The History of Sunsoft – Part III: The Golden Age Part 1

This article is subject to change. Please report any errors, typos etc. Updated: November 10, 2017

After some early Famicom games, Sunsoft had warmed to its role as a developer, and in 1988 they truly made a name for themselves with the release of Chouwakusei Senki Meta Fight (Blaster Master) and the advent of some of the greatest music ever produced on the NES. 1988 was also when Sun Corporation of America began participating in game development.

We will explore this and more in my first article about the Golden Age of Sunsoft, which spanned 1988 to 1992. Though this period could more specifically be considered as the Golden Age of Sunsoft in Japan, while Sunsoft of America’s golden age would begin in 1992. The reasons for that will be covered in later articles.

 
–Part III – The Golden Age, Part 1–

Sunsoft Fan Club
A Sunsoft Fan Club membership card

In late 1987 Sunsoft started the Sunsoft Fan Club, recruiting kids to be their number-one fans. Members were invited to gatherings run by Sunsoft, which launched in Japan’s three biggest cities: the first in Tokyo on December 26, 1987; the second in Nagoya at Nagoya City Public Hall in Tsurumai Park on January 17 , 1988; and the third in Osaka on January 24, 1988.

A fan who attended the Nagoya meeting said a conference room had been set up with chairs, a whiteboard, and a big TV connected to a red Twin Famicom (Sharp’s Famicom/Disk System combo console).

Before entering the room, fan club members received an envelope containing flyers and other promotional materials. Once inside, they were shown games including Shanghai, Ripple Island, Nazo no Land Special, Fantasy Zone and Freedom Force. Ripple Island was released on January 23, 1988, just a day before the third event in Osaka, while Freedom Force was released in the United States in May 1988, but was never released in Japan. The event also featured a question corner; a Bingo competition; and an autograph session with manga artist Kenji “Moriken” Mori, who had worked on Ripple Island. Signing events became a recurring part of Sunsoft Fan Club meetings.

The kids attending must have felt special, seeing new games and meeting the people that made them. Among the Sunsoft staff was manager Kiharu Yoshida, who showed off their port of Sega’s Fantasy Zone for attendees. Members also could buy things like a Ripple Island comic and the first issue of the fan club magazine, SUNCLUB. About a year later, SUNCLUB was transformed from a magazine into a newsletter. In the 16-bit era it was renamed Super Sunclub.
After these initial gatherings, more were held regularly. In addition to SUNCLUB magazine, Sunsoft also offered merchandise for sale, such as Sunsoft Character Seal Series stickers with Ripple Island and Wings of Madoola characters and a Ripple Island pen case.

Sunsoft Game Time News

In 1988 Sunsoft of America began distributing a newsletter as well. It was the brain child of Karen Shadley. At the time she was manager of marketing and advertising. The newsletter was a way for Sunsoft to reach out to their customers. According to a press release from October 12, 1992 the newsletter had as many as 400,000 subscribers.

Sunsoft Game News Times had a number of different segments, news about upcoming Sunsoft games, answers to reader questions, comics by in-house artist and much more.

–1988–

Tokai Engineering

In 1988 Sunsoft started releasing games under the name Tokai Engineering. Some people have speculated that Tokai was an external developer and that they might have contributed to the higher quality of the games Sunsoft put out in this period. But according to Gimmick! creator Tomomi Sakai, Tokai is just a dummy company, like Konami’s Ultra and Palcom brands, created to circumvent Nintendo’s rules restricting the number of games a developer could publish for the Famicom/NES in a year. Former Sunsoft programmer and Trip World creator Yuichi Ueda, Blaster Master creator Kenji Sada, and current Chief Director of Sunsoft Shigeki Shimizu confirm this. Tokai was a dummy company.

“Tokai Engineering is just a dummy company to avoid the limitation by the contract with Nintendo. ‘Meta Fight’ was developed completely inside of Sun-Elec.” – Kenji Sada

The name almost certainly stems from the name of the subregion Tokai, where Sun Denshi’s home city, Konan, is located. The company is still a part of Sun Denshi but does not seem to be used for anything. “Tokai Engineering” is even written on a sign on the Sun Denshi building.

1st row: Sun Electronics Corporation | 2d row: Tokai Engineering. **

Previously it was assumed that Tokai Engineering developed the games its name was associated with; however, Tokai was, as mentioned before, used as a publishing company to circumvent Nintendo’s limitations on licensees. I asked Kenji Sada to tell me more about Nintendo’s limitations in Japan.

“Nintendo had decided to limit the number of titles that software makers were allowed to publish per year in Japan. It was to prevent oversupplying of products with poor quality.
Some makers like Namco and Hudson had contracted before the limitation had come into effect and had no limitation. The limitation was only for ROM software and not for disc software (Disk System).

Konami released many disc products because it had a limited contract. Sunsoft used a dummy company to avoid the limitation.” – Kenji Sada

Just like Sun Denshi itself, Tokai Engineering is a Kabushiki kaisha (株式会社), which means it’s a company in the stock market. So even if Tokai Engineering is still a company held by Sun Denshi, it doesn’t appear to be used for anything today.

Ripple Island (リップルアイランド)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Tokai Engineering | Release: January 23, 1988 (JP) | Format: Famicom | Original price: 4,900 yen (excluding tax) | Size: 1 M + 64 K RAM

1988 was when Sunsoft really began producing games that would later be considered classics. And they also started releasing more games outside Japan, having expanded to the United States two years earlier.

Their first game in 1988 was Ripple Island, which was only released in Japan. It was the first title to use the Tokai Engineering company brand.

Ripple Island is a first-person, point-and-click adventure much in the vein of Dead Zone. The short version of the story is that Ripple Island, where humans and animals live at peace, has been taken over by an evil emperor who has kidnapped the king’s only daughter, Princess Nazareru. The king calls for a champion to rescue her and defeat the evil emperor. The game’s protagonist, Kyle, answers the call, seeing an opportunity to get rich.

The game’s art was done by manga artist Kenji “Moriken” Mori, who had previously worked with Sunsoft making character designs for 53 Stations of the Tokaido, Dead Zone, and The Wing of Madoola.

Freedom Force
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Corporation of America | Release: April, 1988 (US)  | Format: NES/Arcade (VS. System)

Sunsoft published their first game for the NES Zapper light gun accessory in 1988: Freedom Force, which was only released in the United States. It was also the first game designed by someone at the Sunsoft of America office, Richard Robbins, and developed by a team at Sunsoft in Japan. The cover art was also made in the USA, by Michael Mendheim. Tomomi Sakai programmed the game and was also involved in directing and storyboarding. Sakai would later create Gimmick! I will talk more about him later.

“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.” – Richard Robbins

The original art versus the final cover

Nintendo probably didn’t want a cover showing a woman in distress. It would not fit Nintendo of America’s family-friendly policy.

Sunsoft modeled the game after other popular games in the genre―maybe not a recipe for innovation, but one that made an okay game. Robbins tells me it was hard to develop a game for the Zapper.

“The Zapper had to flash the entire screen, so there were limits on hot spots and sprites.” – Richard Robbins

The game took about nine months to develop, during which Robbins and Mendheim sent their design documents to Sunsoft in Japan. It must have been hard designing a game when your only communication with the development team was sending documents halfway around the globe. Freedom Force was also released for the Nintendo VS. System arcade series as VS. Freedom Force. This version was also only released in the United States. (The manual for VS. Freedom Force is accessible at Archive.org.)

Image source: arcade-museum.com

Blaster Master / Chouwakusei Senki Meta Fight (チョウワクセイセンキ メタファイト)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: June 17, 1988 (JP) November, 1988 (US) April 25, 1991 (SWE) 1991 (FR) | Format: Famicom/NES  | Original price: 5,300 yen (excluding tax) | Size: 2 M

On June 17, 1988, Chouwakusei Senki Meta Fight (Super Planetary War Record Meta Fight) was released for the Famicom. Tokai Engineering is displayed as developer on the Japanese title screen, while Sunsoft is credited on the US version, showing that Tokai truly is a dummy company.

Blaster Master marks the beginning of Sunsoft’s golden age, as the first Sunsoft game that most people remember as a truly great game (at least outside Japan). A great and hard game.

Blaster Master takes place in the year 2052 of the cosmic calendar on the planet Sophia the 3rd; whether or not this is a reference to the third planet in the 1979 arcade game 3rd Planet (ダイ3 ワクセイ) is unknown. Sophia has been attacked by the “Inbemu Dark Star Group” and its leader, GOEZ (Gouzu). The satellite NORA has escaped, and its science academy develops a battle tank able to strike back at GOEZ: the super planetary, all-terrain metal attacker, NORA/MA-01. A genius boy named Kein-Ga-dona is selected to pilot NORA/MA-01.

Game director Kenji Sada conceived the game’s title. I asked him how he came up with it.

I named ‘Meta Fight’, it has no deep meaning, I probably just wanted to use the word ‘meta’. ” – Kenji Sada

Character designer Hiroyuki Kagoya added the “Super Planetary War Record” part. Graphics designer Yoshiaki Iwata created the graphics for the opening intro for both the Japanese and US versions of the game.

At Sun Corporation of America, Richard Robbins was tasked with localizing Meta Fight for release in the United States. He felt that the game’s title and story was a bit too Japanese, so he changed them for American audiences. I asked him why he chose the name Blaster Master.

“I was just riffing ideas, first it was Master Blaster, then changed to Blaster Master.”  – Richard Robbins

The new story puts the player in the role of a boy named Jason whose pet frog Fred escapes and jumps down a hole in the backyard. Jason jumps down after him. He finds a battle vehicle called SOPHIA (like the planet in the original story) in an underground tunnel. Jason takes SOPHIA and goes on an adventure to find Fred and fight the mutants below the earth.

“We got the order from Sunsoft USA. Mr. Iwata drew the demo picture of the frog, then I built the U.S. version with that demo.” – Kenji Sada

The player gets to explore a nonlinear world. Unlocking parts for the vehicle adds a step-by-step exploration of the world. In addition, the game is also played in two different points of view. I asked the game’s lead designer and main programmer Kenji Sada (you can read more about Sada in the The Wing of Madoola section of part II, information added after the article was first published) how the concept of two views came about.

I wanted to make some new visual effect on the title.” – Kenji Sada

None of Sunsoft’s previous games had been very impressive on the visual side. Ripple Island had large manga-styled scenes, but they weren’t animated. For Meta Fight, the team wanted to impress both in graphical fidelity and how the game was played.

As I wrote above, I wanted new visual effect and had two ideas. First one is a kind of morphing, by arranging small part of character graphics independently. This concept is most clearly realized in the title ‘Joy Mech Fight’ from Nintendo.

Second one is, at an overhead view game, hiding characters behind the walls.
When a character is placed at the off side of a wall, its shape must be hidden by the wall. It is hard to realize on the Family Computer hardware because it has only one layer background graphic screen. I found that when a ‘obj’ (small piece of picture, which can be placed on the screen smoothly) is placed behind the BG screen, itself vanishes, but still hides lower priority objs. I utilized it and succeed to hide a character behind a wall partly.

The reason of switching perspective is, because I wanted these two ideas to be realized on the same title.” – Kenji Sada


The game starts in a side-scrolling action area where the player can traverse the world by jumping and shooting with NORA/MA-01/SOFIA. Jason can also climb out of the vehicle and walk around. Jason is much more susceptible to damage than the tank and can enter small doorways. Once passing through one of these, the perspective changes to a top-down diagonal perspective where Jason walks around and shoots his way through corridors full of different enemies―sporting the walls Kenji Sada talked about.

It’s in these sections that Jason encounters bosses. According to graphics and boss designer Yoshiaki Iwata the bosses were a big part in getting the game to look visually impressive. They are big and take up almost a quarter of the screen; however, Jason himself is also pretty big in these segments, so the bosses don’t really look all that giant anyway. As in most games for the NES where the player encounters large bosses, the bosses are made using the background layer instead of character sprites. You can often notice this when the background color becomes all black. Since the boss is made up of background tiles, any other background imagery would be seen moving around with the boss. Therefore a black background is used to maintain the illusion.

With its varying perspectives and nonlinear paths, Blaster Master stood out. Iwata thinks they succeeded in their goal of creating a great game, but he thought the Famicom had more to give.

Their parallel goal of giving the player a world to explore was also successful. It had partially drawn inspiration from Nintendo’s Metroid, though Kenji Sada tells me he didn’t think about making a Metroid-like game, it just came out like that because he loved Metroid. When a new ability made it possible to tackle a new obstacle, you had to find the way to the next part and sometimes had to backtrack to places you had been before. Just like in Metroid.

The game took around a year to develop.  But despite its innovative layout, the game sold poorly in Japan―so poorly, the company actually looked down on it. Iwata lost all hope of ever making a sequel. Instead, they all started working on other projects; Iwata worked on a new game based on the caped crusader Batman.

Unlike in Japan, the game became a success in the United States, but Iwata and the team at Sunsoft in Japan had no idea their game had finally become a hit. They were in the midst of making other games and were only told later that Blaster Master had been well received in the West. For ten years, Iwata felt the game was a failure, until one day an employee at Sun Corporation of America told him he would have been a famous game creator had he lived in the United States. Sada tells me he also heard that the game was well received in the United States.

On the Famicom World forums, David Siller, former director of Product Development at Sun Corporation of America, speculated on why Blaster Master never became a hit in Japan. He believes that games with Japanese themes were popular in Japan, and that the great mass of Japanese people were not at all interested in difficult action games.

“Blaster Master was a HIT in the U.S. more so than in Japan because at that time U.S. players wanted a newer or better action game experience. Japanese players were still into the ‘me too’ syndrome or games that were similar to popular games but a little different. Also RPGs started to dominate in Japan as early action games were too tough for the mass appeal audience. Regarding ‘Blaster Master’ it wasn’t the marketing in the U.S. that succeeded, as that only helps make customers aware of what is out there. The proof was in playing a game with some depth and unique features that other games didn’t have.” – David Siller (source)

At the time, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior) had made light role-playing games more popular in Japan. The JRPG genre started with Yuji Horii’s Dragon Quest, a lighter take on his favorite western RPGs, Ultima and Wizardry. Outside that, Japanese gamers really didn’t like new ideas, they wanted slight variations of the games they already liked. Therefore Meta Fight, with all its new ideas, wasn’t a hit in Japan, says Siller.

On the American box is the text “Authentic arcade edition”. The same phrase is also on the box for Spy Hunter. But Spy Hunter was a port of an arcade game while Blaster Master was a console game only. I asked Richard Robbins why this text was on the box.

“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.” – Richard Robbins

One last thing about Blaster Master―the faulty credits in the game’s credit roll. The role of “game design” is credited to “Fanky, and others.” On many webpages, Fanky is said to be Yoshiaki Iwata. But Kenji Sada tells me that Fanky is actually Hiroyuki Kagoya. (Sunsoft director Shigeki Shimizu also told me Fanky is in-fact Kagoya.) Yoshiaki Iwata is actually the one credited as PGM F1, the art designer. The confusion might have originated from the interview An Interview With The Creator Of Blaster Master, now found on Siliconera. Kenji Sada tells me Fanky comes from Kagoya’s favorite musician, funk musician Toshinobu Kubota (Fanky=Funky?), and PGM F1 was the fuel injection system in Iwata’s car.

But as mentioned before, Kenji Sada is actually the designer of Meta Fight (Kagoya was character and graphics designer), but he is only credited as programmer under the alias Senta. He was the lead programmer, and his old high school friend Kenji Kajita (KANZ) was co-programmer.

“I had planned the whole essence of the game, multipurpose tank, the pilot who gets on/off it, switching perspective, and step-up functionalities of the tank.
Mr.Kagoya had created the story, the names of characters, machine, enemy 
organization and planet. He also had added ‘超惑星戦記(Super Planetary War Record)’ before ‘メタファイト(Meta Fight)’ :)” – Kenji Sada

But why do the in-game credits have some of the wrong names? I asked Sada.

I was not so good with mental condition in those days so I made silly behaviour like it.” – Kenji Sada

The game’s composer, Naoki Kodaka, would go on to compose some of the most memorable tunes for the Famicom/NES. But without the efforts of the Sunsoft sound programmers, Kodaka might not be known at all today.

–Make the Famicom sing–

Naoki Kodaka

Blaster Master can also be seen as the start of Naoki Kodaka’s great era at Sunsoft. Kodaka had been composing music for Sunsoft for two years, including the soundtracks for Atlantis no Nazo, Dead Zone, Ripple Island, and Freedom Force; however, Blaster Master made people really take notice of his work. Kodaka was not directly connected to Sunsoft―he was a hired outside contractor.

The music for the game was actually created in cooperation with someone outside of Sunsoft who has worked on the music for a good number of other Sunsoft titles. That composer and the brilliant sound staff are definitely to thank for the great reputation that they helped build for Sunsoft game music back in those days.” – Yoshiaki Iwata (source)

He composed the music, but he didn’t do the actual audio programming. At the time, many game composers did both composing and programmed the music into game data. In the beginning he wrote his music on music sheets at his office and then handed them over to the audio programmers at Sunsoft.

“As a composer at Sunsoft, I always worked together with a team. I’d write my songs on sheet music at home and hand them over to the sound team at work, and depending on the circumstances I might attach a demo tape too. Once the technology got to a point where we could do a little more with the music, I’d also listen to the sounds they had selected, and give feedback: ‘This should feel looser’ or ‘This part needs to sing out more,’ steadily working each song into a finished state.” – Naoki Kodaka (source)

Kodaka has described his relationship with the sound programmers as if he taught them about music. They had a basic understanding of music of course, but with his help they learned more. Sometimes he supplemented the sheets with a demo tape so the programmers could hear what he wanted them to do with the music.

He also gave them feedback on what they could change in an early version of a song to make it sound as he intended. He was the conductor, they were the orchestra, and the computers were the instruments with which they played his music.

Kodaka says Sunsoft’s sound team was incredibly talented, which included the sound programmers. They loved the music and the hardware they worked with. The sound team invented a variety of techniques to make the music sound different and better. One of the most famous is “Sunsoft Bass.”
In an interview Kodaka said that he often came to the programmers with ideas of ​​how a song could sound. Then they set out to solve the problem of getting the Famicom to do what Kodaka wanted.

The audio team had the ambition to get the games to sound like no other game had on the Famicom. It was with the motto ‘Get the Famicom to sing’ they got on the task. In addition of using delta-coded samples as the base, they also used a combination of triangle waves and noise waves to make drum sounds and a fake reverb by software coding.

Kodaka saw the sound programmers as craftsmen who were masters of their art. Without them, his music never would have been able to come to life on the NES as it did.

He remembers how the young Nobuyuki Hara came to him and said, “Kodaka, just wait until you hear the new sounds I’ve created. Please write a good song for them!” Then Hara waited at Kodaka’s home office until dawn, when he was handed the song. “Leave the rest to me,” said Hara, and made haste for the Sunsoft office to make music of Kodaka’s notes.

This shows how passionate the Sunsoft sound team was back then. They constantly made an effort to innovate with the sound of each new game, which really shows in the games they released between 1987 and 1992.

The last game Kodaka composed music for seems to be the Sega Saturn game Albert Odyssey: Legend of Eldean from 1996. Since then he has worked as a lecturer and teacher.

When someone says you can hear a song was made by Kodaka, they actually mean Kodaka plus Naohisa Morota or Kodaka plus Nobuyuki Hara and Shinichi Seya. Morota coded the music for Freedom Force, Blaster Master, Fester’s Quest, Afterburner II, Nantette!! Baseball, and, finally Journey to Silius with Hara and Seya. Then Hara and Seya did Gremlins 2 for the NES and Game Boy, Batman: The Video Game for Game Boy (Hara had coded the music for the NES version of Batman the year before), Ufouria, Super Spy Hunter, Batman: Return of the Joker, and Super Fantasy Zone.

Some time after this, Hara left Sunsoft, and he died shortly after from a sudden illness. Nobuyuki Hara was only 25 years old when he died. In the realm of video games his work will live on forever.

Xenophobe
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft of American | Release: December, 1988 (US) | Format: NES

Xenophobe was designed by Brian Colin and Howard Shere at Bally Midway. The game was originally released in arcades in 1987.

“We (Sunsoft) negotiated the first license from Williams to NES via Sunsoft for Spy Hunter, sold over one million carts. Based on that success, we were able to license other Williams/Bally games.” – Richard Robbins

Platoon
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft of America | Release: December, 1988 (US) | Format: NES

Sunsoft of America also published Sunsoft’s port of Platoon, based on the 1986 hit movie starring Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, and Charlie Sheen. Ocean originally developed and released the game for the Commodore 64. The port was done in Japan but the game was only released in the US.

Nankin no Adobenchia(なんきんのアドベンチア)
Developer: Sunsoft/世界文化社・なんきん | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: December 9, 1988 (JP) | Format: Famicom Disk System | Original price: 3,200 yen (excluding tax)

Nankin no Adobenchia is an adventure game developed in collaboration with Sekaibunka-Sha (World Culture Company), the company that developed the Nazo no Magazine Disk games with them for the Famicom Disk System. The game is actually a part of the Nazoler Land series.

Last words on the first part of the golden era

With Blaster Master, Sunsoft made a name for themselves in the West. Even though the game was not a success at home in Japan, Sunsoft had already been known there for earlier games.

The music that now is one of the most remembered parts of Sunsoft’s history was also coming together. Kodaka’s composition and Morota’s sound programming was a match made in heaven. And this was just the beginning of Sunsoft’s golden age of great games and music.

In part four, we will take a look at Sun Corporation of America’s further involvement in game development with Fester’s Quest, the first PC Engine games, and Sunsoft starting to make licensed games with Batman: The Video Game.


* Pictures by bloger Sunsoftfan
** Picture from July 2017.
*** Picture provided by Rita Zimmerer

Updates:
August 22, 2017: Changed developer and publisher on the info for Blaster Master to Sunsoft and Tokai Engineering. Before Tokai was under developer.
August 27, 2017: Added to the Tokai Engineering part. Clarifying some stuff about Tokai’s role and added a qoute from Kenji Sada about Nintendo’s limitations in Japan.
August 30, 2017: Added a part to the Blaster Master text about whether or not there were plans for a VS System version of the game.
October 13, 2017: Added part about the Sunsoft Game Time News newsletter.

November 10, 2017: Changed developer on Platoon from Ocean to Sunsoft.

Special thanks to:

  • E.C Myers for proofreading and corrections.
  • Richard Robbins and Kenji Sada for the interviews.
  • Rita Zimmerer for the Freedom Force flyer.

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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3 Comments

  1. This part was well worth the wait! Though I was honestly quite surprised to see that you didn’t mention anything about the Arcade version advertised on the front of the US Blaster Master box. I heard that it was meant to be a VS System game, but I also heard it was meant to be a 16 bit version, so I’ve always been curious on what it was and hoped this article would clear that up once and for on. At least it cleared other things up, though!

    • I had not really noticed that. But I’ll try too find out what that’s about. I really think it’s something they wrote on the box to make the game sound cool. That it was so good it could almost be an more advanced arcade game.

  2. Nice retrospective, definitely some fun facts.

    Slight correction regarding Platoon… Ocean had no involvement with the NES version beyond licensing; the actual port was developed by Sunsoft themselves in Japan.

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