The History of Sunsoft Part VI – The Golden Age Part 4

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THE GOLDEN AGE PART 4


1992

”At this point in time what you need to know is Bob Bernstein. Mr Homma was going to let Bob Bernstein go within six months after being in California. This is what he told me, in Chicago. And I basically said “That’s not the right thing to do” and he goes “That’s what we’re doing”. Well he took care of him, he got fired and guess what happened. I am now in charge of licensing. I’m like “OK. All right I’ll do it, we’ll do whatever we can”. So Luana Chambers and I we hit it off and everything was going great. And this was really kind of my first working with her and it was on Batman. And then they wanted me to license Superman at the time and I was sitting on the fence on that. And there are three or four developers, third parties, that wanted Batman. And I said to Mr Homma “You know if we lose this, you know, what are we gonna do?”. And he said no. Luana, I went up to her and I said “Well he can’t make the decision right now, he has to call Japan” that’s what I said to her. Because I was still, “What the heck is going on”. And she goes “Fine. We’re gonna take another offer”. And she did. – Rita Zimmerer

In 1992 Joe Robbins was reinstaated as president of Sunsoft of America. Yoshinori Homma’s management had been unsuccessful according to Richard Robbins. ”By the way. Mr. Homma got fired for it.” says Rita Zimmerer referring to Homma not renewing the Batman license. Sun Denshi’s president Masami Maeda called in the man that had made the US branch successful in the first place.

Homma’s decition to not sign the Batman license for the second Batman movie cost him his job says Rita Zimmerer (the license for the second Batman movie was then picked up by Konami. Rita tells me there were around five other companies interested in the Batman licens before Sunsoft let it go).
Bringing back Joe though, was an uncommon thing for a japanese company to do according to Richard Robbins. It had to do with it’s location he says. Sun Denshi was founded in Konan City, which lies in a rural part of the Aichi prefecture. People here are more humble than people in the big cities. And so was Masami Maeda. He also had great respect for Joe Robbins and Joe for him. Richard says a company in Tokyo or Kyoto never would have done a thing like that.

Joe had a six month contract and was according to Rita Zimmerer not really doing much during this time. They needed someone in the position. Joe was 70 years old and was really on his way into retirement.

1992 would in some ways be a goodbye for Sunsoft. This year they released their last truly great game for the Fami com, Gimmick. And would for real start making their way into the 16 bit era on both Mega Drive and Super Nintendo.

The Looney Tunes license

After losing the Batman license due to Homma’s unwillingness to sign the deal, and no more games coming in from Japan, Rita Zimmerer needed to find something new to make games out off. Rita had been promoted to vice president and had taken over licensing after Bob Bernstein. She went home and started planing a pitch.

“I always loved Looney Tunes. And I created  -over the weekend- it was really kind of different then it ended up in some instances. I wanted Looney Tunes to be a sports franchise for children. And so I designed as concept for Looney Tunes Basketball.” tells me. She then called Luana Chambers at Warner Bros. She wanted to come in to do a presentation of her Looney Tunes game. And after what Sunsoft had done to build up the Batman franchise in video games she got a meeting. So she went there and did the presentation. Attending was founder and president of Warner Bros Consumer Products (the merchandise arm of Warner Bros) Dan Romanelli. Zimmerer says he loved the presentation (Dan didn’t remember anything about Sunsoft when I asked him). She got the deal and what she didn’t know at the time was that Warner Bros was beginning to do new Looney Tunes productions for the first time in years. “They hadn’t done any new animation for years. They were coming out with Tiny Toons, they were resurging the old cartoons and putting them out. They also were creating commercials with Michael Jordan with Taz-Mania. And then they were opening their retail stores and the biggest push would be Looney Tunes and Batman.” Zimmerer explains.

Zimmerer promised Warner Bros a game with great cartoon animation. She had already found ICOM Simulations and thought they could diliver the game she wanted. But for her to sign the deal she wanted more that was the norm in licensing deals back the. She wanted them all. “I’m not gonna piecemeal this anymore. I want a franchise opportunity. I want to develop ten games and be able to use all the characters”, she told them. “They wanted a million dollars, guaranteed. And I said yes. And you know what, the first game we maxed out a million dollars. So, from that point on any Looney Tunes game we had to pay 10 cents a unit.” says Zimmerer. Which of course is very cheap. The deal was a rare one. You would usually only license a single character from a brand with a large roster. But Zimmerer got them all for ten games.

The Looney Tunes licensing deal was announced at the Winter CES in Las Vegas in January 1992 alongside the development of the first games bases on the license, Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally and Looney Tunes: Mixed-up Melodies.

Super Fantasy Zone (スーパーファンタジーゾーン) 
Developer: Sunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: January 14, 1992(US), 1993(EU) Format: Mega Drive/Genesis 

After had ported Sega games for the Famicom/NES, among them Fantasy Zone, Sunsoft also made a new game in the series for Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis. The gameplay is mostly like the original game but with new stages, enemies and power-ups.

In the original game the interplanetary monetary system of the Fantasy Zone has collapsed and the Space Guild has discovered that the planet Menon is responsible. Opa-Opa is sent to defeat the invading forces of Menon. It turns out that Opa-Opa’s own father is the master mind behind the attack and Opa-Opa now has to take on his father.

A rather grim story considering the games esthetics, bright colors and a cartoony character design. And Super Fantasy Zone is the sequel to this dark tale.

The game features remixed versions of the original’s soundtrack but also new compositions by Naoki Kodaka and sound programming by Shinichi Seya and Nobuyuki Hara from Sunsoft’s sound team.

Gimmick! (ギミック)/Mr. Gimmick! 
DeveloperSunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: January 31, 1992(US), May 1993(SCN) Format: Famicom/NES 

Gimmick! was a pretty late Famicom game. At the time of release Gimmick! would get little notice. Today though it’s one of Sunsoft’s most talked about titles.
The games creator Tomomi Sakai started at Sunsoft at the age of 19 in 1987. He tells me that he has a natural talent for programming and that he learned to program for the Famicom in one day. He had first learned programming in high school and could easily adapt to new programming languages.

Sakai liked video games. He used to hang out in the arcade studying the games he played. He started fiddling with his own games and after graduating he looked for a job that would let him create games.

As a newcomer at Sunsoft he first was delt the role as third programmer on the Famicom port of Bally Midway’s arcade game Spy Hunter. After that he was main programmer on Freedom Force and Fester’s Quest. After Fester’s Quest in 1989 he started developing his own game.
Gimmick! was the result of Sakai’s idea of making a game that really took advantage of the Famicom capability. Gimmick! would become one of the most technically advanced games on the console. Because Sakai were both game designer and programmer, he knew exactly what he could do and designing for it. “I don’t think just a designer could make the physics and the enemies in Gimmick!.”, says Sakai.

In the early days of video game making there basically were only programmers. They came up with the game concepts, coded the games and made the rudimentary graphics. There were no dedicated designers. By the late 80s this started to change. Development teams got bigger and you often had programmers and designers or planners as they often were referred to in Japan.
Tomomi Sakai’s work on Gimmick shows the advantage of programming your own design. Especially the physic that is the basis for the game’s gameplay. I asked Sakai to explain how the physics of Gimmick was created. He finds it hard to explain, telling me he would almost need to write a book to describe it. It seems Sakai used unconventional programming methods to do it. Instead of programming on objects as was the common practice, Sakai instead programmed the backgrounds and environment to propel the objects on the screen. “For example, an ordinary programmer thinks about how to move characters on the floor. In short, he will program characters. ”I thought about how the floor moves characters. I programmed the floors.” explains Sakai. Another game released in 1992 that is coming up a little bit further on is Trip World. It shares not only a very similar world to Gimmick but also programing philosophy. Sakai shared his programming techniques with Trip World’s creator Yuichi Ueda. He explains the programming like this, “It was special in several ways, including sophisticated programming in the background.
At the time, programming was generally focused on objects (characters, items, etc.)
This was the case even for the sample programs from Nintendo.
However, Gimmick and Trip World feature special backgrounds, whose blocks involve programming. This way, simple physical calculations would be done by the background program.”

The game is pretty hard and the prominent Japanese gaming magazine at the time, Famicom Tsuden, now called Famitsu, gave the game a low score. Partly for being a hard game and probably for being a late Famicom game when most people where looking for 16-bit experiences. Keep in mind that Sega had released it’s Mega Drive in 1988. Sakai was still positive though, and when he took the game to the Tokyo Toy Show, he was sure someone would pick up the game and distribute it. But as soon as anyone found out the game was not for a 16-bit console their interest cooled. Not even Sunsoft of America wanted to release the game. They wanted to focus on the new consoles for the Christmas season of 1992 too.

David Siller at Sunsoft of America personally wanted to release it in the US. He saw it as a game that would bridged the old and new generations. But the marketing department disagreed. Siller thinks that they sould have realized that the NES had a large user base at the time and that everyone had not and would not make the jump over to the Super Nintendo or Mega Drive right away. In the US, media reported on parents being mad at Nintendo for making a new console that could not play the old games they had bought for their kids. Why should they need to buy a new console to play the new games? This sure was the early days of video games in many ways.

In the end Gimmick got a release outside of Japan. Swedish Nintendo distributor Bergsala AB released the game on the Scandinavian market (Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland) in the spring of 1993. The game was now called Mr. Gimmick. It was released late in the NES’s lifetime in Scandinavia and didn’t sell all that well. I asked Bergsala’s co-founder Owe Bergsten why they released Mr. Gimmick and Ufouria. He guessed it was due to their contract with Sunsoft. So it doesn’t seem they necessarily wanted to release those late NES games. But they had too. The NES had reach its peak in Scandinavia in 1991 when 50 games was released. And in 1993 the number of released games was down to 30.

 

This prototype cartridge has a label marked “Prov ex från Sunsoft”. Which is Swedish and means “Test cartridge from Sunsoft”. This is most likely the cartridge that was sent to Bergsala before they ordered the game.

Tomomi Sakai finds this renaming strange. Gimmick discribes the world that the games protagonist Yumetaro enters. The game is full of one-time events or gimmicks. So naming the game Mr. Gimmick like the character is Gimmick shows that the person that changed the name didn’t read the original manual that explains why the game is called Gimmick. Or just didn’t care and thought Mr. Gimmick sounded good. “I don’t think “Mr. Gimmick” is suitable title. I suppose it was named by a person who didn’t know the game well.” Sakai tells me.

Siller says there definitely was an American prototype of Mr. Gimmick and it existed before the game was released in Scandinavia, so we can probably assume that it was the US office that made the name change. Siller’s guess is that it was either Kazuko Harman or Rita Zimmerer who came up with the new title. But Rita tells me Kazuko didn’t do things like decide on titles and her guess is that it was Karen Shadley that did the title change. Karen who was manager of marketing and advertising at the time seems like a more likely candidate having responsibilty for marketing the game.

In addition to the title change the games protagonist Yumetaro was given seven lives instead of the three he started with in the Japanese version. A change Sakai did not know off when I asked him if his game was too difficult. He thinks three lives are just enough.

The game has two endings, a bad and a good one. To get to the final stage where you meet the true final boss you need to collect a hidden treasure on each level without getting a game over. If you get game over the treasures will be reset but you can go back to earlier stages and continuing after a game over starts you at the beginning of the level you died on. The reset was a counter to continues says Sakai. He didn’t want continues in the game but at the time players were expecting to be able to continue in game so they added it. ”I hate Continue, I think Continue spoils video games. But at that time we couldn’t make a video game that did not have Continue.”, he says.

In December of 1991 Sakai had left Sunsoft after finishing Gimmick after three years of development. So Sakai was not at Sunsoft when the game was released a month later. In the finished version that existed when Sakai left, his full name was in the game’s intro scene. But after he left, Sunsoft removed his name from the intro. He speculates that they might have been afraid some other company would headhunt him. Seeing the talent that must have gone in to making Gimmick and look him up.

The star is Yumetaro’s weapon, it is special because it takes time to charge and you can only have one on the screen at once. Sakai says that the stars limitations gives the game depth. He did not want weapons like in other action games. The star is somewhat similar to attacks in Ufouria where Hebereke charges his attack. So I asked Tomomi if he was inspired by it, since Ufouria was released before Gimmithe “Hebereke was released before Gimmick!, but Gimmick! was created before Hebereke.”, he explains.

He had already told me that the game was developed in three years. A really long time for a game on the Famicom/NES. He tells me it was possible due to only he and one more guy (Hiroyuki Kagoya who did most of the graphics) mainly developing the game beside the sound team and the people doing hardware. The Sunsoft 5B chip set going into the cartridge. The chip was made on request from Sakai to his boss,
Kiharu Yoshida. Yoshida agreed to making the chip and Sun Electronics in-house chip designer Mr. Asada went to work on it. ”I decided not only the extended sound source but also the specification of the bank switching of the ROM where the character is included.” Sakai tells me.

But first and foremost the chip was made to expand the Famicom’s capabilities to produce sound. More channels of sound and FM sysynthesise The music of Gimmick is like most Sunsoft music of the era. Amazing. Most of their famous soundtracks was composed by Naoki Kodaka. But Sakai didn’t use Kodaka for Gimmick. He wanted another freelance composer, Masashi Kageyama. Kageyama had composed the music for Sunsoft games before. The PC Engine games Out Live and Benkei Gaiden. Sakai tells me that most developers at Sunsoft used Kodaka since he was located in Aichi, the same area as Sun Corporations offices at the time. While Kageyama was in Tokyo. But Sakai loved his music from Out Live and Benkei Gaiden, so he chose Kageyama.
Responsible for the sound programming was Naohisa Morota. Morota had left Sunsoft but was persuaded to come back to program Kageyama’s music into the game.
Jazz fanatic Kageyama made a soundtrack with a mix of jazz and fusion which he felt contributed something new to the Famicoms music scene. Kageyama continued to make music until 1999. Thereafter, he became a photographer. He was inspired by Sakai’s photography and he has since mostly photographed jazz musicians in and outside Japan.

I also asked him about the bosses. They seem to act strangely, but the bosses movements are largely controlled by the players movement. “I always thought who they are and how they live.”. The world of Gimmick is a living one. All creatures Yumetaro meets aren’t even hostile. On the third level are small furry creatures, that Sakai call Risuponta, they don’t attack. They only try to escape if you attack. On level six Yumetaro runs into what seem to be a creature and his pet. The gray figure runs away from you and the pet wants to play with your star and gets excited when you charge it uo. I asked Sakai who they are, “They just live there. It is not rare in Gimmick!.”.

Although Gimmick! is completely Sakai’s game, he directed, designed, coded and designed characters, it is not quite the game he wanted to make. There simply was not time to do everything. I asked him if he had to cut many features, “It is too many to say. Nine-tenths of ideas were abandoned.”. This of course doesn’t mean all these were ideas he felt was needed in the game. Ideas are always abandoned in game development as a project comes along.

One of the abandoned ideas was in a way left in the game. In the game there is a unused song called Strange Memories of Death. It can be played in the games sound test menu. I asked Sakai what it was ment to be used for, ”Strange Memories of Death was originally the song for the final stage, and the stage was meant to be a mechanical, electrical and the most difficult stage. However, I changed my mind and made the final stage
an one without enemies. I wanted to create a world rather than making just a video game. We prepared a new song for the final stage, so I put the song we did not use into the sound test.”.

And if you play the game it becomes clear that Sakai wanted to create a living world. Not just a video game with repeating enemies. Like the creature with the pet, and all the other creatures that just seem to inhabit the world of Gimmick. And when a creature is killed it doesn’t respawn if you come back. Sakai wanted it to stay dead.

The story in Gimmick revolves around a girl who gets a new toy for her birthday, this is Yumetaro. The other toys seems to get jealous of him as he is now the girls new favorite toy. And in the middle of the night a portal opens and the toys kidnaps the girls and brings her into a new world via the portal. The girls name is Mary in Mr Gimmick but for the Japanese release she didn’t have a name. Sakai has said that he thought of naming her Kasumi or Ayaka.

The toys are the games bosses. But there is one boss that doesn’t come from the girls toybox. The final encounter is with a shadowy man with a sword. I asked Sakai who he hiswas, ”Human. As he is a human being, he did kidnap a human girl.
He handled the stuffed toys with his special abilities and kidnapped the girl. He also made the world of gimmick, so he is like a god.”

Gimmick didn’t reach much success in Japan or Scandinavia when it was released but in more recent years it has gained a cult status among retro game entusiasts. In both Japan and Scandinavia it has become a rare treasure. In Sweden the game has been sold for as much as 25000 SEK (~2800 USD) in 2017.

After Sunsoft Sakai continued to develop games, none of them got much recognition. He founded the company Electric Sheep on June 25, 1992, where he developed the game Robot Construction (which later got a phone remake made by Yuichi Ueda) for the Sharp X6800 and three Windows games Motor Squad, A Man from Heaven and Gizmo I.Q.
In recent years, however, he was involved with writing books and photography. To day Sakai runs a successful online store for astrophotography equipment. With customers such as National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. I asked him if he had thought about making a spiritual successor to Gimmick. He says he has thought about it, but he has no time to make games these days.

Third generation NES games

Gimmick was also the end off Sunsofts’s NES era and the end of what most people would call their golden age.
David Siller says that they had plans for more games for the NES after Gimmick. The idea was to make games that fully took advantage of their chip sets capabilities. He calls them the NES’s third generation of games. It’s not much of a stretch to say Gimmick was one of few games that could be called a third generation Famicom/NES game.

In 1993 Sunsoft got the rights from Nintendo to manufacture cartridges in the US. So later NES games could theoretically have used the Sunsoft chip sets. But in the end Sunsoft mostly manufactured Super Nintendo games themselves. These late NES games would only have been able to use the graphical capabilities of the chips since the NES weren’t capable of using the extra sound functionality.

Siller was part of the team that planned for these third generation games. He mentions some of the game concepts the came up with.

Mysteria, would have been a shoot em up in the style of Gradius and R-Type. “This was to be a powerful morphing spaceship that would feature doppelganger weapons and upgrades as well as beautiful multi-parallax backgrounds.”, says Siller.

Bay Route Neo would be a follow-up to Sunsoft’s arcade game Bay Route. The Contra-like run and gun game mentioned previously. Even though the NES never could have beaten the arcade powered graphics of Bay Route it could possibly have improved on the gameplay elements with help from the 5B chip. Siller explains, “An enhanced version of a coin-op Sunsoft had produced previously on Sega hardware. However, this game would be far superior to the original and competitive with the Konami game [Contra].”. “This was intended to be an all-new not a remake – 100% better – more graphically impressive – smooth two player simultaneous action and more interesting and powerful weapons and upgrades. Similar to how the vehicle upgrades occur in “Battle Formula”.”, says Siller. He wanted to do more than had been done before. The player character should not only power up, it should get a visual upgrade to match. ”Special endings, secrets, hidden area and so forth were planned for this project.”, Siller adds.

The last game he mentioned would be a competition shooter. A game that would be used at events for competitions. It was called Sun Soldier but was later called Sun Scorcher. “This would be a vertical shooter with 2 and 5 minute contest modes and a single player story mode as well. Journeying to various Sun and Stars was part of the storyline.”, says Siller.

None of these three games came further than early concept stages. The concepts were scraped in favor of games for the 16-bit consoles. So what would these new games have include technically that had not been done before I asked David Siller, “The chips was developed for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, they wanted to split up the mathematical calculations to make it more efficient and faster.
Then they wanted to expand the use of sprites. Larger and more well animated sprites, but also more different sprites simultaneously. The sound is also enhanced by making it possible to squeeze in more channels (which could only be used by the Famicom and not the NES).”.
Siller doesn’t think they ever used the full capability of the chips, ”Who knew what the real capabilities were until they were pushed, but that was never to happen.”.

Player characters could be bigger and able to be added to without impacting game performance. Levels could be more detailed and have more interactive elements. Siller mention destructible environments to a greater extent than before. Features more common on the 16-bit consoles at the time. The Famicom and NES was probably the console that got most upgrades through hardware in the game cartridges. From expanded memory starting with Capcom’s Ghosts N Goblins to the mathematical and sound expanding Sunsoft chips. Other later consoles would be expanded via extra RAM like the Nintendo 64. But none would differ so much from the first early games to the later once.

“Greater sprite manipulation would enable more enemies on the screen that are not duplicates or clones of eachother 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.”, says Siller.

Sun Electronics was one of few third party Famicom developers that had the capability to develop and manufacture these kind of chips. Konami and Namco was some of the other companies in this rather exclusive club. Sun Electronics of course was a electronics and micro processor manufacturer so it was right up the companies alley. Before starting console development they had been early in developing PCs, the READY1 and later Suntac computers. At that point Kiharu Yoshida had hired a Mr Asada, who became the companies head chip designer. Asada would later be the one to make the chip sets used in Sunsoft’s Famicom games.

Honō no Tōkyūji: Dodge Danpei (炎の闘球児ドッジ弾平) 
DeveloperSunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: Mars 28, 1992(JP) Format: Famicom
DeveloperSunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: July, 31, 1992(JP) Format: Super Famicom 

Hono no Tokyuji: Dodge Danpei are games based on Tetsuhiro Koshita’s manga with the same name. It is a serialized shonen manga that was published in CoroCoro Comic between 1989 and 1995. Both manga and game is based around dodge ball with the boy Danpei in the main role.

Sunsoft developed both a Famicom and Super Famicom game, both released in 1992 and were licensed from Japanese publisher Shogakukan. Some other companies made games off the license for Mega Drive, PC Engine, Game Boy and Game Gear. The Famicom and Super Famicom game are very different from each other. While the Famicom game is a strategic turn based game where cards are used to execute moves the Super Famicom game is a real time sports game more directly simulating the game.

Famicom

 

Super Famicom

Batman: Return of the Joker
(バットマン リターン・オブ・ザ・ジョーカ)

DeveloperSunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: Mars 28, 1992(JP), May, 1992(US), November 26, 1992(SCN) Format: Game Boy 

Sunsoft also made a Game Boy game of Return of the Joker. But it was not a port of the NES game like Revenge of the Joker for Mega Drive. This action platformer let’s the player tackle the first three stages in any order. When these three and their bosses are cleared it’s time for the fourth and final stage.

The gameplay also differs from the other games. Even though Batman could wall jump i Batman: The Video Game for NES and used a bathook in Batman for Mega Drive, these features are used differently here.

Batman is also more animated and that may not always be a good think. When developers try to make a game look good by making more detailed animation, these animations can become a burden on the gameplay. Instead of stopping when the direction on the D-pad is let go, the character might not stop directly. Making a side-scrolling action game less precise. This was something more seen on the 16-bit consoles at the time in games based on cartoons and comics.

Batman: Return of the Joker for Game Boy is a hard game and never reached any widespread popularity even though it looked and sounded great.

 

Shimamoto in, Robbins out

Tad Shimamoto

In June Joe Robbins left Sunsoft for the last time. His six month contract was up and Maeda replaced him with Tad Shimamoto. Shimamoto was a friend of Sun Corporation founder Maeda and had just sold his company Nippon Tel. Joe’s son Richard Robbins tells me that Joe left to lead Sega Gaming.

Quiz no Hoshi (Quiz Star) 
DeveloperSunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: August 10, 1992(JP) Format: PC Engine 

Quiz no Hoshi, is something very unusual. It’s a story driven game with anime style cutscenes. The games battles are played out by answering quiz questions. An interesting take on battles in a game. The cut-scenes in the game are fully animated anime scenes drawn with pixels.

Promotions 
On October 12 1992 Sunsoft of America announced some promotions in the company. Rita Zimmerer who vice president of sales and marketing became executive vice president. Karen Shadley became director of marketing and advertising. In the same press release president Tad Shimamoto announced that they were starting a new game development company. This would never become anything. Both Rita Zimmerer and David Siller tells me they wanted to have internal development, but in the end Tad Shimamoto’s leadership wouldn’t allow it.

The press release

Lemmings 
DeveloperOcean Software | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: November, 1992(US), 1992(UK) Format: NES 

Sunsoft had developed and released the SNES port of DMA Design’s Lemmings in 1991 as previously mentioned. In 1992 they released a NES port made by Ocean Software. Going from a game created for a 16-bit computer that uses mouse for controls to a 8-bit console that uses a control pad might not sound like the best of ideas. But Ocean’s port for the NES is surprisingly robust.

The less powerful console can’t handle the amount of Lemmings displayed in the Amiga original. 50 Lemmings was just too much, and the maximum was now lowered to 14. And even then they start to flicker if to many Lemmings share the same scanlines since the NES can’t handle more than 8 sprites on one scanline. If more than 8 sprites are on the same line some of the will become invisible. To make every Lemming visible they switch which are invisible which results in the flicker. But over all this could have been a worse port.

 

Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally/Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote(JP)
/
Looney Tunes: Road Runner(EU) 

Developer: ICOM Simulations | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: November, 1992(US), December 20, 1992(JP), December 1, 1993(BRZ) Format: SFC/SNES

The first of the Looney Tunes games released was Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally for the Super Nintendo. This game marks the start of Sun Corporation of America hiring external studios to develop games for them. They had of course contracted Sculptured Software to make Dino-Hockey in 1990. But this was the first of these ventures to end up in a finished game. Sunsoft of America would also come up with concepts and designs for most of these games. Just as they had done with Freedom Force and Fester’s Quest for the NES.

Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally was developed by ICOM Simulations at the same time as they were making Batman: Revenge of the Joker for Super Nintendo. A game that didn’t get finished. I will talk about that more a little bit further down.

The premise of the game is that the player in control of the Road Runner need to avoid Wile E. Coyote’s attempts to capture him. Avoiding Wile’s traps and attacks often end up with the coyote falling victim too his own schemes. Just like in the cartoons. Making it a good adaptation of the concept of the Road Runner. Which is all about the Road Runner avoiding and thus (unconsciously) luring Wile into his own traps.

 

Trip World 
DeveloperSunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: November 27, 1992(JP), 1992(GER) Format: Game Boy 

Trip World was created by Yuichi Ueda, and it was the first time he led a project. Previously, he had been involved in programming Batman: The Video Game for both NES and Game Boy and the Game Boy adaptation of Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

Sometimes people refer to Trip World as a spiritual successor to Gimmick. It’s not hard to see why. The games’ worlds are very similar, the overall character design makes the games feel very similar in a visual aspect. Both game feature creatures that aren’t hostile to the protagonist. Trip World even more so than Gimmick. As of Ueda took Sakai’s idea of a world where creatures just live and brought it to the Game Boy. Gimmicks creator Tomomi Sakai says Ueda liked Gimmick so it may be the reason for the similarities. Both Ueda and Sakai tells me that the world’s in the games are not related. The game was developed over a period of two years by the same team that made Batman and Gremlins 2 for the Game Boy. Two years being a very long development time for a Game Boy game just as Gimmicks three years was long for a Famicom game. Another similarity with Gimmick is the programming. Sakai got himself
a speciellt thanks by sharing his programming philosophies from Gimmick.

The game’s music was composed by four less known composers. And the sound programming was done by Sunsoft’s Shinichi Seya and former Capcom composer Manami Matsumea. Matsumea had done the original Mega Man, U.N. Squadron and Final Fight soundtracks. She would continue programming and composing music for some of Sunsoft’s Game Boy games. Including Looney Tunes, Batman: Return of the Joker and Daffy Duck.

Much like Gimmick, Trip World would become a classic much later than other Game Boy games that was popular back when they were released. Also like Gimmick the game was not released in the US.

 

Barcode World 
DeveloperEpoch | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: December 18, 1992(JP) Format: Famicom 

To understand what Epoch developed Barcode World is one need to explain what Barcode Battler is. Barcode Battler is a handheld device that uses cards with barcodes to add things as weapons and abilities to the games characters. The cards are swiped through a slot on the machine and the game itself is played out on a simple LCD-screen. More in kin with Game & Watch than more advance LCDs like on a Game Boy.

Barcode World uses a special cable to connect to a Barcode Battler II. This connects to the Famicom’s extension port and enables the player to swipe cards in the Barcode Battler II and transfer the information to the game on the Famicom.

The Barcode Battler’s came with cards but could famously scan barcodes from other products. Everything from magazines to spagetti packaging. Barcode World had a set of cards based on Sunsoft games. Characters such as Hebereke and Yumetaro from Gimmick could be scanned.

Based on this unique setup of hardware and cards one would assume playing the game on an emulator would be dull. But there are in fact emulators that emulate this setup so the game can be played properly.

Benkei GaidenSuna no Shou 
DeveloperSunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: December 18, 1992(JP) Format: Super Famicom 

This follow up to Benkei Gaiden was released for the Super Famicom instead of the PC Engine as it’s predecessor. The reason might have been that the Super Famicom had become more popular at the time. Benkei Gaiden: Suna no Shou though saw little popularity. On December 6, 1992 Square had release Final Fantasy V in Japan. The Final Fantasy series being the top of the genre in Japan made Benkei Gaiden: Suna no Shou fade into the shadows when released only 12 days later.

Looney Tunes LOONEY TUNES バックスバニーとゆかいな仲間たち
DeveloperSunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: December 22, 1992(JP), 1992(US) Format: Game Boy 

The second Looney Tunes game from Sunsoft was the Game Boy game simply called Looney Tunes. It was developed at Sunsoft in Japan and features music by Manami Matsumae. Matsumae is most famous for having composed the soundtrack for the original Mega Man, Final Fight and other Capcom games. She then started working on as a freelancer. For Sunsoft she composed music for Game Boy games.

At Summer CES 1992 Sunsoft of America announced the game under the title Looney Tunes: Mixed-up Melodies. The title was later changed before the release.

They delivered a action platformer with varying gameplay and great graphics and animation. The game features Daffy Duck ,Tweety, Porky Pig, Taz, Speedy Gonzales, the Road Runner and Bugs Bunny. Every stage let’s the player take control of a different character and the gameplay on each stage is unique.

The game was re-released in color for the Game Boy Color in 1999.

F1 Boy / Sunsoft Grand Prix 
Developer: ASK | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: 1992(EU) Format: Game Boy 

F1 Boy was developed by ASK and released in Japan on September 28, 1990. It was later released in Europe by Sunsoft in 1992 under the title Sunsoft Grand Prix. The game is a top down racing game with less than desirable qualities.

Batman: Revenge of the Joker 
DeveloperRingle Studios | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: 1992(US) Format: Genesis 

Batman: Return of the Joker had been a success for Sunsoft and they wanted to port the game for the Genesis and Super Nintendo. Sunsoft of America contracted Ringler Studios to make a Genesis port and ICOM Simulations to do the SNES port.

Ringler Studios had made a couple of hockey games and doesn’t seem to have been a very experienced studio at the time. ICOM Simulations on the other hand was know as the makers of the Macventure games (Shadowgate, Uninvited, Deja Vu, Deja Vu II) for Macintosh and had been around since 1981.

The Genesis version is more or less the same game as the NES game. But have been criticized for not looking and playing as good as the original.

The SNES version of the game was never released but was announced to be released in October or November 1992. But a playable version of the game is available. I was told that the SNES version wasn’t released due to lacking in quality and that the producer of the game died. So it was decided that instead of trying to salvage the project it was instead canceled. And one can speculate that with the Batman licens running out they may not have had time to save it.

Here you can see the mock-up for the box art of the canceled SNES version. And another piece of art.

Superman/Superman: The Man of Steel(EU) 
DeveloperSunsoft | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: 1992(US), 1992(EU) Format: Genesis 

Superman or Superman: The Man of Steel as the game is known in Europe was developed by Sunsoft in Japan but designed by Michael Mendheim at Sunsoft of America. The game is a side-scrolling action game where Superman goes from left to right fighting all kinds of enemies. He can both fly and walk on the ground. The game doesn’t really stand out in the grand scheme of side scrolling action games of the era. But what Mendheim designed the game to be was not what came out in the end of development. This is what Mendheim told me, “The game we designed was not the game which was delivered. The original design played off the fact that Superman was invincible – he could fly through buildings, pick up and throw large objects and could pretty much do anything you would want Superman to do. That’s what we wanted the game to feel like. That the player was all powerful without limitations (kind of like how God of War made players feel). It was designed as a side scrolling action game, with fighting and also some quasi 3D flying (like we did in Taz but instead of roads, you were flying between buildings). The flying part of the design never made it into the game. It was cut. What we had designed was all pure action and power. We had Superman fighting humanoid robots so he could tear them apart. The design was very cool but way too ambitious.
In the end, the game went off the rails. There was not enough time to program the game how we designed it, so corners were cut and the design was changed without our knowledge. Eventually we were sent a build to play and after about 2 minutes I threw my controller against the wall and broke it.”.

Designing games isn’t all about coming up with an idea. You also need to come up with an idea that can be realized in the time and budget given. Something that often seems to be hard.

Sunsoft also announced a Super Nintendo verison of Superman that was supposed to be released in December 1992. I haven’t been able to find any other information on this version yet.

 

Superman/Sunman 
Developer: EIM | Publisher: Sunsoft | Release: 1992(cancelled) Format: Famicom/NES 

Unofficial fan box art

In 1992 Sunsoft’s most famous cancelled games was supposed to be released. Sunman began development as a Superman game. Sunsoft had as we know started making games based on DC Comic’s Batman in 1989. But even if they dropped Batman they did sign on to make Superman games.

The game was developed by Kenji Eno and his studio Entertainment Imagination and Magnificence (EIM). Eno founded Yuugen Gaisha EIM in 1989. They released the Famicom games Parallel World in 1990 and Time Zone in 1991.

At Sunsoft of America, David Siller was responsible for the Superman game. He says that he and Eno were not in agreement about the game’s direction. Eno didn’t understand the character of Superman, but in the end it was contractually up to Eno what to do. ”The developer that Japan commissioned to do this development, Kenji Eno, was insensitive to the authenticity that license required and wanted the same freedom (stress-fully) granted to “Dynamite Batman”. I had a meeting with him at his tiny studio in Osaka and we could not reach an amiable agreement, so Sunsoft changed it to an original title “Sunman”. Sunsoft essentially ate crow and swallowed the expense out of embarrassment both to DC Comics/WB for failing to reign this development in and also rather than have a feud with a temperamental artistic avant garde developer.

The expense of producing a quantity of cartridges is such that unless the Publisher is confident in sell through, then their risk is too great and they don’t produce it”, David Siller tells me.

The game was renamed Sunman in an effort to sell the games as an original IP. In the end Sunsoft just was not sure it would sell, and chose not to spend money on releasing it. Japanese companies seldom produce more products that they think they can sell. They never wanted to have games in stock. That is money spent not earned. In this case Sunsoft didn’t even want to gamble on the minimum Nintendo had companies order.

But Rita Zimmerer tells another tale on why Superman was turned into Sunman. She had never heard of the game before I asked her about it. But she thought it was strange that they would have been making a Famicom/NES Superman game when they only had the Superman license for Mega Drive/Genesis and Super Nintendo. It seems the Japanese might have thought they had a general license to make Superman for consoles. But at the time licenses were served piecemeal per console.

A playable version of Sunman has been released by some one and can be found on the Internet. In some aspects it resembles the Mega Drive game and might have been developed partly on Mendheim’s concepts.

EIM went on to make Panic Restaurant in 1992 and helped with the development of Casino Kid 2 in 1993 before the studio was closed down.

End of an era 
We have reached the end of Sunsoft’s NES era and the beginning of their 16-bit era. In the next part we will take a look on the years 1993 and 1994. There will be over 30 games, including Aero the Acro-bat, Blaster Master 2 and MYST.


Most screenshots in this articles was borroed from:
https://www.video-games-museum.com
http://www.vgmuseum.com/
www.unseen64.net

Updates:

Special thanks to:

  • E.C Myers for proofreading and corrections.
  • Frank Cifaldi for coming up with the solution to my formatting trubles.
  • All interviewees.
  • 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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