Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Know this Publisher: Sunsoft

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Normally we focus on developers, the true makers of video games, but it’s also important to focus on the publishers responsible for making sure we ever see the game in stores.  In many cases these notable publishers are the ones that grab a bunch of smaller developed or imported games and grants them release in another region.

Sunsoft was such a great publisher back in the days of the NES.  Back in those days the few of us who read the labels of game boxes didn’t normally notice a developer, but rather a the publisher logo (although to be fair the two were often the same).  Whenever the Sunsoft logo crossed your boxed copy you could almost guarantee two things about it that normally don’t go together: 1.) your game would be a license game 2.) it would be good.  Yes, you read that correctly, Sunsoft made good licensed games on the NES.  As time continued, Sunsoft got more linked in with lackluster mascot games of the 16-bit era, but that doesn’t stop them from still being a publisher worth noting.  In fact, had it not been for Sunsoft porting many a game that wasn’t slated for release outside of Japan, we may never have seen these classics.  Oh yeah and Blaster Master, they made that too.

Atlantis No Nazo box art

Sunsoft is not in any way related to the short-lived SunSoft that was part of Sun Microsystems in America, but rather a subsidiary of Sun Denshi (or Sun Electronics) that entered the video game realm in the late 1970s.  When the publisher/developer opened a branch in the United States it went under the title Sunsoft of America but the logo still remained simply “Sunsoft”.  They developed mostly unknown games on arcades at that time: Arabian, Ikki, and Kangaroo – a weird hybrid of Donkey Kong and Popeye – but it wasn’t until the company moved to the NES that it really started making waves.  Sunsoft developed arcade ports and original Famicom games in Japan, mostly odd titles that would never come out over here like Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi (English: Stations of the Tokaido), which is a side scrolling action platformer where you play Kintaro, a fireworks salesman and use fireworks as a weapon.  Of the most famous is a kusoge (Japanese slang for cult video games that literally translates to “sh*tty game”) known as Atlantis No Nazo (English: Mystery of Atlantis), which has the player navigating an explorer through 100 levels of platforming.  What most don’t know is that the hit detection is horrendous and the platforming physics are a crash course in masochism, not to mention the game doesn’t move linearly (ie: you don’t necessarily go onto level 4 when you beat level 3).  Like most other games of the 8-bit era, a game over results in you completely starting over and the real aggravating part is that the game is completed by doing a sequence of about seven brutal stages in a certain order (including hidden warp zones).  Without having the information from the onset, I’d safely declare this title impossible.

So with what you know of so far, why in the world is Sunsoft significant?  It all starts in America with another pathetic port of a game we all played and loved on the NES: Spy Hunter.  If you haven’t booted this version up in a while, you may forget that the game can’t detect a crash with anything other than cars if you’re pointed straight ahead.  You can literally navigate to the extreme left or right, point your car straight, and walk away for the rest of the afternoon.  You may crash, but it’s not that likely.  Ironically Spy Hunter never released on the Famicom, making it of the few games that we got and Japan didn’t.  They also released a little game called Blaster Master in 1988, which is another game that receives the highest praise from most old school gamers, myself included, but few tolerate going through the game these days.  Despite this fact, when it was your Christmas $50 purchase and you had nothing else to play for the next two weeks, this bad boy was a prize piece.  Nostalgia goggles strike again.

Gremlins 2 on NES

After that Sunsoft began to release a slew of licensed games, which I must admit are almost all remarkable.  Internally they were responsible for Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Fester’s Quest, and the highly credited Batman on the NES.  Despite a high difficulty on all of the games, they featured impressive sound and graphics for Nintendo’s 8-bit console and games press went nuts when Batman was ported to the Sega Genesis.  Unfortunately due to a contract with Nintendo of America, the game wasn’t allowed a release in America until 1990, well after the mass rush of the game, and few people own or have even played this version.  Sunsoft also published odd ports like Ocean’s Platoon game on NES and a canceled Superman title, later renamed to an intended Sunsoft mascot Sunman.  Fortunately for you emulation fans it’s not difficult to find Sunman in nearly complete form online and you can see what an essential NES port of the Superman arcade game would be like.  It wasn’t all licenses and ports for Sunsoft either, notable titles on NES/Famicom in retrospect are Gimmick! and Ufouria (known better as the Hebereke series of games in Japan).  Gimmick! is a Japan-only released platformer starring Yumetaro, a weird looking green creature, that uses a star above his head for all sorts of things that assist him in taking out enemies and traversing a level.  The game is extremely hard and I can’t get very far at all.  Ufouria, on the other hand, came out in Europe and is available on the US Virtual Console and is basically a cute aesthetic put into a Metroid clone.  Just like Metroid the game is pretty hard, but with the crazy character Bop-Louie (who is named Hebereke in Japan standing for “drunk” or “lazy” person).  For $5 it’s a great title to get for Virtual Console and is one of those hidden value titles that make owning a Wii still justifiable, especially when you consider playing an English translated version of this game is impossible due to PAL’s video format.

Final Fantasy Legend (Seiken Densetsu in Japan) on Gameboy

Sunsoft released a handful of Gameboy titles as well.  Easily the biggest and most thankful being Final Fantasy Adventure, or by you Japanese collectors as Seiken Densetsu, which is a Final Fantasy side story that launched the Mana series.  This game is not to be mistaken for the Final Fantasy Legend (Adventure had the plain green box), which saw three releases on Gameboy, all published by Sunsoft, and follows the SaGa series.  SaGa is odd, difficult, and seems to repeat itself in almost every way in these early Gameboy releases, but nonetheless going into the game in the blind is a surprisingly feature-heavy portable RPG.  Sunsoft also released Blaster Master: Enemy Below, which is a Gameboy Color hybrid of the first game and some unique content.

Beyond that Sunsoft entered the 16-bit era with the world at its fingertips.  Critical and commercial successes were abundant in its resume of home and portable titles and Batman on the Genesis looked like it was sure to continue the trend.  That’s when things went incredibly south.  Most of the games released in this era were so-so licensed titles, like The Death and Return of Superman, or mascot titles including (no joke) Aero The Acrobat and Zero, the Kamikaze Squirrel.  Sunsoft had started to fall from grace, which didn’t stop them from cranking out games on the SNES/Genesis including Blaster Master 2 (Genesis), Bugs Bunny Squeak (Genesis) and Rabbit Rampage (SNES), Road Runner’s Death Valley (SNES), and the weak port of World Heroes for SNES.  Beyond that Sunsoft basically became non-existent in the US, although they continue on in Japan.  The last Sunsoft release I can remember was Blaster Master: Blasting Again on the PS1, another attempt to recreate the series in 3D, that was a clearance title upon release and few thought would even hit our shores.  It was basically $10-$20 on store shelves near the end of the PS1 era and I picked it up back then because $10 for a Blaster Master title seemed like a safe risk, which the game ended up being worth just about that.

Sunsoft is best known as the company that gave us Blaster Master, but in truth it should be more appreciated for giving value to the licensed game and bringing over titles like Final Fantasy Legend and Adventure when Square didn’t see the value in doing so.  As both a developer and a publisher it pushed the limits of the 8-bit era and is responsible for many of my fond NES memories because as a child you’re stupid enough to ask Santa for licensed games without hesitation.  Heck, I’ll even throw in some of Sunsoft’s sadder mascot games – I prefer Zero over Aero – just for old times sake.  If you’re re-learning your roots you should check out a few of Sunsoft’s lesser known titles, they just might impress you.

Written by Fred Rojas

August 17, 2012 at 11:06 am

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