 Director Tsuyoshi Matsuoka-san, as he’s a fan of the game. They started working on these in Winter 2017. Most of the M2 staff who worked on the Sega Ages PS2 versions of the games worked on the Switch versions as well.
Kodama-san actually cringes a lot when seeing some of her old drawings, including the ones for Phantasy Star. At the time of the Sega Saturn Sega Ages games, and later on, with the PS2 Sega Ages remakes, she almost asked the staff to not use her drawings. This time, she’s the one who decided to port the game in the first place, so while she’s really embarrassed about them, the original drawings are still there. This includes the illustrations she did for the instruction manual of the Sega Mark III/Master System versions, and the illustration on the back of the Megadrive version’s game case.
This Switch version of Sega Ages Phantasy Star also has new functions that weren’t in the Saturn or PS2 versions, like auto-mapping and the Monter Guide, which were ideas of Director Matsuoka-san. It’s usually Horii-san that brings up ideas like these, with Matsuoka-san getting angry at him for how hard it is to implement, but this time Matsuoka-san proposed it himself so he couldn’t complain.
The game also has all the functions that were added in Sega Ages 2500 Series Vol. 32: Phantasy Star Complete Collection on PS2, like decreased enemy encounter rate, increased walking speed, experience points and Meseta obtained. On PS2, each of these settings had to be turned on manually, but this time for Switch, they included a new mode called “Ages Mode” which enables all of it. Saves are shared between Original mode and Ages Mode, so if you want to disable these, you can do so anytime by saving, resetting and switching to Original Mode. Walking speed can be set to normal speed even in Ages mode too if that’s your thing. I personally strongly recommend playing the game on Ages Mode, as it’ll simply make you gain time. In both modes, you can turn on or off the auto-mapping at any time.
They created Ages Mode not only so inexperienced players can enjoy the game, but also so those who already played it multiple times, with all the previous versions, don’t think it’s a drag to replay it again.
Kodama-san says that games nowadays, especially fantasy games with fictional words, are translated very carefully to retain the correct meanings, but she doesn’t know if that was the case or not with the original Master System translation of the game. There are also things in this Switch version they didn’t fix on purpose, to make it as close as possible to the original version. The English translation for example still uses abbreviations, even if Atlus USA has completely re-translated the game. Hori-san jokes he’d really like to know how the item called “Perori Mate” in Japanese is translated in English. (It’s “Cola” in English).
Next, they commented on the fact that the Japanese version allows you to switch anytime between displaying the text with hiragana and katakana together or full katakana. That was something also present in the Saturn and PS2 versions of Sega Ages Phantasy Star. Back when doing the Phantasy Star Complete Collection, M2 retrieved the source code of the program which allowed this function on the Saturn version, and used it as a base to include the function on PS2. They did the same thing as well for Switch.
As for the auto-mapping, initially, they thought of only displaying the dungeons’ maps, but realized this wouldn’t help much either. So they decided to make it so everything is mapped and displayed, including traps, chests, doors and the like. They went from a simple map display to a full auto-mapping function. It was quite hard to make and they spent a lot of time debugging it. This is one of the main reason why the game got delayed.
Next, they talk about how this time, the game’s English version/Master System version has the sounds produced by the Sega Mark III’s Frequency Modulation chip. The FM chip was only present on Sega Mark III, the Japanese version of Master System, so FM sounds were disabled when playing in English. This was also true for all versions of the game until the Switch one.
As for the Monster Guide, Horii-san really wanted to do it, to show how detailed the monsters in the game are. Horii-san mentions that Phantasy Star was Sega’s counter to Dragon Quest. Hence why it’s similar but includes different, more appealing features like the 3D-like Dungeons or the monsters being animated. He wants people to be able to appreciate this. This is why they also included a list of all items and magic with their prices, effects, descriptions and which character can equip them. He wants everyone to realize how incredible the game is for its age. Of course, it’s also to help newcomer players.
Making the Monster Guide was actually extremely difficult as well. The pictures and animations for the monsters are in compressed form in the game’s original 4Mbit rom, so Horii-san had to figure out how to uncompress them. The main problem is, each picture and animation isn’t compressed the same way. Lead Programmer Yuji Naka at the time, in order to save as much memory as possible, made it so each picture and each animation is compressed with a specific algorithm that’s the most efficient for it. Horii-san initially started working on this thinking it’ll be a piece of cake, but it ended up being a nightmare.
He says it shows how ingenious Naka-san and Sega’s developers were at the time. Later on, Horii-san ran into another major problem: no matter what, he couldn’t manage to find the data for the monster “Mad Doctor”. Actually, he didn’t even manage to understand just how the illustration and animation for “Mad Doctor” are displayed in the game. In the end, for its entry in the Monster Guide, they decided to just look at it in the original game and try to copy its illustration and animation from scratch. Horii-san actually asks Yuji Naka through the interview to please teach him how the hell he did the code for “Mad Doctor” next time they meet. Kodama-san herself remembers how Yuji Naka would tell her “hey I saved some space, you can draw more things, we’ll be able to add them” multiple times.
Phantasy Star is particularly amazing in that sense as almost no other RPG at the time had its monsters animated like that. Most Sega Mark III/Master System and Famicom/NES games weren’t bigger than 1 or 2Mbit, while Phantasy Star‘s rom was 4Mbit, and yet had so much data it felt like it was more like 6Mbit. This was all thanks to Yuji Naka’s genius programming. According to Horii-san, you can clearly see with the Hokuto no Ken Master System game how Yuji Naka used to push the limits of the hardware back then.
Kodama-san, Horii-san, and Shimomura-san all feel slightly nostalgic toward this era of game development, where only a single person’s skill could make great differences on the technical aspect of a game, and with more freedom than now. The teams were also smaller, so designers, programmers, everyone could each put their own individuality in the game. Back then, Kodama-san could just tell the team she’d handle a particular drawing and then do it, with no meetings or meddlesome things. Horii-san adds how since the teams were smaller than now, if you saw a part of the code you’d immediately know which programmer did it, same with pixel art, and you could go talk to them and ask the questions you wanted.
Basically, the biggest reason why the game got delayed till now is how complex Yuji Naka’s source code for the game is and the new additions. Overall, if they didn’t put in the Monster Guide, the auto-mapping and the characters’ status being constantly displayed at top right, they could have shorted development time from 3 to 4 months.
Chieko Aoki-san, who was the writer for the game and the superior of Kodama-san at the time, did tell the team back then they’re going to make something similar to Dragon Quest 2 but better. They had a meeting about it too, on how the game would include animated monsters and “3D Dungeons”. Aoki-san even brought Dragon Quest 2‘s cartridge at the office to make the others play it, and kept saying how good it was.
(Dragon Quest 2 was on a 1Mbit rom and released on January 26th, 1987. Phantasy Star was on a 4bit rom and released on December 20th, 1987)
Sega at the time, had a reputation of only making arcade oriented games too, so many people were surprised with them doing such a big RPG. Some of the staff were playing Wizardry and Ultima too. Needless to say, that’s how they got the idea for the 3D dungeons. Kodama-san also wanted to make the objects in the dungeon more realistic, like the dungeon walls, but couldn’t do it because of lack of memory space. Even when working on Phantasy Star IV, she wanted to do this with the walls, but still couldn’t because of technical reasons, and it’s one of the reasons why Phantasy Star IV abandoned the “3D Dungeons” and instead opted for top-down camera dungeon exploration. Furthermore, at first, Kodama-san wasn’t able to make a satisfying scrolling animation for the walls of the dungeons in Phantasy Star. Yuji Naka helped her a lot by making it so they look like 3D-mesh, and printed examples she could look at while drawing.
Still according to Kodama-san, at the time, Yuji Naka also said how if they made the scrolling of the dungeons much faster, they could use it for a shooting game, and it’d be just like the interior of Death Star in the Battle of Endor in Star Wars VI.
At the time, Kodama-san was pretty much a beginner so it was quite hard to make the designs. She mostly inspired herself from western fantasy books, illustrations and movies, using the things she thought were cool. As for the monsters, the main designer for them, Kazuyuki Shibata, really likes metal figures. This helped a lot to visualize poses and the like. Kodama-san specifically remembers how when making the “Chaos Sorcerer” enemy, he used the figures to show the pose it’d take. He had tons of figures at the office.
Kodama-san also talks about the various design tricks she used to save memory space, like the snowy mountains on the world map being a recolor of the waves on beaches. Many “animations” in the game aren’t actual animations but tricks by using multiple color palettes together.
She doesn’t remember much, but they were probably planning to do the game on a 2Mbit rom at first, hence why they tried to save space at all costs. They probably decided to use a 4Mbit rom late in development, after seeing they would also be used for After Burner. (After Burner was released on December 12th 1987, 8 days before Phantasy Star). Basically, they heard that After Burner’s studio AM2 was getting some, so they asked for it too. At the time, since Sega was also a hardware maker, these kind of requests were easier to grant. That’s also how another game programmed by Yuji Naka, the Megadrive port of Capcom’s Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, got a 5Mbit rom. Because the game wouldn’t fit in a 4Mbit one.
All three mention how Yuji Naka at the time, despite “only” being a programmer, greatly contributed to Sega’s hardware development thanks to always pushing their limits. Later on, there was also the 3D Control Pad which was made for his Saturn game Nights. The 3D Control Pad still has repercussions up to this day, as it was the first controller ever with analog shoulder trigger buttons.
Kodama-san doesn’t remember when was the exact time development on the original Phantasy Star finished, because as a designer, her work finishes before that point and she had already moved to her next project. But she clearly remembers her last task on the game, which was drawing the ending illustration with the four main characters lined together. That particular illustration wasn’t planned at first, but again, Yuji Naka-san told her he managed to save more space, so she could add something at the end. She had a limited number of pixels though, hence why the illustration looks slightly distorted.
Next, they moved on to talking about upcoming Sega Ages projects on Switch. Shimomura-san says that they realized they were underestimating how much time they’d need for some games, as seen with Phantasy Star, and the whole team apologizes for this. However, they definitely didn’t want to do half-baked ports either, so they’ll take the time they need to be sure each game is satisfying. Now that the staff at M2 got a good grasp of how Switch’s hardware works with these first three games, the development pace should accelerate too. But it’s impossible to bring all games initially announced by the end of 2018 like originally planned.
Horii-san says M2 is currently working on Sega Ages Virtua Racing, which was announced at Tokyo Game Show 2018. They’re doing a lot of research on how the game’s code works too, to avoid a repeat of the Monster Guide incident told above. He jokes that the games they’ll probably have the hardest time with are the ones programmed by Yuji Naka. The next one they’re planning to do that was programmed by him is Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Speaking of that, he teases they might include in Sonic 2 for Switch things that Yuji Naka wanted to do in the original game, but couldn’t because of the Megadrive’s limitations.
With Virtua Racing on Switch, they’ll reproduce the original arcade version and even improve it. They’re using a functioning Sega Model 1 arcade system board for research. They’ve got a great grasp of it and could even make a Switch version of Model-1’s Star Wars Arcade game if they had the authorization, and they hope they will. Horii-san also teases they’re making something “that’ll allow everyone to play Virtua Racing together”, and “play Sega games on Switch in a good environment”, which strongly hints an online mode.
As for Dreamcast games, they will definitely release them at some point too. At the moment, rather than studying the Dreamcast, they’re studying the NAOMI itself. If you don’t know about NAOMI, it’s basically the arcade system equivalent to Dreamcast but more powerful. They can already run it on Switch. There’s a particular game that all three of them, especially Shimomura-san, love and want to replay, so they’re currently working it too. The game is a secret for now though. (Please be Skies of Arcadia). Once they’re done releasing 15 games like they initially announced, it’ll mark the end of the “Season 1” of old Sega games on Switch. They plan to go for a “Season 2” and release even more games.
Another game coming is Thunder Force AC, the arcade, better version of Thunder Force III. Most notably it uses much more colors and has additional stages. Horii-san mentions that when making the Sega 3D Fukkoku Archives 3: Final Stage compilation for 3DS in 2016, he really wanted to put in Thunder Force AC instead of III, but couldn’t because the C-2 arcade board the game runs on is extremely difficult to adapt to 3DS.
As for Gain Ground, apparently, Horii-san got a “super exciting” Twitter DMs from a hardcore fan of the game, that may help a lot with the Switch version.
Shimomura-san then mentions the questionnaire results revealed at TGS 2018, showing the 30 games that fans want to see remade as Sega Ages games the most. He says they’ll take these results into account as much as possible when they’ll start “Season 2” of the Switch Sega Ages games.
Next, they discussed the fact that Sega just announced the first three Virtual-On games are coming to PS4. For now, they have no plans to bring them to Switch but they’d love to. According to Horii-san, there are people in Sega who love Virtual-On and who hold powerful positions in the company, so if these people decide to make a move, it may happen. But in short, the Virtual-On PS4 announcement has nothing to do with the unannounced games they’re preparing for Switch.
Horii-san, Shimomura-san, and Kodama-san wrapped up the interview by sharing their hopes that many people will enjoy the game which originated the Phantasy Star series 30 years ago. A series which is still ongoing now with Phantasy Star Online 2 and Idola: Phantasy Star. (As a side note, PSO2 isn’t as good as you might think, and I say this as someone who spent more than 1000 hours on it.). Last but not least, Horii-san said there are many games coming for Switch they haven’t announced yet, so you should look forward to it.
I’m already having wild dreams about all this, like a Sega Ages remake of Skies of Arcadia for Switch and a Skies of Arcadia 2.
If you don’t want to wait until November 15th to get Phantasy Star on Switch, the game is already available on the Japanese eShop, and can be played in English if your Switch isn’t set to Japanese. I tried it myself. You can even play the game in Japanese but with the additional menus like the Monster Guide in English, if you select the Sega Mark III version.
To get the game on the Japanese Nintendo eShop, you’d need a prepaid eShop card though. As far as I know, foreign Paypal accounts and credit cards cannot be used directly on the Japanese Nintendo eShop. Usually, you could also grab digital codes for games on Amazon Japan, but Sega Ages Phantasy Star isn’t listed there.
Here’s the list of the Sega Ages games announced for Switch so far: Sonic the Hedgehog, Gain Ground, Thunder Force AC, Thunder Force IV, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Phantasy Star, Space Harrier, Columns II, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Outrun, Virtua Racing.
You can also check the Japanese trailer for Sega Ages Phantasy Star below.