This article is open to change. Please report any errors, typos etc. There will be an audio version of this at a later date. We will launch VGArc Radio as a podcast for audio content. UPDATED: May 11, 2017
I have always liked SUNSOFT’s games. We all know the classics, Batman, Blaster Master, Fester’s Quest, Mr. Gimmick and Journey to Silius. We’ve all heard the fantastic music and experienced the great gameplay. I grew up having only played Batman and Gremlins 2 back in the day, but was always interested in Blaster Master and Mr. Gimmick.
But what else do you know about SUNSOFT? I didn’t know much more than what Wikipedia had to offer, which wasn’t much at all. And as it turns out, some of it wasn’t even correct. So I started digging and asking questions.
This is part one of a nine part series about the history of SUNSOFT. A game developer with a short golden age in the late 80s to early 90s. Where did they come from and where did they go?
We’ll be starting with Sun’s early arcade games. It has been hard to get concrete facts about all of these games. The release dates listed are the ones I have been able to confirm. Some of the games that don’t have a US release date listed may have been released in the US. When all nine part have been published I will also publish the interviews I conducted for this series. With that said, please enjoy.
Sun Electronics Corporation, or Sun Denshi kabushikigaisha(サン電子株式会社), was founded on April 16, 1971, by Masami Maeda(前田正美). Their headquarters were, and still are, located in Konan-City, a rural city in the Aichi prefecture in Japan (outside the prefecture’s capital Nagoya). The first office building was located on 38 Mizuho, Kochino-cho in Konan-City. The company started out manufacturing various electronics equipment. One of their first products was a ticket machine made for the Tateisi Electric Manufacturing Co., today known as the Omron Corporation.
In May of 1974 Sun Denshi released its first system for pachinko. It was a computerized version of the popular game where small balls are launched to fall into different compartments, scoring the player more balls to be traded for prizes. This is a product line Sun Denshi has developed and still manufactures to this day. However, this article series will primarily focus on Sun Denshi’s video game development. But I will also jump in with some other stuff that are worth mentioning.
1978-1985: The early arcade era
Sun Denshi’s foray into the arcade business began in 1978. According to current chief director of SUNSOFT, Shigeki Shimizu, Sun Denshi saw the success of Taito’s 1978 super hit Space Invaders and they wanted in on that market.
“Seeing that incredible popularity, Sun Denshi entered the arcade game market.” – Shigeki Shimizu
Sun Denshi’s main business was microchips and electronics so they already had the capability to manufacture the necessary components for the machines.
Sun Denshi released two arcade games in late 1978. G.T. Block Perfect in November and G.T. Block Challenger in December. The two games were inspired by Atari’s Breakout from 1976. Alongside Space Invaders, Breakout was one of the most cloned games at the time. Both games were published by a company called Gifu TOKKI Co., Ltd. hence the G.T. in the titles.
“Gifu TOKKI is an arcade game distributor. I’m not particularly familiar with how our relationship got started, but the two companies were in very close proximity, so it’s pretty likely that they simply joined forces as a distributor because they were so close to one another.” – Shigeki Shimizu
|Sun Denshi’s logos|
|I. This first one is the most common logo to be found on Sun Electronics arcade game flyers along with II which is the Japanese version.
II. The S logo with the radiation sun in the middle is still used today.
III. Both this and II can be found on Sun Denshi’s homepage.
IV. This is the text only version of the logo that sometimes are combined with the S logo.
V. This version can be seen on the flyer for the arcade game Kangaroo and its the only place where I have seen it.
VI. And last is the later Sun Corporation of America logo which takes the sun in the middle of the S but has a red S in another font.
Gifu TOKKI was founded in August of 1964. They are a wholesale distributor of amusement machinery and equipment, and are still around today. Like Sun Denshi, they are also located outside Nagoya (but in the Gifu prefecture, a bit further away from Nagoya than the Aichi prefecture). Their close proximity to Sun contributed to their collaboration . Gifu would work with Sun on most of their early arcade games.
Today Gifu TOKKI work with companies such as Sega, Bandai Namco, Konami Amusement, Banpresto and Taito. They are also an affiliate of Amex Corporation, a company that manages game centers and other enterment facilites.
“In those days, the arcade games were made entirely-inhouse at SUNSOFT, including both software, hardware, and cabinet housings themselves.” – Shigeki Shimizu
These old arcade games were made by three people. After the arcade era they would go on to do other things in the company and take on various tasks. Shimizu names two of them, Kiharu Yoshida and Shouji Suzuki. Suzuki became president of Sun Denshi some time after the arcade development days.
Kiharu Yoshida(吉田 喜春) would go on to become the manager of SUNSOFT in 1985. After leading the development of games until the late 90s(at least) and became president of Sun Denshi (taking over after Suzuki) on June 26, 2008.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s there were a few game developers that made original games that became big hits. Then there were lots of electronics companies that saw the success of these games and began producing more or less blatant copies or clones. Sun Denshi had what they needed to manufacture arcades games and started doing so. Another company that came into the arcade space around the same time was Nintendo. They also made clones like Block Fever and Radar Scope, among others.
The difference between Sun Denshi and Nintendo was that one game. The hit. Nintendo had no success at all in the arcade scene before 1981. They had released Radar Scope in ‘79 and it wasn’t selling. They were desperate for a hit game and let anyone at the company pitch a concept. The people that had made these earlier arcade games at Nintendo could hardly be considered game designers. They, like the people at Sun Denshi, were mostly engineers. They knew how to make hardware, but game design was in its infancy.
Industrial Designer Shigeru Miyamoto came in with a fresh perspective and came up with a new idea, Donkey Kong. It was a hit, and the rest is history. Sun Denshi never had that early hit game like Taito, Namco and Nintendo did, and would slide under most people’s radars until about 1988.
But let’s take a look at those early games and how Sun Denshi’s game development evolved from clones to more original designs.
Galaxy Force (ギャラクシー フォース)
Dev: Sun Denshi | Pub: Gifu TOKKI | Release: Apr, 1979 | Arcade
In April of 1979 Galaxy Force was released. This was a year after Taito had released the popular game Space Invaders, which Galaxy Force was a clone of. The main gist of the game is that aliens are attacking and the player’s mission is to kill them. They are moving back and forth and incrementally down on the upper part of the screen while the player is restricted to left and right movement on the bottom of the screen. The player also has four shields to hide behind as the aliens shoot back.
Run Away (ランナウェイ)
Dev: Sega | Pub: Sun Denshi/Gifu TOKKI | Release: Jul, 1979 | Arcade
Run Away is a maze game developed by Sega in 1979. The game was originally released as Head On and was published by Gremlin Industries. The game seems to have been released under a few more titles like Space Attack.
In Japan the game was published by Sun Denshi and Gifu TOKKI in July 1979. It was Sun Denshi’s first time publishing another company’s game.
Dai 3 Wakusei/3rd Planet(第3惑星 / ダイ3 ワクセイ)
Dev: Sun Denshi | Pub: Gifu TOKKI | Release: Sep, 1979| Arcade
In September of 1979, Sun released its second shooting game for the year. Dai San Wakusei, or 3rd Planet, can be described as some kind of cross breed between Taito’s Space Invaders and Atari’s Centipede. Resulting in a game more complex than both.
The player starts in a base at the bottom of the screen while attacking aliens that descend from the top of the screen, like in Space Invaders. As they descend, they gradually make their way down a path of dots. As they reach more open areas they start increasing in speed.
The player’s goal is, of course, to kill all the aliens. The ship can fly in four directions, which makes it stand out in 1979. The player can take three hits before dying. After the first hit one of the engines gets destroyed, which slows the ship down. After the second hit the ship’s phasers get destroyed. The player then must return their ship to base for repairs, which can be done after the first hit as well. Quite an interesting mechanic for a game in 1979.
3rd Planet isn’t a very well known game but it feels inventive for it’s time. Maybe even too inventive for its own good.
It was published by Gifu TOKKI and another company called Kansai Denshi Industry Co, Ltd. Kanshi is an electronics company that was founded in 1973 and are still around today.
Warp 1 (ワープ 1)
Dev: Sun Denshi | Pub: Gifu TOKKI | Release: Dec, 1979 | Arcade
Yet another shooting game saw the light of day in December of 1979. Warp 1 is one of Sun’s lesser known games, and there is little information to find besides its release date, and that Gifu published it. It was then published in the US by Taito in 1980.
From what we can see and read from this flyer (and the few screenshots of the game) the goal is to shoot down oncoming enemies and missiles, using a crosshair aiming mechanism.
Speak & Rescue/Stratovox (スピーク&レスキュー)
Dev: Sun Denshi | Pub: Gifu TOKKI | Release: May, 1980 | Arcade
In May of 1980, Sun developed the first game ever to use voice synthesis. Speak & Rescue, also known as Stratovox in the US, was an arcade shooting game in the vein of Namco’s 1979 hit Galaxian. In it, aliens kidnap humans and try to get away with them. The player can save them by killing the aliens before they fly away.
Voice samples were digitally recorded and then reproduced by the game. Though the speech in Speak & Rescue is nearly incomprehensible as the humans shout for help or joy. I asked Shigeki Shimizu if Speak & Rescue used the same technology as their later Family Computer Disk System Dead Zone.
“I’m very excited to hear that you’re familiar with Speak & Rescue. However, the voice synthesis technology utilized in it is different from that which was used in Dead Zone. Technologically they were different, yes, but the general desire to use voice synthesis in a game was shared by both titles.” – Shigeki Shimizu
And there for we will be talking more about synthezised voice when we get to Dead Zone.
Speak & Rescue was released by Sun Denshi in Japan and Taito in the US.
According to the site Media Arts Digital Archive (which is run by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs), both Speak & Rescue and upcoming Cosmopolis were published by Sun Denshi while the developer is not listed. While for the other Sun Denshi games they are listed as developer and Gifu TOKKI as publisher. It sounds weird that Sun would publish two arcade games when Gifu TOKKI published their own games. So I assume both Speak & Rescue and Cosmopolis were developed by Sun and published by Gifu TOKKI.
Cosmopolis (コスモ ポリス)
Dev: Sun Denshi | Pub: Gifu TOKKI | Release: Oct, 1980 | Arcade
Cosmopolis was another shooter, released in October of 1980. Like Speak & Rescue it also featured voice synthesis. But how it was used exactly I do not know, since there is no footage of the game. Cosmopolis is similar to Nintendo’s 1980 arcade game Radar Scope. It features a space ship flying inwards on the screen and shooting enemies. Both games were obvious clones of Namco’s Galaxian. The game seems to have been released in the US by Taito as late as 1984.
Most of Sun’s early games seem to have been published by Taito in the US. Taito America had been founded in 1973 to license Taito’s games to third party publishers in the US. In the late ‘70s they began publishing their games themselves and also publishing games licensed from other developers such as Sun Denshi.
Route 16 (ルート 16)
Dev: Sun Denshi | Pub: Gifu TOKKI | Release: Feb, 1981 | Arcade
Next up was Route-16, released in February 1981. This game was developed by Sun and published by Gifu. In the US Route-16 was produced by Centuri in 1981. It was co-developed with Tehkan. Centuri had also released Tehkan’s first internally developed game Pleiads in the US the same year.
Tehkan would later merge with its sister company Tecmo in 1987 to become Tecmo Company Limited. Today, a part of Koei Tecmo.
Route-16 wasn’t much more original than Sun’s previous titles. A racing game with exploration and two different points of view. It was clearly inspired by Namco’s Rally-X. But it added a zoomed-out view where the player drove between the different mazes, and had to avoid other cars while doing so.
Funky Fish (ファンキー フィッシュ)
Dev: Sun Denshi | Pub: Gifu TOKKI | Release: Oct, 1981 | Arcade
The October 1981 horizontal shoot em up Funky Fish stars a green fish that shot bubbles with its mouth to fend of other sinister fish and sea-monsters. Turning them into cherries that you eat for points.
At the time, Funky Fish must have been seen as a clone of Williams Electronics 1981 hit Defender. But it was different enough to not be a total knockoff. This game was actually more like a mid-point between Defender and Sega’s 1986 shoot em up Fantasy Zone.
Funky Fish was ported to the Atari 2600 by UA Limited in 2003 and was published by AtariAge, a company dedicated to releasing new software for the Atari 2600.
Dev: Sun Denshi | Pub: Gifu TOKKI | Release: May, 1982 | Arcade
In May of 1982 Sun released Kangaroo. The titular kangaroo is a mother who gets separated from her kid and needs to traverse a Donkey Kong-like stage to get to it. Just like Funky Fish it was different enough from its inspirational source to not be an outright Donkey Kong clone. The Kangaroo of course wears boxing gloves to punch stuff with, and can both jump and duck. Which made it a bit more complex than Donkey Kong, though maybe not as fun.
It was common practice for smaller game developers to make clones of other hit games. If you had the capacity to make games you could easily make clones of popular games and make some easy money. Few were as popular as Donkey Kong, the game that more or less made Nintendo stick with video games as their main occupation. Nintendo themselves had mostly dabbled in making clones until Shigeru Miyamoto came up with Donkey Kong.
Kangaroo shared one more thing with Donkey Kong. They were both part of the 1984 cartoon show Saturday Supercade. The show aired in two seasons between September 1983 and October 1985. The 26 episodes included a total of 97 segments of mixed shorts about different game characters. Donkey Kong, Q*Bert, Frogger and the cast of Kangaroo. Kangaroo had 13 segments that aired between September and December of 1984. The cartoon starred Katy Kangaroo, her son Joe and some friends. And of course the ill-willed monkeys that are the main enemies in the game. It’s kind of weird that this less known arcade game was used for Saturday Supercade along with more notable characters as Q*Bert, Frogger and the arcades’ superstar Donkey Kong (and Mario before his rise to fame in 1985’s Super Mario Bros.).
The new HQ
In march of 1983 Sun Denshi’s new office building was finished on 250 Asahi, Kochino-cho in Konan City. This is the same building as they are still in today.
By this time they also has a Tokyo office(on Imperial Ochanomizu 616, 3-11 Kanda Ogawamachi, Chiyoda-Ku in Tokyo) and a Osaka office. But the head office has remained in Konan-City.
Dev: Sun Denshi | Pub: Gifu TOKKI | Release: Jun, 1983 | Arcade
In June of 1983 Arabian was released, a platform jumping arcade game with an Arabian theme. The goal is to collect all letters on the stage. A bonus is given if the letters are collected in the right order to form the word “Arabian”. In the later Famicom port you got new words to spell for each stage.
A pretty typical game for the era. It is similar to Nintendo’s 1983 arcade game Popeye.
It was later ported to the Famicom and various home computers. The home computer versions for the BBC Micro, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum were ported by Inspector Software, and retitled “Tales of the Arabian Nights”. It’s unclear whether or not these ports were officially licensed from Sun, or from Atari. Atari was also the US manufacturer and distributor of the arcade game.
Dev: Sun Denshi | Pub: Gifu TOKKI | Release: Dec, 1983 | Arcade
Shoot em ups were the most common type of game in the arcades in the early ‘80s. The success of Space Invaders had made shooting games the number one genre and as you have seen Sun Denshi had mostly made shooting games. Markham was yet another one.
It may have been inspired by Konami’s shooters Time Pilot and Scramble. Even though the tilting of the ship is not as free as in Time Pilot where the player can fly in any direction, it seems like the earliest game with that functionality. Scramble was the first auto scrolling vertical shoot em up when released in 1981, which of course is the basis of Markham’s horizontal scrolling gameplay.
Dev: Sun Denshi | Pub: Gifu TOKKI | Release: Dec, 1984 | Arcade
Up next was Pettan pyu. It was released in December of 1984, also known as Banbam in the US. In the role of a small robot with a top hat, the player has to smash the enemies with the standing tiles. The crux of it being that if it’s not done fast enough, new enemies will enter the stage.
The isometric-like view was an early attempt at drawing 3D game worlds. Making the one screen playing field have more depth. A concept probably more known from home computer games like Knight Lore (also released in 1984 by Ultimate Play the Game), and 1982 arcade hit Q*Bert by Gottlieb.
In April of 1984 Sun released its first in a series of personal computers under the name SUNTAC PC. It wasn’t their first personal computer though. They had released the computer READY1 back in 1978. This is just a reminder of the fact that Sun’s main business wasn’t video games. But rather, pachinko and other electronic devices.
Today the SUNTAC name are used for their pachinko systems.
Dev: Sun Denshi | Pub: Gifu TOKKI | Release: May 5, 1984 | Arcade
In 1984 Sun developed its first sports game. The GUNNIESS is a game based on a The Guinness Book of Records license. The game is structured around six “sport” events. Ranging from Log Sawing to Skateboarding. The game is also known as Strength & Skill (ストレングス＆ スキル) in the US. There the game was distributed by Kitco. Kitco or Kitkorp as it was called later, was sold to Sun Denshi in 1986 and became Sun Corporation of America. But I’ll talk more about that in part two.
In 1983 Konami released Hyper Olympics in the arcades, known as Track & Field in the US. In Japan it was an official game for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Both Hyper Olympics and its 1984 sequel Hyper Sports/Hyper Olympics ‘84 were ported for the Famicom/ NES, where Track & Field II became a huge success.
Sun’s Guinness license wasn’t as impressive and the weird events in The GUNNIESS wasn’t on par with those in its obvious inspiration Hyper Olympics.
Ikki (イッキ )
Dev: Sun Denshi | Pub: Namco | Release: Jul, 1985 | Arcade
In July of 1985 Sun released its last arcade game for some years to come. Ikki, also known outside of Japan as Farmer’s Rebellion and Boomerang. It’s a topdown action game for two players. It may be Sun’s first game not to be directly inspired by another game.
Ikki was published by Namco instead of Gifu TOKKI. Which means Sun Denshi changed publisher for their last game in this early arcade era.
Sun Denshi’s arcade era ended in 1985 as they began making games for the now popular Nintendo Family Computer (Famicom). They were one of the earliest third party developers for the console.
The early arcade days of Sun seem to have been a learning period, as it must have been for many companies at the time. Making clones of other developers’ games may seem cheap, but in those days it may just have been the easiest way to learn. And to make a quick buck, of course.
This concludes part one of the history of SUNSOFT. In part two we will take a look at SUNSOFT’s early NES days and the founding of Sun Corporation of America.
* Pictures are from Sun Denshi’s homepage.
** This photo of Masami Maeda from 1986 was provided by Richard Robbins(big thanks for that).
April 9, 2017: Added a flyer to the segment about The GUNNIESS and a short passage about Kitco in the same segment.
April 11, 2017: Added the full name of Shouji Suzuki and the fact that he became company president before Yoshida.
April 21, 2017: Removed Tose as developer of Ikki. I have not been able to find a good source for it being so.
April 22, 2017: Changed publisher for Ikki to Namco, instead of Gifu TOKKI. And added some text about that fact. Added Gifu TOKKI as publisher for The GUNNIESS and added the full release date for the game. Also added a bit more on the part about Gifu TOKKI.
May 6, 2017: Added picture of Gifu TOKKI’s location today. Also added since last update was a picture of Sun Denshi’s first address.
May 11, 2017: Changed Gifu TOKKI’s date of establishing from August 1974 to August 1964 based on information on the company homepage.
Special thanks to
- Patrick Todd for proofreading and corrections.
- Shigeki Shimizu for answering my questions.
- Stephen Meyerink for translating the interview with Shigeki Shimizu.
- The good people at FlyerFever.com and Arcade-museum.com where I found many of the flyers I have used for this part.
- To the great people who donated money for translation costs via Patreon or other means.
If you see anything that is incorrect please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org so it can be considered for correction.