The History of Sunsoft – Part IV: The Golden Age Part 2

This article is subject to change. Please report any errors, typos etc. Updated: November 17, 2017

In the first part about Sunsoft’s Golden Famicom/NES Age, I went through the games of 1988, among which Blaster Master was the crown jewel. In the following years Sunsoft produced more NES classics than most game developers, only matched by Capcom, Konami, and Nintendo.

In 1989 Sunsoft, returned to making arcade games and began making games for the PC Engine. But they also released a couple of classic NES titles. This is…

 

–Part IV – The Golden Age Part 2 (1989)–

Tough Turf (タフ ターフ)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sega | Release: January, 1989 (JP) | Format: Arcade

In January 1989, Sunsoft’s second era of arcade games started with Tough Turf. The game was published by Sega and released on the Sega System 16B arcade board. The strange thing is that while the console games Sunsoft developed now were original ideas or based on licenses, the arcade games continued in the old tradition of mimicking other popular arcade games. Tough Turf is clearly a clone of Technos’ arcade beat ’em up Double Dragon in most aspects and didn’t do much new to stand out in the then-popular genre.


Sekiryuou (赤龍王)

Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Tokai Engineering | Release: Februari 10, 1989 (JP) | Format: Famicom | Original price: 5,500円  | Size: 2M

Sekiryuou translates as Red Dragon King. It is an adventure game adapted from a manga by Hiroshi Motomiya that was released in Weekly Shōnen Jump in nine volumes between 1987 and 1989. The story is based on historical events in China in 221 BCE involving the struggle to defeat the first emperor of the Qin dynasty.

This was Sunsoft’s second collaboration with a manga artist after hiring Kenji “Moriken” Mori to do character design and art for The Wing of Madoola, Dead Zone, and other games.

–Joe Robbins gets fired–

While the company began making great games, and the U.S. office got more and more successful, President Joe Robbins was fired in early 1989, probably around February, Richard Robbins tells me. Joe was replaced with Yoshinori Homma (sometimes only mentioned as Yoshi Homma) from Japan. According to Richard Robbins it was a common practice among Japanese companies to let an American build up their U.S. branch and then replace him with a Japanese president as soon as the company got profitable. Robbins calls this practice “The self destruct gene.”

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

Shanghai II (上海Ⅱ)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: 1989 (JP) | Format: Arcade

Sunsoft had ported and published Shanghai for the Famicom in 1987 and done the same with the arcade version in 1988. In 1989 though, they developed the arcade version that would be ported by other companies for other platforms. They developed versions for the Game Gear (27 Dec 1990 [JP])–Sunsoft’s only game released for Sega´s handheld–and Famicom (24 Aug 1990) themselves in 1990. This was basically just a new version of Brodie Lockard´s hit game.

Bay•Route (ベイルート)
Developer: Sun Denshi | Publisher: Sega Enterprises | Release: March, 1989 (JP) | Format: Arcade

1989 also saw another Sega System 16B game, and this one was also a clone. Bay•Route is a clone of Konami’s 1987 arcade hit Contra. The run-and-gun genre had become extremely popular due to Contra, and Sunsoft tried to surf that wave. The game was decent but did not outshine its inspiration in any way, even if it sported some new features, including health bars for the heroes, which are a bit more forgiving than Contra’s one-hit kills, and the addition of hover bike shoot ’em up stages.

Image source: gamesdatabase.org

In Contra’s 1988 sequel, Super Contra, the protagonists enter the first stage from a helicopter. Sunsoft obviously tried to outdo this by having the heroes of Bay•Route enter the first stage in a jet fighter.
The game’s storyboard was created by Richard Robbins and staff at Sunsoft of America, while the rest of the game was the creation of the Japanese development team.

Out Live(アウトライブ)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: March 17, 1989 (JP) | Format: PC Engine

In 1989 Sunsoft released its first game for NEC’s PC Engine (Turbografx-16 outside Japan), the third party in the 8-bit wars between Nintendo and Sega. NEC’s console was designed by engineers at Hudson, which had first tried to partner with Nintendo to make a follow-up to the Famicom/NES, thinking that the Famicom had become obsolete. After Nintendo rejected the proposal, Hudson went to Sega, which also said no. The electronics company NEC wanted in on the console business and partnered with Hudson on the PC Engine.

Out Live was (probably) the first game to come out of Sunsoft’s new Tokyo studio. It is a first-person game where the player takes the role of a mech pilot. The movement of the mech isn’t free; it moves in steps like a piece on a board game going from square to square. It resembles in many ways FTL Games’ Dungeon Master, which also was ported to the popular Japanese computer X68000 by Victor Interactive Software. When the player encounters an enemy, a JRPG-style battle ensues. During and between the action segments, the game’s story unfolds.

–A new marketing manager–

In August 1989, Sunsoft of America´s president Yoshinori Homma hired Rita Zimmerer. Zimmerer had previously worked with sales at the toy company Tonka, where, among other things, she was responsible for selling Sega´s Master System. After being let go, she answered a newspaper ad and got the job as marketing manager at Sunsoft.

I was out of a job. Had a new baby. Had a new house. And I say ‘Oh God here we go.’ So I found this little ad in the paper and it said Sunsoft. So I said ‘Oh well,’ you know, I don’t know. I had gotten involved with Tonka because they became the marketing arm for Sega in the United States at that point. I said ‘Oh, this is a software company that sounds interesting. They need a marketing person, that sounds interesting.’ So I went in and interviewed for Mr. Homma. And he hired me. And I thought this will be easy, I’ll just do marketing for it. It’s a no-brainer, I don’t need to travel anymore to deal with all this. I just had a child, it’s fabulous. So I was hired as a marketing manager.

Unbeknownst to me at the time there was a woman there, her name was Karen Janusz, and her title was consumer marketing administrator. I was ‘OK, so what did they hire me for?’ So what they basically wanted me to do was to start working on advertising. Commercials and print advertising. And Karen didn’t have any experience in the area so, it was OK.” – Rita Zimmerer


Fester’s Quest

Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sun Corporation of America | Release: September, 1989 (US)  | Format: NES/Arcade (VS. System)

In 1989 Sunsoft released a rather strange game. Of all things, it was based on The Addams Family, an old television series that aired in two seasons with a total of 64 episodes between September 18, 1964 and April 8, 1966.

The show was adapted from a comic strip by Charles Addams that was published in The New Yorker from 1938 until Addams’ death in September 1988. The series’ classic theme song was written by Vic Mizzy. The original show had a TV film sequel in 1977, but the 1991 film is what really rekindled the Addams Family in the public eye. It received a sequel in 1993’s Addams Family Values and was followed by The Addams Family Reunion, a 1998 film with Tim Curry and Darryl Hannah as Gomez and Morticia Addams.

The New Addams Family, which to some extent was based on the old TV series, aired in 65 episodes over two seasons from 1998 to 1999. Some of the actors from Reunion reprised their roles in the series. 2011’s The Addams Family animated series on Cartoon Network’s sister channel Boomerang was the last appearance of the Addamses to date. But all these revamps of the Addams Family were preceded by the 1989 NES game Fester’s Quest.

Charles Addams

Development of the game began at Sunsoft of America in 1989. Richard Robbins had a dream: He wanted to make a game he called Uncle Fester’s Playhouse, somewhat inspired by the contemporary television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

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

In order to get the rights to make the game, Robbins also had to convince the rights keeper, who in this case was Charles Addams’ ex-wife Barbara Barb, also known as Lady Colyton. She was married to Addams between 1954 and 1956 and got copyrights to some of his work as a part of their divorce settlement.

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

Fans have long speculated whether or not the game was an Addams Family game from the start at all. Maybe it was a new Blaster Master game with the license slapped on later. But as we now know, it was meant to be a game about Uncle Fester all along. The game’s short story was written by Robbins, who also co-designed the game. Blaster Master was partly in a diagonal top-down view just like Fester’s Quest. According to Robbins, the two games were developed partly by the same team in Japan. But since the game has no credits at the end, only parts of the team are known today. One of the few known on the Japanese side is composer Naoki Kodaka. I asked Robbins if they gave him any direction on the music.

Just reviewing the music and sending notes.” – Richard Robbins

Unlike Blaster Master, Fester’s Quest was primarily designed at Sunsoft of America, by Michael Mendheim, who had mainly worked as cover art designer before and done some game design on Freedom Force, and his friend Richard Robbins, who served as his co-designer and mentor. Together they designed the game’s maps, taking inspiration from other similar games they liked. Mendheim also created the game’s cover art when the game reached it’s alpha phase. Mendheim’s signature can be seen in the bottom-right corner of the box.

“Richard Robbins was executive producer at Sunsoft, and he brought me into the world of video games production. Richard had me create numerous illustrations for Sunsoft products, which I loved doing. At some point, they needed some designs and maps for a game. I felt comfortable trying, and the design came natural.

Richard was working with external development in Japan. They didn’t necessarily understand the nuances of American pop culture with super heroes and shows like The Addams Family. He kept the core design in the U.S. and the game was developed in Japan. He was as much a designer on the project as producer. He gave the basic direction, and I would create different designs which were adjusted throughout the process and then sent to Japan.” – Michael Mendheim

They sent the design documents to Japan and occasionally received a test version of the game that they could play. Then they sent back new ideas and what could be adjusted. A couple of times they went to Japan to communicate directly with the development team. Robbins remembers it was difficult to convey what was the real Addams Family feeling. The Japanese guys didn’t understand it at all, and Mendheim and Robbins wanted the game to feel as much Addams as possible.

“The Japanese staff had a good deal of input.” – Richard Robbins

“Yes, of course they did. They also had schedule concerns so they revised a lot of game elements and cut features to make their deadline–features we thought were important. While we tried to make the best game we could, everything was dictated by schedule. When your launch date supersedes how fun the game is, then the game’s fun factor is going to take a hit.” – Michael Mendheim

According to Mendheim, the game was clearly influenced by Blaster Master and other games. The Japanese team decided what type of game it would be, then Mendheim and Robbins designed a game based on that. Mendheim tells me the game had a strict deadline by which it needed to be finished.

Sunsoft decided what the game was going to be and it was influenced by many games. Blaster Master was very familiar to us, so that was certainly an influencer.” – Michael Mendheim

Therefore, they tried to keep the design simple and clear so the developers in Japan would understand it. He says that much of what they wanted to do was lost in translation. In Japan the team cut some elements that Mendheim and Robbins saw as essential to the game. When the deadline approached, the Japanese took what they thought was needed to make a working game and stitched it together. As designed, the game would have been more action-oriented, and although there is plenty of shooting in the game, it feels a bit slow.

The game’s original design had much more action involved. The final product was almost all exploration.” – Michael Mendheim

Robbins says that it was more an exploration game than an action game. When you enter a house in the game you are met by a maze seen in a first-person perspective. The mazes were added to create variety, but fill very little purpose in the game.

“It was an exploration game mixed with some action elements. Users had to travel through large mazes to find certain things and save the world from aliens. I’m not particularly proud of this project. It was the first game I ever worked on as a designer, and a lot of elements we wanted in the game were lost in translation. The amount of experience gained from making this project was extremely valuable to me moving forward.” – Michael Mendheim

The game had been given a fairly limited development period of about nine months, according to Robbins. This didn’t include much testing, which adds to the game’s rough finish.

These games had to meet their ship dates. That was mandatory. We tried to keep the design simple and clear so it would be easier for the developers in Japan to understand and program and for Sunsoft to be able to ship on time.” – Michael Mendheim

When the game was released, it quickly got a reputation for being very difficult. Mendheim completely takes responsibility for the fact that when the player dies they must start from the beginning: When they tested the game, they had a different debug code which enabled them to jump to different parts of it and save; therefore, he simply forgot to mention in the development document that a save or password system should be implemented.

It was the most obvious thing in the world. Save points. The original game didn’t have them, and we didn’t have time to add them when we knew that’s what the game needed. If you died in the original game, you had to start over. It was awful and completely my fault. The game was marketed as one of the most challenging games ever. So people took it as a challenge, but it was really bad game design by yours truly.” – Michael Mendheim

Some changes were made to the European version of the game. Enemies are easier to kill, and walls no longer block shots. Enemies also take fewer hits to kill, something that’s most notable during the boss fights. At Sunsoft of America they tried to save the situation by promoting the game as the most difficult game for the NES.

Left: NTSC, Right: PAL. The shots do not continue past the bushes in the NTSC version.

There was also a version of Fester’s Quest for the PlayChoice-10 arcade system, which featured cabinets with two screens; the extra upper screen displayed game information and hints. Nintendo first released PlayChoice-10 in 1986. It came in different shapes and could include a different mix of NES games that the player had a set time to play.

Richard Robbins left Sunsoft around May 1989. After Sunsoft he started the company TNT Games. And after that he went to Atari, where he worked on Lynx games. In 1990 he left Atari for Electronic Arts. There he produced and partly designed games like Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf and Crue Ball. Michael Mendheim also ended up at Electronic Arts, where he, among other things, designed the sports game Mutant League Football, a post-apocalyptic themed football game. (Today Mendheim is working on a spiritual sequel to Mutant League Football, called Mutant Football League).

–Sunsoft Bass & Sunsoft Sound Team–

Fester’s Quest was the first game to use the audio technique commonly known today as Sunsoft bass, which was used in most subsequent Sunsoft Famicom games. And it was around the development of Fester’s Quest that the Sunsoft sound team was formed, consisting of sound programmers Naohisa Morota, Shinichi Seya, and Nobuyuki Hara. Morota had been working at Sunsoft since at least 1986, when he programmed the audio for Atlantis no Nazo.

Shinichi Seya, who had been programming on MZ-80 BASIC since he was 10 years old, was hired at Sunsoft in 1989 at age 18. His first work was the arcade games Tough Turf and Bay Route.

I was assigned to the team of Tough Turf, Bay Route and I did sound programming using FM sound source.” – Shinichi Seya

“Naohisa Morota was in the team for Blaster Master. I played a light drum sound with Famicom. After that, Nobuyuki Hara also joined and the sound team of SUNSOFT was formed.” – Shinichi Seya

There will be a separate article on the music of Sunsoft later on.

Maharaja(マハラジャ)
Developer: Quest Co., Ltd. | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: September 29, 1989 (JP) | Format: Famicom

Yet another adventure game, this one features a main character on a trip to India. On the shore of a big river, he finds a box. An old man tells him it belongs to the Maharaja. The hero then sets off to return the box to the Maharaja.

What sets Maharaja apart from other Sunsoft adventure games is the fusion with RPG elements. RPG-style battles and an experience-leveling system are mixed in with the otherwise traditional command-style adventure gameplay.

Yet another adventure game, this one features a main character on a trip to India. On the shore of a big river, he finds a box. An old man tells him it belongs to the Maharaja. The hero then sets off to return the box to the Maharaja.

What sets Maharaja apart from other Sunsoft adventure games is the fusion with RPG elements. RPG-style battles and an experience-leveling system are mixed in with the otherwise traditional command-style adventure gameplay.

The game was developed by Quest Co., Ltd. A company mostly know for the Battle Ogre series. The creatis only feature nicknames. On of them being Spock, who made the music. Quest’s Game Boy game Battle Pingpong from 1990 also has music by a M. Spock. And then there is the special thanks to a Ryuji Mita in Maharaja. His actual name is Takaharu Mita. Before this he was credited with a special thanks in Zap Corporation’s MSX port of Hudson’s Famicom game Bomber King (RoboWarrior on the NES). And in 1990 he joined Quest Co., Ltd. where he designed the game Matendo Douji (Conquest of the Crystal Palace in the US). He later formed other game companies and freelanced as a writer. What he did to deserve a special thanks in Maharaja is unknown.

Benkei Gaiden (弁慶外伝)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: December 22, 1989 (JP) | Format: PC Engine

After creating Out Live, Sunsoft’s new Tokyo studio started work on an RPG for the PC Engine called Benkei Gaiden. Long time Sunsofter Atsushi Sakai transferred from the Konan office to join the Tokyo team.

Benkei Gaiden was yet another collaboration with Hiroshi Motomiya. Or rather Moto Kikaku, a group of manga artists formed by Motomiya. Maybe the most famous manga to emerge from Moto Kikaku was Strider Hiryu by Kouichi Yotsui, Masahiko Kurokawa, and Tatsumi Wada, which also had a video game tie-in with Capcom’s Strider series. Originally the manga was tied into the first game, which was being developed for the Famicom, but after the manga was delayed, that game was never released in Japan; rather, it was only released in the United States in July 1989, following the arcade game, which became the first game in the series.

Benkei Gaiden continued the Sunsoft tradition of making games set in historical Japan. The game’s hero, Ogreous, embarks on a journey to solve the mystery of his own birth. On the adventure, he meets other characters that join him. The game is a traditional Japanese RPG in the sense that the player walks around a map and randomly encounters enemies. Defeating enemies gives experience points and money to level up the characters and buy new equipment.

The game was meet with mixed reviews, Famitsu gave it 25 out of 40 and Monthly PC Engine was a bit more generous with 83 out of 100. Benkei Gaiden is one of many Sunsoft games that is more or less unknown outside Japan. Sunsoft made many games that were targeted at Japanese customers.

Parts of the development team. Atsushi Sakai (main programmer), Atsushi Hatano (Sub-programmer), Kou Ishikawa (game designer) and a fourth guy. 

*

Batman: The Video Game (バットマン)
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: December 22, 1989 (JP)/January 1990 (US) | Format: Famicom/NES

The next big game was something special. It was based on the movie Batman with Michael Keaton in the title role as the caped crusader, which became a huge hit when it went up on the big screen on June 19, 1989. The game was released only six months later on December 22 in Japan. It was released in January 1990 in the United States and in Europe in the fall of 1990.

Joe and Richard Robbins had a good relationship with Dan Romanelli and other consumer products people at Warner Brothers. Joe and Richard got to visit the film set at London’s Pinewood Studios, where they walked the streets of Tim Burton’s Gotham City and saw the iconic Batmobile.

Richard Robbins remembers meeting Sun Denshi’s President Maeda during the movie’s premiere week.

“Like I said, the magic moment is when we met Mr. Maeda in Times Square the week the movie premiered. Mr. Maeda got out of his taxi from the airport and looked up to see Batman plastered everywhere on the big Times Square screens. We felt like we were in the moment of the times having secured the Batman license.” – Richard Robbins

There is little information about development of the game itself. I asked programmer Yuichi Ueda about the game. Ueda began working at Sunsoft in 1989, and his first task was to program the cutscenes in Batman.

The game has great-looking cutscenes with animation. It was unusual for games to have even still image cutscenes in those days; however, there were more scenes than the ones that made it into the finished game. In an early version that found its way onto the internet, the cutscenes are longer. They explain the story of the games better and why Batman is on the different stages.

So I asked Ueda about the deleted cutscenes. He told me he had no idea why they were left out. When I asked him to tell me more about the game’s development he actually answered the previous question.

During development, Warner Brothers had scolded Ueda because he had used pictures of Batman from the comics instead of from the 1989 movie. Ueda had not realized they were separate licenses. Looking at the removed parts of the cutscenes, they are all of a cartoon Batman, while the parts left in are of the live-action Batman.

“I often used the comic book Batman for the cutscenes, only to be scolded from Warner Bros. At the time, I wasn’t aware that the film and comics Batman held different copyrights.” – Yuichi Ueda

One of the game’s designers, Yoshiaki Iwata, has said he wanted to make a game with great wall-jumping mechanics–a stand out feature of the game, which does wall jumps differently from games like Ninja Gaiden. Batman pushes off a wall as he hits it without sticking to it.

One odd thing about the game is that Batman uses weapons. How Sunsoft got to have Batman using weapons besides Batarangs is not known.

One thing many players have noticed is the game’s lack of Batman villains, or at least notable ones. The game was based on the movie, so there was really no reason to expect any famous members of the Rogues Gallery other than the Joker. But the game is still full of characters from the Batman universe; among the common stage enemies are Shakedown, Heatwave, K.G. Beast, The Enforcer, Deadshot, Nightslayer, Maxie Zeus, and Jader. And some of the bosses are also Batman villains: Killer Moth, the Electrocutioner, and, right before the final battle with the Joker, Fire Bug. In a beta version of the game, Fire Bug was the final boss, and after defeating him Batman confronts the Joker in a cutscene and hits him, causing him to fall from the cathedral to his death.

There are a couple of unfinished versions of Batman: The Video Game in circulation on the web, including the one with the extra cutscenes and Fire Bug as final boss and one with an extra life on the first stage and some harder enemies, which otherwise is very similar to the finished game.

Rita Zimmerer came in at the tail end of Batman, and was responsible for marketing the game.

“Well, what happened. Somewhere in November of the year that I was hired, Mr. Homma came to me, and I guess there was a problem with Batman. And I really wasn’t aware of what was going on with the development, because that was not my responsibility. And he said to me, ‘I want you to take over sales.’ And I said, ‘Oookay.’ And sales was, you know, I mean I pretty much knew all the major retailers in the country. You know, I worked for Bristol-Meyers and Tonka. So my sales background was heavy, I knew a lot of people in the business and sales. I could walk into Toys’R’Us, I could walk into Target, I could walk into Kmart. You know, pretty much what we needed. And Bob Bernstein was in charge of sales at the time, and he had no background and no knowledge of sales at that point in time. And we were about to launch Batman. A 30 million dollar product. And so Mr Homma was very concerned about his ability to deal, because it was getting really complicated since our distributors were vying for position of quantity. So he said, ‘Here, something new to play with.’ I was ‘Huh, don’t I have enough right now?’ And by then the movie was a big hit as well.” – Rita Zimmerer

Zimmerer was responsible for the TV commercial for Batman.

“And the movie was released in, I think, June. It was a summer movie. And it was a blockbuster. And I knew that they were having problems because, you know. The actual delivery kept getting pushed back and pushed back and pushed back. And I was like ‘Eh… I’m glad I’m not involved.’ Just let me know what’s going on so I can pull the ad. In the process I was developing a print ad for Batman, and I created a commercial. The Batman commercial. And I had, I don’t know if you know who Bob Daly is, but he was in charge of Warner Brothers Studios. And the day I was supposed to leave for California, he called me in the morning and said, ‘You can’t do this commercial.’ And I go, ‘Are you kidding me? All the storyboards are done, everything has been done. Everything was approved. So what’s the problem?’

“‘Well you’re creating new footage of Batman.’ And there are so many great stories. What we had done, we shot the top of New York’s landscape. And it was new footage, basically looked like new film. And I said ‘Well I’ll pull that out. But I want something for it.’ And he says. ‘Well, what do you want?’ And you know something, innocence is bliss, sometimes you don’t know what you are dealing with. You just do it. Well anyway. I said, ‘I want product endorsement.’ And he knew what I meant.

“And what I meant was I wanted Batman to grab the packaging. And we came down to using the glove. And I said, ‘I want the glove to grab the packaging of Batman.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ Well, we had the glove, and I tell you it was so small we had to use a female in it. And we shot the commercial in a few variations. And it was fabulous because what I didn’t want to have to do was, I didn’t want a bunch of kids sitting in front of a TV playing the game. I wanted it to feel like you have to play this game. And look at what you see and what you’re gonna get for it, you know. And that was pretty much the Batman commercial.” – Rita Zimmerer

–Custom chips–

Batman was the first game to use Sunsoft’s memory mapping chip Sunsoft 5A, which would also be used for Hebereke; a variant of the chip was also used for a prototype for Batman: Return of the Joker. As mentioned in previous parts, Sunsoft was one of the earliest third parties to sign up with Nintendo to make games for the Famicom. This gave them the privilege of manufacturing their own cartridges. While later third parties had to wait for Nintendo to manufacture their games, Sunsoft, Konami, Namco, and other developers could make the games themselves.

“SUNSOFT had made a contract with Nintendo early as a Famicom third party. This contract allowed SUNSOFT to make ROM cartridge by ourselves. (So there is a SUNSOFT logo in the plastic of cartridges we have made.)
     
“In regard to Super Famicom and Game Boy, we had contracted with the terms that we use cartridges manufactured by Nintendo, so, we could not mount custom chips in them.” – Shigeki Shimizu

At first this only meant they made chip sets very much on par with Nintendo’s own MMC series of mappers. The Sunsoft 1-4 PCBs that were used from 1985 to 1988 really did not add anything extra to the games than what other developers could do on Nintendo’s MMC chips. The Sunsoft 5A, 5B, and FME-7 are basically variations of the same chip set. And they did add some new capabilities to the cartridge. This is how David Siller describes them:

“FME2, 2B, and 5B. This FME chip set family enhanced the capabilities of the standard-issue Famicom/NES with greater sprite-management capabilities and better sound channels. These chips were used in Gremlins 2, Battle Formula/Super Spy Hunter, Dynamite Batman, and Gimmick. In the U.S., these games were converted into Nintendo’s MMC Chips, mainly the MMC5.

“The FME chip set, through their various evolutions, were created to accomplish several goals. First was splitting up the mathematical tasks to gain greater efficiency and speed. Next was to enable the management of additional sprite usage now, therefore enabling animated larger characters than ever before. Music and sound effects were enhanced, adding additional voices or channels to mix into the quality stereo output. Who knew what the real capabilities were until they were pushed, but that was never to happen…!

“As each chip release grew in number, so did its capabilities. For the third generation NES/Famicom games, these chips would employ a greater animation and picture processing wow-factor. The player controlled (avatar) would be able to more impressively buff-up in armament or stature without any (or less) consequence to overall performance. Playfield constructions would also feature more interactive capabilities for greater play possibilities. Deformable upon collision with or staged destruction by weapon fire could be more easily incorporated (like what became prevalent in SNES or arcade machines at that same time).

“Greater sprite manipulation would also enable more enemies on the screen that are not duplicates or clones of each other, including their behavior patterns, therefore newer fun challenges could be offered.

“Like any tool or device, the longer you work with it and understand it, the better it will serve you in getting it to sing.” – David Siller

I also asked Sunsoft’s Shigeki Shimizu about who the people that made the chips were.

“In order to cross the constraints of Famicom at that time, chips were designed by electronic circuit staff, incorporating the opinions of game developers. In that sense, everything was made in cooperation; however, since the hardware cannot be easily changed, the same chip is used for multiple games.

“SUNCORPORATION was developing products using microcomputer chips too, besides games, so there was a technical staff for electronic circuits. Many people were involved with it, so we cannot name a specific person.” – Shigeki Shimizu

The only other developers that used their own custom chips were unlicensed game makers like Tengen and Color Dream, who made their own cartridges and clones of Nintendo’s lock-out chip 10NES. The chip was needed to tell the NES that it was a licensed cartridge. Without it, the game wouldn’t start. Because Nintendo of America wanted to put the lock-out chip in all cartridges released in the U.S., they had to manufacture the cartridges themselves. So Sunsoft and the other developers that used custom chips for Famicom had to convert their games to use Nintendo’s MMC chips when they were released in the U.S.

BMX Air Master
Developer: Sculptured Software | Publisher: TNT Games | Release: 1989 (US)  | Format: Atari 2600/Atari 7800

BMX Air Master was a late game for the Atari 2600 and Atari 7800. Even though the game in its final incarnation was not released by Sunsoft, it was at Sunsoft that it first sprung to life.

Richard Robbins had left Sunsoft earlier in the year to form TNT Games. He tells me that he acquired BMX Air Master and Midnight Mutants from Sunsoft of America to finish them. Sunsoft never released any games for the Atari consoles, although they had stayed alive after the video game crash of 1983.

BMX Air Master was developed by Sculptured Software, whose most famous work is the trilogy of Super Star Wars games. They also developed Looney Tunes B-Ball in 1994. Robbins tells me he first got in contact with them during his time at Atari. Sculptured had started out making games for Atari’s 8-bit computers in 1985, and besides making BMX Air Master for the Atari consoles in 1989, they also ported Capcom’s Commando for the Atari 7800 the same year.

The game was a BMX trick game where the player rode a halfpipe ramp and executed tricks. The game was fairly advanced for the system.

Midnight Mutants was released in 1990 and was developed by Radioactive Software and published by Atari Corporation. Radioactive Software was a subcontractor to Sculptured Software. Together, Sculptured and Radioactive made Eliminator Boat Duel for the NES in 1991.

Just like BMX Air Master, Midnight Mutants was only released in the United States. Robbins had some hand in their development, and his co-design partner from Fester’s Quest, Michael Mendheim, did the cover art for Midnight Mutants, which is similar to Mendheim’s cover art for Fester’s Quest. It features Grampa, who looks very much like Al Lewis’ character Grandpa from the TV show The Munsters. So I asked Richard Robbins about it.

“Al Lewis owned the rights to be named Grampa in a commercial sense. I called Al at his restaurant and he agreed to a reasonable license of his name and likeness.” – Richard Robbins

Midnight Mutants is an isometricish adventure game that really pushed the six-year old hardware. It was the last game released for the Atari 7800 in the U.S.

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Next up is 1990 and part three of the Golden Age of Sunsoft.

“Well I know what PR is. I was hired as a marketing manager. And they wanted me to come in and basically help them launch Fester’s Quest and Batman. Because at that point we had Blaster Master, Spy Hunter, Platoon. And I can tell you, I have my first brochure here, because I kept all my brochures. This is my first brochure. And in the brochure, this is the product list for 1990 Winter CES. This was January. January of 1990. And remember now, I was hired in August. And was not involved in development at all. What I knew about development at that point, there were a group of guys and they were in a backroom somewhere at a premises at Sunsoft in Illinois. And I was told ‘Well they are going to go in a couple of months.’ And I went, ‘Oh, OK.’ ‘You know you don’t have to worry, it’s none of your business.’ And I said ‘Oh, OK, no problem.'” – Rita Zimmerer

 


* Pictures from Benkei Gaiden development taken from http://www.chrismcovell.com/secret/PCE_1989Q4.html
** Picture provided by Rita Zimmerer

Updates:
November 17, 2017: Changed a large part in the section about Maharaja. The game was actually developed by Quest. So the text has been changed to reflect that and how it is known that Quest did develop it. Thanks to @GDRI on Twitter for the correction.

Special thanks to:

  • E.C Myers for proofreading and corrections.
  • Richard Robbins, Michael Mandheim, Shinichi Seya, David Siller, Shigeki Shimizu and Rita Zimmerer for the interviews.
  • My Patreons.

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

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