#10: Nuts & Milk (NES)
Throughout these lists, I've adopted a habit of including at least one game not for its internal gameplay quality, but rather for some element of its historical significance, influence, or placement in history. For Hudson Soft, that game is Nuts & Milk. Nuts & Milk is a very simple puzzle-platformer that one might argue was a bit ahead of its time when it was first released in 1983: Mario and similar platformers were still a ways away, and although Nuts & Milk itself borrowed elements from other Hudson Soft products, it was also unique enough to be considered very original at the time.
The significance of Nuts & Milk, however, is that it was the first third-party release for Nintendo's Famicom console. To put this into a bit of historical context, the video game industry had basically crashed in 1983 because it was flooded with terrible games release by unqualified developers; console developers like Atari lacked a way of enforcing a minimum quality standard for games produced for the console, and without a market-based way of elevating good games, the industry bubble popped. Nintendo decided to avoid this problem through partnerships with closely-affiliated third-party developers, such that the company could ensure a minimum level of quality for releases for its consoles, passing on that assurance of quality to their customers. Thus, Nuts & Milk was the first release under Nintendo's business plan that would allow the industry as a whole to recover from its previous low point.
A Tetris game? Really? Well, let's think about this for a second. The original Tetris was programmed in 1984 by an independent programmer working in Moscow. The lack of adequate copyright protection led to the formula being appropriated by dozens of companies, consoles, vendors, and businesses. Tetris basically saturated the entire video game industry, but the simple elegance of the game prevented it from falling in popularity. Tetris became, in many ways, the stereotypical video game; it was gaming, simplified to its purest essence.
How do you make Tetris appealing again 25 years after its initial release? That, by itself, is a significant achievement, yet in 2008, in conjunction with Nintendo itself, Hudson Soft pulled that off. The 2008 WiiWare release Tetris Party took the classic Tetris concept and reinvented, reimagined, and reframed them in a way that actually made Tetris a modern game again. Many Tetris games in the past had added new game modes, but few if any rose to the extreme that Tetris Party achieved. The game provided new online modes, an intriguing cooperative mode, a picture-building mode, a platformer-inspired climbing mode, and even a balance board version. These weren't simple gimmicks that tweaked the game just enough to cash in on the sales associated with the first 'Tetris' game on any new console; these actually completely restored Tetris as a modern video game. On top of that, it came at the perfect time: situated on the Wii for the cheaper WiiWare price, Tetris Party also leveraged the console's broader more casual audience.
Released in 1989 toward the very beginning of the lifespan of the TurboGrafx-16, Military Madness was one of the earliest turn-based strategy games. It came early enough in the lifespan of the genre that it can be seen as one of the ancestors of both modern turn-based strategy games like the Final Fantasy Tactics franchise and modern real-time strategy games like StarCraft; despite being a turn-based game, the overall flavor and style of the game is much more similar to the modern real-time strategy genre. It was praised by some as having a significant influence on the later release Dune II by Westwood Studios, a real-time strategy incarnation of many of the same concepts. It also influenced the Famicom Wars system (known in different places as Advance Wars, Game Boy Wars, and other titles), developed by Nintendo first-party developer Intelligent Systems.
The lack of popularity for the TurboGrafx-16 in the United States limited the potential of the game to reach a large audience, but it became very popular in Japan where the TurboGrafx-16 was the second best-selling console of its generation. The game was strong enough to spawn an entire series, and to date there have been the series (called the Nectaris series), spanning PC, Game Boy, PlayStation, iOS, and modern downloadable releases. Many of these are only available in Japan, but several, notably the downloadable ones for PlayStation Network, WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, and the iOS are available for play by American audiences.
Initially released in 1983 but re-released for various consoles and portable devices since, Lode Runner is one of the video game industry's earliest and most underappreciated success stories. A platformer-puzzle hybrid at a time when the genres had not yet distilled out, Lode Runner was something like a hybrid of Shoots & Ladders and Pac-Man: avoid all the enemies, collect all the gold by ascending and descending ladders, and escape the level. The game has historical notoriety as the industry's earliest example of a publicly-released level editor as well, and remains to this day a popularly-touted game from the annals of video game history.
Given its popularity, it might be surprising that Lode Runner ranks so low on this list. In actuality, Lode Runner was not completely an original Hudson Soft product. It was originally developed by Broderbund, but even earlier than that, the prototype was developed by independent programmer Douglas Smith. Hudson Soft didn't come in until 1984, releasing their port of the game as their second NES game. Arguably, however, Hudson Soft played the most significant role in popularizing the game; prior to Hudson Soft's entry, the game was mostly contained to PC engines that lacked strong followings in the United States (and Japan, for that matter). Hudson Soft's NES rendition of the game elevated Lode Runner to its position as one of the earliest big-selling video games. The Hudson Soft version of Lode Runner was one of the earliest games to sell over a million copies.
It might come as a surprise to many that Nintendo entrusted some of its most popular franchises in the hands of a third-party developer. Franchises like Pokemon and Mario are so inextricably associated with Nintendo that the idea of another company working on developing games in these series seems almost blasphemous; but in reality, in the 1990s, Nintendo entrusted its biggest franchises to Hudson Soft on several occasions. One example was the 1998 release of the video game incarnation of Nintendo's new trading card game, aptly named Pokemon Trading Card Game.
Developed in some ways as a promotional tool for the card game co-developed with Wizards of the Coast and, in other ways, as a way to capitalize on the expected success of that card game, Pokemon Trading Card Game was also the first Pokemon game outside of the franchise's main series, starting a trend that has led to Pokemon Pinball, Pokemon Ranger, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, and a wide variety of other spin-off games. The game's internal development was very strong as well; despite being developed by Hudson Soft, who had been completely unaffiliated with the original game, Pokemon Trading Card Game did a phenomenal job of mimicking the structure, tone, and atmosphere of the original Pokemon games. Although the game was not large enough to truly expand the franchise (again, in some ways, it was mostly a promotional tool), the game became an unexpected success, spawning a Japan-only sequel. Frankly, I'm surprised we haven't seen another Pokemon trading card video game.
The other major franchise that Nintendo entrusted to Hudson Soft is none other than one of the most recognizable Mario spin-off series, Mario Party. With eleven games (Mario Party 1 through 9, Mario Party Advance, and Mario Party DS), the game is actually the longest-running Mario spin-off series, topping Mario Kart's 9 games and Mario RPG's 8 games. Hudson Soft itself was responsible for the first ten of these games, with Nintendo in-house developer Nd Cube taking over for the main series' ninth installment.
Oddly, the series as a whole peaked with the very initial installment, Mario Party for the Nintendo 64. At that time, the franchise was relatively simple, and many of the features recognized in the later installments were absent; as a whole, however, the innovations that have taken place from generation to generation have not been quite enough to overcome the formulaic nature of the series, and like many Nintendo franchises, it has become a big dull and predictable in the past several releases. That was not the case early on, however; at the time of Mario Party's initial release, there was nothing quite like it anywhere in the industry, and the casual and simple appeal combined with the accessible board game aesthetic and structure made it an instant hit. As with many other competing franchises, the success of Mario Party spawned copycats all over the gaming industry, such as Sony's Crash Bash, TDK's Shrek Super Party and Muppets Party Cruise and Namco's Pac-Man Party.
#4: Neutopia (TG16)
Neutopia is one of the more polarizing games I've encountered. Released in 1989 for Hudson Soft's TurboGrafx-16, Neutopia was the company's response to Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda, released two years earlier. The polarizing element of the game is that those that pay attention to it tend to fall into one of three very distinct categories. Some view Neutopia as the Owl City to Legend of Zelda's Postal Service – a blatant rip-off that, while just as good, is only just as good because it impersonates every element of its predecessor. Others regard it as the Zune to Legend of Zelda's iPod – a sad imitation that, while functional, falls short in every conceivable way. Still others, including myself, regard it as The Dark Knight to Legend of Zelda's Batman Begins – a qualitatively similar piece that enhances and perfects its predecessor in nearly every possible way.
The graphics, gameplay, and weaponry of Neutopia are all remarkably similar to The Legend of Zelda, but the depth and complexity of the game are significantly enhanced. Even more importantly, the plot of the game provides an intrigue that the early Legend of Zelda games (and, arguably, the later ones) fail to match; it more closely resembles a full-blow RPG than a simple action-adventure game. The gameplay depth as well, still rooted in items as in the Legend of Zelda games, but with an added complexity. The game's only weakness was its password system: without the save system that Legend of Zelda introduced, the game required the player to write down 24-character passwords to preserve their progress. This was not only a hassle, but also hurt the flexibility of the game design.
One of Hudson Soft's earliest games, Stop the Express was partially responsible for giving the company a significant market share in the first place. Released in 1983, the game came out in that time period when genres were still fuzzily defined, and indeed, finding a genre for Stop the Express is difficult. You control a character running along the top or inside of a train, attempting to reach the front cabin. You jump to collect bonuses, avoid bullets fired by enemies behind you, and avoid the traps along the train to reach the front. Although the structure might sound simple (and if you look up some gameplay footage, you'll see it actually is rather simple), at the time of its release in 1983 it was one of the strongest games available. Its defining feature was its pacing, with the graphics changing and updating on the screen far more quickly than in most games available at the time.
Originally released for the ZX Spectrum, Stop the Express was eventually ported to the Commodore 64 and MSX, and the combination of those three consoles gave the game a worldwide audience; ZX Spectrum cornered the European market, while the Commodore 64 supplied the American market and the MSX became popular around the world. The game has also become a popular target for emulation and remake contests, and is surprisingly overdue for a re-release on one of the popular virtual console systems available today.
#2: Bomberman (ZX)
Arguably Hudson Soft's most popular title, the Bomberman franchise actually dates all the way back to 1983. Originally released for the MSX and several other computer-based platforms, the game eventually made its way to the NES, Game Boy, and other popular consoles around the world. At this time, the game didn't resemble its modern incarnations much, but the similarities that were present set the stage for the game's entire franchise history. The gameplay still revolved around the player planting bombs to destroy enemies and terrain, and finding upgrades to improve or alter the functionality of those bombs.
Bomberman went on to become Hudson Soft's most successful franchise, spawning a franchise with over three dozen games. Efforts were made in various places to pull the franchise in various different directions, including a party-like game (Bomberman Party Edition), an online multiplayer edition (aptly named Bomberman Online), and some more platformer-like games (such as Bomberman Land). The franchise even saw an attempt at a realistic reboot with Bomberman: Act Zero, although that attempt was panned. Arguably the most famous game in the franchise's history, though, is Bomberman 64, the series' first foray into 3D graphics. With a strong single-player campaign coupled with an impressive multiplayer mode that perfectly leveraged the Nintendo 64's heavy multiplayer appeal, Bomberman 64 was well-situated for success. The franchise has not done a whole lot since that famous release, but as with its other series, Hudson Soft has demonstrated in recent years a willingness to experiment with new mediums for its franchises, releasing cheaper WiiWare entries into the Bomberman franchise.
The top game on this list may be a surprise; it didn't even make my list of potential honorable mentions in my first draft of this list because, in the Western world from which I hail, hardly any recognition is given to the game. But for those that are familiar with it, Tengai Makyo: Ziria (and, more broadly, the entire Tengai Makyo series, which spans a dozen releases and stretches onto modern consoles) is a true gem. Development is shared with a company called Red Entertainment, although Red did not start to receive recognition as an independent game developer until the 2000s. From a technical standpoint, the game was responsible for a number of animations, including cut scenes, voice acting, and CD-based releases: Tengai Makyo: Ziria was the first RPG to include any of these features.
The more remarkable element of Tengai Makyo: Ziria (known as Far East of Eden when translated) is its brilliant combination of moods and tones. It is simultaneously humorous and serious, slapstick and political. It uses humor to provide insights into popular Western misconceptions of Japanese culture while retaining an almost whimsical fantasy atmosphere. The game is unlike anything that RPGs generally try to do even now, and it was even more unique back during the early days of the genre. It was predicted that, had it been localized, it would compete favorably with Zelda, Dragon Warrior, and Phantasy Star, three of the biggest titles of that era. Unfortunately, the lack of TurboGrafx-16 sales in America doomed any attempt to localize the game.
Honorable Mentions: Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom, Binary Land, Milon's Secret Castle, Vertical Force, Super Mario Bros. Special, Bomberman 64, Challenger, Dungeon Explorer, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap, Saturn Bomberman, Bomberman Online, Lode Runner, Mickey Mousecapade, Blender Bros., Super Bomberman, DoReMi Fantasy: Milon no Dokidoki Daibouken, Bomberman Generation, Bomberman Blast, Onslaught, Bloody Roar, Lost in Shadow
As mentioned in the introduction, in 2000, Hudson Soft held its first public stock offering, resulting in Konami purchasing a majority and controlling share. At the time, this was mutually beneficial: Hudson Soft received additional resources and Konami received a significant new internal developer. As time went on, however, the move would prove disastrous for Hudson Soft – at least as a standalone entity. Over the next decade, Konami and Hudson Soft would grow closer and closer, with Konami owning a larger and larger share of Hudson Soft and exerting more and more control. Finally, in 2011, Hudson Soft was officially acquired by Konami and merged into a new role as an internal subsidiary. Within a year, Konami would finish doing away with Hudson Soft as any sort of discrete company, absorbing it in its entirety and doing away with it once and for all. In some cases, such as the merger between Namco and Tales Studio, this is merely a political reorganization; for Konami and Hudson Soft, however, that is not the case. Little of Hudson Soft is left in Konami, with the majority of the former artists, developers, and executives now working for the Nintendo subsidiary Nd Cube, including former Hudson Soft President Hidetoshi Endo. This makes it clear why Nd Cube was handed responsibility for Mario Party 9: while the company name was different, the people were all the same.
If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!
List by DDJGames (10/10/2012)
Discuss this list and others on the Top 10 Lists board.