500 Words about… Sunsoft

Today’s post is about one of the more interesting NES developers who became known for their unique musical output, Sunsoft. There’s also a lot of annotations too, so do read them!

Chances are that, if you owned a NES you’ve come across a Sunsoft game. Like a number of Japanese developers, Sunsoft transitioned from the arcades to the monster that was the Famicom in the mid to late 80’s. One of their first releases for the platorm was the infamous Ikki, a game so terrible that a new word entered the Japanese lexicon thanks to it: Kusoge. Quite literally: “shit game”.[1] This didn’t stop it being a rampant success for them as well as the source of a few remakes and reboots.

Sunsoft’s original games didn’t always hit such lows. Some, like Atlantis no Nazo, never left Japan and is generally considered “not great”. Others, like Master Blaster, became international successes. This varying quality also carried over to the somewhat surprisingly high profile licenced titles they managed to acquire. Their first Batman game in 1989 was a loose tie in with Tim Burton’s reimagining of the Caped Crusader, and along with its NES sequel is still held in high regard. Less timely was Fester’s Quest which appeared before the 1991 Addams Family reboot and is mostly remembered as being stupidly hard.[2]

However there was one major constant with Sunsoft’s NES-era output: the music. Here’s Fester’s Quest’s main theme:

Yeah, that’s a NES song. While the above song uses orchestra hits, Naoki Kodaka, one of Sunsoft’s in house composers, often made use of the “Sunsoft Bass” sound[3] which became one of the companies definitive signatures. Using the DPCM channel[4] to playback melodic lines with real bass samples produced a more defined and generally more powerful sound. Here’s an example

Compare this to other games which (typically) used the Triangle channel for bass sounds and the DPCM channel for unpitched percussive sounds and you have something unique.[5] Outside of additional chips in carts. Which Sunsoft also did.

Gimmick is a late era NES platformer that had a limited release in Japan and Scandinavia, so naturally it flew under the radar of most people. In addition to being a solid game its music is considered to be among the best on the system as a result of composer Masashi Kageyama[6] wanting to take the Famicom sound “up a notch”. It swerves masterfully between genres, and in addition to using the Sunsoft Bass it’s also the only game using their Sunsoft 5B music chip, expanding the Famicom’s sound capabilities with and extra 3 channels.[7]

Sadly, the NES era would prove to be their halcyon days. The transition to 16-bit consoles didn’t go well with a combination of a lack of hits and poorer quality output, resulting in a restructuring in 1995 with the American wing trying to enter the fighting game market.[8] Sadly, this too didn’t go as planned with Sunsoft shuttering their European and American branches and focusing on their domestic market.

So a sad end, but Sunsoft’s NES output is still worth playing, examining and especially listening to even today. So get on that!

[1] Hardcore Gaming 101 has a section dedicated to Kusoge if you’re interested in such things: http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/kusoge/kusoge.htm

[2] Retronauts did a recent podcast on the game and their experiences with it. It’s a worth while list if only to find out WHY they decided to make this game. http://www.retronauts.com/?p=1500

[3] Sources are varied, but while he didn’t CREATE the technique he is the most prominent user. Also see this video for a bit more detail on the technique and limitations, as well as more examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEgoYUzwabI

[4] A quick primer. The NES had 5 channels that could produce sound. These were used for EVERY sound, but for a musical comparison it had: 2 pulse/square wave channels that were generally used for melodies and leads, a triangle wave channel used for bass sounds and lacked dynamics (meaning it’s either on or off), a noise channel which could be used for percussive sounds and effects, and a DPCM channel which could play back samples. These were generally drum samples.

[5] Here’s an example of the Triangle channel being used for a bassline: Kraid’s Lair from Metroid. Any excuse to post Metroid stuff.

[6] Nick Dwyer got in touch with Kageyama as part of his Diggin’ In The Carts series. The series (and radio show) is worth a look into. http://www.redbull.com/uk/en/music/episodes/1331677958185/diggin%E2%80%99-in-the-carts-episode-2

[7] And at present, the only music to use it too. While Famitracker supports all other sound expansion chips to some level, it doesn’t yet have the Sunsoft 5B in there.

[8] The most famous of these was probably Waku Waku 7 for the NeoGeo and arcades. Power Quest for the Game Boy Color played surprisingly well, especially compared to other fighters on the system. Again, Hardcore Gaming 101 has more details on a few these: http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/sunsoftfighters/sunsoftfighters.htm

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