40 Years of Sun Denshi: A Look at its Past and Future
originally published in The Mid-Japan Economist Journal (2011)
Written by Kazutaka Tsuda, Translation by Thomas James
Challenges and Dreams: The Birth of Sun Denshi
Chapter 1: The Early Years
The winds of change were starting to blow in December 1969. At the time, Masami Maeda worked for Tokai Textile Industries in Konan, Japan as its executive director. It was during this time that he paid a visit to the textile materials department head for the Nagoya branch of Nissho Iwai Corporation. Maeda routinely made these sorts of visits to major trading houses in order to stay up to date on the latest trends and developments. But on this trip in particular, he also had other things in mind he wanted to inquire about with the department head.
Up until this point, Maeda’s company had always enjoyed a clean bill of financial health, having never once gone into the red under his watch. However, with developing nations stepping up their competition, especially those in Southeast Asia, Maeda sensed that Japan’s textile industry was in for something of a rude awakening and sought to head it off. To that end, Maeda expressed his interest in leaving his current career and embarking on a new venture, but was unsure what fields looked promising. The department head for Nissho Iwai replied that within his own company, it was the electronics division that was doing best. Confident that the division’s prospects would only improve over time, he agreed to introduce Maeda to the man in charge of Nissho Iwai’s electronics.
This man turned out to be Kenji Ishikawa, who told Maeda at their first meeting about Intel, an American company that had managed to outpace the rest of the globe in developing Large Scale Integration. While they only had 20 employees at the time they accomplished such a major feat, Ishikawa was sure that Intel would only continue to grow from there. The story deeply impressed Maeda. Never had he heard of a small company quickly gain such prominence so soon after being founded. The conversation would get wilder from there, however, as Ishikawa had an intriguing proposal: Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel, happened to actually be in Japan at the moment. If Maeda was interested, Ishikawa was happy to bring him to Noyce so they could meet.
Suffice it to say, Maeda took Ishikawa up on his offer. Together, the two went to the Imperial Hotel where Noyce was staying and with Ishikawa serving as the interpretor, Maeda and Noyce conversed for about an hour. Although much of what Noyce had to say went above Maeda’s head at the time because of his complete inexperience with electronics, he could nonetheless sense profound change was at hand and wanted to be a part of it. With that in mind, he set his sights on founding a new company that would ultimately become Sun Denshi Corporation.
Sun Denshi’s corporate building at the time of its founding. (1974)
While Robert Noyce deserves credit for inspiring Masami Maeda to found to Sun Denshi, what ultimately propelled him forward was three things: his immense drive, his ability to dream big, and his appetite for big challenges.
Earlier, in 1956, Maeda graduated from Keio University’s law department. The only son in his family, he was expected to join his father at the company he founded, Tokai Textile Industries, to ultimately follow in his footsteps, an ordinary career path in those days. However, Maeda initially ended up joining Kinoshita Shouten, a major steelmaker centered in Tokyo’s Hatchobori, located in the center of the capital. Maeda had long wanted to work overseas since he was a student. It was logical, then, that he would pursue an internationally minded company like Kinoshita in the hopes of realizing that dream.
Unfortunately for him, when he arrived at Kinoshita, Maeda was assigned to work in domestic sales. Not one to dwell on such disappointment, though, he was steadfastly committed to his work. His dedication attracted the attention of his superiors at the company who, during just his second year at the company, assigned him to lead a massive project worth 2 billion yen. Working diligently from early in the morning to late into the night, Maeda’s work took him all over the place, from steel mills and factories to the Japanese government’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry. This put him into contact with a wide array of people across myriad fields, in effect learning first hand how the world was made in a literal sense. The corporate culture at Kinoshita, willing to put someone so young in charge of such critical work so quickly, would leave a lasting impression on Maeda and go on to inform how he managed Sun Denshi once it was founded.
With his future looking bright, Maeda’s ambitions grew as he learned more and more about his trade, craving bigger and bigger challenges over time. This desire compelled him to quit Kinoshita and finally join Tokai Textile Industries as its executive director in September 1958. Although his father as founder of the company was technically its chief executive, he had become too sick to realistically carry on his duties, meaning that, for all intents and purposes, it fell onto his son to actually run the company. This turned out to be a boon for Maeda, as this position enabled him to realize his dream of being able to work overseas, with his new job taking him to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, Singpore, and more. These trips overseas opened his eyes, enabling him to run Tokai Textile Industries from a more globalized perspective.
His travels also gave him a renewed confidence to take his father’s company in a new direction, transitioning it from a textile materials firm to a maker of high value, fashionable yarn. Although Japan’s golden age for textiles had already passed at this point, Maeda’s confidence wasn’t unfounded. Indeed, for the 12 years that he led the company before he shut it down and went on to start up Sun Denshi on its premises, it continuously remained in business and never once posted losses under his leadership.
Maeda working at Tokai Textile Industries. (1965)
After his formative meeting with Robert Noyce, Maeda wanted to learn more about the world of electronics. He consulted with Kenji Ishikawa, the man at Nissho Iwai who had introduced him to Noyce, asking to let him join the company. Moved by Maeda’s willingness to embark in a brand new field of work, he obliged and from January 1970, Maeda studied electronics for a year as an unsalaried part-time employee at a dedicated facility run by Nissho Iwai.
As part of these efforts, Maeda also went to the United States to visit technology firms such as Intel, Texas Instruments, and Fairchild, an experience that made him realize the gulf in electronics prowess that existed between American and Japanese companies at the time. Domestically, he was also able to make connections with major Japanese companies like Sharp, Panasonic, and Omron, among others, who he would meet alongside Nissho Iwai sales representatives. While his trips overseas taught him that America currently had the edge in electronics, these visits to Japanese companies reassured to him that his own country had a bright future in the field as well.
After his excursion out to America, Maeda decided that once he finished his year of studying at Nissho Iwai, he would return to Konan, this time to get to work on founding a new company. His goal was to get the job done and have a new company up and running by April 1971. The name of his new company was one he had already settled on ahead of time: Sun Denshi. The name came from his time spent in the United States, where one evening he happened to come upon an especially striking sunset. The ground and the sky were both adorned in a beautifully crimson light and the sheer majesty of the sun moved him deeply. It reaffirmed his convictions about wanting to take his next business to the global stage. But in order to do that, he figured his new company needed a name that people overseas would be able to grasp easily and so, Sun Denshi was born.
So firm in Maeda’s belief that Sun Denshi was the right name for his company, in fact, that he went out of his way to register the “Sun” trademark for it while he was still only dreaming of entering the world of electronics. Having said that, while he had a firm idea of what he wanted his company to be called and that it would involved in electronics, at first, he was unsure what area he specifically wanted his company to specialize in. What’s more, if Maeda was going to get anywhere in this brave new world, he was going to have to hire engineers. To that end, he made a recruitment pamphlet for his up and coming company and got to work filling it with employees to make it a real enterprise.
Maeda casually chatting with Frank Sinatra at a party.
In 1970, Kiharu Yoshida was entering his third year at Kani Technical High School, studying in its electrical department. With graduation looming over him, he had big choices to make about what he wanted to do with his future. Impressively, he had ten different companies trying to court him to join their work forces upon his graduation, with some of those firms being quite famous. However, what Yoshida wanted wasn’t exactly the stability that comes with working for such big companies. With big companies comes bigs bureaucracies and with them, a lot of rules and restrictions, he figured, meaning it would be difficult to work as freely as he hoped. This made him naturally inclined to consider smaller companies instead, which, he figured, would be better equipped to pursue the sort of work that he had in mind.
The company that would eventually capture the young Yoshida’s full attention was Masami Maeda’s own Sun Denshi, then still a work in progress set to come into fruition in April the next year. The prospect excited Yoshida: he thought that if he could enter the fledgling company and work hard there, he and the company could both grow and flourish together, riding on each other’s successes. Furthermore, the recruitment magazine that he found Sun Denshi in mentioned that the company was looking to hire three people in all. With such a small employee count, Yoshida thought that he would be able to try his hand out at a variety of different things, rather than be stuck to the exact same job day in and day out. He figured that if he was going to spend his adult life working for one employer, as was commonly the case for men in those days, it better be a company that could make work still feel rewarding decades after joining.
Thus, Yoshida set his sights on Sun Denshi as the company he wanted to work for after high school. He sent in his application to the company and then patiently waited to take their employee entrance exam. The day before his big exam, Yoshida’s homeroom teacher invited him out to give him some words of encouragement. When he arrived, intriguingly, Yoshida wasn’t the only student there who was keen on working for Sun Denshi. At the gathering was Tomoyuki Wakai, a classmate of Yoshida’s who had also applied to work for Sun Denshi. He had chosen that company after seeing a pamphlet from it that detailed its manufacturing ambitions in semiconductor integrated circuits and even had photos included of the land where the planned manufacturing site was to be built.
Soon enough, it was exam time for the two boys. The test was split between two days, August 1 and 2, 1970. Eventually, the company got back to both of them to say that they would be hired. This proved to be a fortuitous decision for both Sun Denshi and the boys. Not only would they both turn out to be pivotal figures in the company’s early days, they also went on to eventually be president of the company, with Wakai taking on the reigns as the third generation leader and Yoshida as its fifth and current head [at the time of this writing].
So obsessed with Sun Denshi was Wakai that he would often get on his motorcycle and drive over to the planned factory site just to get a look at it. Though at first he felt nothing but excitement about the new company, when construction had yet to begin on the facility by October of that year, he decided to consult his teacher, who simply told him, “What’s done is done. It’s too late to look back now.” While many would probably be scared and disappointed by such frankness, Wakai agreed and chose to simply roll with it, staying optimistic and still smiling in the interim, a sentiment that typified the era.
A choir session that was held at Sun Denshi’s 10th anniversary party. (Masami Maeda is second from the right, while Yoshida is next to him as the third person from the right.)
When you start up a new company as Masami Maeda was, you need land to concretely put it somewhere, especially if your new company is interested in getting into manufacturing. Maeda’s time continued to proceed as planned. If everything went well, Sun Denshi would open in April 1971, at which point his employees would formally join him. From there, he wanted Sun Denshi to embark on making integrated circuit chips. But just because he knew what he wanted to do with his new venture didn’t mean that he was able to start immediately in a position to do so. In fact, he wasn’t even wholly sure where to begin as a business.
Having been involved in the steel and textile industries up until that point, Maeda had much to consider in terms of how to actually make the jump into electronics, an altogether completely different frontier from his previous specialties. Indeed, as executive director of his father’s Tokai Textile Industries, Maeda had the knowledge and experience in textiles especially to feel confident that he could tackle most any challenge thrown at him in that line of work. But with no business experience in electronics beyond what he had learned and seen during his time with Nissho Iwai, he struggled greatly with how to approach the electronics industry and succeed within it.
Luckily for Maeda, as someone who’d invested much of his professional time meeting and getting to know people within the business and financial sectors, he had a wide array of connections he could turn to in order to help his future business get off the ground. To that end, in December 1970, he travelled to Kyoto, home to Omron, a leading Japanese maker of vending machines, ticket turnstiles, and other automated machinery, which was then known as Tateishi Denki. Maeda was in town to see Takao Tateishi, company vice president and also son of its founder, Kazuma Tateishi. This meeting had been made possible by virtue of the mens’ connections to the Junior Chamber International; Maeda was the chairman of the Konan chapter, while Tateishi happened to be the chairman for the Kyoto branch. They met each other at a gathering for Junior Chamber International chairmen, where they both hit it off, with Tateishi inviting Maeda to come see him in Kyoto sometime.
As the two men talked in Kyoto for about an hour, Maeda discussed his plans for Sun Denshi, as well as his concerns that were weighing heavily on his mind as he set about founding the business. In response, Tateishi mentioned that his company had recently established a new firm, Ichinomiya Tateishi Denki, for the purpose of manufacturing automated ticket machines for the parent company. The problem, however, was that they were currently running short on manpower to get the work done and were looking for a trustworthy partner to help pick up the slack. Konan, as it turned out, was close to Ichinomiya, so Tateishi asked Maeda if he was willing to take on this work he needed as a subcontractor. It was an offer that Maeda was thrilled to receive. He accepted it instantly, thanking Tateishi profusely for the opportunity. Tateishi then immediately called up Ichinomiya Tateishi Denki to get to work on sealing the deal.
Meanwhile, in February 1971, Kiharu Yoshida and Tomoyuki Wakai, having finished their third trimester finals at school, were summoned to Tokai Textile Industries to begin their job training. Sun Denshi was about to start revving it engines in earnest and Maeda needed his crew to be able to hit the ground running. When the boys arrived at their destination, they were greeted not only by Maeda, but also a group of women factory workers who worked under him at his textile factory, as well as a pair of cars. In all, there were 10 people assembled, excluding Maeda. In one car drove Maeda, while Yoshida drove the other one. Their destination: Ichinomiya Tateishi Denki.
An OMROM automated ticket machine.
While Omron in those days had already long been in the automated systems development business, its Ichinomiya Tateishi Denki facility was set to take things up a notch. Employing around 100 people to assemble automated ticket machines designed for railway use, its products were being distributed all throughout Japan. Train fares back then still began at just a modest 30 yen. Truly, the times were different.
At Ichinomiya Tateishi Denki, Yoshida and Wakai were focused on electronic circuitry and inspecting ticket printers and other assorted machinery, while the women that Maeda had brought were hard at work learning how to wire electronics. During this time, Maeda himself was personally driving his trainees between Konan and Ichinomiya both ways, closely watching over the fruits of their training as he continued making preparations to open his business in earnest. All told, this training period would last three months.
Things were also starting to get exciting on the grounds of Tokai Textile Industries. Already dotted with an array of buildings with triangular rooftops that got good sunlight during the day, a brand new assembly plant was erected that came out to be 165 square meters in size [roughly 1780 square feet]. The insides were a modest affair, however. Rather than having the floors dotted with complicated machinery as far as the eye could see, the building was instead full of stands where workers would set about wiring machines. With the building made to house his new company finally realized, Sun Denshi opened its doors in earnest in April 1971, just as Maeda had always planned. He assumed the position of its first president and the ten workers that had trained at Ichinomiya Tateishi Denki made up the entirety of his initial work force.
While Sun Denshi’s operations were initially focused on the ticket machine work that Tateishi Denshi had tasked them with, later on they received additional work from that first client, such as assembling lids for the heat-retaining rice cookers that they were making. Eventually, their clientele would expand to include other major electronics makers. Such companies included Sanyo, who asked Sun Denshi to assemble electric discharge machines, and Nintendo, who tasked them with putting together control units for their game machines and other devices.
This attention from such high end companies in its early days not only helped cushion Sun Denshi’s bottom line. It also enabled the company to expand the scope of its operations and the sorts of products it could work on. As Maeda and his crew accumulated refined basic technologies from top companies, they learned how to do quality control for their products and also how to manage manufacturing processes. All of this put together allowed Sun Denshi to build a solid foundation for itself as an electronics manufacturer and start to emerge in the industry as a genuine player.
Even more importantly for Sun Denshi’s future, these opportunities helped cultivate the company’s eventual leadership. Staying afloat as an assembly plant obviously meant being able to make enough money from its clients to make its complicated assembly work worthwhile. Yoshida and Wakai proved to be fit for the job of keeping those gears both metaphorically and literally greased. Well versed on how things worked at Sun Denshi’s assembly factory, they were tasked with handling negotiations with outside firms. This complimentary pair of manufacturing insight and business prowess in the two men prepared them well for when they would rise through the ranks and help manage and eventually run the company itself.
Women inspecting ticket machines at their work stations.
As president of his newly founded company, Masami Maeda tended to take a hands off approach when it came to directing employees like Kiharu Yoshida and Tomoyuki Wakai, predominantly preferring to watch over them from afar and see how they grew. His reasoning behind this was simple: he wanted to foster a company culture where individual employees could have their own dreams and ambitions within it and ideally strive to seek out challenges like he had in his younger years.
Nevertheless, work at Sun Denshi wasn’t a complete free-for-all. After all, he came into his own in the cutthroat textile industry, where he had to be clever and act quickly in order for his father’s company to stay afloat, so when he felt the need to intervene and give direct orders, he was more than willing to do so. Yoshida, for example, one time deliberately ordered more insulation than the company needed for socket wiring since it was cheap and took a long time to be delivered, making it wise in his mind to stock up in advance. Maeda, however, wasn’t keen on such excess and instructed him to only buy as much as was actually needed regardless of how cheap it might have been. Similarly, when he saw Wakai leave a screw on the floor while cleaning after work one day, he told Wakai to treat every screw like it was worth 10,000 yen and to be sure to pick them up when he saw them on the ground. As Yoshida and Wakai were both still young men who had only recently finished high school, they found Maeda’s way of thinking to be refreshing and took such remarks of his to heart, which further prepared them well for the managerial duties they would come to assume in time.
On the second anniversary of Sun Denshi’s founding, in April 1972, the company hired another employee who would go on to play a critical role by way of Masanori Yamaguchi. A graduate of the Aichi Institute of Technology’s school of electrical engineering, Yamaguchi would eventually become the head of Sun Denshi as its second president. Having said that, his career as an electrical engineer was vastly different than the typical one received today, seeing as how, at that stage, vacuum tubes were still the main focus of those studies, with transistors only finally starting to be phased into academics.
As a student, Yamaguchi was part of informal club called the “Audio Research Society” and also worked part-time for one of Nagoya’s biggest electronics stores making custom stereos for audiophiles. In those days, about half of AIT’s electrical engineering graduates went on to work for audio companies and Yamaguchi, too, applied to go work for a major audio firm based out in Tokyo. However, his individualistic, assertive nature got the better of him on this path. While he made it to the final interview stages with one company, he expressed there his desire to focus on making wholly original audio hardware, which was in stark contrast to the company’s primary concern of mass production. The exchange seemingly cost Yamaguchi the job, as he was removed from consideration afterwards.
As a result of this misfortune, Yamaguchi was forced to look for work locally, rather than out in Tokyo. The pickings were much slimmer than those out in the big city, as there were few businesses in that part of Japan that needed electrical engineers yet. Luck was ultimately on his side, though. As a resident of Ichinomiya, he happened to live close to Konan, which, as he would discover, was home to a small budding electrical firm known as Sun Denshi.
A tree planting to commemorate Sun Denshi’s 10th anniversary. Masanori Yamaguchi is on the left, while Tomoyuki Wakai is on the right.
It wasn’t until the second time that Masanori Yamaguchi paid a visit to Sun Denshi that he was actually able to meet Masami Maeda in person. While Maeda invited him to join the team, Yamaguchi wanted to be sure about the direction Sun Denshi was heading, one that wasn’t going to resemble the company he had been talking to in Tokyo. “If you only ever plan to keep doing subcontracting work for other companies,” he insisted, “I don’t want any part of that. But if you’re going to eventually start making your own products, then I’ll join the company.”
While such an attitude had already cost Yamaguchi a job in Tokyo, when Maeda heard that, he knew he had found the right man. “I assure you,” he answered, “we’re not content to just work for other companies forever either. We’re trying to find opportunities to start developing our own hardware and really grow as a company from there.” Those words were all that Yamaguchi needed to hear; he knew he had found his place at Sun Denshi.
Work didn’t immediately pick up in the way that Yamaguchi hoped, however. Contracted work from other companies kept pouring in with no end in sight, making him bored and wondering when he’d finally find his chance to shine and help make something original. As president, Maeda felt responsible for rectifying the situation somehow, so he turned to his connections that he’d come to accumulate within the electronics industry and see what devices they felt they needed for their businesses. The first of these devices that Sun Denshi went on to make in-house turned out to be a meter for measuring the rotational speed for manufacturing equipment making semiconductors.
This experience spurred the entire company to start turning its attention towards actual product development at last. The thing that made this shift possible was the automation technology that they had already been accumulating as a result of its contract work. With it, they could readily respond to a wide swath of customer demands for automated machines, giving the company the confidence it needed to start treading into untreaded waters head on.
Over time, Sun Denshi engaged in research and development for a number of machines. One such major early example was its mitarashi dango vending machine. Commissioned by Koike Fuuryuuken, a food shop in Tsushima, the machine was capable of taking pre-made, boxed dango that was stored in its refrigerator and heating it up before serving it to customers when a coin was inserted. After Koike Fuuryuuken installed the first machine, Sun Denshi got orders to make another dozen of them. The experiment, unfortunately, turned out to be a failure in the end, with the culprit lying in the heating process. When the dango would heat up, the sauce leaked out of the packaging and made a mess inside the microwave unit.
Nevertheless, such failures never deterred Sun Denshi. By its very nature, it always embraced such challenges and saw them as opportunities more than anything else. In fact, big opportunities were in store for the company at this stage, as it would soon embark in developing gaming systems, an area that would become one of the defining features of the company in due time.
The mitarashi dango vending machine that Sun Denshi developed.
In March 1973, Maeda formally shut down Tokai Textile Industries, fully divorcing himself from the textile industry. This year also saw Sun Denshi getting into internal product develop more and more seriously, trying out a variety of different ideas and seeing what stuck. One viable new avenue arrived to Sun Denshi in the form of the pachinko industry, for which it developed a line of hall computers, specialty computers designed for pachinko house use.
By design, the machines that dispense out pachinko balls for patrons don’t produce any sorts of receipts, meaning there’s no paper trail to prove or disprove the number of balls given out during any one transaction. The same is also essentially true for the machines used to count the balls when exchanging them for prizes; no receipt is printed out after all of the balls have been accounted for. The difference between the amount of balls originally dispensed and the amount used for actually exchanging prizes is one of the ways that pachinko parlors make a profit, but, if left unchecked, it also fundamentally leaves parlors without a way to readily verify such details for themselves on their end.
Compounding this issue is the fact that it’s bad form for business administrators to be directly inside their parlors during the day while they’re open. This leaves direct responsibility for how the parlors are run on a day-to-day basis to the parlor managers, but also creates potential opportunities for fraud. If that doubt ever arises over a manager’s conduct, it becomes hard to shake off. This is one of the major reasons why the pachinko industry as a whole is perenially short on staff, even if business is always booming for it.
After hearing about these issues, Sun Denshi set out to create a system that could count up the number of balls circulating inside a pachinko parlor. Meters were connected to both the ball dispensing and prize exchange machines, with the data then being sent to the corporate office electronically. This enabled pachinko administrators to see how many balls were being doled out and how many prizes were flowing out of parlors, effectively letting them monitor their profits and losses in real time. The system also came with a calculator that was capable of printing off data, making it all the more convenient for pachinko businesses to own. As if the development of this system wasn’t enough to already set Sun Denshi apart from other electronics companies, it even did the necessary groundwork of wiring the whole system up inside pachinko parlors. It was dirty, dingy work crawling around ceilings breathing in dust and getting clothes torn up from the myriad nails Sun Denshi’s workers found themselves surrounded by above the parlor floors.
Regardless, such dedication paid off, as Sun Denshi continued to get other orders from the pachinko industry as it was selling its new ball counting system. This led the company to develop a multipurpose proprietary system for the industry that could automatically do things like monitor the balls being dispensed out as winnings by individual machines and stop the flow if they hit an upper limit set by the parlor. This control system resembled a rounded out stand-up piano and was installed inside computer rooms. It even featured some innovations that beat competitors to the punch, such as using LED lights in the system as a way to reduce maintenance load, given their ability to last an especially long time. This system came to be known as the SUNTAC and served as Sun Denshi’s first in-house brand in May 1974.
Sun Denshi’s second generation hall computer, the SUNTAC T5000.
Chapter 2: The Video Game Business
After Sun Denshi established a solid foothold in the pachinko world with its hall computers and gambling machines, it was time to take the company into another sort of gaming realm: video games. Surprisingly, however, the impetus for the company trying its hand at video games wasn’t inspired by its pachinko successes, per se, but rather the development of its mitarashi dango vending machines, as discussed in the previous chapter.
While the quirky vending machine venture ended in failure, it served as a blessing in disguise, as it led to the company hearing about other needs that needed filling in the market while selling the machines. More specifically, tabletop arcade games were starting to become popular and the shops that Sun Denshi sold its mitarashi dango vending machines to were very much so interested in getting in on the act. At this point, the company had survived roughly its first five years, but had yet to have a solid product division that could really solidify the its overall direction. As always, though, the company kept dreaming big and remained more than willing to take up any challenge that its employees thought it could handle. With that in mind, despite being in charge of the sales department at that point, Kiharu Yoshida decided to try his hand at making arcade games machines for businesses.
Fortuitously for Yoshida and Sun Denshi, one of the vending machine industry connections that they made during their mitarashi dango machine efforts had a lead on a vendor in Gifu City who sold video game cabinets and graciously introduced them. The first game that Sun Denshi went on to produce was an entry in the ubiquitous block breaking genre that proved to be so enduring upon entering the scene in the latter half of the 1970s. With no game development experience of its own to speak of, Sun Denshi turned to other companies’ games as reference points, with the final product arriving in the form of Block Game Perfect.
As in many block breaking games, the premise of Block Game Perfect was simple: rows of blocks lined the screen and it was the player’s job to try to get a ping pong ball block to hit the blocks, which would then disapper on impact. With nothing to really differentiate the game from its competitors, Sun Denshi felt compelled to take another stab at the genre with Block Game Challenger. This time around, the blocks didn’t stay stationary, but instead slowly approached the player’s paddle in a menacing manner, giving it something of a uniquely suspenseful feel compared to its contemporaries.
An arcade cabinet for Arabian.
In 1978, Taito put out a little arcade game called “Space Invaders,” a game where the enemy aliens on the the screen shot back at the player as they tried to shoot them down. As the aliens slowly descended towards the player’s ship, it was up to the player to dodge those shots and annihilate the invading forces, lest they land and wipe out the player instead.
To call it a big hit both in Japan and abroad would be something of an understatement with respect to the level of success it garnered upon release. Tabletop Space Invaders cabinets could be seen everywhere you went, even in cafes and the like, and the mass of young, working pressionals it had for its fan base made headlines. Space Invaders changed the face of video games forever in a lot of ways, especially in terms of the sorts of characters and styles they’d come to adopt. Soon, copycats and games that built upon Space Invaders’ core conceit were being made all over the place and the arcade game industry truly came into its own as a force to be reckoned with.
Without a moment to spare, Sun Denshi was quick to jump into the fray once more with games like Galaxy Force, Runaway, and Route 16. It was a big leap for the budding company to make, constituting an attempt at expanding its fundamental scope and identity. At this stage, the vendor that Sun Denshi had been introduced to earlier, who had handled sales for Block Game Perfect, was reaching their limits. Primarily a regional distributor focused on the Chubu region of central Japan, there was a limit to how much they could therefore achieve in terms of both sales and distribution channels for Sun Denshi. Still, with few game developers in Chuubu aside from Sun Denshi, this distributor was intent to keep the company within its ranks if at all possible. Sun Denshi, however, would have none of it and instead opted to break off from them and chart a different course.
Going big for Sun Denshi meant finding big partners that could help expand its distribution channels, resulting in important deals being made with some of Japan’s biggest game makers like Sega, Taito, and Namco. Of course, partnering up with such companies often means having to make compromises. While a publishing agreement can enable the actual developers of a game to receive money up front to cover the development costs, in exchange, they become not unlike an OEM, working for that publisher rather than for themselves. Understanding those pitfalls, Sun Denshi instead chose to pursue a different sort of publishing relationship when dealing with such companies. While their games would appear on other companies’ arcade hardware, it otherwise refused to take any money up front to cover the development costs, instead shouldering the risks on its own, enabling them to make their games on their own terms.
An overview of Sun Denshi’s arcade game Route 16.
Space Invaders and games like it were nothing short of a social phenomenon, with imitators constantly coming out of the woodwork to try and get a piece of the action and profits. With it came a legion of passionate fans that together helped to arguably formulate the first true generation of video games within Japan. But, as with many things, games that merely try to ride those waves tend to lack the luster and appeal of the original work that sparked the trend to begin with. Despite these games taking place in outer space, soon enough, things would be coming back down to Earth for the young Japanese game industry and its developers.
In due time, players were hungry for something new and interesting to play, something to capture their attention as Space Invaders had managed to do so successfully before. Their wishes would ultimately be granted two years after that seminal game’s release in the form of Stratovox [known as Speak & Rescue in Japan], developed by none other than Sun Denshi itself. Stratovox revolves around a group of humans on the right side of the screen that players have to protect from roving bands of UFOs that are intent on capturing them. Shooting down the ships isn’t as straightforward as that premise makes it sound, as the ships are capable of swerving wildly in different directions mid-flight to try and throw off players’ aim.
The thing about Stratovox that captured players’ attention was what happened when the aliens successfully managed to get a hold of one of the humans. When they’d get captured, the humans would shout, “Help me!” It was the first time that a video game had ever talked and was something of a revelatory experience for players who witnessed this new development in person. Even in those heady days, people had long aspired to find a way to somehow reproduce human voices artificially, with software-driven artifically synthesized voice technology looking especially promising. In essence, this software would combine multiple different audio sources and produce sounds that resembled real human voices.
Like always, Sun Denshi was always interested in exploring uncharted territory and synthesized voices were one such area that caught its attention. As such, the company got in touch with a firm in Silicon Valley by the name of ESS and got the rights to use its bleeding edge technology in the first video game in history with synthesized voices. When it showed off a prototype of the game to chief of Taito’s sales division, they found it intriguing and upon it hitting the market, players agreed; the game immediately captured players’ hearts with its innovation. Stratovox also marked Sun Denshi’s first foray into the global video game market, where it licensed the game to Taito and did OEM manufacturing. As in Japan, it went on to enjoy massive popularity in the United States.
A flyer for Speak & Rescue, the Japanese version of Stratovox.
After Stratovox lit up the sales charts in both Japan and the United States, Sun Denshi got to work trying to come up with its next hit. However, none of the ideas it arrived at caught on within the company. In an attempt to overcome that road block, it tried yet another novel tactic: soliciting ideas for games through magazine ads. The company figured that with video games attracting an ever-growing legion of passionate fans, those people likely had ideas of their own for what would make for good, fun games and want to see them come to life. To sweeten the deal, Sun Denshi offered a 3,000,000 yen prize, a tidy sum.
The winning idea came from a middle school student in Shizuoka Prefecture that would go on to form the basis of Kangaroo, released in 1982. Kangaroo starred a mother kangaroo whose joey is kidnapped by apple-slinging monkeys and has to rescue it by body slamming her way to the goal point in each level. Just like Stratovox before it, Kangaroo became a hit. Interested in repeating their previous game’s international success, Sun Denshi approached American game maker Atari to see if it was willing to take the baton of publishing Kangaroo in the United States.
Atari is an American icon that was founded in 1972, making it the world’s first true video game company, quickly becoming a brand that made it synonymous with the budding medium all around the world. At an American exhibition, Sun Denshi was able to get in touch with Atari business executive Joseph Robbins and from there, the company began importing Kangaroo to North America in April 1982.
Around this time, Hiroaki Higashiya joined Sun Denshi, subsequently working in its games division for a long period of time before rising to his current position on the board of directors. With little training on the job, he handled soldering duties, making devices for outgoing shipment inspections and taking part in shipment tests. While he often worked late into the night in those early days, looking back on that time, Higashiya said, “Sun Denshi in those days was full of life. My coworkers were all really motivated people, which helped foster a really strong sense of unity among all of us.”
Meanwhile, Atari wasn’t content to rest on its laurels in the arcade game business. It was also hard at work on the home console market, its Atari 2600 exploding in popularity thanks in no small part to the games it attracted from outside companies. This popularity caught Sun Denshi’s attention and in 1983, with the help of Joseph Robbins as the go-between, an Atari 2600 version of Kangaroo was released. Once again, Kangaroo was a hit at home, selling over 2 million cartridges. Even better, as a licensed game, Sun Denshi received royalties to the tune of $2.50 for every copy of the game that was sold, giving Sun Denshi quite the influx of cash.
Screenshots of Kangaroo.
In 1983, the same year that Sun Denshi struck a deal with Atari to license Kangaroo for the home video game market, Nintendo released the Family Computer in Japan. Quickly known more affectionately as the Famicom for short, it would go on to be a massive success not only in its native Japanese market, but worldwide. Having already kept an eye on how home consoles were faring in the United States, Sun Denshi concluded based on arcade game trends that it was only a matter of time before Japan, too, would also become a bastion for consoles in its own right.
When making games for the Famicom, developers would usually begin by receiving technical resources from Nintendo for building games on its hardware. After that, once the game was completed, Nintendo would take the data and manufacture ROM cartridges, which the publisher would pay for before then going on to sell the game onto the market in earnest. As usual, however, Sun Denshi somewhat subverted this process by independently analyzing the Famicom hardware on its own and successfully producing its own games it. In doing so, as long as the company was able to retain its development software, Sun Denshi would only have to pay Nintendo for royalties while it could then focus on producing their own cartridges.
One of the big advantages in going this route is that it enabled Sun Denshi to be in direct control over material acquision when manufacturing its own cartridges. This meant that with sufficient effort and planning in advance, it was possible to lower manufacturing costs, in turn making the home console game development venture highly viable. In the end, Sun Denshi successfully negotiated such an arrangement with Nintendo to do its own manufacturing for its games, something that only six companies in total managed to achieve.
Two years after the Famicom’s initial launch in 1985, Sun Denshi released its first Famicom game by way of Super Arabian, at which point it also adopted the brand name “Sunsoft” for its games. In the game, players took on the role of an Arabian prince tasked with saving a princess from her evil captors. It was originally developed for Atari back in 1983 before being retooled for Nintendo hardware. Although their contract with Nintendo limited them to releasing three games in one year, the home video game business was a very profitable one for Sun Denshi and its success further invigorated the business, quickly making video games a core part of its operations.
The Famicom box art for Super Arabian.
Within about a year of its release, Nintendo’s Famicom went on to the best selling game console yet in Japanese history. During that span of time, Sun Denshi’s game sales also made leaps and bounds from an already respectable 200,000 copies sold to a mammoth 750,000. With the winds behind its wings thanks to its breakout success in Japan, Nintendo eventually exported its hot new console overseas as the Nintendo Entertainment System. Likewise, not one to be left behind, Sun Denshi brought out Super Arabian, its first Famicom game, to foreign markets in 1985.
With all this talk of developer relationships and sales numbers, now’s as good of a time as any to break down the three different types of “parties” among video game developers. First parties are developers that work directly under a console hardware manufacturer such as Nintendo. Second party developers also work under console hardware makers, but as external branches owned by them. Finally, third parties are companies like Sun Denshi that operate independently of console manufacturers.
Over in the United States, Atari’s oversight of third party developers was infamously poor, allowing the market there to be flooded with mediocre software. This in turn created what came to be known as the “Atari Shock,” whereby home console game sales declined dramatically and the market effective crashed for a time. Nintendo was aware of these events when it entered the home video game business and went about adopting a different style of third party relationships with outside developers.
After seeing just how well Nintendo’s American operations were faring in the wake of the NES’ success there, Sun Denshi became similarly serious about maintaining a presence over there as well. To that end, in 1986, a year after the NES had launched in North America, it purchased Chicago-based Kit Corp, which had belonged to former Atari executive Joseph Robbins, turning it into Sun Corporation America, the company’s first US branch.
Sun Corporation America hit the ground running in the American game market, thanks to the previous industry expertise Kit Corp already had prior to its buyout, which it used to sell Sun Denshi’s games in the States as arcade hardware kits. By selling kits of these games, arcade operators wouldn’t be forced to swap out unpopular, depreciated cabinets whole hog in order to install new games for their customers. Instead, they could simply swap out the PCBs inside the arcade cabinets and breathe new life into old housing.
Various Famicom games.
With the rise in popularity of Famicom games, Sun Denshi shifted its focus from making video games for the arcade market to those for the home market. At this stage, the head of operations was Kiharu Yoshida, who set about revitalizing how the company went about developing its products. He also asked Hiroaki Higashiya to change divisions within the company and join him in business operations, which Higashiya obliged.
One of the challenges that Higashiya took up in his new capacity was coming up with games that could be educational in areas such as Japanese, mathematics, and social studies while still being fun to play. Parents, at this point, were being increasingly vocal about their concerns of games taking kids away from their studies, which made Higashiya want to find a way to make games that both kids and their parents could be happy with. Thus, he and his team set out to make the first educational game for Japanese video game consoles. To realize this vision, Sun Denshi decided to team up with ASK, an educational publisher in Tokyo. Reflecting upon this collaboration, Higashiya remarked that “It was really challenging working with people from a different field, but we also learned a lot from it, too.”
In addition to these efforts, Sun Denshi also put out a series of 15 videos on casettes that revolved around Japanese folklore. As doing the videos using traditional full animation would have made production costs prohibitively expensive, the company opted to use technology that it had originally crafted and refined for video game development to keep costs down. The company then turned to Nippan, a Japanese publishing agency, to get the videos sold via their publication distribution routes.
Meanwhile, as the shift from arcade games to home console games continued unabated, Sun Denshi was forced to radically alter how it ran its video game business over time. With arcade games, the company was dealing with machines that could cost 400,000-500,000 yen each to build and install in arcades, money that would hopefully be recovered over time one 100 yen coin per play at a time. While doable, it wasn’t without its risks and unless an arcade game was a big hit, it was nigh on impossible to make that investment back after producing numerous cabinets.
To try and head off such financial disaster, Sun Denshi would hold location tests in arcades where it would repeatedly install test versions of new games it was developing and use those results to hopefully make them into something that could draw in players’ money upon release. If the location tests didn’t pan out, production would halt and the final games wouldn’t see the light of day. Even in cases where significant time and money was already invested into development, Sun Denshi deferred to the market. When the market didn’t want a given game, it’d opt to back off and write off the losses, rather than potentially incur even more losses trying to finish the game and unsuccessfully launch it in arcades.
Pamphlets depicting some of Sun Denshi’s educational games.
While development on arcade games was becoming dictated by location tests, developers on the home console side of Sun Denshi’s game division were able to focus on raw ideas and how to implement them and then get feedback on how things went once the game was out on the market. For all the worries about the high cost of investment in arcade games, one thing that they have going for them is the immediacy of their experience; when you visit an arcade, not only can you hear about the latest and greatest games in the scene, but you can walk up to the machines and play them for 100 yen right then and there. Console games, on the other hand, have typically not had such instantaneous access going for them. The main way your typical player hears about new games is through ads on things like TV programs and specialist magazines. Getting the word out about new games on home consoles therefore means spending money on advertising, which can quickly add up the more serious a company gets about promoting its new work.
One way of dealing with this problem is to circumvent it altogether. If, say, you’re working on a home conversion of a popular arcade game, you’re already not starting from scratch in getting this new version exposure because the original game is presumably well known in arcades. This is the route that Sun Denshi took when bringing two popular arcade games to the NES in the United States: Spy Hunter and Sky Kid. Between the two games, Spy Hunter is easily the more famous one of the pair, as the original version was a huge hit in American arcades that was developed by known American development house Bally Midway.
Ideally, in arcade game development, developers want to make a game that strikes a good balance between making a game with play sessions that don’t go on too long, while still compelling players to keep wanting to play it and test their mettle. If they can then find a way to reliably increase the number of times players are likely to play that game, then the amount of revenue that they can get from inidivual players will invariably go up. Of course, when porting these sorts of games to home systems, players are able to keep playing the game as much as they like once they’ve purchased it. Sun Denshi saw in Spy Hunter a game that could capitalize well on that potential in home environments, which is what drove it to approach Bally Midway and get the rights to develop the port.
Put in charge of porting Spy Hunter to the NES was Hiroaki Higashiya, who did extensive analysis on the game’s advanced techniques and hidden tricks in order to make it faithful to the original arcade experience. He and his team had to tread with caution, however; if their version of the game resembled the arcade version too much, the game would potentially be too hard for a console game, diminishing its appeal among that player base. As a result, the game was retooled to be more sensibly balanced in line with console standards. As it was the company’s goal to simultaenously release the game alongside NES console hardware, the development team worked tirelessly for months on end with no vacations to finish the port. In the end, their work paid off, as the game went on to sell roughly 900,000 copies throughout the United States.
The NES port for Spy Hunter, which was released simultaneously alongside the hardware.
In addition to porting major arcade games, one other method that Sun Denshi employed in making its home video game division successful was creating games based on existing popular characters. It was a well-worn tactic for developers in those days, whereby they would approach major media companies like Warner, Disney, and DC comics and ask to license their properties so that they could be turned into games. In Sun Denshi’s case, the company acquired the rights to develop games based on a number of series such as Batman, Superman, and Gremlins, as well as characters from Looney Tunes like Bugs Bunny and Road Runner.
The first such game Sun Denshi produced in this manner was Batman, which was based on the 1989 movie of the same name, whose negotiations for the game rights began before the movie was even completed. Directed by Tim Burton, the first entry in this line of Batman movies starred Michael Keaton, with Jack Nicholson playing the role of the Joker, a cast that made headlines at the time. Warner expected the movie to be a big success from its earliest stages and invested heavily in its advertisting. As a result, any potential game adaptation was also expected to do gangbusters, compelling Warner to ask for a cool $1 million for the licensing rights, which at the exchange rate at the time came out to 150,000,000 yen. Sun Denshi paid that price, believing it to be an investment that would indeed pay off.
While Gotham City in the movie is meant to be an east coast American city, the actual movie set itself was erected in London, containing the sort of distinct look and feel that Tim Burton has long been famous for. In order to maintain that atmosphere in the game, development staff from Sun Denshi visited the set in person to take a close look at it and examine its finer details. This effort paid off, with the game selling 1.09 million copies out of its 1.5 million print run up front before the remainder would go on to be sold at a discount price.
This later success in the bargain bins didn’t come without its growing pains, however. The move to discount the game triggered price protection policies at retailers, whereby the existing stock that was still in circulation prior to the discount was also ensured to be part of the newly reduced price. Additionally, Sun Denshi also had to deal with returns of unsold stock from retailers, lest they be faced with refusals to stock any subsequent games. Such business practices were unfamiliar to Sun Denshi at the time, as they didn’t exist within the Japanese retail landscape. Ultimately, however, it proved to be a useful learning experience for the company as it dipped its toes further and further into American waters.
Sunsoft-developed games based on movie licenses.
In 1990, Sun Denshi decided to move its American branch, Sun Corporation America, from Chicago to Los Angeles in an effort to enhance its game development efforts for that market. To that end, out of 50 total people employed at the company, a whopping 30 of them were on board specifically as game development engineers. These engineers were an important resource to the company that needed to be managed carefully, especially given the differences in work mentalities between these American engineers and their Japanese counterparts.
Indeed, the American engineers tended to exhibit vastly different philosophies and work ethics and also had more of a knack for theatrics when getting involved in the business side of things, spending large sums of money on trade show exhibitions and the like. Like many Western workers, they tended to operate more in favor of their own careers, rather than purely for their employer. This didn’t mean that morale at Sun Corporation America was low, but it did mean that management had to stay on its toes, lest their more zealous employees cost the company more money than it initially expected.
The American side of Sun Denshi’s business also employed dedicated sales representatives who took orders from clients. However, merely delivering their allotted games out didn’t necessarily mean it was a done deal. Like what happened with Batman on the NES, clients could potentially demand to return unsold product, meaning that Sun Corporation America had to be careful in fulfilling orders so as to avoid unwittingly losing out on money.
Sun Denshi wouldn’t be content to remain purely in America when it came to its international operations, however. 1994 saw the opening of Sun Corporation Europe, which was primarily intended at the outset to help the company expand its European exports, with additional sub-branches opening up in countries such as Germany, France, the UK, and Spain that more closely focused on those particular markets and their particular characteristics. As these foreign expansions were going on, the company was still deeply engaged in groundbreaking new experiments in the world of games.
One of these experimental challenges was the Famicom port for After Burner II, a Sega-developed dogfighting that was hugely popular in arcades upon its release. Players waged war in the game’s skies and could turn their airplane and therefore the overall gameplay field 360 degrees mid-flight, a major technical feat that made the game stand out at the time. In arcades, this turning was made possible by a special joystick that acted as the yoke, but since the Famicom lacked any such functionality in its hardware natively in terms of both controls and visual rendering, porting After Burner II wouldn’t simply be a matter of retooling the game on a software level and putting it out the door.
Still, the company was up to the challenge. Given that it had engineers that were well-versed in both hardware and software, the porting team was able to develop a unique integrated circuit chip that made the game possible to play on the Famicom. What had seemed impossible to many was made possible by this new technology, making Sun Denshi’s take on After Burner II the very first game on the Famicom to feature 360 degree rotation.
After Burner II for the Famicom, which was the first game on the system to feature 360 degree rotation of the on-screen visuals.
In the early 1990s, keen to extend its reach even further, Sun Denshi came across an American developer by the name of Cyan. The company was founded by two brothers, Rand Miller, a former bank worker and computer engineer, and Robin Miller. Cyan began life with a modestly sized game called The Manhole, which would become popular upon its release. Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, The Manhole was an adventure game that was rife with animals that the player would engage with as they went along their journey. So striking did Sun Denshi find Cyan’s work that it invested in the company, helping to produce their next work, Myst.
Myst takes place on the titular Myst Island, a mysterious realm with puzzles strewn all throughout it. Players have to wander around the island in search of disparate clues that can help them solve these puzzles and uncover the underlying mystery. Defined by its gorgeous visuals and challenging puzzles, Myst captured the hearts of many around the world, going on to sell five million copies upon its release.
Meanwhile, back in Japan, Sun Denshi released the hit arcade game Virtual Batting, whose development was overseen by Kazuaki Goto, now Sun Denshi’s full-time auditor. Virtual Batting was the first batting machine of its kind in the industry, featuring live action pitching footage overlaid atop baseball stadium imagery that was recorded in Tokyo of Masahiro Nakane, a famous pitcher who had played for the Hankyuu Braves and Kintetsu Buffaloes. To play it, players would physically enter the batting cage, where they’d be greeted with the virtual pitcher on screen. The pitcher would then be shown throwing a ball, which would result in a real one hurtling towards the player from above the screen. If the player can hit the ball, the game’s internal sensors will calculate the force and the angle of the ball to predict its trajectory as the screen displays a flying ball. While it was an expensive game to play at 300 yen per round, Sun Denshi still managed to sell roughly 100 units of the game after it was all said and done.
Sun Denshi’s interest in the world of sports games didn’t stop with Virtual Batting. In 1996, it got to work planning out a networked soccer game, something that would once again prove to be an entertainingly unique challenge for the company. Development duties were handed off to UK developer Crush and the game was ultimately released under the title “Soccer Nation.” The game saw players managing their own soccer teams on PCs, which they would then take online to compete in matches, something few other sports games even thought of doing back then.
Myst, an adventure game that takes place in a fantastical world.
2000 proved to be a critical turning point for Sunsoft as Sun Denshi’s game development arm. As games were getting more advanced, the cost and amount of labor involved increased and there were worries within Sunsoft’s ranks that if their work continued while the expansion of its scope went unchecked that the division could eventually lose its way as a developer. As a result, Sunsoft’s major personnel were split into five groups that operated independently of each other, down to even their financial details. With the peak of the video game boom of the 90s now behind them, competition in the industry was only going to get fiercer, meaning that developers at Sunsoft had to take deep responsibility for their work, trying to suss out market trends and potential risks as they went about creating their games.
2000 also saw Sun Corporation America close its doors, followed by Sun Coroporation Europe in 2001. Although in one sense this signified a reduced scope in Sun Denshi’s operations, it also enabled it to set its sights on altogether new directions. One such direction was to enhance the company’s existing strengths by way of the Hissatsu Pachinko Station series of games. As discussed previously, Sun Denshi’s first real foray into gaming in any form was the pachinko industry. With consumer demand for ways to play pachinko machines from the comfort of their own homes, Sun Denshi saw the Hissastsu Pachinko Station series as an opportunity to satisfy that demand while building upon its existing expertise on pachinko, creating simulations of various machines that players could enjoy on their own televisions.
Communications technology was also another area of expertise that Sun Denshi took great pride in. As such, it developed its own special modem and browser software for the PlayStation 2 before the console had any official Internet connectivity functionality, a feat it was able to achieve thanks to its past experiences working in modem technology. In addition, as electronic day planners were starting to take off in Japan, Sun Denshi built other modems and communication software in tandem with the companies behind the planners, all of which were groundbreaking experiments for that industry at the time.
In this new networked era were devices could connect to one another and people could more easily meet each other than ever before, Sun Denshi also entered the cell phone market. Starting in 2002, it repackaged some of its existing games for download onto cell phones, making it easier than ever to access its older library of classic games. 2008 saw smartphones additionally enter this fold, with the company now developing a wide variety of online games for social networking services such as Mobage, GREE and Mixi.