Interview Joan Igawa : From 8/16 bits generation to PSP !

A few weeks ago, me and my wife watched the movie Cliffhanger, a kind of "Die Hard" in the mountain. The movie is really cool and I remember that the music marked me a lot at the time. Released in 1995, the movie with Stallone was one of the blockbusters of this year and I remembered of a game Cliffhanger which was available on several consoles. I'm very curious by nature, so I tried to contact developers of this title. Joan Igawa, artist and animator for 15 years in the videogames industry, kindly accepted my interview, which should remind you a lot of memories.

1 – Could you tell us how it all started for you ? Was this career something you had always dreamed of as a child ? 

I always wanted to be an artist since I was little. I’d get in trouble at school for drawing on my school work. Luckily as I grew older, my parents encouraged me to go to Art Center College of Design. I majored in Illustration and wanted to illustrate children’s books. Back then, videogames were still in its infancy and I remember playing on the Intellivision by Coleco and the Ninendo, but I never thought I’d ever have a career in that field. 

2 – How did you join Interactive Design / SEGA of America ? 

I was working in the animation industry as a background color key artist on various cartoons for television and I loved what I was doing. The work, however, was seasonal so we’d get laid off after the season was over, then re-hired again once it started up again. I was tired of scrambling for work in-between seasons and saw an ad posted through Art Center looking for artists. 

3 – Do you remember your first game Mario Lemieux Hockey ? Could you talked about this game ? Was it hard to discover the job ? 

I remember I created the opening start screen art. It was my first time getting used to creating pixellated art with a very limited color palette. 

4 – You’re one of the three artists who worked on Greendog : The Beached Surfer Dude. Nowadays, it’s a game loved by a lot of fans. The character has been created by Ric Green, a californian surfer whose nickname was Greendog. Could you explain to us the genesis of this game ? The graphics are really colored and beautiful, what was your job on this game ? Sprites, animations, environnements, all is great ! The music is also really cool. Could you tell us the backstage of Greendog ? 

I honestly can’t remember much about what I had exactly did in that game. I believe I may have done some animated sprites and maybe some of Greendog’s animation. 

5 – The same year, players discovered Talespin on Genesis. What was your work on this game ? Was it hard to work with Disney ? Did you receive rules (sprites, colors, environnements…) from Disney ? I notice something which is funny : the ennemies cling to the character as in Greendog. 

We got to work on almost every aspect of the game. I designed the ancient Rome level and drew everything out on sheets of graph paper, designed and animated all enemy sprites. I also designed the look of Baloo and Kit including all their animation. There were no set rules by Disney—as long as the game and characters had the Disney look. I do remember designing a enemy turkey that would lay eggs and then throw them at Baloo and Kit. I was told to change it because it was as if the turkey was "killing its own child". 

6 – In 1992, you worked on Darkwing Duck on Turbografx. Do you remember your work on this machine ? 

I do remember working on the tail end of the project but I don’t remember exactly what I had done. 

7 – What memories do you have of Interactive Design / SEGA of America ? Atmosphere, colleagues, offices, etc. Have you got anecdotes from this time ? 

I remember very little, but it was a highly creative place with lots of talented, young people who were hungry and excited to be working in such a new industry at the time. Most of the artists were straight out of Art Center. 

8 - Why did you join Malibu Interactive ? 

I remember SEGA Interactive and Malibu were doing Batman Returns for Sega Saturn and Genesis together. Bob Jacob, the head of Malibu Interactive, was someone I had known previously—I used to babysit his two sons when I was in high school. I never knew exactly what he did for a living so when SEGA Interactive and Malibu met for the first time, it was a nice surprise ! Shortly afterward, I decided to jump ship and work for Malibu. 

9 – In 1995, Cliffhanger was one of the most important movies of the year. Could you explain to us how was the development of the game ? Why did you chose a beat’em up ? Did you receive documents (story, characters, situations…) before the release of the film ? Did you see a few sequences of the film ? It must have been original to work on a game with Stallone. I guess, it’s not easy to create a sprite which looks like to Sly ! 

As part of the creative team, we were just handed projects that Malibu would get—Cliffhanger being one of them. I remember getting loads of photographs taken on set of all the actors for reference. I do remember getting to go to the Carolco office and getting to watch to the movie before it was released. Unfortunately, I never got to see or meet Sly or any of the actors.

10 – What was your role on Bonkers Wax Up on Master System and Game Gear. Before that, your worked with 16-bits machines (Super Nes, Genesis), is it different to work on 8-bits systems ? Less power, less color… The game is cool and well-realized. 

That game was a contract job. I basically created all the character artwork and animations. Working on the Game Gear meant working with a very limited color palette with very small sprites. Making a bunch of pixels look like a cartoon character was challenging but fun. 

11 – With Criticom, you realized your first 3D game. What was the genesis of this game ? You’re credited as CG Modeling, Animation and Rendering. How was this job ? Was it hard to learn the developement of 3D games ? Was it a new experience for you ? 

I had played around with 3d back in college and I had started noticing that videogames were starting to utilize 3d graphics. I think Toshinden was one of the very first 3d graphics game that came out for the Sony Playstation. I had limited experience with modeling and had to re-learn the 3d graphics program and learn 3d animation for this project. It was a totally new experience for me, yet, pretty exciting. I believe Criticom was Kronos’ first console game—it was exciting for all of us back then. 

12 – What are your memories of Dark Rift on Nintendo 64 (in my sense, one of the best fighting game on N64) and Cardinal Syn ? 

Gosh I can’t remember much about working on Dark Rift. I think that’s when I started concentrating on texture mapping the characters. Cardinal Syn I remember we wanted to call it War Clans in the beginning. We used a lot of motion capture for some of the moves. I did work on some animation and modeling and a lot of character texture mapping. 

13 – Now, we can talk about one of the treasures of the PlayStation : Fear Effect (called Fear Factor at the beginning if my information is right). I’ve a lot of questions about this game :


 Could you explain to us the genesis of the game ? 

I believe Stan wanted to base the game around Hong Kong, where he was born. The futuristic style was based on his favorite movie Blade Runner. There were many influences in that game—Akira, Ghost in the Shell, etc.. 

You are lead character artist on Fear Effect. What were your feelings at the time ? Did you feel pressure ? 

John Paik was the person who designed Hana on paper. I wanted to create an cool anime look on a 3d character model which hadn’t been done before. I was influenced by Ghost in the Shell a lot while creating Hana’s textures. Unfortunately, the technology wouldn’t really allow the flat textures to have convincing shadows so I had to paint the shadows on the face and body—basically faking the lighting, so they’d look more anime and convincing in their environment. I always love a challenge and I wanted the game to look unique and standout against all the other games that were out there at the time.

Do you remember when the team decided to use CG for the sceneries of the game ? It was a great idea and the game is visually very efficient today. I played the game during the preparation of my questions and it’s like a movie ! Very cinematographic ! Really different from a lot of games at the time. More mature, more adult. 

It was always planned to use CG for everything. We didn’t want the backgrounds to be completely static—so things in the background would loop, making it more realistic. Stan wanted a more adult oriented game with a mature theme and he was always pushing towards developing the most innovative and the most unique games that the technology could allow. 

What are the inspirations of the game ? Resident Evil for the style ? Blade Runner for the universe ? 

Yes, we played a lot of Resident Evil and was influenced by that game a lot. Blade Runner for sure was a huge inspiration. Anime like Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Appleseed, and Bubblegum Crisis/Crash were also big influences. 

How did you create the characters ? Again today, they are really cool and charismatics. 

I looked at a lot of my favorite anime movies like Akira and Ghost in Shell. 

Why did you decide to have three playable characters ? 

The game forces you to play each character depending on where you are in the story. It’s a very story driven game and each character gives the player a different playing style and a different point of view. 


Why did the team decide to create a sequel ? 

I believe the first Fear Effect had enough popularity and success to create a sequel. For awhile, some actors, directors and movie studios were interested in producing a Fear Effect movie, but sadly, it never happened. 

As Fear Effect, Fear Effect 2 is a very mature game (characters, story…). What was the feeling of the team at the time ? Was it a goal to have a game which change the habits of the industry ? I remember an advertising where Rain is on the back of Hana and I remember that this artwork made talk at the time. 

Stan was always looking for controversy in his characters. What better way of creating controversy than to have both characters be lesbians ? Again, it seemed the first of its kind back then, plus, a lot of guys dig that kind of thing. 

What are the inspirations of the team for the creation of Rain ? 

Stan had a certain look in mind when he created Rain. I used to get Victoria’s Secret catalogs and bring them to work to look through them on breaks. The model Laetita Casta had that look that Stan was looking for. 

14 – Could you tell us the story behind the game Fight Club ? 

After Kronos, I worked at another game development company who was creating Fight Club based off the movie. Some of the characters in the game were incidental characters in the film. Why they picked Marla as a playable character to fight I have no idea. Alot of the backgrounds were based on the locations in the game. I created a lot of textures for backgrounds and the bloody textures for all the characters. 

15 – For Secret Agent Clank, Ratchet & Clank : Size Matters and Jax & Daxter : The Lost Frontier, what was your role ? For Ratchet & Clank and Jax & Daxter, did you have the code and elements (3D model, textures…) of the original games ? 

I believe I did receive some original textures from the game and had to reduce then re-project them onto lower poly models for the PSP. For the most part, the developer had modelers who built or modified the characters, weapons and vehicles, then the models were passed to me for texturing. 

16 – Why did you decide to leave the videogames industry ? 

After 15 years of working long hours as well as constantly keeping up 3d software updates and technology, I got burned out. After the birth of my second son, I decided to focus on raising my children. I had no energy or the creativity to pick up a pencil and sketch. It took a long time to get back into art. Before Stan died, he developed mobile games and sometimes I’d create some of the artwork. After he died, I took over his company, Atomic Bullfrog LLC and started designing t-shirts through Amazon’s Merch by Amazon as well as starting my own Etsy shop. I’ve been doing that for about 3 years now. I used to play MMORPG’s before kids and continued playing them while they were younger. Now I casually play puzzle games on the cellphone when I have some free time to myself or I’ll play a little bit on the Occulus Quest—which is so immersive. I do get sensory overload from it and I can only handle about 30 minutes before I start to get tired. I find that as I get older, I don’t have the patience or the attention span to sit for hours playing console games or PC games. Also sitting down for long periods of time is painful on my back and hips ! 

17 – What do you think of the actual videogames industry ? 

The videogames industry has come such a long way from Pong ! I’ve seen it evolve from the old school 2d pixel console games to huge MMORPG’s to casual cellphone games to virtual reality, which is so awesome—it’s so immersive. It’s evolved so much now that it’s a social thing for my sons—they use it not only as entertainment, but as a way to talk and hang out with their friends. I would have never imagined how connected their generation is and how much they rely on this technology for socialization. I am trying as a parent to curb their use, but as a developer and gamer, I’ve also created the problem. 

18 – Do you have anecdotes of your career ? Moments with colleagues, moments of joy, difficulties with a few games, amazing moments, etc. 

I am grateful that I had the experience of working this industry. I am certainly not the same person I was when I was in it and I’m glad of it. I have learned to not be afraid to asay that I messed up and take responsibility, then try to fix it. I developed a dark sense of humor from working in a male dominated industry. I was naive and quite immature in my early days—but all those experiences, good and bad, have shaped me what I am today . When we were all working at Kronos, we had a lot of fun times and I know a lot of my colleagues that started their careers there are now very successful in the movie industry and animation industry, still look back fondly at their time there. 

Thank you so much Mrs. Igawa !

Many thanks to Joan Igawa. You can find her creations on the official website of Atomic Bullfrog : or

Plus récente Plus ancienne