Most third-party studios not called Konami or Capcom are largely overlooked when it comes to retrogaming, as if their great games were flukes or their only worthy property. It’s unfortunate, because there’s always more than meets the eye: the golden days of Hudson before it stopped making anything but Bomberman, the unique titles of Game Freak and, of course, the polished gems of Sunsoft.
Unknown to many gamers, Sunsoft was responsible for many of the most popular games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, and collectors will probably have a copy of Batman: Return of the Joker, Blaster Master or Journey to Silius somewhere in their libraries. Sunsoft had a knack for polish and pushing hardware to the limit, only rivaled by Rare in that department, and its use of special chips to add more sound channels has kept its soundtracks fresh with the passing of time.
Released in 1992 in Japan and small portions of Scandinavia a year later, Gimmick! (or Mr. Gimmick) was one of Sunsoft’s last games for the system, and probably their labor of love. Leaving behind several titles that were clearly used to keep the studio afloat, it developed a game that is not just tightly designed, but one where you can see so many small details. There are so many cute interactions that you can see the game dear to everyone involved in its production and that the developers kept working on it not to make a profit, but because that’s the game they wanted to make.
Pastel graphics and an enhanced soundtrack rivaling Kirby’s Adventure are only the start for a great platformer, in which you control a cute toy in his quest to save his owner after she was kidnapped by other jealous toys. Mega Man-style jumping provides interesting timing and platforming, and the star you can charge, throw and jump onto is a much more interesting projectile than we are used to in the genre. The level design isn’t obvious and there are often several strategies and paths to follow, but it’s never overwhelming.
Enemies don’t just go left and right waiting to be killed, instead following you around, jumping from platform to platform in their chase if necessary. Every enemy has a goal and a reason to exist in the world, and the most basic foes, the lowly black spheres, are given a touch of personality, with hats to indicate the leader and sentries stopping to watch your movement from a walled castle.
The world vibrates with life, and each area was clearly drawn with a pencil before coding, with small zones not serving any purpose except to admire the beauty of the dream-like world Sunsoft created. You can watch the seagulls before boarding the pirate ship, or stand back in awe by watching the fish from an underwater tunnel. The sprites are never used again, something that required a lot of work back in the NES days.
Given its late release date, low print run and unexpected localization in Northern Europe with actual 50Hz optimization, Gimmick! has an unusually-high price tag attached to it, making it one of the most expensive titles of the system. Even in its original Japanese form, it’s generally reserved for hardcore collectors. Fortunately, it was bundled with Super Spy Hunter on volume six of Sunsoft’s Memorial Series for the PlayStation and, while its price is no bargain these days either, Gimmick! is such an amazing game that it’s worth every penny.