Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Games 133-135: Early Sunsoft

Sunsoft is now known as a fairly prolific third party console developer during the third and fourth generations, credited with titles such as Blaster Master, Fester’s Quest, 16-bit console ports of Lemmings, multiple Batman titles, and of course that other Bat-themed franchise, Aero the Acro-Bat. But originally, they were a minor video game operations arm of the electronics manufacturer Sun Corporation, undistinguished with a separate brand name until the mid-80’s.

Their first international hit, Kangaroo, is a pseudo-whale, and was released in 1982. Their earliest title to qualify for whale status doesn’t appear until 1988, but I didn’t want to wait that long to introduce the company.

Sunsoft’s earliest credits on Mobygames are G.T. Block Perfect, G.T. Block Challenger, and Galaxy Force, released in 1978-1979 by Gifu Tokki Co. They are, like so many other Japanese developers’ earliest credits, clones of Breakout and Space Invaders, and none are emulated.

Photo by Undumped Wiki

Screenshot from Mobygames, source unknown

Game 133: Third Planet

The earliest emulated Sun Electronics game is listed in MAME as “Dai 3 Wakusei,” but ingame is referred to as *THIRD PLANET*.

It’s obvious that this is another Space Invaders-styled game, but before long, something else became evident. This is a tower defense game! In 1979! Centipede had some elements of this genre in 1981, but Third Planet isn’t nearly as chaotic. The asteroid maze blocks your shots, but not the invaders’. They travel down a fixed winding path through the maze, never taking any shortcuts, ultimately leading them to planet earth, at which point it’s an instant game over.

Uniquely for this kind of game, your ship takes incremental damage from their shots. Take one hit, and your right engine blows out, halving your movement speed. Take a second, and your phaser cannon is destroyed, and you’re useless until you return to base for repairs – though you can kamikaze into the very last alien and still win the round. A third hit will kill you – no extra lives, no continues. This setup reminds me a lot of that BASIC Star Trek game, and I have to wonder if it had exposure in Japan by 1979. Interestingly, ingame instructions are 100% in English and without any awkwardness in the translation at all, despite being distributed exclusively in Japan.

I noted that there’s really no reason not to destroy the asteroids, except for the fact that you haven’t got any time to stop and shoot all of them. They don’t provide cover, and destroying them doesn’t alter the invaders’ path. All they do is block you and your own shots.

The game does have a pretty steep difficulty spike. The first time I played, I finished the first two rounds, but on the third I was overwhelmed and lost. Hours of replays later, I only managed to finish the third once, and got obliterated by the ever-increasingly aggressive invaders.

GAB Rating: Good

In a period swarming with uninspired Space Invaders clones, Third Planet was already a genre-buster, following the cues of its inspiration but in an entirely new direction. It’s pretty obscure, and I would have certainly never even tried this game if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the earliest playable game by a somewhat major developer, but I’m glad I did.

Game 134: Stratovox

Also known as Speak & Rescue, Stratovox’s major claim to fame is being the first arcade game with synthesized speech. I don’t know if this claim is quite accurate; off-hand, Berzerk, Wizard of Wor, and Namco’s King and Balloon all offered this feature and came out the same year, and establishing the exact orders of release is tricky. What I do know is that MAME’s speech hardware emulation for this game is pretty bad despite not being flagged as such, as many other early games with special sound hardware are. Videos of real hardware show limited but clear-sounding samples of men yelling “Help!” as the aliens lift them off into space. The emulated voices are garbled, and in the original Japanese version they are completely incomprehensible (they’re not yelling in synthesized Japanese; videos of real hardware show that the samples are different but clearly in English).

Gameplay-wise, Stratovox is yet another Space Invaders style game – the third in a row by SunSoft.  It was likely further inspired by Galaxian’s swooping attack formations, but unlike Third Planet does relatively little to differentiate itself from its contemporaries. The main gameplay difference from Space Invaders and Galaxian is that the aliens are only vulnerable while attacking, they swoop left-to-right and back rather than from top-to-bottom, and that when an alien group makes it across the screen, they’ll snatch an astronaut (out of the sun?) and try to carry it back home, giving you a brief chance to rescue him by shooting his captor before he can return to the left side of the screen.

You score 50-100 points per kill, but the real points come from rescuing astronauts; only possible if you allow them to get captured, and you risk losing them this way. The more aliens are in a group, the slower they move when bringing an astronaut back, and therefore the easier they are to hit. If the group has three or more aliens, then a rescue is worth 300 points. If it has two aliens, then it’s worth 500. And if it’s just one lonely invader, then it’s worth a whopping 1000 points.

If you can manage to nail those solo alien kidnappers, then you obviously want to perform these rescues whenever possible. Aliens attack in groups of 1, 3, and 6, and point bonuses are based on how many. The optimal strategy per group size is as follows:
  • 1 alien – dodge its fire, let it kidnap an astronaut, and then kill it mid-kidnapping for 1000 points.
  • 3 aliens – kill a yellow and red alien for 150 points, allow the third to kidnap an astronaut, and then kill it mid-kidnapping for 1000 points, averaging 383.33 per alien
    • Alternately, dodge their fire, let them kidnap an astronaut, and kill the slow moving leader for 300 points – possibly a smarter strategy, but I find it very boring
  • 6 aliens – dodge their fire, let them kidnap an astronaut, and kill the slow moving leader for 300 points, allowing the remaining 5 to recirculate back into the invasion force for better scoring group sizes
    • (killing five and then killing the sixth mid-kidnap scores 1450 points at most, which isn’t a terrific per-alien yield)

With skill and a bit of luck, you can get 10,000 points on the first stage alone, and later stages are worth more, but the pressure gets greater and the timing gets tighter with each subsequent stage. In later rounds, the whole strategy goes out the window as aliens will sometimes kidnap two astronauts per pass, but by then you should be more concerned with surviving than optimizing your score.

I managed just short of 30,000 points on my best attempt.

GAB rating: Average

Despite the amount of thought I put into figuring out how to score points, I didn’t love this game. The scoring system is meant to make gameplay deeper by providing conflicting objectives, but while this worked well in Space Invaders (do you go after the UFO for extra points and take focus off the fleet that’s actively threatening you?), here it just seems like you’re encouraged to endanger your men for no reason except the points. The first two rounds are yawn-inducingly easy if you just play them to win, and frustratingly random if you’re going for the points.

Game 135: Kangaroo

In 1978, Sunsoft made Breakout-type games. In 1979-1980, they made Space Invaders-type games. In 1981, they made Pac-Man-type game and a Defender-type game.

And in 1982, they made a Donkey Kong-type game. I suppose I can’t fault them on the quality of the games that they imitated in these early years.

Right off the bat, though, Kangaroo feels slower and clumsier than its inspiration, and it’s obvious the level design isn’t half as creative.

Kind of a boring level design compared to Donkey Kong’s iconic girder stage. Rather than face a barrage of barrels, there are a bunch of slow-moving but unpredictable and infinitely respawning monkeys who occasionally fling apples in your direction, which are easily ducked or jumped over.

The strawberries and bell are part of a scoring system meant to imitate Pauline’s personal effects which Mario would collect for extra points. Ring the bell once, and all of the 100-point strawberries that you collected will be replaced by 200-point tomatoes. Ring it again and the collected tomatoes will be replaced by 400-point bunches of cherries. Ring it one last time, and the collected cherries will be replaced by 800-point pineapples.

This is not a good system. Pauline’s stuff encouraged you, at least in theory, to explore the level beyond the critical path for extra points at the cost of time and additional risk to yourself. In Kangaroo, if you want full points for collecting all of the pineapples, you must:
  1. Make your way up to the bell, collecting the cherries along the way
  2. Ring the bell
  3. Backtrack to the bottom, collecting the tomatoes along the way
  4. Make your way back up to the bell and ring it
  5. Backtrack to the bottom, collecting the cherries along the way
  6. Make your way back up to the bell and ring it
  7. Backtrack to the bottom, collecting the pineapples along the way
  8. Make your way up to the joey, ending the level

In the first level alone, the points accrued from collecting all of the respawned fruit will total 5,600 points, much more than the maximum time bonus of 2,000 for finishing the level quickly, but this is a really boring way to play.

Also, go for too long without punching monkeys, and a gorilla will spawn, who won’t hurt you, but will steal your boxing gloves, replacing your punch with a pathetic and useless white flag for a few seconds. I don't really see that the game is made better for having this feature.

Level 2 introduces platforms.

I must digress with an emulation note here. Kangaroo has a high vertical resolution of 512 pixels, but backgrounds and some sprites are interleaved in a manner reminiscent of composite artifacting, even though the hardware uses RGB pinouts. Real hardware, which I've played at ACAM, does not look like this at all. I believe that it is intended to look something like this:

Anyway, stage 2 has more going on in it, but it’s still pretty boring. There are no moving platforms or any hazards like in Donkey Kong, just more apple-chucking monkeys. But a nasty surprise awaits anyone used to later platformers; walking off a ledge will kill you, no matter how short the drop looks.

There’s one neat trick here, though.

On this platform, you can hit the gorilla for 800 points, but he can’t hit you. This beats pineapple farming easily. Still, you must be wary of falling apples.

Stage 3 is Kangaroo’s closest thing to a boss stage.

Here, a number of nasty surprises await the unwary roo. Monkeys periodically gather beneath the cage, elevating it one monkey’s height each time, and may be dislodged one at a time with repeated punches. To rescue the joey, you must get the cage to exactly the height of one of the two platforms and leap. If the height is off the level by even one monkey height, the jump will fail and you die. More monkeys gather on the vines leading to a big pile of apples, and if five reach it, they’ll spill everywhere. Last, touching the monkeys hanging on the vine will still kill you, so don’t approach the cage from the right ledge.

This is not the end though.

Stage 4 is fairly simple. The ladders on the left are a trap; the monkey in the treetop above will drop apples straight down and you’ll have little means of dodging them.

Then it loops on a harder difficulty. Notably, monkeys will now sometimes throw apples at fist-height, which cannot be jumped over or ducked under, but must be punched.

On my best attempt, I beat the first loop, but failed to finish the third stage on the second loop, and scored 25,000 points without resorting to very much score farming.

I recorded the video of my playthrough at a reduced vertical resolution to simulate color blending in the ostensibly interlaced video output. It's not a perfect solution - the monkeys for instance appear a different color depending on the sprite used, which isn't an issue on real hardware. In any event, I don't think there's a way to make MAME look like this.

GAB rating: Below Average. It’s a functional enough clone, perhaps a bit unpolished, but a big part of the magic that made Donkey Kong work was its gadget-filled stage design, and Kangaroo’s is blah from start to finish.

Of the three games I played, Third Planet feels like an outlier; a game inspired by an earlier and more successful title, but has enough original and good concepts to be more than that. Stratovox and Kangaroo are both derivative works that understood their respective influences were good games, but didn’t really understand what made them good games, and their attempts at original ideas were not very good ones. I briefly looked at two other Sunsoft games from around this period, Route-16 and Funky Fish, and found they fit this pattern as well.


  1. Looking at the video, Third Planet seems to have extremely poor and limited hardware. But what little they have the game makes excellent use of. I bet they don't even have any sprite or tile hardware, everything is drawn by the CPU itself. You can see very clearly that nothing ever updates the entire screen at once and nothing moves smoothly, the CPU doesn't have enough power to do that.

    And it still manages to be the best of the bunch.

  2. This was a fun read. I have been researching the history of Sunsoft for closing in on five years. And I have never seen anyone outside Japan write about these old arcade games. I am currently trying to get more information about how these old games were made.

  3. My first thought was that the Earth in Third Planet looks odd, but then I realised it was centred on Japan! With Australia in the bottom-left, the Americas on the right etc.


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