When a relatively small developer cranks out some of the best games in the entire NES library, rivaling the likes of Capcom, Konami, and even Nintendo, something has gone a little kooky. It's as if you've entered the fantasy zone!
We first visited the fantasy zone in 1985, courtesy of Space Harrier, and at that time Sunsoft hadn't yet released a single notable NES/Famicom game. In fact, the early Sunsoft titles were pretty wretched. Then, all of a sudden Sunsoft became a state of the art developer. I can't begin to explain how or why this drastic transformation took place. However, I can assure you that the transition began with a top-notch port of Fantasy Zone.
Though the best NES developer might have a relatively small software library (especially outside Japan), upon seizing the potential of this 8-bit hardware Sunsoft unleashed a steady stream of titles that pushed the technical envelope. As a matter of fact, seven awesome games come to mind, which makes for a nice alliteration...
The Sunsoft Seven!
Let us begin the story in 1987 with a Japan-only exclusive (please do not confuse this with the vastly inferior version by Tengen). Exhibit #1 is Fantasy Zone for the Famicom. This free-scrolling shoot 'em up was actually ported to three different consoles: Sega Master System (1986), NES (1987), and the PC Engine (1988). Obviously, the 16-bit graphics of the PC Engine give it an unfair advantage, but I think a port vs. port comparison for the other two will help illustrate Sunsoft's prowess as a developer.
The Sega Master System held a technical edge over the NES, featuring a faster CPU and also able to put more colors on screen at once. Let's take a look at how the Famicom and Master System ports compare.
Sega Master System
You'd think that Sega, who handled the SMS port, would have had an innate advantage (i.e. familiarity with the game and the hardware). Surprisingly, these advantages didn't seem to matter much. Although the Sega Master System provides brighter colors and greater contrast, the Famicom port pixels look much cleaner and less chunky.
I don't think I'll ever fully comprehend what made the NES sound chip so wonderfully rich. Rather than be a sucker and accept my incredulity, judge for yourself and listen to these samples:
The drum and bass in the Famicom version have much more oomph, and the compositions sound richer and more detailed in general. The SMS version seems tinny, shallow, and squeaky in comparison, but it does a better job hitting the high notes. Say what you will about the SMS being more technically advanced than its Nintendo-made rival, the NES sound chip always seems to pull off the upset victory.
I can forgive the lack of animation for the enemy-spawners, but omitting your radar, which tracks your progress in shooting down these enemy-breeders (and triggering the stage's boss battle) is inexcusable. One thing you have to give the SMS credit for, though, is speed. Your ship moves at a quick clip and the whole screen scrolls with equal fluidity. Let's look at some videos:
Sega Master System Speed Run
I wish I had a better video for the Famicom version, because the pokey approach to completing the level makes the gameplay look even slower compared to the speed run on the SMS. Nevertheless, it drives home the point. The SMS port may be lacking in some areas, but it has an edge in the speed department (admittedly easier when you skimp on animation).
Whoa! This feature isn't really supposed to be about comparing different ports. Rather, we're here to extol Sunsoft's prowess as a game developer. What you're supposed to appreciate here is how Sunsoft used the earlier hardware to create a port that managed to rival—albeit not entirely best—that of the mighty Sega. Sure, it may be a little slower, and less bright, but the music rocks and it includes all the elements of the arcade original—even Opa-Opa's radar.
Please keep in mind that this is the only Japan exclusive featured in this series. We're just getting warmed up. Imagine how good the gaming will get when we travel to the US of A and Europe. At this point in 1987, Sunsoft has only just discovered how to make the NES hardware sing, and pretty soon you'll be swept away in rhapsody.
If you love Fantasy Zone, I highly recommend you track down this Japanese exclusive for the PS2, even though it doesn't contain the Famicom port: