Interview with Richard Robbins (Sunsoft)

Richard Robbins was there at the start of Sunsoft of America. He is the son of Joe Robbins, who was the president of Kitkorp. When Sun Electronics (mother company of Sunsoft) bought Kitkorp it was transformed into Sunsoft of America.

This interview with Richard was conducted via e-mail in 2016 and 2017. I would like to thank Kid Fenris who’s interviewed with RR and Michael Mendheim about Fester’s Quest lead to me finding Richard and Michael to interview for The History of SUNSOFT. This interview is the first extra article for The History of SUNSOFT.

Please enjoy.

/Stefan Gancer

SG: How did you come to work at Sunsoft? Did you work in game development before that? If so were and with what games?

RR: The company my father and I owned was acquired by Sun Corporation (Sunsoft) in 1986.
My father, Joe Robbins was a coin-op industry prominent executive, having owned the world’s largest Coin Op distributorship, President of Atari Coin in 1981 (he licensed Pac Man from Namco for Atari).
I started off in the industry reconditioning Pinball Machines, went on to manage a chain of Arcades and then worked at Kitco, a Coin Op manufacturer, this prior to Sunsoft.

Masami Maeda(left), Joe Robbins(third from right), RR Robbins(right) and other Sun staff.

SG: Tokai Engineering has made some of the best regarded games released by Sunsoft? The first game they made seems to be Ripple Island(1988). Did Sunsoft and Tokai Engineering’s partnership started in 1988? What did Tokai bring to the game development at Sunsoft? Most of Sunsofts best regarded games seem to have been made between 1988 to 1992. Was this due to the partnership with Tokai?

RR: I’m not familiar with Tokai. I know that the big NES hits like Spy Hunter, Blaster Master for which I designed the cinematics and branding), plus Batman for example were all developed in-house at Sunsoft in Konan City Japan.

(Stefan: I later learned that Tokai Engineering was a dummy company used to publish more games than the limited number Nintendo let a publisher release per year at the time.)

SG: Was there a shift where Sunsoft of America became more involved in the development of Sunsoft’s games? In the early 90s after you left most games from Sunsoft was developed by other studios like Software Creations, Iguana Entertainment etc. But even before that some games were designed at Sunsoft of America and developed in Japan.

RR: Again, there were many games developed by Sunsoft for the Japan game market, but most of the games I knew were developed in house during 1986-1989. After that i do not know as I had left the company.

SG: Sunsoft was one of few developers who made their own chips for Famicom/NES cartridges. Do you have any insight in the development and planned future of the chips?

RR: Sunsoft had a close relationship with Nintendo, this as both companies were long standing companies in the Japan amusement business. This allowed Sunsoft to become one of the first wave of NES licensees, plus also gained Sunsoft increased allocation of cartridges during the NES boom. For the most part though , Nintendo manufactured the bulk of NES cartridges during the NES days.

SG: The NES couldn’t use some of the extra cartridge chips the Famicom could. Was this ever a problem for you?

RR: And did you ever think of using an graphics enhancing chip for any game?

While Sunsoft had a lot of experience with the Famicom, they were strictly adhering to the US spec of the NES, as controlled closely by Nintendo.

SG: Did Sunsoft co-develop any games with TOSE during your time at the company?

RR: Not to my knowledge.

Spy Hunter (1987)

SG: Was this a straight off port of Bally Midways arcade game or did Sunsoft have to change anything from the original gameplay?

RR: It was amazing the entire game fit on a 256K-bit cartridge. Of course minor items were left out but for the most part, the game was faithful and was a huge hit for us.

Freedom Force (1988)

SG: You designed Freedom Force. Was it Sunsofts first lightgun game?

RR: Yes along with Michael Mendheim, probably first and only, not sure.

SG: How did you start laying out the game design? Did you have any prior experience of designing light gun games?

RR: We wanted a timely theme, graphics that evoked interest. Note that Nintendo of America initially rejected the cover art from Mendheim as it featured a woman in the upper right corner being held captive, now you see only a man there. I think there was a coin-op VS version of the game. We modeled the game play after some of the more successful gun games out there.

SG: Was it released in Japan? And what can you tell me about the VS System version. There are no pictures of a Freedom Force cabinett. The only information we have found is this

There is a Japanese title there. Was the game release in Japan on VS System but not the Famicom?

RR: For Freedom Force for VS System, only in the US as the VS system maybe wasn’t much in Japan and I don’t think that many FF coin sold.

And a video of the game. I now recall the cinematics that Mike Mendheim helped design. Pretty advanced for the day.

SG: Was it more difficult designing a game that uses the Zapper than the controller?

RR: Yes, because the Zapper had to flash the entire screen, so there were limits on hot spots and sprites.

SG: Naoki Kodaka composed the music for the game. He is considered one of the best video game composers of that era. How was it working with Kodaka?

RR: The music was programmed in japan, I was based in the US.
Later, at EA. I also worked extensively with Brian Schmidt who i hired for the Genesis game Crue Ball, which won awards for music.

SG: Of course Kodaka’s music was realized in-game by the sound programmers. They are also considered the best of their field back then. Did Sunsoft have a motto to go an extra mile?

RR: The NES music in blaster Master, Fester’s Quest was excellent. I was not aware of any motto.

SG: How long was the development time?

RR: NES games took about 9 months.

SG: Please tell me all you can about the development of the game.

RR: We shipped off the design to Japan, so I was not on site for most of it.

Xenophobe (1988)

SG: Xenophobe was another port of a Bally Midway game. How was this one to port?

RR: Not a problem for the most part.

Blaster Master (1988)

SG: Blaster Master is one of Sunsofts most known games. The original title was Chô Wakusei Senki Metafight. But you changed the title for the western release. You personally came up with the title Blaster Master right? Yes. Why Blaster Master?

RR: I was just riffing ideas, first it was Master Blaster, then changed to Blaster Master.

SG: The story was also changed. Were you involved in this part to?

RR: Yes, I came up with the frog story.

SG: Did Sunsoft of America have any part in the design of Blaster Master?

RR: Only the intro that I designed, the name and produced the creation of the branding.

SG: How long was the development time?

RR: About a year.

SG: About the text “Authentic arcade edition” on the Blaster Master box. Was there ever a VS. System version or was that just a sales phrase?

There may have been thoughts of or actually a V.S version. I think there was interest for Blaster Master as a VS game but by that time the VS was dying and we were moving away from Coin Op. That marketing line worked great on the Spy Hunter NES box as well.

SG: The difference being Spy Hunter being a port of an arcade game.

RR: Correct.

Fester’s Quest (1989)

SG: You produced Fester’s Quest for the NES. Why is the game centered on Fester and not the other characters of the family?

RR: Oh this was a longer story. I had a dream about “Fester’s Playhouse”, having a big fan of the TV series.  The Japan management thought it was a poor idea, like “who know about this old TV show”, but I prevailed.

Michael Mendheim also contributed to the design.

In 1987 I contacted Charles Addam’s widow Lady Colyton in Switzerland which began a series of (expensive) long distance phone calls. Lady Colyton was quite eccentric, protective and I believe, possibly somewhat smitten with me. She kept saying there was a movie coming, which we all thought was likely false, but of course it was true.

Fester was a cool character and striking image, and the concept for the game was wrapped around Fester.

SG: The gameplay feels a lot like the overhead parts of Blaster Master. Was it Sunsoft of America or Japan who decided the type of game? Or where you inspiered by other games in making Fester’s Quest?

RR: The game definitely had some of the Blaster Master team. Ultimately it might have been a tad too difficult/hard.

SG: Naoki Kodaka composed the music. How much influens did you have on the sound if any?

RR: Just reviewing the music and sending notes.

SG: The first person labyrinths are a unusual feature for Fester’s Quest. What was the design ideas behind it?

RR: We wanted to mix it up from being a straight isometric game.

SG: Sinces the game was designed by Michael Mendheim and developed in Japan. Did the Japanese staff have any say in what to put into the game?

RR: The japanese staff had a good deal of input.

SG: How long was the development time?

RR: About 9 months.

Batman: The Video Game (1989)

SG: How did Sunsoft get the Batman license? The game is based on Tim Burtons movie but only follows it’s plot loosely.

RR: We had a good relationship with Dan Romanelli at Warner brothers. I had a chance to visit the movie set in London.

When the movie came out, I was in Times Square with Masami Maeda from Sun, and Batman was all over the video boards, it was a majestic site for us.

SGDo you remember about when you got the Batman license and when development on the game started?

RR: I visited Pinewood Studios during pre production of the film. My guess is development started spring of 89.

SG: Can you tell me more about the founding of Sunsoft of America?

RR: Joe Robbins had a long standing relationship with many Japanese Game Companies. Joe Robbins Coin Op Distributorship Empire Distributing was the world’s largest. Joe’s company was one of the first to do business in America companies including Sega, Namco and Konami. In 1983, Joe sold his company “Interlogic” to Konami to establish Konami of America.

Joe then started Kitco. Joe has licensed “Kangaroo” to Atari for Sun Corporation, parent of Sunsoft. Joe and Sun Corps founder Masami maeda had a special relationship. When the NES was going to launch, it was only natural that Mr. Maeda turned to Joe for guidance in the US consumer market. Sun Corp Acquired Kitco/Kitkorp in 1986.

My father and I then guided Sunsoft into the NES market in the USA.

Masami Maeda and Joe Robbins

SG: How long did your father run the company?

RR: 1986-1989, 1991-1993

SG: Why did you change the story in Blaster Master for the US release? Was the original game to Japanese for the US?

RR: Yes, we felt a more relatable story would work better for the US market, I think we were correct.

SG: The European version of Fester’s Quest had some alterations made to make it easier. What was changed?

RR: I have no info on this.

Pixcel / TNT Games (my company)

BMX Airmaster 2600
Midnight Mutants Atari 7800

SG: How was it developing for the old Atari consoles?

RR: A pain. BMX is one of the most advanced 2600 games graphically.

SG: When did you start the company and what goals did you have for it?

RR: I acquired these games in progress from Sunsoft and completed them in my own company.

SG: BMX Air Master was released in 1989 and Midnight Mutants in 1990. These are late Atari 2600/7800 releases. Did Sunsoft ever release any Atari 2600/7800 games?

RR: No Sunsoft never released any Atari games.

SGWere they developed by the same outside developers that finished them for you? Were you the designer of the games?

RR: They were the same games that sunsoft started. I was one of the designers.

SGBut why were you developing Atari 2600 and 7800 games in 1989? Sunsoft was successful on the NES, which had surpassed older consoles like the Atari 2600 years ago by then.

RR: The market was still good in 89. The developer was able to do rapid development.

SGHow did you get in contact with Sculptured Software to make BMX Air Master in the first place?

RR: I knew Sculptured from my contacts at Atari.

SGWas the Grampa character from Midnight Mutants an homage to Granpa in The Munsters? Or where it supposed to be the same character?

RR: Al Lewis owned the rights to be named Grampa in a commercial sense. I called Al at his restaurant and he agreed to a reasonable license of his name and likeness.

Atari Corp (1989-90)

Various Atari Lynx games.
SG: How was it developing games for the Lynx compared to other systemes.

RR: The lynx was great, if low res.

EA (1990-92)
Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf(feb 1992)

SG: Desert Strike was a big hit at the time and spawned several sequels. Who came up with the concept?

RR: I created the concept, linear missions, structure for the game. However the helicopter and terrain had already been developed by another producer when EA wanted to cancel the project called “Beirut Breakout”. I agreed to take it on and the rest is history.

SG: Was the original concept different from the final product?

RR: Yes see above, there was no real mission concept or other theme from picking up guys with an Apache and shooting at stuff.

SG: Producers in video games seem to have widely different level of input into the game from company to company. Was there a difference producing at Sunsoft compared to EA?

RR: At EA, the Producer was god on the project, and your job was on the line to Produce. At Sunsoft, the japan based development team developed most of our games and AI.

Crüe Ball (1992)

SG: You produced and did some additional design on Crüe Ball. How did a pinball game based on Motley Crüe come about?

RR: I knew Mark Sprenger, pinball designer and Lou Heign from NuFX and put them together to help build a rock themed pinball game.

Motley Crue was an alternative. I wanted to license “Headbangers Ball” from MTV but they refused. So we approach Motley Cur who Sprenger knew.

SG: How much inspiration did games like Pinball Dreams have on Crüe Ball?

RR: We played em all, especially the Turbographix games.

SG: And a question about Crüe Ball. What was the most challenging part of designing a Pinball game with 2D graphics?

RR: The physics.

General Chaos (1994)

SG: What was your role on General Chaos?

RR: I approached Brian and Jeff of Rampage fame and basically said, make us a game, do whatever you want, EA went along.

Blockout (1991)

SG: This one is a interesring Tetris clone. But it is kind of hard making Tetris like puzzling in 3D. How was the design process?

RR: This was a port of a PC game and one of the first and only true 3-D (under the sheets) Genesis games.

SG: Can you tell me more about how Sunsoft and Sunsoft of America was run and the company’s view on games?

RR: Sunsoft was a owned by Sun Corporation on the outskirts of Nagoya. the Founder Masami Maeda was a man of integrity. Joe and Masami had a relationship going back when Joe helped License Kangaroo to Atari Coin op.

Sunsoft America was run by Joe and me from 86-89.

SGDo you know when Sunsoft was founded? On Wikipedia it says 1971, but that is the year Sun Denshi was founded. They made their first arcade machines in 1978 but I dont know if that was under the Sunsoft label.
Sunsoft was more of a consumer brand, created I think when we took Sun into the NES business in 96.

RR: Sun Corporation of America was the parent entity stateside, Sunsoft being a brand name.

SG: I found a flyer for a game developed by Sunsoft that there are no information about. There only seem to be that flyer for it and it was made in 1987 but was never released. It is called Lionex(see attached image). It has a overview look like some parts of Blaster Master. Is it possible it was reworked into Blaster Master?

RR: No idea. There were a lot of domestic games from Sunsoft we never saw.

SG: I also was wondering about the name Sunsoft. It is a brand and not a company right?

RR: Sunsoft was a brand name of Sun Denshi and Sun Corporation of America. We had to send a threatening legal letter to Sun Microsystems at the time as they tried to also use Sunsoft for games.

I think the agreement was that Sun Microsystems would not use Sunsoft for games.

More related not an answer to a question:??

RR: Remember that Sun Corporation is based in a somewhat rural suburb of Nagoya, they are not Tokyo hard core, very folksy relative to companies like Taito or Sega for example. Each japanese game company had a personality based in part on their CEO. For Sun, Maeda san was a man of great integrity, honor and loyalty that permeated the company. Maeda was not a very bold man in terms of business, more loyal than bold. Maeda really trusted Joe Robbins and was (almost) loyal to him.

“The self destruct gene”. This is what I term as the very common behavior of Japanese companies, at least in the video game field. In the 1980s, many Japanese companies set up shop in the U.S.. Companies that included Taito, jaleco, Namco, Tecmo, Sun, Konami and several others. Almost without exception, the initial US based organization was headed by a Western (American) CEO. But once the US divisions gained some success, the Japanese would feel pressure to replace their US organization leadership Western CEO with a Japanese CEO. This happened at many companies. Following replacement of the Western/American CEOs, the US divisions would usually falter and hence, self destruct. In 1989, Sun brought in a Japanese CEO to replace Joe Robbins at SCA. Only two years later, Sun realized their mistake and brought Joe back, a very rare reversal and admission for a Japanese company, but also tells you something about Maeda san.

Maeda was real old school traditional, a kind man and all class and respected by most of the game and Pachinko industry including Nintendo. Remember that Konan city is kind of the sticks. I attended Maeda’s parent funeral and found he lived one block away from the office in what was a mansion in Japan terms.

RR: Sun Corp was in a rural suburb, Konan City. The Sun folks had a rural japanese accent, and were viewed as bumpkins by Major game companies like Sega, Taito and Namco. But, Sun people were also highly respected for their honesty, credibility, and for being good people, something other japanese companies appreciated. Mr. Maeda was a particularly good hearted person.

But like many many Japanese companies, it was viewed as a disgrace to rely on Americans to run their USA operations. So many many Japanese companies would hire American leaders initially when they set up shop on the USA, and then once the operation was up and running, dispense with American leaders and bring in Japanese leaders. This often resulted in disaster.

Along these lines, once Sunsoft USA was extremely successful, Maeda brought in Japanese leaders and Joe was released in early 1989. But in this case, after the disaster under Japanese leadership, Mr. Maeda went back to Joe and asked him to lead the company once again a couple years later, this was an admission of failure under japanese leadership.

Mr, Maeda and Kiharu Yoshida always provided great hospitality to us when we visited Konan City. We would be picked up, taken out to good restaurants etc. We were treated with respect.

RR: We tried a coin game called Bay Route but he execution was weak. We had a VS game we licensed called Cruisin. Coin was much higher effort than consumer. Nes was so popular.
Which publication, the booklet? That was from Joe being honored by Aama.
You can try contacting sun denshi- better if u know someone who speaks Japanese to call.

SG: Could you tell me more about how Sun got the license to make a game with Batman? It was Suns first game using a Warner Brothers license was it not?

RR: You said you went to the filming of the movie. Where there any other Suns people there? I know devs from Japan got to go to the filming of Gremlins 2 when they were making that game.

Joe and i had a relationship with WB consumer products people at the time. I got advance notice the movie was happening and we aggressively acted to secure the license. Yes it was Sun’s first WB license. I went with Joe to London’s Pinewood studios to tour the set with WB’s product folks. Was amazing to walk the Gotham street and see the Batmobile before the movie came out.

Like I said, the magic moment is when we met Mr. Maeda in Times Square the week the movie premiered. Mr. Maeda got out of his taxi from the airport and looked up to see Batman plastered everywhere on the big Times Square screens. We felt like we were in The moment of the times having secured the Batman license. Remember that in 1989, Batman was a big deal.

SG: Why did Sun want to buy Kitkorp? Had Joe established connections with Sun during his time at Atari? What did Kitkorp do?

RR: After departing Atari coin as its President, Joe brokered a deal to license Sun’s Kangaroo to Atari. Mr Maeda and Joe were two very honorable men who were trusting of each other.
Sun acquired Kitcorp due to their trust in Joe, and also because Joe had the capability to enable Sun to enter the NES market in a strong way, from product to sales and marketing to administrative. Sun was one of the first licensees of Nintendo for NES.

Kitkorp was a coin op company manufacturing games licensed from Sega, Taito, Jaleco and others.

SG: I have found some old Kitkorp flyers online. It seems most of them are for arcade upgrade kits. Was the company called Kitkorp because they sold arcade kits?

RR: Yes Kitkorp because of kits. Joe was one of the best Coin Op marketers around. He was a special one of a kind person. Joe was a very trusted person in the industry.

SG: According to Wikipedia Sun Electronics Corporation is a part of Sun Corporation. Aren’t the two the same?

RR: Sun Denshi, Sun Electronics, same.

SG: How was it working with licenses for games? For example in Batman for NES Batman are using a gun. At the time Batman in other Batman fiction never used leathal force against his opponents. Did Warner Bros for example say what was OK and not OK to use?

RR: I do not recall these details.

SG: I know nothing about Masami Maeda except that he founded Sun Denshi.

RR: Maeda was real old school traditional, a kind man and all class and respected by most of the game and Pachinko industry including Nintendo. Remember that Konan city is kind of the sticks. I attended Maeda’s parent funeral and found he lived one block away from the office in what was a mansion in Japan terms.

SG: Back in the late 70s and early 80s most of Sun’s arcade games were published by Gifu TOKKI. That much I’ve found out. But I haven’t been able to figure out if Sun manufactured the machines or if Gifu did that part. And Taito seem to have published Sun’s early arcade games in the US. Do you know anything about this?

RR: I don’t know about the 70s. But I do know in the early 80s, Joe helped license Kangaroo to Atary Coin Op, and that was a success.

SG: Is it correct that Sun Corporation of America first was at one location and then moved to Cypress, CA. Where was the first office located?

RR: Sunsoft was first established in 86(corrected, RR first answered 88)at 2250 Elmhurst road in elk grove village IL (loved watching the planes fly over there).
Then in 88 we moved to a larger facility in nearby Wood Dale IL. Later in 1990 the office moved to Socal.

SG: SunSoft’s current director Shigeki Shimizu actually got some answers about their old arcade games. One of the developers back then was Yoshida. He was Director of SUNSOFT when Sun Corporation of America started right? What can you tell me about him?

RR: Kiharu Yoshida ran development. He was a little rural and often skeptical about game ideas. He went on to become president later.

SG: Did Sun get to port Bally’s Xenophobe and Spy Hunter due to Joe have worked there and having contacts there?

RR: We (Sunsoft) negotiated the first license from Williams to NES via Sunsoft for Spy Hunter, sold over 1 million carts. Baaed on that success we were able to license other Williams/Bally games.

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