The 1990s were tough on Sunsoft. Though they had years of experience in creating video games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, culminating in some of the console's best games, the NES' waning popularity at the time resulted in some of these games never seeing the light of day in the United States.
The now-infamous U*fouria and Mr. Gimmick were two Sunsoft games that were advertised and prepared for US release, but later cancelled. Both were highly-praised games that suffered only from their own obscurity; English versions of both games saw exclusive, limited releases in parts of Europe late in the NES' lifespan.
However, one of Sunsoft's games didn't see release anywhere in the world, not even in its native Japan. And unlike Mr. Gimmick and U*fouria, this game was never even announced for release, rendering it completely unknown in the video gaming world. The name of this mysterious game was…Sunman.
- By Danny Cowan
Lost Levels first unleashed Sunman on an unsuspecting public at this year's Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. The game was put on display at our booth for showgoers to play and speculate over.
Unfortunately for us, the show's attendees were just as clueless about the game's origins as we were.
Sunman was discovered several months ago in a listing of several prototype NES cartridges for sale by a collector in Europe. Not knowing anything about the game other than its title, Lost Levels took a gamble and obtained the cart.
The gamble paid off when it was discovered that Sunman was actually a completely new and unique Sunsoft game that was never scheduled for release or even announced. Many unreleased NES games were hyped in magazines for months or even years before they were quietly cancelled, but Sunman was a title that had received absolutely no press coverage from any source (that we know of). As a result of this, the game remained completely unknown to gamers and collectors worldwide…until now.
Sunman is a side-scrolling action game that at first glance bears a resemblance to Sunsoft's Batman: Return of the Joker, which was released for the NES in the United States in 1991. Both games feature large, detailed characters and backgrounds that frequently contain multiple layers of parallax scrolling. Any similarity between the two games is skin-deep, however; unlike Sunsoft's obscenely powerful, heavily-armed rendition of Batman in Return of the Joker, Sunman only has his fists to protect himself throughout the majority of his game.
Given the main character's short attack reach and the overwhelming, relentless swarms of enemies that assault the player in every stage, Sunman is a very difficult game, even by Sunsoft's notoriously brutal standards. Although there are only five levels, players will have to play through the game repeatedly before the difficult character control can be mastered and all the enemy patterns memorized.
It will only take a few minutes' worth of play, however, to figure out that Sunman was intended to be a game that utilized the Superman license. For all of Sunman's mysteries, this observation is perhaps the most readily apparent.
This theory is supported by the fact that Sunsoft had already established a relationship with DC Comics, namely through their earlier Batman games for the NES. DC Comics' Superman license was later obtained and used in Superman for the Sega Genesis, which showcased several gameplay ideas and concepts that are also prevalent in Sunman.
Furthermore, the gameplay in both Sunman and the Genesis version of Superman appears to be heavily influenced by the Superman arcade game released by Taito in 1988. In fact, Sunman almost copies the first level of the coin-op version of Superman entirely. Both games begin with a horizontally-scrolling action stage, then continue with a flight up the side of a building which concludes in a heat vision-fueled boss fight.
Perhaps the most convincing argument that Sunman was supposed to use the Superman license is based upon its graphics. The logo that appears when the game is paused, in particular, should seem very familiar to most people.
So despite all of the above factors, the question remains: why is Sunman not a Superman game? A likely possibility is that during the game's assumed development period (circa 1991-1992), there was some uncertainty about whether Sunsoft could acquire the Superman license in time for a release. And since the NES was nearing the end of its active lifespan by the game's scheduled 1992 release date, time was of the essence. With licensing from DC possibly slowed or stalled, graphical tweaks could have yielded an original character free of copyright concerns. Thus, Sunman was born!
However, this is purely speculation. Sunman's true origins may forever remain a mystery unless some of the people involved with the game's development come forth to shed some light on these questions. It's even possible that the game is incomplete. Despite its extreme difficulty, Sunman is also a very short game - one that can be finished in less than fifteen minutes by experienced players. And though it is fully playable to the end with no apparent glitches or problems, Sunman is marred by stodgy control and occasionally poor hit detection - bugs that may have been fixed in a final version, if it exists.
Brave the game's challenges, though, and you'll eventually see the ending. Stick around for the credits and you might notice that Sunman's development was overseen by none other than Kenji Eno, who later went on to found the avant-garde game development house WARP. Eno's most famous projects include the innovative Enemy Zero for Sega Saturn, as well as the creative and controversial D series, which maintains a worldwide cult following.
In addition, several former employees of Sunsoft's USA branch are listed in the "special thanks" section of the credits, though their involvement in the creation of Sunman would likely have been nominal at best.
In the end, all Sunman leaves you with is some foreboding music on infinite loop, a static screen exhorting you to "Watch for next Sunsoft game," and a bevy of unanswered questions gnawing away at your curiosity. Why was Sunman, a seemingly complete game, never released? Why was the game discovered in an NES casing if it hadn't even been released for the Famicom in Japan? How did the Superman license fit into the picture? And who the hell was calling for help in the game's first level?
For all our speculation, many questions still remain about the mysterious Sunman. We don't know the answers to most of those questions. Perhaps we will never know.