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The Unsung Female Game Designers of Japan

G4Staff
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Posted March 28, 2012 - By G4 Staff


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From the very first pixel, women have helped shaped the video game culture that we know today in Japan. While they’re not quite as visible to consumers overseas, the Japanese game industry has plenty of extraordinary women in its ranks: artists, composers, designers, directors, and producers. Their names might not roll off the tip of your tongue, but their legacy lives on in some of the greatest games to ever grace the store shelves – Phantasy Star, Street Fighter II, and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night just to name a few. Let’s take a look at the careers of these exceptional individuals.

Guilty Gear

Emiko Iwasaki

Arc System Works’ Guilty Gear series has been one of the most influential fighters of the last decade, with Emiko Iwasaki being one of the primary contributors to the game’s unique aesthetics and designs. Emiko also had the opportunity to sit in the director’s chair herself, leading the design of 2007’s Battle Fantasia. Not only did she direct the game, but she also created the world, story, and all of the characters – which she illustrated and helped model herself. Though she is no longer with Arc System Works, she continues to work on various media projects, including games, illustrations, and manga.

Phantasy Star

Reiko Kodama

One of the most prominent women in Japanese gaming was also one of the first in the industry. Reiko Kodama joined Sega in 1984 and began work as an artist, contributing designs to arcade and early Master System games like Alex Kidd in Miracle World. After building up a reputation as an artist, she was given the opportunity to both write and create the overall design for an RPG called Phantasy Star.

Phantasy Star was a marvel of technology and storytelling in its day, and introduced some new elements to the then-fledgling Japanese RPG genre such as a strong, capable female lead and a Star Wars-inspired, sci-fi setting. Her high-profile work continued into the Genesis/Megadrive era, creating the designs for launch title Altered Beast, creating the stories, events, and settings for Phantasy Star II and IV, and doing level concepts for Sonic the Hedgehog and 2 under the pseudonym “Phoenix Rie.” She continued to act as director and producer on high-caliber titles for subsequent Sega consoles, such as Magic Knight Rayearth for Saturn and the RPG classic Skies of Arcadia for the Dreamcast (and later GameCube). She continues her work at Sega to this day - her most recent projects have been the 7th Dragon games for DS and PSP that have, sadly, not yet seen an English release.

Suikoden IV

Junko Kawano

Phantasy Star isn’t the only classic RPG franchise that’s had a woman guiding its development. Junko Kawano has been heavily involved with Konami’s beloved Suikoden series since its inception. After joining Konami in 1993, she was asked to help co-develop an RPG project. This project eventually blossomed into the original Suikoden. Kawano was the primary designer on the game, setting the stage for the characters and world that would blossom over the course of several sequels and spinoffs.

Although she took time off from Suikoden II and III, Kawano wrote, produced and contributed designs for Suikoden IV and Suikoden Tactics. RPGs aren’t her only forte. Kawano’s other well-known title is the fan favorite adventure game Shadow of Destiny, where she acted as writer and producer. Recently, Kawano wrote and produced Shadow of Destiny’s spiritual follow-up Time Hollow, along with the Japan-only DS adventure title Zac and Ombra: The Phantom Theme Park.

Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition

Kinu Nishimura

Capcom’s arcade titles boast some of the most memorable art and character designs in the industry. For quite some time, Kinu Nishimura lent her incredible artistic stylings to the design of many of these classics: the Street Fighter series, Cyberbots, Rival Schools, and many others. Her distinct style is seen most prominently in the Capcom vs SNK games, where the illustrations of characters in Capcom-styled grooves are entirely her work. Recently, Nishimura has been doing freelance design in the DS adventure game classic 999: 9 Hours, 9 People, 9 Doors and its upcoming sequel Zero Escape. She’s also behind the setting and saucy female character designs seen in the soon-to-be-released Japanese 3DS brawler Code of Princess.

Super Mario RPG

Yoko Shimomura

Odds are that the fantastic musical talents of Yoko Shimomura have set the score for some of your most treasured gaming memories. Her early career at Capcom saw her creating the memorable tunes heard in Final Fight and Street Fighter II. She later joined Square-Enix (then Squaresoft) out of a desire to create more orchestral scores for RPG games. Amongst the soundtracks she produced during her tenure at Square were Super Mario RPG, Parasite Eve, and Legend of Mana. Her biggest and most well-known works, however, are the beloved soundtracks to the Kingdom Hearts series. Shimomura currently does freelance composition, contributing music to the Mario and Luigi series, Little King’s Story, Radiant Historia, and Xenoblade. Her next big musical project is the soundtrack to the upcoming Final Fantasy Versus XIII.

Castlevania

Ayami Kojima

It’s hard to think of an artist whose work has so defined the image and perception of a series more than Ayami Kojima. The gaming populace first got a glimpse of her lavishly detailed, ethereally gothic art in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. She continued to work on subsequent installments in the franchise, establishing a design style and motifs that persist throughout the series. Though she hasn’t acted as artist on every modern-day Castlevania title, her influence on the overall feel of the games is undeniable – Kojima is, to many, the Castlevania artist.

This Week's New Releases: Bayonetta, Darksiders

Mari Shimazaki

Bayonetta is one of the most memorable character designs to come out of this generation of games. Some might be surprised to learn, however, that such a sexually charged (many would say empowered) female character was, herself, designed by a woman. Mari worked at Capcom on the modern classic Okami, and made the move with many other ex-Clover staffers over to Platinum Games, where she played a huge role in creating Bayonetta’s outrageously coutured cast and distinct graphical style. While Mari contributes to other projects, such as designing some fashion for Soul Calibur V and contributing illustrations to a tribute project for manga legend Osamu Tezuka, she continues to work at Platinum Games on as-of-yet undisclosed project.

The Unsung Female Game Designers of Japan
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