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  • Famicom Lode Runner and the early Master Takahashi years

    Posted on April 6th, 2013 keving 10 comments

    The story of Lode Runner on the Famicom — the game that turned Hudson from a computer-oriented developer to a console-oriented one for the rest of its existence — begins in 1983, when president Yuji Kudo decided that they needed to start making games for Nintendo’s new console. Toshiyuki Takahashi, the “Master” of all 8-bit gaming in Japan and a guy working in Hudson’s sales department at the time, wrote about it on his blog a week ago.

    “Game cartridges were all manufactured at Nintendo’s factory, and you needed to pay half the manufacturing costs at the time of making the order and half on delivery. This took a vast amount of money, and the figures we had dangling before us were such that we’d easily go under if it didn’t sell. So, naturally, we needed a known quantity whose popularity we could be sure of.”

    Having been involved with games for Japan’s assorted 8-bit PCs for several years by that point, Hudson had numerous close connections with American game publishers. They decided to pore through the licenses they had at the time and port one of them to the Famicom.

    “As we made our selections, one of our criteria was that it needed to have a lot of stages. Most games in 1983 basically just had three stages that repeated over and over again. It was hard to fit any more into the limited memory space of the time, but we figured that if we were going to go in on this, we needed something that would surprise gamers. So we wanted a game with lots of stages, that still didn’t take up a lot of memory, and would probably become popular. Around that time, Lode Runner was just beginning to get a worldwide following, so that was a top candidate from the start.”

    Lode Runner was ideal for this sort of thing since its simple game world of blocks, bricks, and ladders could be easily compressed to a small space. However Shinichi Nakamoto, the programmer who handled the Lode Runner port and went on to be involved in many other FC and PC Engine titles, wasn’t convinced.

    “He said that giving it the same-looking screen as on the PC wouldn’t be acceptable for kids. He ported it so that the character sprites were the same size as in other games, which had the side effect of making each stage too big for a single screen. That’s why he had it scroll right and left, and this turned out to be a big hit within the office. Lode Runner on a single screen offered a mixture of action and puzzle elements, but this way, you also had the thrill of not knowing when an enemy robot might pop up from outside the screen. It made it more fun as a game. However, Brøderbund needed some convincing — they said ‘This isn’t Lode Runner‘. I don’t know exactly how they were convinced to come around, but I think it was just our president constantly hammering on them what our impressions were inside the office.”

    Development of the Famicom Lode Runner reached its closing stages in the spring of 1984.

    “At the time, in order to get Lode Runner distributed, we had to go through a toy wholesaler called Shoshinkai which Nintendo introduced us to. Myself and Nakano, my boss in the sales department, went around to all the wholesalers across Japan in order to introduce the product to them. Nakano could have gone by himself but we thought it best to show the game in action as we did our little presentation, so I put on a business site and basically went on these day trips around Japan daily for about two weeks. And the thing everyone always asked us was ‘Isn’t the Famicom from Nintendo? Are you sure you can just make games for it?’ There was not much understanding of the concept of a third party yet in 1984. Nakano would have to explain that we had a license from Nintendo and it was all on the up and up.

    So while he was explaining this and outlining our sales plans and so forth, I’d play the game for them and answer questions they had. I had the impression that people really liked it, especially the fact that both this and Nuts & Milk (which we were showing off at the same time) had 50 stages and let kids make their own levels to boot in edit mode. With the level of orders we got, we probably could have placed an order for half a million cartridges and just raked it in, but with the sort of finances Hudson had to deal with at the time, we could only afford to produce 300,000 — and that was combined for both of those games.”

    Hudson wound up going through this entire shipment of both Lode Runner and Nuts & Milk in about a month, midsummer 1984.

    “After the launch, we had heard about this toy distributor conference being held at the Prince Hotel in Akasaka, so we brought in a TV and Famicom and held a presentation. There were four people — me, Nakano, Nakamoto, and Mr. Osato over in PR. So we did the whole thing, and after the end of it, one of the distributors asked us something like ‘You have a game packed with all of these hot-button features and you only produced 300,000 of them? Are you seriously trying to sell this, or what?’ I remember Nakano struggling to come up with an answer, because he couldn’t exactly lay out the whole truth to them.”



    10 responses to “Famicom Lode Runner and the early Master Takahashi years” RSS icon

    • Oh my gosh, a post! Please say this isn’t a one off. Great to see something from you again!

    • Yes, Magweasel lives! Checking here at least twice a week at last was fruitious!

    • Thank you, but I hope you don’t mean that literally. I mean, I used to check all the time early in my career, but even I knocked that off eventually.

    • Brain Breaker

      It’s interesting to note that NOA was planning to license and release Lode Runner themselves as part of the initial AVS line-up (as a “Programmable Series” game), but this idea was dropped by the time the NES launch rolled around.

    • Thrilled to see this pop up on my Livejournal feed. 😉

    • so glad you’re back! hope this means regular updates!

    • Huzzah! Another post. Welcome back 🙂

    • Glad to see some posts. I too occasionally check in as your link here from Chrontendo for I love the PC engine is still up. I hope you have time for that as well as even though there is a video series the written word can still capture games in a unique way. In any case I still enjoy reading about anything retro game related or Japanese so its good to see some posts.

    • Eduardo Shiroma

      Meijin rules!
      Fantastic story! Thank you for sharing it with us. I love to know the story behind the scenes on the development of old games.

    • dorkly chair of the institute for space politics

      oh snap now I can’t use “well magweasel didn’t update either” as an excuse for not updating my site lol
      glad to see you back!

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