“Complete Attack Mission.”
Some games are destined to go down as mere footnotes in history; their names relegated to mere references in the discussion of more successful or more “important” games. Most times, you’ll see it in the example of a game that was years before its time, but where a successor does a better job of putting all the pieces together to become a more popular game. For instance, while Epic Games’ 2006 release Gears of War is lauded for popularizing the cover-based style of third-person shooters, only a small percentage of players will be aware that the mechanic was first innovated by Omega Force’s WinBack way back in 1999 on the N64. Now, I’ve heard that bit of trivia shared more than a few times by more than a few different people, but I never seem to hear much else about the game at all. It doesn’t get passed around nearly as often that it was also the first third-person shooter to feature functional laser sights on weapons, or that the voice acting is awesomely bad in the PS2 version… or that there was a PS2 version at all, for that matter. The point is, it’s a game known to most by name only, if at all.
Let’s try another example. Outside of Japan, Konami’s 1986 MSX title Penguin Adventure is mostly unknown, save for maybe one trivia note that is more well-established than the content of the game itself. That note being, it was the first game Hideo Kojima contributed to during his time with Konami. Humble beginnings, huh? And hey, good on you if you also happened to know that the penguin served as one of Konami’s mascots in Japan, or that the good ending is only unlocked if you pause the game a specific number of times (“That’ll teach them for not keeping a running tally for how many times they’ve paused!” ~ Kojima, probably). But you have to understand that not everyone goes out of their way to fill themselves in on all the details of every game that comes out, and that most folk are content with an abridged, school textbook account of games history. And that’s A-OK.
Time for a little test. Don’t worry; it’s only one question, and there’s no right or wrong answer here. So, when I mention 1979’s Radar Scope, what is the first association you make with it in your head? Answer honestly here: Did you have visions of the game itself, or of another game entirely? Now, don’t feel bad if your brain immediately made the connection to 1981’s Donkey Kong and thought of that instead, as it’s completely understandable. Hey, maybe you’ve never even heard of Radar Scope and so your brain didn’t associate it with much at all, which is fine too! Or maybe, just maybe, you are one of the seemingly few who has actually seen the game for yourself. Again, good for you if you have, but do try to avoid bragging about it, alright?
In this article, we’ll get into why Radar Scope is known by name only to most, and whether or not that’s necessarily fair. We’re going to have go over a brief history of Nintendo’s early foray into the video games industry first though, to see if Radar Scope on it’s own was truly responsible for “nearly sinking Nintendo” as some have claimed it to be. Also, how many other times am I going to have a chance to talk about 1979’s Sheriff? Sheriff is awesome!
And in the event they do decide to learn more, they should be encouraged to rather that dissuaded from it by weird elitist types who treat games stuff like a lifestyle.
“Captain of the Sonic Spaceport.”
Nintendo doesn’t like to talk much about their pre-Famicom history. They don’t really like talking much about their history at all, actually. It might have something to do with the “love hotel” business they did and their ties to the Yakuza?Yeah, that’s probably it. So, it’s not really a surprise so much that Nintendo tries to pretend their company history begins with Donkey Kong in 1981. I mean, they’re only writing off 92 years of history between 1889 and there, and dozens of various attempted business ventures. I guess they still acknowledge the hanafuda cards every now and again, but — oh, right! This is supposed to be an article about video games! Yeah, they made a few of those too before Donkey Kong, as it turns out.
Not counting their toys or shooting gallery fare (such as their 1973 Laser Clay Shooting System), Nintendo’s first true venture into video games would be their distribution deal with Magnavox. Securing the rights to sell the Odyssey home console in Japan in 1974, they were truly one of the first companies to recognize the video game industry was taking shape, and also one of the first to hop aboard. It was a natural progression from the toys market, their core business at the time, and this venture marked the beginning of that transition. Their first hands-on development experiment though would be 1975’s EVR Race; a gambling simulator for the arcade. It’s effectively a proto-FMV game, utilizing reels of film which would play on an accompanying screen, the content being the results of various horse and car races. Players could bet on one of four competitors in either the horse or car race, and the game would randomly select one of the reels displaying the winner of said race. Not much in terms of content, to be sure, but it was a hell of a novelty for 1975. Also, not really a video game by strict definition, but we’ll get there eventually.
Nintendo also released several light gun games between 1974 and 1978, evolving on the concept of their shooting galleries. It may not be necessarily accurate to call these video games either, as they’re more accurately described as “electromechanical devices,” but you know what? I love me a good lightgun game, and I’m probably not going to have an excuse to talk about this sort of stuff again for a while either! 1974’s Wild Gunman marked the start of these games, which would all run on a similar sort of technology. A quite large machine, the game itself is mechanically incredibly simple, though at the same time very clever. Housed inside the large table that sits in front of the screen, there are two film projectors, which are set to alternate on the player either winning or losing a duel against the wild gunmen they face off against. Live action footage of quickdraw artists in full cattle rustler regalia serve to make you feel as if you’re truly dueling in the Wild West. Further adding to this effect is the awesome gimmick of a wearable holster connected to the machine, which you wear on your hip and pull your revolver from! If you’re quick enough on the draw, you continue on to the next gunman, for a total of five possible duels. The game runs a total 90 seconds in length at most, and I can’t promise I wouldn’t have blown my entire life’s savings playing this game if I knew where to find it. And yes, it should be noted that this game would later be re-conceptualized for the NES in 1984, for use with the Zapper peripheral.
1975’s Shooting Trainer uses much the same setup as Wild Gunman, but with a rifle replacing the revolver and a series of 40 bottles replacing the gunmen. Needless to say, this is not nearly as cool as its predecessor. This didn’t stop Nintendo from rehashing the game in 1978 under the same name, with a slightly reconfigured cabinet and more bottles to potentially shoot. Sky Hawk in 1976 is an improvement on Shooting Trainer, in that it allows you to shoot down a series of eight enemy fighter planes with an automatic machine gun, boasting “realistic recoil firing action!”
1977’s Battle Shark would recycle the same weapon, only this time pitting you against torpedo boats. The final release in this series of projector-driven titles would appear to be 1978’s Test Driver, which ditches the guns entirely and gives you a steering wheel in its stead. The goal, much the same as in real driving, is to drive as fast as you can for as long as you can without crashing and exploding your car. As it stands, it is hard to find any of this series of “Simulation System” games in anything resembling working condition, with EVR Race apparently being impossible to locate in working condition as of the time of this writing. If supporting video game preservation means I might one day be able to play the original 1974 Wild Gunman for myself, I will pledge myself completely to the cause.
1977 also saw the release of a very significant product by Nintendo: Their first original home console (designed in collaboration with Mitsubishi), the Color TV-Game 6. Released exclusively in Japan, it allowed you to play “Light Tennis” on your television, which… Yeah, it’s basically just Pong, innit? But hey, it was 6 variations on Pong, and it was sold for much cheaper than competing Pong consoles at the time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t built as cheaply as it was sold for, meaning that Nintendo took a loss on every console sold. Some things never change, huh? But at this point in time, Nintendo had a brilliant strategy to produce profits: Sell their second console simultaneously alongside its predecessor, the 1978 Color TV-Game 15!
This Pong machine boasted a total of 15 variations on Pong, and featured detachable controllers that weren’t present on the TV-Game 6. So basically, what Nintendo was doing was offering the TV-Game 6 as a cheap sort of “gateway console,” and hoping you would go on to buy the TV-Game 15 later down the line when you began to crave a bit more variety. Amazingly, this strategy actually worked, and Nintendo would eventually manage to sell over a million combined units of the two machines. This success would be followed up on with the Color TV Racing 112 in 1978 (a top-down driving game where you dodge other cars on the road), the Color TV Block Kusure in 1979 (a version of Breakout), and end with the release of the Computer TV Game in 1980 (a version of the board game “Reversi,” alternatively known as “Othello”).
1979 would prove to be Nintendo’s most productive year in the video game business up to that point. According to a very incomplete timeline on their website,it marked the foundation of Nintendo of America, who will become a part of our story later. It also marked the official creation of Nintendo’s coin-op division… which secretly worked in collaboration with the Ikegami Tsushinki corporation, who brought most of the actual “technical know-how” to the table at the time. Nintendo still didn’t have many staff on-hand yet with the technical engineering prowess required to program games, as most of them had cut their teeth in toy-making rather than in video game design. The process on Nintendo’s end would likely amount to submitting game ideas for approval and eventually development, which took place outside of their offices. With the games developed and the hardware finalized, they would come back to Nintendo to produce the cabinets and handle distribution. And so, it would be employees working for Ikegami who would be truly responsible for developing a number of games over the course of the year, with Nintendo putting their name to them.
For starters, there was Monkey Magic: A take on Breakout where the main gimmick is that the blocks to be broken take the shape of a monkey’s head. A secondary gimmick requires that the head be dismantled in a specific sequence. First, players collide the ball into a series of arrows closer to the bottom of the screen which work their way up as the ball hits them, until they eventually reach the monkey’s jaw and allow the teeth to be broken. After breaking the teeth, you must roll the ball across the blocks that make up the face, turning them from their initial color to green. There’s an odd timer on-screen during this bit, with a row of smaller monkeys who leave the screen one by one, no doubt disgusting by the display occurring in front of them. If you manage to disfigure the larger monkey’s face completely, you can finally move on to destroying his hat, after which the head regenerates and the game begins anew. There’s also a mechanic where if you touch the monkey’s eyes with your ball, they turn from either O’s to X’s, where if two O’s are present the jaw reappears and allows the ball to ricochet around the top half of the screen and potentially hit more of the bricks. All in all, it’s a novel enough take on the concept of the brick breaking genre, if not an absolutely bizarre game to try and explain in text form. Thanks for bearing with me there.
Space Launcher was one of the more genuinely unique titles released during the year. Controlling a spaceship capable of moving left and right as well as thrusting forward, your goal is to traverse across a busy crossroad in space and reach one of four slots at the top of the screen, each with a points value attached to it. In the middle of the screen are objects of some sort that move from left to right, and which will explode your ship on collision. Guarding the slots close to the top are two rows of aliens, also scrolling left-to-right and right-to-left respectively, and who are also capable of shooting deadly squiggly lines at you. However, if you collide with them head-on (but not from the side of your ship), you can actually destroy them and clear up space to get inside the score slot. If you reach the top without blowing up, you work your way back down to the bottom of the screen, before the cycle begins again. It’s almost like a precursor to 1981’s Frogger, though I’m gonna contend that Frogger is a better-realized game. That being said, Space Launcher is certainly an interesting and unique title for the time, and one I actually did find myself playing for longer than I expected to.
And then there was Sheriff — alternatively / unfortunately referred to as Bandido when the game was distributed by Exidy. Sheriff is an awesome and way underrated game. Playing as the titular sheriff, you must save a kidnapped woman from a gang of gun-wielding bandits. To this end, you wander within a box in the center of the screen, surrounded on all sides by 16 of the criminals. Four barricades exist to absorb some of the gunfire, but you’re primarily meant to dodge incoming bullets. The baddies can eventually enter your box from the corners, forcing you to get up close and personal with them before they shoot you down. A condor occasionally flies across the top of the screen, which can be cruelly and needlessly cut down for bonus points. And how exactly do you aim to shoot all these moving targets coming from every which direction? With the use of a 360-turning dial to aim your gun in 8 different directions, innovatively! Three years before Robotron 2084 and dual-joystick control, this was a very novel concept, and it does take some getting used to the control scheme. But once you do, it’s a surprisingly intense little shooter, and one I’m really quite fond of. In a cool nod to Nintendo’s past, you can unlock a Wario-themed remake of the game in WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$.
But not all of Nintendo’s releases during the year were wholly original properties. Head On N was nothing more than an officially licensed re-release of Sega’s Head On 2. Yes, that’s right: In an era before they were running literal attack ads against each other, Nintendo and Sega were on good enough terms to strike a shared distribution deal with one another. An early example of the maze chase genre, Head On N puts you in the seat of a car driving around the world’s most confused race track while collecting pellets and avoiding contact with other cars. The track is made up of about four circular lanes of increasingly larger size the further you get from the center, with two additional self-contained lanes on both the left and right sides of the screen (or top and bottom, if you’re playing on a cocktail cabinet version of the game). Gaps in the lanes allow you to cross over into others, making the challenge of the game deciding where and when to steer in order to avoid crashing. As the game progresses, more cars are added to the mix, adding to the chance of potential collision. It ends up being a decently difficult game, or one I’ve never quite been able to get a grasp on at the very least. In any case, this game would serve as something of a precursor to Pac-Man, which would of course go on to become one of the most iconic arcade games of all time.
But until Pac-Man game came to be released, the dominant game on the arcade scene was no doubt Taito’s 1978 Space Invaders. And with its success came a collection of literally hundreds of imitators and rip-offs, establishing the fixed shooter genre. Nintendo didn’t release just one game in this vein over the course of the year: They released three. The first released was Space Fever, which features only the slightest variations on the Space Invaders formula. There are three included game modes, one of which (Game-C) is entirely identical to Space Invaders, and two of which remix the formula slightly. In Game-A, rather than the enemy blockade moving all together from the left to the right side of the screen before moving down the playing field, the enemies move in two separate columns, moving down as they either touch the sides or meet with each other in the center. This makes it a quicker and thus more challenging game. The four destructible barricades still exist at the bottom of the screen, and the bonus UFO still makes its appearances at the top.
In Game-B however, the enemies appear on-screen one row at a time, working their way from roughly the center of the screen to the bottom while bouncing off the sides in traditional Invaders fashion. As this is presented as a sort of “endless” mode, the barricades at the bottom don’t regenerate, further adding to the ever-increasing difficulty of the game mode. Other than these two available novelty modes, the game looks and feels pretty much like Space Invaders, and I’m hard-pressed to not call it a blatant rip-off. In one other additional feature though, you can also shoot and damage the graphics at the top of the screen indicating how many lives and credits you have remaining. Luckily, this is entirely cosmetic damage, and does not actually affect your remaining number of ships. I can’t decide whether that being a feature would make the game cooler or simply more frustrating?
Following up Space Fever is a direct sequel, SF-HiSplitter. In an attempt to further change the formula (though still not by very much), the enemies are twice their typical width. If shot directly in their center, they are immediately eliminated. However, if shot closer to their edges, they split into two enemies occupying the same space, giving you two additional targets to shoot. The UFO at the top of the screen follows a similar sort of rule by splitting into a smaller second UFO which can be shot down for additional points. The game also retains the selection of game modes from the first (though there’s no option to toggle the splitting enemies off), though the endless Game-B mode has the enemies appear on-screen in fresh columns rather than fresh rows. At the end of the day, the splitter gimmick is… well, actually, I don’t know what to think about it? Truth be told, I’d rather just play the original Space Invaders without any added of the bells or whistles either version of Space Fever adds. Which hey, I guess that’s effectively what the Game-C mode is in the original Space Fever, so it’s nice that there was that option at a time in arcades where there might be a crowd around the real Space Invaders machine.
And then there was Nintendo’s third and final fixed shooter of the year — not to mention their final release of 1979. Mercifully, we were spared a third iterative installment in the Space Fever series, which would’ve probably had enemies who were four times as big as normal and split into four miniatures or something. Instead, Nintendo would take a different approach for their third Invaders clone, and approach the formula from a new perspective. Quite literally, actually.
“Supernatural Laser Sound!”
“Captain, your duties are to shoot 48 UFOs. Good luck!!” And with that brief introduction, you are deployed to the Sonic Spaceport, where you take up the gun of your Rapid-Fire Laser Blaster and made to defend against the Sonic Gamma Raiders! In other words, it’s time again to move a ship at the bottom of the screen from left to right, and shoot baddies closer to the top of the screen. Geez, taking away the flowery sales flyer descriptions of the game sure sucks the fun out of it, doesn’t it?
I’ve heard Radar Scope described as a cross between Space Invaders and Galaxian, the latter of which released just a couple months earlier than Radar Scope. And so, while it is a totally fair comparison, we should probably make it clear that Nintendo (or Ikegami Tsushinki, for that matter) probably didn’t look to Galaxian’s innovations as further “inspiration,” since there probably wouldn’t have been enough time in the development process between Galaxian releasing in October and Radar Scope releasing in December to make major changes to the game. Not with the time having to be allotted to finalizing and actually producing the cabinets and whatnot. So, let’s safely assume Nintendo’s sole inspiration at that time was coming from the original Space Invaders, and trying to find a way to top it.
If you look at most arcade games released before 1980 – including all the aforementioned 1979 Nintendo releases and Space Invaders itself – you’ll notice a lot of aesthetic similarities between them: Flat perspective, monochrome backgrounds (without the use of overlays), single-color (if not entirely white) sprites, use of a similar thinner font (before the chunkier font we more commonly associate with the “golden age” of arcade games). From what I can gather, this is due at least in part to most games running on the Intel 8080 microprocessor, which meant there would be some limit to the variety you were going to get out of your games presentation. At some point close to the end of the year, hardware took a step forward, and you began to see games for the first time which supported RGB color, multi-colored sprites, tilemap backgrounds and all sorts of background techy stuff that I don’t even know how to process myself. In fact, most developers began to develop their own proprietary “system boards,” specialized for specific types of games and iterated on as the need arose. Radar Scope would serve as an example of a game with a system board designed specifically for it; one which would eventually find itself repurposed for another game entirely.
With more powerful hardware at their disposal than available for their previous releases in the year, Nintendo decided that they would make the most of it by attempting to create a more visually impressive take on the game than previously possible. And so, Radar Scope’s major innovation would be it’s use of one-point perspective: A design which gave the effect of distance as enemies further in the background are rendered as smaller sprites. Further adding to the illusion is the use of a grid background, the vertical lines of which appears to converge closer towards the center the further away they are from the bottom of the screen. Let it not be understated that this was a very cool and innovative effect back in the day, and made for a game which really stood out from many of the rest in an arcade environment at the time.
It’s hard to credit who exactly would be responsible for making specific design choices in a game as old [and largely undocumented] as this. But with the fact that one Shigeru Miyamoto was confirmed to have been involved to some extent, some speculate that the unique perspective may very well have been his idea. Graphic design was certainly his specialty, and that may mean he had input into the approach taken on the presentation. More cynical theorists will claim that his contribution to the game would be limited to its cabinet art. Given that Ikegami Tsushinki’s team of developers may have been an insular group working away and outside of Nintendo’s offices, there’s actually a very good chance that this is probably the case. Unless it was something Miyamoto (or another Nintendo employee) suggested before the game concept was pitched to Ikegami for development, it seems more likely that an as-of-yet uncredited member of that company may have came up with the idea themselves. The nature and full extent of the relationship between Nintendo and Ikegami is shrouded in mystery and even some layers of legal litigation, and so mysteries like this may never be solved.
A second sort of debate exists as to whether or not this was first game Shigeru Miyamoto was involved in the development of in any sort of capacity. Well, I can at least settle this one rather conclusively: It wasn’t. Miyamoto was Nintendo’s first artist (in their video games division, at least), beginning as an apprentice in 1977 based on his skills as a toy designer. An career retrospective in a 2010 issue of The New Yorker mentions that his first contribution was “designing the console for a car-racing game,”which I would deduce to be the Color TV Racing 112 (rather than Test Driver, which reused the same design as several of the other Simulation Series games). If designing the model for a home console isn’t your definition of helping development, he also conceived the design for the aliens in Space Fever (and presumably SF-HiSplitter), as well as the cabinet art and potentially some of the character design in Sheriff.
Alright, let’s get back on track here. So, it’s got a cool perspective going for it. What else does Radar Scope do to differentiate itself from Space Invaders? Well, it does away with the protective barriers in front of your gun, and adds a “Damage Meter” affected by bombs enemies drop when they hit the bottom of the screen or by enemies in the process of crash-landing into it. In this sense, the game can also be compared to something like Atari’s 1980 Missile Command, with its penalties for allowing incoming enemy fire to reach the bottom of the screen. Luckily, these incoming objects can be shot down before they do their damage. Should your damage meter be depleted though, your attacks are weakened, giving you an added incentive to wrap the stage up quicker in order to restore it to full power. The damage meter is also replenished in the event you lose a life due to more traditional means, such as a direct hit to your ship from enemy fire or on collision with the attacking ships. It’s a very fair system, and an added challenge that builds tension rather than frustration.
But perhaps the biggest departure from Space Invaders is the way in which the enemies attack; by diving at you rather than moving in formation with each other. They’ll detach from their blockade, hurdling towards you from the top of the screen, and possibly fire off a shot or a bomb before zooming past you and returning back to the top of the screen. Or, in other words, “the same way enemies attack in Galaxian.” Again, I wanna give the benefit of the doubt here and say that the timeframes didn’t match up to where Nintendo would’ve ripped this idea off from Galaxian. If we assume the one-point perspective was the foundation which the rest of the game was built around, the idea of enemies flying towards the player as a ways of taking full advantage of that perspective isn’t so much of a stretch. In any case, the divebomb approach makes for much more compelling gameplay than the crawling blockades of Space Invaders / Fever, and that’s what counts here. I almost wish the game had taken some cues from Galaxian, since it might’ve meant a bit more enemy variety than just recoloring their one shared set of sprites between stages. At least Galaxian took a step forward with the inclusion of the flagship enemies at the top of the blockade, who take two helpers with them on their bombing runs and who have at least a slight variance in their personality from the rest of the swarm. By contrast, enemies come in only one flavor in Radar Scope, and their only evolution is becoming more aggressive (and more colorful) as the game progresses. Yes, that in itself still an improvement over Space Invaders, but Namco wins for innovation here.
… In fact, I’ve already run out of unique features of Radar Scope to discuss. Well, there was one more feature that Nintendo seemed oddly committed to pushing, that being the “supernatural Laser Sound.” As far as classic video game sound effects go, Radar Scope’s sounds are fine, I guess? General consensus seems to be that they were a bit annoying, given how frequently they play in the game and their generally being a bit higher in pitch than was maybe ideal. If you played the game in one of the cockpit-style cabinets, you’d get to experience the sounds echoing in the confines of the booth, which I imagine really added to the lasery-ness of the whole audio experience. Funnily enough, some of these sound effects would be recycled for a later Nintendo game, where they seemed to receive no complaints in that context.
So, other than that, that’s really all there is to Radar Scope. There really isn’t much to it, as it turns out. But then again, there didn’t really need to be. The end of 1979 marked the very early beginnings of major innovations in the arcade scene, and it’s unfair to expect too much out of any of these early entries. Radar Scope is pure gimmickry on top of a familiar formula, and for plenty of folk that would’ve been more than enough to engage them at the time. The perspective really was quite impressive for the time, and without having a knowledge of how games work, it was one of those “how the heck does that work” kind of quirks that had the potential to really wow people. Even looking at it through modern eyes, I’d say it holds up just as well graphically as some of its early 80s contemporaries, doesn’t it? And as for the gameplay itself, there’s certainly nothing wrong with it, and it’s a step forward from the game it clearly draws its inspiration from. It’s a fun enough game for fans of the fixed-shooter genre, and should really be considered a noteworthy notch in the timeline of arcade game history, even if based only on its technical merits.
“You Are Here.”
So, how did Radar Scope fare in arcades? You may already know… or perhaps, you may think you already know. I mean, it’s a well known fact at this point that Radar Scope nearly sunk Nintendo, right? It was a complete bomb that single-handedly put the entire company in financial peril, until a savior came along and saved the day! Well, as we’ve discovered, stories like this are rarely that cut and dry.
After initial production and deployment of the first series of cabinets in Japan – competing against the likes of Galaxian and other Space Invaders clones before it – it fared fairly well for itself! As a matter of fact, according to journalist and games historian Chris Kohler, “it became one of the most popular games in Tokyo. It was, at the time, the second most popular game in Japan after Pac-Man.”Granted, Pac-Man would be outlapping Radar Scope (and most every other arcade game in existence) in profits, but second place really isn’t all that bad for 1980. This would’ve meant the game should have been considered a major success… If they hadn’t gone and tried to take the American market by storm as well.
You see, Taito and Namco had become the primary players in the American arcade market, with a firm hold and better-established working relationships with distributors. Nintendo saw the business they were doing, and decided they wanted a piece of that pie. And so, Nintendo of America’s first order of business became bringing Radar Scope to the states. And for their first order, they ordered 3,000 Radar Scope units (as in the hardware necessary to run the game, and not the whole cabinet) from Ikegami, for delivery directly to Nintendo’s facilities in Redmond, Washington. Not a ridiculously large number, but no small one either. The problem was, they didn’t have 3,000 buyers already lined up or anything, and so the number seemed to be the result of pure guesstimation as to how many they might theoretically sell. As it turns out, they only managed to sell through one-third of them, leaving 2,000 unsold and with nowhere to go. As I’ve said before and will probably have to say again in these articles, overproduction negates profits.
And so begins the story most are familiar with: A young Shigeru Miyamoto with no game design experience heads development of Donkey Kong, which is able to repurpose the leftover Radar Scope hardware to create an entirely new game. With his passion for storytelling and unique viewpoint as something of an outsider, his game would be a very special one, and one which managed to find a great deal of success. So successful in fact that it turned the company’s fortunes around, and lead the way for Nintendo to become the games powerhouse it is today. Hooray, huzzah! And so, while this classic story isn’t entirely untrue, it’s not the entire story. The fact remains that it fell on Ikegami to actually develop the workings and functions of the game itself, and find a way to use their existing hardware for these new purposes. Miyamoto may have headed the design and gave direction to the team at Ikegami, but that’s only one part of the design process. I’m not saying Miyamoto doesn’t deserve huge props for his accomplishments: I’m saying that Ikegami Tsushinki deserves a fair bit of credit as well. Not just for their work on Donkey Kong, but for their even more underappreciated effort put into Radar Scope as well: A game that was well-put-together in its own right, whose entire legacy seems relegated to a passing mention in the story of Donkey Kong. Not even an entirely factual mention, at that!
So, what happened between Nintendo and Ikegami, and why are most completely unfamiliar with the latter? With the initial conversion cabinets for Donkey Kong doing remarkably well, demand shot up from thousands to tens of thousands, nearing 80,000. Nintendo decided to take it upon themselves to manufacture new units for the game, rather than continuing their contract with Ikegami. This would allow them to meet demand quicker by not dealing with any outside production, and save them money on having to continue to buy their units from Ikegami as well. The problem was, as per terms of their original contract with Ikegami, they should’ve legally been the sole supplier of hardware for Donkey Kong. Nintendo went forward anyhow, and Ikegami went forward with a well-founded lawsuit. Further adding to the issue here was the sequel to Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr.. Despite no longer needing to be built on the same Radar Scope hardware, the sequel does recycle some amounts of code from the original game, as reverse-engineered by Iwasaki Engineering; the company which effectively took the place of Ikegami in the aftermath of their split. Despite what should have been a pretty clear case for Ikegami, the legal proceedings dragged on for close to nine years, eventually being settled out of court to the tune of “an undisclosed sum.”
Perhaps this muddy history attached to Radar Scope and Nintendo’s other games of 1979 is part of why we hear so little about them nowadays, even as Nintendo waxes nostalgic at times. Donkey Kong being as important and inspirational a success story as it was – not to mention Miyamoto’s attachment to the project – sort of necessitates its being included in tellings of company history. And while Sheriff and even Space Fever can find their way into Nintendo’s modern releases in small nods and acknowledgements, Radar Scope gets no such love. It’s certainly not ignored because of its “being a flop,” since it only became one when Nintendo misjudged the American market and made far too many units. And besides: The Virtual Boy was a flop too, and they still acknowledge that piece of junk with some sense of weird nostalgia. (Oh no, I’m gonna have to write about that console too at some point, aren’t I?)
As for Ikegami Tsushinki, they went on to develop a small handful of other games in the early 80’s, including Zaxxon and Congo Bongo for Sega (the latter of which serving as an almost parody of Donkey Kong, with a human player character locked in battle against a large ape), before getting out of the games market. After all, the company’s primary focus lie in the manufacture of broadcast television equipment, which they continue to produce to this day. Of course, this really should serve as the company’s legacy, as games development was but a brief experiment in their decades-long history. But a bit of respect for their work should be paid every now and again, especially for their role in two games that helped shaped Nintendo into the company they are today. Because hey, Radar Scope deserves a bit of love too; not just the game that was built on it.