The Spirit of Sunsoft

Posted By at 7:39 PM on Sunday October 16, 2011

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The following interview was transcribed from “Game Maker: Sunsoft”, a DVD released by the producers of Game Center CX, by Chris Covell. The original text can be seen on his website. This translation is a commission for Sharc.

Atsushi Sakai

Joined Sun Electronics in 1985. Embraced an interest in game design since a young age. Immersed himself in making games through self-study. After joining Sun Electronics, a company that had just begun making Famicom games, he moved to the game department. Was involved in the development of the popular games Ikki and The Mystery of Atlantis, which represented Sunsoft. Currently involved in the pachinko business.

Sunsoft

A company that began by challenging Super Mario World and, using advanced technology, gave rise to the soldier of fortune, Ikki, that took the game industry by storm.

Fast-forwarding from that enthusiastic beginning, we find ourselves at the scene of the game’s creation, asking Atsushi Sakai, the father of kogame cartridges, about the mysteries of Sunsoft!

Sunsoft – Ahead of Its Time

Before starting at Sun Electronics (Sunsoft is one of their brands), you were one of the winners of Kin-chan’s Costume Grand Prix.

That’s right, the theme was the Seven Wonders of the World. In high school I’d always wanted the funds to buy a computer, but my school forbid having a part-time job, so I figured if I won the money, I wouldn’t be breaking school rules.

Translator’s Note: Even today, Japanese high schools often prohibit students from having part-time jobs in order to encourage them to concentrate on their studies.

The Seven Wonders of the World preempted The Mystery of Atlantis, huh. *laughing* By the way, which computer did you buy?

A NEC PC-8801. I read programming magazines like I/O (Kogakusha) and Micom (Denpa Publications Inc.) and studied programming on my own. Machine language (a language computers can understand directly) was extremely difficult and I made games entirely in BASIC (a programming language that’s easy for humans to understand), though.

So, when you started working at Sun Electronics, they had already begun developing Famicom titles in-house, correct?

That’s right. It was back when the Sunsoft division had just started up. I talked directly to the boss at the time, President Yoshida (then section manager) and he put me in the game development section.

When Sunsoft came along, third party companies (software developers outside of Nintendo) were rare, weren’t they. Does that mean software development wasn’t outsourced, it was done within the company?

That’s right, we did it ourselves.

Since equipment for developing games on the Famicom was still lacking in those days, I’m sure that took a lot of technological prowess.

Our firm was originally a technology company. We manufactured automatic ticket machines under a subcontract to Tateishi Electronics (now Omron) in addition to developing arcade machines and computers for pachinko places. We also developed and sold SUNTAC-brand equipment compatible with IBM PCs for the overseas market in the ’80s. It was a bit ahead of its time, it seems, so it was recalled. But yeah, we did all sorts of things.

The DOS/V boom happened around 1990, so times sure have changed, huh. *laughing* Going back to you, Mr. Sakai, which game were you first involved with developing?

That would be Ikki. We ported the arcade game to the Famicom. We didn’t have any in-house designers yet, so I was in charge of the graphics. My first job was punching out the sprite drawings one by one. After that was The Mystery of Atlantis.

It really gave Arino of Game Center CX a run for his money. Which part of the game were you put in charge of?

We had a guy doing the main programming and planning, I was his assistant. As with Ikki, I also did the design and sprite art as well as being a sub-programmer (a programmer that assists the main programmers). I did all the enemy characters in the game. I wanted the characters to have different personalities, so I thought up a variety of movement patterns, like shooting bullets or hiding or not dying no matter how many times you hit them.

I was left with the impression that The Mystery of Atlantis’s catchphrase was “This is better than Super Mario!” I wonder if you had Super Mario in mind when you were planning the game?

No, Namco’s Pacland, actually. The main programmer knew about the game and wanted to make something better. He wanted to have lots of stages and puzzles, as well as put in a hidden warp zone normal games wouldn’t have.

Oh, so it was Pacland! It was definitely a game “full of mystery” (the catchphrase from Pacland). *laughing* With 101 zones all together, it must have been difficult to design.

That was mostly the domain of the main programmer. I wrote and stapled a lot of notes describing how the stages connected to each other. In those days it was common to make players clear, say, 4 stages, then go on to clear the next 4 stages. For this game, however, with a whopping 101 stages in all, we aimed to have a new world gradually appear as the players progressed through the stages. In order to do that, we didn’t make the game linear but instead had several branching paths through one zone, leaving the choice up to the player, allowing them to go back where they came from. We wanted to make a game you could play over and over again.

The number of stages exceeds Super Mario. Which ones caused you the most trouble?

There were many different types of levels, so I had trouble with continually making adjustments to the 100+ stages. Not being able to put enemies somewhere because they wouldn’t be able to move and making sure stages didn’t resemble each other, for example.

Considering this was an era where ROM cartridges had low capacity and didn’t allow for a lot of data, the enormous opening demo in The Mystery of Atlantis was quite impressive.

At the time, it was important to catch the players’ attention with the title screen. There weren’t many game magazines back then, either, so it was vital to appeal to the players with the demo movies that ran in front of the game shops of the day. If we’d made the title sequence smaller, it would’ve saved on space and we might’ve been able to put in more levels.

The Famicom Speaks – Mitokomon’s Voice Synthesis

The opening really shows Sunsoft’s hard work. You could’ve cut corners since it has nothing to do with the game’s story, but the Famicom starts speaking all of a sudden. *laughing*

Each game had a single main programmer and 1~2 sub-programmers, so they could do what they liked. These ones decided to surprise the other team members. They didn’t have a design doc, and it wasn’t a company competition.

So, you wanted to put something on the market that demonstrated your abilities. *laughing* You’d already done arcade ports, and all of them were high-quality. It seems there’d be people hesitating to do something like this, saying “This would normally be impossible on the Famicom!”

No one suggested that it couldn’t be done. Everyone said “Of course we can do it!” *laughing*

There were worries that dynamic bases wouldn’t work on the Famicom. *laughing*

They might have got it working after I left the company one day. There’s a limit to how many sprites you can use on the Famicom, so they were developing a method of combining the backgrounds.

Sunsoft’s technical prowess is definitely awesome. *laughing* I already mentioned the sound, but players were surprised by the clear voice coming out of the Famicom saying “Can’t you see this coat-of-arms?!”

Mitokomon was the first game to implement voice synthesis software on the Famicom. At the time, it was really tough to do voices on the system, but without them, Mitokomon wouldn’t have had the same atmosphere.

Who was responsible for the development of this technology?

Even though it was new, it’s not necessarily something we could do in-house, so we used the technology of Dr. Moze, an overseas authority in voice synthesis. Overseas data exchange was difficult back then, it wasn’t like now where we have the internet. It took a lot of time for a ROM we sent out to come back to us. We’d listen to it in person, find that something was still off, and send it back again. Exchanges like that caused a lot of trouble.

Yes, I’ve talked to people associated with the Japanese version of MS-DOS (basic PC software predating Windows) before. It definitely sounds like data transfer between Japan and overseas was a pain back then. People on business trips used to bring back disks with them. *laughing*

That’s right, it was. But I think our pickiness paid off.

Ikki and Mitokomon were based in part on historical dramas, weren’t they. Was there an episode based on the 53 Stations of the Tokaido?

Well, we wanted to reuse the characters from Ikki. Ikki sold really well, so we wanted to keep building on them. The same characters appear in 53 Stations of the Tokaido.

For Sunsoft, Ikki was a iconic title like Mario. For some reason, even the main character of Mystery of Atlantis is Gonbe from Ikki. *laughing*

Splitting Hairs Over Ripple Island’s Graphics

So, Mr. Sakai, what was the first game you had a hand in planning?

That would be Ripple Island. I worked on the planning, as well as being in charge of the entire scenario and program.

Ah, the legendary game that sold for a premium due to the shortage of copies! I’m under the impression that Sunsoft games with heartwarming stories are rare. Why did you decide on an adventure system?

Intense action games aren’t really my forté, personally. I wanted to make a game you could take your time playing through. Back then, Enix had released The Portopia Serial Murder Case. I was thinking about making a game with a similar system that went above and beyond what Enix had done.

Going through levels full of cute sprites makes the game look a bit like an anime.

While we were making The Mystery of Atlantis, we were recruiting people who specialized in design. We wanted people capable of doing character design and box art.

Mr. Moriken, the man in charge of The Wing of Madoola‘s character design, is famous too. As a result, Ripple Island’s graphics went above and beyond Famicom standards. Even the little things move, and the art is detailed.

Yeah, I was very particular about making sure the graphics were beautiful right to the end. The movement of the sprites changes how the player relates to the story. In order to be able to put in as many sprites as possible, I created a RAM circuit board and developed compression technology, finally making my dreams become reality.

Ever since Portopia, I think most adventure games have been basically linear. But Ripple Island made use of a multiple ending system.

That’s right. Normal adventure games have players arriving at a single conclusion no matter which path they choose. I wanted to give these players a variety of endings. Straying from the path during the game nets you 4 different endings. Even so, the game has about 20 hours of gameplay. I had fun making it, though.

The Technology That Made Kogame Cartridges a Reality

Moving away from the Famicom, were you transfered to a development position for PC Engine titles like Benkei Gaiden?

Yes, the Tokyo office started up (Sunsoft’s headquarters are in Aichi), and I transferred there. I was surprised, however, when the plans I’d left behind for Nante Tatte!! Baseball were merchandized.

Was it a parting gift to the Famicom? *laughing*

The other team members continued working on it without me knowing, and by the time I realized, it was already finished. I heard that the programmer in charge didn’t know anything about baseball, and for a while during development, once your character hit the ball he’d run to 3rd base.

With so many baseball games already on the market, what sort of concept did you start out with?

Other developers had already released baseball games, but with a new one getting released every year to keep up with the changing team rosters and players’ batting averages, I figured it was becoming a burden to the customers. To that end, we were able to offer new data every year by adopting a device called kogame cartridges, making it so you’d be able to play the same game for longer.

You’d put the kogame cartridges into the oyagame cartridges, wouldn’t you. So, you think that even if other companies had gotten the same idea, they wouldn’t have been able to implement it?

It was possible technologically because Sun Electronics made all their own Famicom cartridges. I don’t think other game makers would have gone so far as to mess with the hardware.

Talk about a company with great technological strength. The sound and high-quality screen processes for Journey to Silius, Gimmick, and Super Spy Hunter were incredible too. *laughing* On the other hand, Sunsoft also had a wide range of a surreal games like Hebereke.

Hebereke is a game that was born at the Tokyo development house, but there was a big reaction to the cute characters. The company wanted to establish them more and more. At the time, Sunsoft didn’t have a lot of series, but they decided to make Hebereke into one. The first one was an action game, but after that came a racing game and a puzzle game… the series flourished in many genres.

Although any game company could make an action game sequel, it’s very like Sunsoft to change the genre each time. *laughing* For my last question, what would you say the golden age of Sunsoft was like for you?

It was a grand era in which I was able to make games I’d dreamed about creating since childhood. Whatever the game, whoever the development team, it was a ton of fun going into work every morning and seeing it progress.

Thank you very much for your time today!

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