The History of Sunsoft – Part II: Going consumer

This article is subject to change. Please report any errors, typos etc. UPDATED: Augusti 8, 2017

In part one we took a look at the early games developed at Sun Denshi. The name Sunsoft still hadn’t been used, and as home consoles were starting to get popular in the early to mid ’80s, Sun Denshi like many other companies wanted a piece of that pie.

But first I would like to tell you about how this series of articles came to be. In the fall of 2015, I started researching for a Sunsoft episode for my Swedish podcast PixelPolare (PixelPals). The basic structure of the podcast is that we talk about the history of some games and their developers.

As I found that information about Sunsoft was lacking, I began looking for people to interview. I found some willing participants and conducted interviews via e-mail. And, of course, the answers I got sometimes triggered follow-up questions. Some of these e-mail correspondences have been going on for a year and a half now. And during that time I have gotten in touch with even more people.

These articles are based on those interviews, other people’s interviews, and all the rich sources of gaming information out there on the Internet. I have questioned everything and tried to verify as much as possible. In addition to these articles I will also publish the source interviews (but those will come at a later date when most of the articles are already out).

I don’t want the articles to be static, they will be updated if new information surfaces. At the end of each article is a list of all updates.

And before we start part two I would like to thank all the people who made this possible, by either answering my endless string of e-mails or helping in other ways.

Now, please enjoy part two.

–Part II: Going consumer–

Atari 2600 box art

In 1983 Sun Denshi had begun developing games for home consoles, or consumer games (as they call them in Japan). Mainly for Atari’s popular Atari 2600. They ported their arcade game Kangaroo to the system. Funky Fish was also ported to Atari 2600 by UA Limited, though for some reason the port wasn’t released until AtariAge published it on June 16, 2003. UA Limited had also ported Tekhan’s Pleiades (which I mentioned in part one) and it was also released June 16, 2003 by AtariAge.

1983 was the same year as the infamous video games crash, which slowly started to tear down Atari in the US. Atari had been the market leader since the late ’70s with the Atari 2600. But in 1983 they started losing market shares to the increasingly popular home computers. Atari’s attempts to follow-up the Atari 2600, with the Atari 5200, had failed and the console was flooded with shovelware. Retailers had begun selling out their stock for cheap since the demand for games had subsided.

Nintendo Family Computer became popular in Japan in 1984 and by 1987 it had conquered the world.

The same year, Nintendo released a new console in Japan. The Family Computer (Famicom for short) was developed to give the players an almost arcade-like experience in their own living room. The new graphics and possibilities of the Family Computer made it a big hit in Japan in 1984 with ports of Nintendo’s arcade hits and the dawn of more original games. After some hard work at Nintendo of America it was also launched successfully in the US in late 1985. There it was renamed as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES for short).

Just like when Sun Denshi began developing arcade games after seeing the success of Space Invaders in 1978, they saw the success of the Famicom and wanted to develop for it. They managed to get in early, becoming one of the earliest third-party developers for the Famicom. And like other early third-party developers they got privileges that later third parties would not, chief director of Sunsoft Shigeki Shimizu tells me.

“…there were only a few companies working on the NES in the early days that had Nintendo’s approval to produce cartridges and the actual technology and manufacturing resources to do so. Sun Denshi was one of those companies.” – Shigeki Shimizu

Sunsoft’s cartridges had the Sunsoft logo embossed in the plastic. Most of the early first third-party developers had their logo on the cartridge itself.

Atlantis no Nazo, Ikki and Tenka no Goikenban: Mito Kōmon cartridges with the SUNSOFT logo on the top of the front. *
Cartridges from Namcot, Bandai, Konami, Irem and Taito. *


This also meant that they later could develop their own enhancement chips to make more advanced games. But more about that when we get to the enhanced games.

Sun Denshi began releasing games for the Family Computer, now using the label name Sunsoft for their games instead of simply Sun Electronics Corporation. Sunsoft isn’t the name of a company,  just the brand Sun Denshi used when they released video games (both in Japan and worldwide).

I will refer to the game development division of Sun Denshi as Sunsoft from here on.


Super Arabian (スーパーアラビアン)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Electronics Corporation | Release: July 25, 1985 | Format: Famicom | Original price: 4,500 yen (excluding tax) | Size: 192 K

SUNSOFT’s earliest games for the system were ports of three of their arcade games. On July 25, 1985 Super Arabian was released, a port of Arabian. It was released two months before Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers. Compared to Nintendo’s “super” game though, Super Arabian wasn’t very good. It was basically the same game as the arcade original.

The game was marked “Series No. 1”, a numbering scheme that would last for six games. Route-16 Turbo was “No. 2”,  Ikki “No. 3”, Atlantis no Nazo “No. 4”, 53 Stations of the Tokaido “No. 5” and Wings of Madoola “No. 6”. After Wings of Madoola this numbering system seems to have been abandoned. It was also only used for cartridge games, skipping the Famicom Disk System games that were released between 53 Stations of the Tokaido and Wings of Madoola.

Super Arabian was the first game to be released under the SUNSOFT label. But on the first print of Super Arabian it was written as “SUN SOFT”, with a gap. This version of the logo can be found in the manual, flyer, title screen, and on the cartridge itself. It was then changed to SUNSOFT for their next game (Route-16 Turbo) and later prints of Super Arabian.

“Using the label SUNSOFT came about in the Famicom era, but it seems as though the games were considered as SUNSOFT productions as early as the arcade era. Even after doing a little research, I’m not sure what the reasoning was behind choosing that name. Nobody from back then remembers, either.” – Shigeki Shimizu

Though the reasoning behind choosing the particular name of SUNSOFT is forgotten to history, it is a portmanteau of “Sun Denshi” and “software”. Many developers have used the same naming convention like Squaresoft, Adventure Soft, and Ubisoft for example. While others have used the full word like From Software, Maxis Software and iD Software.


Route-16 Turbo (ルート16ターボ)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Electronics Corporation | Release: October 15, 1985 | Format: Famicom | Original price: 4,900 yen (excluding tax) | Size: 320 K

The second game to be ported was Route-16, now called Route-16 Turbo. Like with Arabian, they seem to have been compelled to spruce things up by adding “Turbo” to the title. Even though it’s more or less the same game.

According to Kenji Sada the game was ported by Yoshitaka Kawabe. A man would later program the arcade game Bay*Route and Mega Drive adaptation of the 1989 Batman movie.

The games credits lists three nicknames. Twincam-16, CR-X and Fairlady Z. I asked Sada if he knew who of these where Kawabe.

“I don’t know the team of Route 16 Turbo since the game already released when I began to work on Sunsoft.
BTW Mr.Masahito Nomura owned CR-X and Mr.Atsushi Sakai owned Fairlady Z 
as long as I remember.” – Kenji Sada

So it’s fully possible that Kawabe is Twincam-16 (a Toyota engine), Nomura CR-X (after the car Honda CR-X) and Sakai Fairlady Z (after the Nissan Fairlady Z) keeping to a automobile theme. This is the best guess we have for the credits of Route-16 Turbo, but not a 100% certain one.


Ikki (イッキ)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Electronics Corporation | Release: November 28, 1985 | Original price: 4,500 yen (excluding tax) | Size: 192 K

Ikki was released for the Famicom on November 28, 1985 and was ported in-house at Sunsoft, according to Atsushi Sakai.

“We ported the arcade game to the Famicom. We didn’t have any in-house designers yet, so I was in charge of the graphics. My first job was punching out the sprite drawings one by one.” – Atsushi Sakai (from Game Maker: SUNSOFT)

Ikki was a success and sold well on the Famicom. It sold over a million copies, and might actually be the best selling game from Sunsoft. This may be the reason that SUNSOFT seems to have a fondness for the game even today. Though the game was never officially released outside Japan, it did show up on multi-game pirate cartridges that were sold worldwide. So it’s not very uncommon for westerners to have played it, but it was almost certainly under another name (like ‘Ninja’).

Ikki has the rare, albeit unfortunate, honor of causing the invention of a new word: Kusogē (クソゲー). Meaning “shitty game”. Kuso () meaning shit and Ge (ゲー) being short for gemu, which means game. The term was coined by Famitsu writer and illustrator Jun Miura in 2002.

On July 13, 2006 a version of the game was released for mobile phones, Ikki Mobile. Four years later on June 29, 2010 Ikki Online (いっき おんらいん) was released for PlayStation 3 in Japan. This remake of Ikki features new graphics and multiplayer modes for up to 12 players. It was co-developed with Irem.

Ikki Online

There was also an Ikki novel. いっき -LEGEND OF TAKEYARI MASTER-, it was released by 桜ノ杜ぶんこ on July 5, 2013.

“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.” – Richard Robbins


–Sun Corporation of America–

Joe Robbins, 1955 | Photo credits unknown

In 1986 Sun Denshi expanded to the US and founded Sun Corporation of America. Leading the company was Joseph Robbins, more commonly called Joe, a veteran of the coin-op business. After completing his military service in 1945 he had tried to get into the coin op business. It took him 6 years until he really made it though. He was employed by Gil Kitt at Empire Coin Machine Exchange. Kitt had lost all his sales staff after they had quit and started their own company and needed Joe to get the company going again.

At Empire, Joe flourished and the company grew to become the largest distributor of coin-op machines in the US. They released machines from high quality brands such as Williams and Rock-Ola.
In 1960 Midway Manufacturing was founded by Hank Ross and Iggy Wolverton, the two had just left United Manufacturing to make it on their own. They, too, choose Empire to distribute their machines.

During the ’60s, Joe was responsible for the European table-top game of foosball coming over to the US. He had been ignoring offers to distribute the game for quite some time. But when a man in Austria could not pay his debts to Empire in anything other than foosball units, Joe accepted. They became popular, and Empire proceeded to import foosball directly from the Italian manufacturer Garlando.

In 1964 Empire hit a bump when their competitor Seeburg bought Williams and United. The two manufacturers’ machines accounted for 60% of Empires distribution, and around Thanksgiving of 1964, Joe could only watch as two of their best customers went to Seeburg.
But Joe didn’t give up that easily and within a year Empire had all the best brands, except Williams, under their wings.


In 1970, Empire changed its name to Empire Distributing and had expanded its operations to Europe, South America, Japan and other parts of Asia.
The same year Bally Manufacturing was close to purchasing Empire but the deal fell apart. But just two years later Bally finally bought Empire. Joe became a director at Bally, “Chairman of the Executive and Audit Committees” and continued as CEO of Empire. Bally became the distributor of Japanese arcade manufacturers in the ’70s. Nintendo, Sega, Taito and Namco were some of the machine manufacturers which it distributed. In 1972 they also got to distribute Atari’s sensation Pong.

“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 with Japanese companies including Sega, Namco and Konami.” – Richard Robbins


In June 1980, Joe became president of Atari Coin, while Ray Kassar was president of Atari Inc. as a whole. During his time at Atari Joe went to Japan to discuss legal matters with Namco’s president Masaya Nakamura and managed to come home with a new licensing deal.

“Joe and Nakamura went back to the late ’60s. Joe’s Company Empire Distributing was the first company to import Namco product to the USA.” – Richard Robbins

Joe and Nakamura signing papers for the deal that included the console rights to Pac-Man. | Photo credits unknown

“Joe, because of his trust with the Japanese, came back with probably the greatest video game consumer license of all time to that point, maybe of all time given the price.” – Richard Robbins

Part of the deal meant that Atari got the rights to make console ports of Namco’s arcade games (while his old employer Williams/Bally had the rights to the arcade version). At first Joe’s move wasn’t very well received at the company. At the time in 1980, Namco wasn’t really a big player as they didn’t have any hit games yet. But as the arcade version of Pac-Man became a monster hit in 1980 people changed their views on Joe’s deal. Though the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man was lacking in several aspects, it wound up selling over 7 million copies. It was Pac-Man after all. At the time it was said that Atari had over-produced the game; that they had manufactured 12 million copies when they had only sold 10 million Atari 2600s. Though this has been pegged as a bit of an exaggeration from Ray Kassar.  Joe ended up leaving his position as president of Atari Coin in late 1981 after only a year on the post.

“The dual presidency was also doomed, plus the arcade video game market was going to implode regardless of anything anyone could do.
Atari Coin had a gigantic arcade factory in 1981, totally unsustainable.” – Richard Robbins

 After leaving Atari Joe started Interlogic together with a man called Ben Har-El. Ben had worked for Joe at Atari. In 1984 they sold the company to Konami. Interlogic then became Konami of America. Ben stayed on as president of Konami of America.

“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.” – Richard Robbins

 

Now Joe and another man, Howie Rubin, started a coin-op company called Kitco. They worked with distributing arcade conversion kits (basically upgrade kits for cabinets). The company name was later changed to Kitkorp. Two years later in 1986 Joe sold the company to Sun Denshi.

Kitco had also distributed Sun Denshi’s arcade game The GUINNESS as Strength & Skill in the US in 1984 which was another deal between the two company leaders.

Joe remained as CEO of the new company having the trust of Maeda. He ran the company together with his youngest son Richard Robbins until 1989.

Masami Maeda (left), Joe Robbins (third from right), Richard Robbins (right) and other Sun staff.
Sun Corporation of America was established on 2250 Elmhurst Road in Elk Grove Village, Illinois in 1986. **

Sun Corporation of America’s initial task was to distribute the games made at Sun Denshi in Japan. They also continued Kitkorp’s distribution of arcade conversion kits. Sun Corporation of America did however become increasingly more involved in the development of the games later on. In 1988 they moved to a larger facility in Wood Dale, Illinois and in 1990 the company would move to its final location on 11165 Knott Avenue, Cypress, California.

Sun Corporation of America’s Cypress offices. | Photo credits unknown

–1986-87–

Atlantis no Nazo (アトランチスノナゾ)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Electronics Corporation | Release: April 17, 1986 | Format: Famicom | Original price: 4,500 yen (excluding tax) | Size: 384 K

Until now, Sunsoft had only ported their arcade games for the Famicom. In 1986 came a crucial moment in Sunsoft’s history as they began developing original games for the Famicom. The first one was Atlantis no Nazo, released on April 17, 1986. Atlantis no Nazo translates to The Mystery of Atlantis.

Atlantis no Nazo was developed with the intention of beating Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros.,  which had been released the year before. Atlantis no Nazo’s advertising slogan was “Ano Super Mario wo koeta !!” or “It’s beyond Super Mario !!”. Meaning it was beyond Super Mario Bros in the amount of level. The game had more levels, but it was confusing and could not compete with Nintendo’s more straightforward platformer.

Atlantis was indeed developed based on the director’s objective of “surpassing Super Mario [Bros].” I think it at least surpasses it in number of levels, if nothing else.” – Shigeki Shimizu

But having 101 levels isn’t the way to beat another game, especially Super Mario Bros.

In an interview for Game Center CX’s DVD Game Maker: SUNSOFT, former Sunsoft programmer Atsushi Sakai says the game was inspired by Namco’s Pacland. Atlantis no Nazo’s main programmer took inspiration from Pacland, a game with hidden secrets. And he wanted to outdo it in the secrets department. Said programmer was also responsible for most of the 101 stages of the game and its non-linear layout. Warps were implemented that could take the player to other stages, sometimes backwards.

“There were many different types of levels, so I had trouble with continually making adjustments to the 100+ stages. Not being able to put enemies somewhere because they wouldn’t be able to move and making sure stages didn’t resemble each other, for example.”  – Atsushi Sakai (from Game Maker: SUNSOFT)

In the same interview the game’s intro sequence is mentioned. They thought it was necessary to use a bit more data than usual to really show off the game. Basically, they needed to use memory to program an AI running through a part of the game. In Japan, at the time, games could be running on TVs in stores and games that had an intro that showed off the gameplay, instead of being locked at a title screen, would be more eye catching. In many intro demos of this kind the player character will often just run and jump stupidly until they die. This is the case with Atlantis no Nazo.

Atlantis no Nazo was one of a few games to use the built-in microphone in the second controller of the Famicom. Voice could be used for some of the game’s collectible items.

During the development of Atlantis no Nazo Sunsoft began recruiting designers. They wanted staff that were specialized in design characters and box art, according to Atsushi Sakai. And after Atlantis no Nazo the design of both characters and box art was noticeably improved. As with manga artist Moriken’s character design in The Wing of Madoola and later Ripple Island.

Atlantis no Nazo was never released outside of Japan, although Activision bought the rights to release it in the US. They intended to change the title to Super Pitfall 2.

Super Pitfall had also been developed in 1986 by Micronics (best known for their NES ports of Ghosts n Goblins and Ikari Warriors for the NES). The game was not exactly like Atlantis No Nazo but perhaps close enough so that they could get away with making Atlantis no Nazo its sequel.

53 Stations of the Tōkaidō (東海道五十三次)
Developer: TOSE | Publisher: Sun Electronics Corporation | Release: July 3, 1986 | Format: Famicom | Original price: 4,500 yen (excluding tax) | Size: 384 K

Kanshakudama Nage Kantarō no Tōkaidō Gojūsan Tsugi, or Firework Thrower Kantaro’s 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō, often referred to as 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō for short, was released on July 3, 1986.

As fireworks-maker Kantarō, the player needs to travel the Tokaido route to be reunited with his beloved. On the way Kantarō must defend himself against a merchant’s henchmen who’s trying to steal his secrets of fireworks-making. Kantaro uses his fireworks as a weapon.

The Tokaido road was the main travel and trade route in Japan in the Edo period (1603-1868). The road went from the shogun’s capital Edo to the Imperial capital Kyoto. The 53 stations of the Tokaido was captured in wood prints by Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige in the 1830s.

53 Stations isn’t a particularly great game but it continued Sunsoft’s path of making more original games. Only two years later, these efforts will lead to some great games being developed.

There are sources saying that the developer TOSE was involved in the development of not just 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō but also Tenka no Goikenban: Mito Kōmon and Mito Kōmon II: Sekai Manyuuki. The Game Developer Research Institute (GDRI) tells me that they have found code in these three games that are similar to code in other Famicom games known to have been developed by TOSE.

I asked Shigeki Shimizu (Director of Sunsoft) about TOSE’s involvement in the games. In my question I also added Ikki which also has been thought to have been developed by TOSE.

“Yes, some are developed by TOSE. However, I can not talk much about it due to contract limitations.” – Shigeki Shimizu

I also asked The Wing of Madoola’s designer Kenji Sada about this.

“We knew that Sunsoft ordered the development of some games to an outside company in Kyoto.
The company’s name was hidden and called “Company-A”. TOSE must be “Company-A”.”
 – Kenji Sada

–The Disk System Era–

On February 21, 1986, Nintendo released a floppy disk accessory for the Famicom, the Family Computer Disk System (FDS for short). Nintendo’s plan was to more or less replace the cartridges with this new format. The disks had higher storage capacity and were cheaper to manufacture.

The first game for the system was The Legend of Zelda. A game of that size and detail wouldn’t have been possible on cartridge without using a more expensive multi-memory controller chip (MMC chip for short). So third-party developers also began developing games for the FDS, though the format would only last for three years. In June of 1986, Capcom’s Ghosts N Goblins was released as the first cartridge game with more memory than a Disk System disk. With improved MMC chips on the way, the FDS’ death was only a matter of time.


Dead Zone (
デッドゾーン
)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Electronics Corporation | Release: November 20, 1986 | Format: Famicom Disk System | Original price: 2,980 yen (excluding tax)

Sunsoft’s first Disk System game was Dead Zone. This time SUNSOFT ventured into the first person point and click adventure genre. The genre is maybe most known for ICOM Simulations MacVenture games Déjà Vu (1985), Uninvited (1986), and Shadowgate (1987). Like the older arcade game Stratovox it also uses some voice synthesis to make some of the game dialogue spoken. The game credits Dr. Mozer for the voice program.

Dr. Forrest S. Mozer is an early pioneer in voice synthesising, whose voice programs were used for most voice synthesis in games in the ’80s. I asked Dr. Mozer’s son Todd Mozer if it was possible that Dr. Mozer’s technology was used for the arcade game Speak & Rescue (see Part I) as well. He said it was most likely Mozer technology.

The Mozers have dozens of patents in the field of domain waveform coding. The collective term is “Mozer Waveform Coding”. Todd Mozer thinks the chip used in Speak & Rescue was manufactured by National Semiconductor Corporation. The chip was called Digitalker. Digitalker was the successor to the S14001A speech synthesis chip that Silicon Systems produced for the first talking calculator, the TSI Speech+. But in part one we learned from Shigeki Shimizu that Speak & Rescue actually did not use Dr. Mozer’s technology. It is possible that Mozer’s technology was used but as it was manufactured by National Semiconductor Corporation they just did not know it was Mozer’s.

Forrest S Mozer and Todd Mozer

Forrest and Todd Mozer later founded Electronic Speech Systems (ESS) to license the technology. 

“My dad and I started Electronic Speech Systems (ESS) in 1984 to license his software and we had a lot of design wins in video games (mostly commodore 64)…Epyx, Activision, Microprose, etc. We designed into many hits like Ghostbusters, Beach Head, in fact pretty much every licensee made billboards top 10 on the software charts (although I don’t think it was causal).” – Todd Mozer

Dead Zone revolves around Kirk McRae who goes out on an assignment and on his way back home, to meet his fiancée Mary, gets knocked out and wakes up in an underground facility. He now needs to get out with the help of his robot buddy Carry.

The game’s story also mentions a “Lionex” project that Mary works on. Fans speculate that the canceled game Lionex, where a world-controlling computer named Lionex rebels, is a sequel to Dead Zone.


Adian no Tsue (
アディアンノツエ)
Developer: ASK Kodansha/Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Electronics Corporation | Release: December 12, 1986 | Format: FDS | Original price: 4,900 yen (excluding tax)

In 1986 Sunsoft also began releasing games developed by other studios. On December 12,  1986, SUNSOFT released ASK Kodansha’s “Adian no Tsue”(Staff of Ajian). It was the first game in a series called “I.Q. Game Series”, these were educational games having the player solving math problems to progress. It featured Zelda-like dungeons where the player had to solve math and defeat enemies to progress. There seems to be three games made for this series. Adian no Tsue was followed by the second and third games on March 27, 1987, Super Boy Allan (スーパーボーイ・アラン) and Chiteitairiku Orudola (地底大陸オルドーラ). Super Boy Allan had a similar view to Adian no Tsue but featured other types of math puzzles. Chiteitairiku Orudola on the other hand is a platformer with what looks like the protagonist from Adian no Tsue throwing bombs on enemies, and getting to solve math to progress at certain points in levels.


The Wing of Madoola (
マドゥーラノツバサ)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Electronics Corporation | Release: December 18, 1986 | Format: Famicom Disk System  | Original price: 4,900 yen (excluding tax) | Size: 512 K

Sunsoft also continued to develop their own original games. Next in line was Madūra no Tsubasa, or The Wing of Madoola, released on December 18, 1986. It’s an action game where the player controls the sword-and-magic wielding Lucia. Here it becomes evident that Sunsoft began improving their designs. No longer just blatantly copying others’ games like in the arcade days; they were trying new things. Even if The Wing of Madoola is pretty straight forward, it also has the player picking up power-ups that make the character stronger. It’s essentially an action platformer mixed with light RPG elements. But still, the controls and gameplay were not where they needed to be for it to become a hit.

I asked the games designer (and main programmer) Kenji Sada what inspired him to put RPG elements in the game.

“I didn’t intend to make an action RPG, but just an action game.
Madoola is called an action RPG only for a business requirement.
A title sold well if it was called RPG in those days, thanks to Dragon Quest.” – Kenji Sada

Kenji Sada had joined Sunsoft in 1986. His former high school friend Kenji Kajita had started working there some time before and invited Sada to work there too. Sada had worked as a programmer at T&E Soft where he programed KEISAN GAME. The Wing of Madoola was his first project at Sunsoft.

I asked Sada how what he studied before starting at Sunsoft and making games.

“I read a book about microcomputer when I am 11 years old, then got interested with microcomputer and programming. I bought some more books and learned how to write assembly language and translate it to machine code by hand.
Then I learned higher level languages like BASIC, reading books and magazines.
In those days we had no internet, so we have to study by books and magazines.” – Kenji Sada

I also asked him if he liked games at the time and if so what games.

“Of course I liked video games. We had to go amusement arcade because no consumer game console was sold when I was a student.
I liked the games by Masanobu Endo, not the famous XEVIOUS but following two products. I was crazy about The Tower of Druaga since its mysterious atmosphere, characters and magic items. But I think GROBDA is the very action game as I know.
It requires not just aiming enemies but managing resources. The tank requires energy whenever you attack, move and guard from enemy’s beam, so that you need to keep judging next action constantly. It is real thrilling.” – Kenji Sada

One thing that made the game stand out at the time was the female protagonist Lucia. So why did Sada choose a woman?

“If the protagonist was a boy, Madoola was too similar to Dragon Buster, wasn’t it?
Sorry, this is the reason I can think of now.
There is no definite reason but the decision made the game characteristic.” – Kenji Sada

Kenji Sada tells me he didn’t write the story for any of his games. And the title The Wing of Madoola was conceived by designer Kazuyuki Sugiura (who otherwise did not work on the game. Sugiura would design the arcade game Bay*Route in 1989. But more about that in a later part.

The following year Madūra no Tsubasa was also supposed to be released for the Nintendo VS. System (Nintendo’s arcade hardware based on the Famicom) but that version ultimately never saw the light of day.

The Wing of Madoola got a short six chapter Manga in Tokuma Shoten’s Monthly Wanpakku Comic 1987. It was written and illustrated by the games character designer, Manga artist Kenji “Moriken” Mori.

The game ends with a “The End” and no credits, so I asked Kenji Sada for the credits. Here is the long lost credits for The Wing of Madoola.

Planning/team lead/main program: Kenji Sada
Co-program: Kenji Kajita
BG design/graphics and map design: Sugiura
Character design/graphics: Simomura (aka KIRITAN who also worked on “Ripple Island”)
Sound program: Naohisa Morota
Composer: Naoki Kodaka
and 2 helper programmers

Quartet 2
Developer: SEGA | Publisher: Sun Corporation of America | Release: 1986  | Format: Arcade

Sun Corporation of America continued what they had been doing at Kitkorp. In December of 1986 they distributed the conversion kit for SEGA’s arcade game Quartet. The upgrade turned the game into Quartet 2.

The conversation kit exchanged Quarter’s four-player mode for a two-player mode where you could select a character, and it doubled the level count from 16 to 32.

The flyer also shows the Sun Corporation of America logo. The red S with a small sun in the middle and rays coming out from it.

Unknown (possible promotional) material that more visibly displayed the sun and the rays in the logo.

Lionex
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Electronics Corporation | Release: Canceled | Format: Arcade(VS System)

Lionex was advertised alongside The Wing of Madoola for VS. System. It too was heading for the VS. System but seemingly not for the Famicom like The Wing of Madoola. But the game never got beyond a working prototype. It was shown at the 1986 AM Show in Japan (as reported on in the magazine BLEEP and Game Boy in late 1986). The flyer shows the intended release year to be 1987.

The game revolves around a cyborg warrior that was activated to stop the rebelling, world-controlling computer Lionex. The cyborg traverses a world and destroys bases while collecting items and weapons.

“I know the game, it was under development for a long time and working in the office of Sun-Elec.
Mr. Yoshitaka Kawabe who developed “Route 16 Turbo” was assigned at the project.
I don’t know the reason why its release was cancelled, but I think it was because it’s graphics looked cheap compared to other arcade games of those days.” – Kenji Sada

The only available gameplay footage is from a Japanese arcade convention, where the owner of what may be the only surviving prototype showed it.

 

The above gameplay video is the only known footage of Lionex. No direct video or screenshots exist. This footage and one picture of the game was captured by ShouTime.


Nazo no Magazine Disk – Nazoler Land Sōkan Gō (
謎のマガジンディスク ナゾラーランド 創刊号)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Electronics Corporation | Release: February 6, 1987 | Format: Famicom Disk System  | Original price: 2,900 yen (excluding tax)

Nazo no Magazine Disk – Nazoler Land Sōkan Go, released on February 6, 1987 and developed in collaboration with Sekai Bunka-Sha, was a special project. Sekai Bunka Publishing Inc. was a magazine publisher, and starting in 1987, they developed four disk magazines with SUNSOFT. Each disk contained a number of mini-games varying from puzzles to 3D mazes.

“I remembered about about Nazoler Land Sōkan Gō. It is a collection of mini-games. Each game was created by basically new employees for practice.
I gave some ideas to the staffs. Sekaibunka-Sha designed puzzles and quizzes.” – Tomomi Sakai

Staff from the publishers puzzle magazine Pazura worked with Sunsoft on the game. As well as puzzle group Violet workshop, founded by Japanese puzzle writer Tetsuya Nishio.

There are three parts to the series and a special version. The other three are:

  • Nazo no Magazine Disk – Nazoler Land Dai-2 Gō (謎のマガジンディスク ナゾラーランド第2号) was released on June 12, 1987.
  • Nazo no Magazine Disk – Nazoler Land Special!! Quiz Ō (謎のマガジンディスク ナゾラーランドスペシャル!!「クイズ王を探せ」) on December 18, 1987.
  • Nazo no Magazine Disk – Nazoler Land Dai-3 Gō (謎のマガジンディスク ナゾラーランド第3号) on March 11, 1988.

Märchen Veil (メルヘンヴェール)
Developer: System Sacom | Publisher: Sun Electronics Corporation | Release: March 3, 1987 | Format: Famicom Disk System | Original price: 3,200 yen (excluding tax)

On March 3, 1987, Sunsoft published System Sacom’s Märchen Veil. It was released on Famicom Disk System and was the Märchen Veil I and Märchen Veil II combined into one game (previously available on home computers). The first part had been released in 1985 for FM-7, MSX, PC-88, PC-98 and Sharp X1. While part two only saw a release on PC-98 in 1986. The two parts were really more or less one game released in two parts, hence the ‘I’ in the first game’s title.

Märchen Veil I and II were designed by Yukio Horimoto. After Märchen Veil I he left Systems Sacom to found Infinity Co., Ltd. There he programmed their first and most known game, The Battle of Olympus for the NES, and also converted some Ultima games for Japanese home computers. In 1995 he did the program conversion of iD Software’s Doom II for the PC-98. Infinity also ported Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Theme Park, Descent and System Shock for the PC-98. They seemed to have mostly made ports of games for Japanese home computers after The Battle of Olympus.

Fantasy Zone (ファンタジーゾーン)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Electronics Corporation | Release: July 20, 1987 | Format: Famicom | Original price: 5,300 yen (excluding tax) |Size: 1M+64KRAM

In 1987 Sunsoft got the rights to port some Sega games to the Famicom. Sega’s Master System was greatly outsold by the Famicom/NES in most parts of the world and SEGA probably wanted to make some money off the NES’s popularity. On the release event for the mobile game Shenmue City (more about it later) in 2010, then president of Sun Electronics Corporation Kiharu Yoshida said Sega and Sunsoft’s relationship went way back and held up After Burner and Fantasy Zone for the Famicom.

Kiharu Yoshida at a Shenmu City presentation in December 2010. | Photo credit unknown

Sunsoft ported Fantasy Zone in Japan, which isn’t the same game as the one released for NES in the US. That port was made by Atari’s subsidiary Tengen. Sunsoft kept porting and publishing some SEGA games in the years to come.

  • Alien Syndrome (ported by Sanritsu Denki Co., Ltd.) JP Dec 2, 1988 | US 1988(published by Tengen)
  • Fantasy Zone II (ported by Sanritsu Denki Co., Ltd.) JP Dec 20, 1988
  • After Burner JP Mar 30, 1989 | A port of After Burner II for the Famicom by Tengen. Another improved version was released by Sunsoft as After Burner II.

I asked Kenji Sada why he has a ‘Special thanks’ in Fantasy Zone. The reason was he made the graphics tool used when making the game.

“I wrote a graphic drawing tool for FC and Fantasy Zone was the first product that utilized it to make game graphics.
When I began to work on Sunsoft, they use the special graphic drawing system provided by Nintendo to make graphics.
It was expensive (I heard 3.000,000 yen per one system) and Sun-Elec. bought only two systems. So, designers had to work mainly on papers and use the system in rotation to enter the picture data.
In addition to, the systems had too dull control responsibility.
I wanted better drawing tool and wrote dot plotting program, then it was become a FC disk-system program, named Kakeru-kun.
Fantasy Zone and all later FC product in Sun-Elec. adopted it as the graphic editing tool.” – Kenji Sada


Tenka no Goikenban: Mito Kōmon (天下の御意見番 水戸黄門)
Developer: TOSE | Publisher: Sun Electronics Corporation | Release: August 11, 1987 | Format: Famicom

The next game to be released by Sunsoft was Tenka no Goikenban: Mito Kōmon. The game is inspired by the Japanese television drama Mito Kōmon. It takes place in seventeenth century Japan and follows the character Tokugawa Mitsukuni. A seventeenth century Mito region daimyo who travels the country in disguise taking care of problems.

The gameplay seems to be inspired by Konami’s Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Dōchū, which was released on the Famicom a year earlier (July 30, 1986). In the game the player controls one of Mitsukuni’s retainers: Atsumi Kakunoshin and Sasaki Sukesaburō. They visit different towns to find clues and help solve problems.

It got a sequel, Mito Kōmon II: Sekai Manyuuki, on October 11, 1988. Both games feature synthesized speech on their titles screens, using a considerably large amount of samples for the time. In-game, some NPCs will greet the player with spoken words as well. Just like Dead Zone they used Dr. Mozer’s voice synthesis technology. In the second game the characters go on a ship to tour the world, which makes for more variety in settings and scenarios.


Sky Kid (スカイキッド)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Corporation of America | Release: September, 1987 | Format: Famicom/NES

In the autumn of 1985, Sunsoft published the NES port of  Namco’s arcade game Sky Kid. Namco had ported and published the game in Japan but used Sun Corporation of America to publish it in the US in September of 85.
Sky Kid is a horizontal shooter and was also released for the Nintendo VS System arcade system. Unlike most horizontal shoot em ups where you fly from left to right, Sky Kid had the player flying right to left. Namco’s original artwork has cartoon birds flying the planes while the American box art shows a more realistic look (even though the game’s graphics are more cartoony).

Spy Hunter
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Corporation of America | Release: Sept 9, 1987 | Format: NES

They also ported Bally Midway’s arcade game Spy Hunter to the NES. It was released in September of 1987. This buggy version of the game is not one of the better ports though. But according to Richard Robbins it was a hit.

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.” – Richard Robbins

Spy Hunter was a success for Sunsoft of America. It sold 1 million copies. This led to Sunsoft being able to license more games from Williams/Bally, including Xenophobe (which was ported to the NES in 1988).

Shanghai (上海)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Electronics Corporation | Release: December 4, 1987 | Format: Famicom

Shanghai was first conceived and programmed by Brodie Lockard for Activision. Shanghai is a puzzle game that uses Mahjong tiles, but isn’t based on normal Mahjong (instead, it is “Mahjong solitaire”).

The Famicom version of the game was ported and published by Sunsoft in Japan. In 1988 SunsoftT also ported the game for arcade. Sunsoft would later buy the rights to the license in Japan, which they still hold to this day.

 

This concludes part two of The History of Sunsoft. In part three we will dive into the beginning of what I (and most people) call “The Golden Age of Sunsoft”.


* Pictures taken by my good friend Lennie “Cyborg20003” Adamcyk.
** I got these photos from Richard Robbins.

Updates:
June 6, 2017: Changed some stuff in the part of Joe Robbins stay at Atari. His trip to Japan to discuss legal matters with Nakamura does not seem to have been due to a lawsuit from Namco’s part. Just other legal matters. I also changed the part about Atari producing 12 million copies of Pac-Man for the Atari 2600. It seem to have been an in the moment exaggeration by Atari Inc’s president Ray Kassar.
June 7, 2017: Various proofreading corrections. Made addintion to the part about Ikki, that it sold over 1 million copies.
June 9, 2017: Added to the Atlantis no Nazo part. About SUNSOFT hiring designers. Added information on the The Wing of Madoola Manga.
June 10, 2017: Made some changes to the parts about The Wing of Madoola. It was never released on VS. System. Made changes to the part about Lionex, added that ShouTime is the one who shot the footage of the game in action.
July 17, 2017: Added a quote by Tomomi Sakai to the Nazoler Land Sōkan Gō part.
July 27, 2017: Added quotes from Kenji Sada and some information about him in the part about The Wing of Madoola. Also added a quote from Sada about the canceled game Lionex. Added quote about Tose in the 53 Stations of the Tokaido.
July 28, 2017: Added information about the team that made Route-16 Turbo. Also added quote by Kenji Sada on why he choose a female protagonist for The Wing of Madoola. Added the lost credits to The Wing of Madoola.
July 31, 2017: Added that designer Kazuyuki Sugiura came up with the title The Wing of Madoola.
August 8, 2017: Added a qoute to the Fantasy Zone part from Kenji Sada about making the graphics tool for the game.

Special thanks to

  • Patrick Todd for proofreading and corrections.
  • Richard Robbins, Bill and Ethan for spoting typos and pointing out factual errors (post publishing).
  • Shigeki Shimizu, Kenji Sada and Richard Robbins for answering my questions.
  • Stephen Meyerink for translating my interview with Shigeki Shimizu.
  • Any one who’s picture I have used. If you see a picture I have used without permission and would like it removed or for credits to be added please E-mail me on the address below.
  • To the great people who donated money for translation costs via Patreon or other means.

If you see anything that is incorrect or knows anything to add please e-mail me at vgarc.org@gmail.com so it can be considered for correction.

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2 Comments

  1. This series is really fascinating. The amount of depth you’ve been able to go into and the number of witnesses you’ve been able to draw on is incredible. Looking forward to part 3!

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