When discussing the topic of quality NES/Famicom third party developers, you often hear the same names repeated ad nauseum; companies such as Capcom and Konami are perennial favourites, and for good reason; they created some fantastic and highly influential games. Other companies such as Hudson Soft, Tecmo, and Irem may also enter the conversation for the same reasons. There is, however, one developer that you don’t hear about as often as you probably should: Sunsoft.
Although Sunsoft had been in the video game market since the seventies, they ultimately rose to prominence in the late 1980’s and early 90’s developing a string of brilliant and successful titles, both original and license-based, before imploding during their transition to the 16-bit consoles.
Sunsoft has the distinction, along with Konami and Capcom, of developing some of the best licensed games on the NES. Quality licensed games are something of a rarity in the pantheon of video game history, a trend which continues even today. License-based Sunsoft titles such as Batman and Gremlins 2: The New Batch demonstrated Sunsoft’s willingness be innovative and meticulous when dealing with a known property, preferring to create fresh gaming experiences through innovation and experimentation- an approach more akin to creating an original game or IP. Rather than simply churning out the bare minimum to make a quick buck, Sunsoft chose instead to push the limits of the NES hardware and game design conventions.
Arguably Sunsoft’s best NES release, Journey to Silius (Raf World in Japan), actually started development based on the original Terminator movie. For undisclosed reasons, most likely the impending release of T2: Judgement Day, Sunsoft lost the license during development. Sunsoft managed to salvage the nearly completed game and alter it enough to release without violating any of the Terminator’s copyrights, although a few tidbits such as some enemy sprites and music cues remain in the released game.
Sunsoft is also famous for developing some original games only released for Nintendo’s Famicom in Japan. Two titles in particular, Gimmick and Hebereke are universally acclaimed as classics and complete-in-the-box (or loose in Gimmick’s case) fetch hundreds fo dollars per copy at auction, due mainly to their low print run and reputation as some of the best games on the Famicom.
Sunsoft infamously developed Fester’s Quest (based on the Addams Family), and although the game is almost universally reviled (thanks mainly to The Angry Video Game Nerd’s overly-critical review), it is not nearly as bad as it’s reputation would suggest, and was very popular at the time of it’s release. Even Konami had Bayou Billy…
Sunsoft seemed to have difficulty parlaying their mastery of Nintendo’s 8-bit architecture over to the Super NES; that, combined with a lack of quality licenses (save for Warner Bros’ Loonie Toons) started a nosedive that eventually drove the company into near-bankruptcy in 1995.
Despite these struggles, Sunsoft managed to release games that have since become classics during the 16-bit era. Titles such as Blaster Master 2, Bugs Bunny Rabbit Rampage, The Death and Return of Superman, and Pirates of Dark Water were all solid games, although they mostly lacked the cutting edge innovation, design and stellar graphics that their earlier 8-bit titles displayed.
In the end, the changing landscape of the video game industry as the 16-bit generation matured proved to be too much for Sunsoft to handle. While other developers such as Konami, Capcom, and Natsume continued to develop extremely popular and critically loved games for the 16-bit consoles. Sunsoft lost a majority of its movie and TV licences, and with it, their main revenue stream. Sunsoft could not keep up with its competitors level of quality output and as the 16-bit era wore on, the company underwent a major restructuring in the face of bankruptcy. Sunsoft as a development studio was dead, although their legacy of 8 and 16-bit releases remains a reminder of their impressive run.