Handheld Underground

Company Profile ~ Sintax

posted by taizou @ 2012-12-02 03:06:48 Company Profiles

Well this is something I've overlooked for a while, considering this company has been responsible for several of the dumps released here so far, and probably several more to come - the most insanely prolific company ever - yes it's SINTAX!

Sintax Technology Co., Ltd (新特奇科技有限公司) was originally founded in Taichung, Taiwan, around the mid-90s, engaging in various obscure activities including but not limited to educational software and a sex education VCD called "Eden of Sensibility". All of this, I know nothing about. What I do know is that around 2001-2, they set up shop in the Xinhui District of Jiangmen, China, and began cranking out Game Boy titles at a pretty ridiculous rate, based on pretty much every popular game and movie they could think of - Pokemon, Digimon, Metal Gear, Final Fantasy, Spiderman, Lilo & Stitch and many many more all got the Sintax treatment at some point (though Mario notably escaped un-Sintaxed, perhaps out of a wariness of Nintendo).

Sintax operated under a few aliases at various points in its life, like "Benco Technology", "Jump Technology" and "Saturn Technology", but this trickery was often undermined by the fact that most (though not all) of their games either came in their own unique style of cart with their logo embossed on it, or started up with a spinning Sintax logo regardless of the name on the label.

Most of their earlier games also carried a "COPYRIGHT © DESIGN BY BBD" notice on the title screen; BBD had previously released a few Game Boy games under its own name (Harry Potter, Metal Slug 2001, Mark of the Wolves among others) which were later re-released by Sintax, and presumably they developed those early Sintax games too. BBD itself has proved to be a pretty elusive company, and I have no idea exactly how they were connected to Sintax, or even if they were actually the same company - I'm sure Gamtec was involved, though.

The games made with BBD were mostly fairly decent, with (usually) good graphics and reasonably-fun gameplay, although unlike Vast Fame they didn't bother composing any of their own music, instead stealing it wholesale from various licensed GB titles. At some point it seems that Sintax then broke their ties with BBD, and continued making games (like this one) in-house; most of the later ones weren't really up to the same level of quality, but some can still be quite fun, if short.

One thing I also discovered recently (which I won't cover in too much detail just yet, there's probably a whole other blog post in it) is that Sintax at some point released a few RPGs developed by the same people as the "Shi Mian Mai Fu" series, but I don't know what the connection is - did Sintax publish another company's games, or was Sintax behind them all along?

As I mentioned, Sintax was extremely prolific, releasing over 100 games all told, but to say they were 100 unique games is pushing it a bit; they had a tendency to take the same engine from one of their previous releases, change the graphics, storyline and (if you were lucky) level layouts, and call it a new game. So maybe 50 or less unique ones? It's still a lot, anyway. It's probably worth mentioning that Sintax released their games fairly consistently in English too, at least for the first year or two of their existence, and even (so I've heard) one or two in Spanish and German. But these are generally much harder to find than the Chinese versions, unfortunately. :(

There's also a series of GBA games which were apparently developed by Sintax, even though their name isn't on any of them; supposedly the first (a Digimon platformer ported from a SNES game) was developed with assistance from Vast Fame, while Sintax made the rest on their own, (naturally) recycling the same engine for each.

After about 2006 Sintax got out of the game business, focusing instead on car stereos and MP4 players and the like, and seemingly those two divisions split at some point; the car stereo side became Honye (possibly still in business, but possibly not) while the MP4 side used the name "Penking" for a while but still operated as Sintax, releasing a sort of obscure Dingoo-esque device around 2009 as "Sintax Digital" (image at right from lightake, who once sold it, if you couldn't tell). This, I guess, was their last-ditch attempt to save the company, because they don't seem to have done anything else since then; it's quite hard to tell in China sometimes, but I think that was the end of Sintax. Still, they've left behind quite a legacy.


Company Profile ~ Sachen

posted by taizou @ 2012-08-20 13:58:15 Company Profiles

For the next one of these I'm going off in a completely different direction - well still Taiwanese, but otherwise... Completely! Okay they're an unlicensed Game Boy developer as well OKAY WELL Everything else is different yeah? So, Sachen, then. (Thin Chen Enterprise if you want to be formal about these things, or 聖謙企業 if you want to be Chinese). Unlike most of the developers I'll be covering on this site, Sachen was never really committed to the Game Boy. It's probably best known for its work on the NES, but spread itself across a whole bunch of platforms in its 15-ish year existence. so! a bit of history:

Taiwan, 1989. Two companies hard at work on mediocre unlicensed Famicom games. Their names? Sachen and Joy Van. "But wait!" I hear you say (if you've ever heard of either of them before). "I always thought they were the same thing!" Well, so did I, but none other than the legend that is Hummer Cheng cleared up that particular misconception. The two were, in fact, separate entities, making their own separate games of separately dubious quality. But! In 1990 they set their differences (if any) aside, and the two merged, creating the Sachen we know and love. Well I say "merged", but given that the new company was called "Sachen" and the former Joy Van boss went off to start Idea-Tek, it's probably safe to say Joy Van didn't really have the upper hand in that deal.

The merged Sachen would continue its work on the Famicom, putting out something like 60 titles all told. And, honestly, if I'm not completely insane by this point, lots of the games from both sides do have a certain quirky charm about them - while they mostly remain quite average compared to other games on the system, a surprising number of them have decent music (which helps a lot) and lots of the 1992-ish games have these little touches that give me the sense that the people making them actually cared about what they were making, even if they were a bit rushed sometimes. And we like that here at Handheld Underground. We also like the back of Great Wall's box.

Of course, the new improved Sachen wasn't content to rest on its laurels and stick with the NES - after all, no console lasts forever (although it's taken a pretty good whack at it, considering you can still buy clones of the damn thing today). So where to next? Aside from a couple of Mega Drive games that I know nothing about, naturally Sachen's attempts to diversify would take them towards..handhelds! yes. But not the Game Boy. Not yet. Sachen would first throw its weight behind the Watara Supervision - where they were one of about three third-party developers for the system - and the fantastically named Mega Duck, where they were seemingly the only developer for the system. That did mean that, relatively speaking, they did quite well on each console - they were, by default, the No. 1 developer on the Mega Duck, and the piss-poor quality of Watara/Bon Treasure's in-house Supervision titles meant that any third party efforts would seem like solid gold in comparison.

Despite these valiant attempts to back the underdog, though, it was inevitably only a matter of time before Sachen turned its attentions to the (very slightly) more successful Game Boy, though they never seemed really dedicated to the system - most (if not all) of their mono GB releases were simply ports of their Mega Duck titles (I can only assume the architecture was similar enough for that to be a fairly trivial process) in a series of 4 in 1 carts.

These games - some of which bear the name "Commin", for some reason - were a fairly mixed bag. Some are original, some are reasonable-ish, but the quality seems a bit lower than their later NES games and quite a lot of them are simply clones of existing titles (whereas their NES output was mostly original, with only a few being complete unabashed ripoffs), which seems a bit redundant on a console that already has most of those games. Though I suppose Sachen's carts would have been priced around the same or less than an original game, and when they were offering 4 games instead of 1 they could at least work the value angle - they did seem to get fairly wide distribution in Germany among other places. so maybe it wasn't such a bad idea after all!

In the mid-90s Sachen seemed to go into some kind of hibernation, seemingly closing down their development office while continuing to churn out cartridges of their old games. But! Around 2000 the Game Boy Color seemingly woke the company from its developmental slumber, and they somehow mustered up the staff to release new GBC ports of three of their NES titles plus an odd King of Fighters strategy game, while re-releasing their old Game Boy games in new (barely) colourised compilations and even shaking loose a Mega Duck title that had somehow escaped the clutches of their 4 in 1s.

Of course, it seems fairly unlikely that Sachen itself actually retained a full development team for the five years it wasn't really doing anything. The NES to GBC ports (Jurassic Boy 2, Thunder Blast Man & Street Heroes) were probably developed by Makon Studio - which was almost certainly staffed by at least one former Sachen developer, who probably stayed in contact with the company - although Jurassic Boy 2 is of higher quality than Makon's usual efforts (IMO it surpasses the slightly rough NES version and manages to be a decent little game in its own right), so they may have either had some outside help on that one or simply been given longer to develop it than they were usually afforded by less legitimate publishers than Sachen. The KOF game was presumably farmed out elsewhere, since it has absolutely nothing in common with any previous Sachen or Makon game, but I have no idea who to.

After this brief revival, Sachen would revert back to its late 90s form for a while longer - once again simply manufacturing carts of its old games - but presumably the market had dried up by then (it almost seems like all the games they sold at that point were bulk orders to American NES collectors) and they shut up shop entirely at some point in the mid-2000s, leaving the world a slightly less weird place. :(


Company Profile ~ Vast Fame

posted by taizou @ 2012-07-23 23:36:24 Company Profiles

Something I'm going to do to start things off here is post brief-ish profiles of some of the various companies involved in this sort of things - some will get more in-depth features later along the line, but most of them haven’t had much written about them at all aside from a few forum posts and articles on a certain wiki, so hey!

vf logo

Let’s save the best until... first(?) with everyone's favourite unlicensed Game Boy developer, Vast Fame (廣譽科技 in Chinese, also sometimes abbreviated to V.Fame or VF if you like). According to their own old website, "Vast Fame was founded in 1998 by a group of young people with a passion for Game Boy software" (aw don’t you just love them already? these people care) but lets go back a bit further than that.

Vast Fame was not these passionate young bastards' first foray into the games industry - they had their roots in a group of companies around the Taichung area of Taiwan (also spilling out into mainland China, sometimes), centring on console developer-turned-king of bingo Gamtec Corporation. Many VF staff came from Chuanpu Technology - a Mega Drive developer also tied to Gamtec which closed in 1996 with the decline in 16-bit consoles - and a few were seemingly from Gamtec itself. However the Gamtec group had a history of Game Boy development going back even further than that, with a series of mono games produced around 1993 for Gowin and/or Syntek (more on those later) crediting Gamtec/Chuanpu-associated staff, which later showed up on a multicart alongside VF GBC titles.

super fighter s screenshot

The first game from Vast Fame as we know it is fairly unclear - they were definitely involved with both Zook Z (1999) and Super Fighter S (unknown year, but a version is dumped with a “99” added to the logo, so we can assume 1999 or earlier). The latter is, essentially, a major hack of Takara’s official GB KOF games, in colour, with extra characters, new music, a new intro, new backgrounds, and new other stuff... but examining the ROM reveals it’s actually based on another, earlier hack of those games, called “King of Fighters 97”, which is basically KOF 96 with characters from 95 added in - that game uses the PC Paint fonts favoured by Gamtec-linked companies (probably supplied as part of a dev kit from Gamtec itself) so it’s probably safe to assume at least some VF staff worked on it, but I have no idea if VF itself existed as an entity at that point. Another possible candidate is the famous-ish Smurfs hack (Pocket) Monster Go! Go! (Go!!), thought to date from around 98, which has just about the best graphics of any hack I’ve ever seen, and again features a PC Paint font on its options screen.

shi kong xing shou screenshot

From its fairly inauspicious start making hacks (albeit good ones) of other peoples' games came the VF we know and love today - Zook Z may have been their first original game (well, okay, as original as a Mega Man clone can be) and it would be followed up by RPGs including Shi Kong Xing Shou & Shui Hu Shen Shou, platform games like Zook Hero 2 and Devil Island, three more Takara-engine fighting games, a couple of board game-games and a few Digimon and Pokemon games that even saw release in English (... of a sort). Many of these games rank up there as some of the best ever produced by an unlicensed console developer - with a few bugs ironed out and the “inspirations” less blatant they could easily have been quality licensed titles. In no small part this is thanks to their excellent music, mostly (all?) from composer Liao Yishen, believed to be a pseudonym for this guy.

Vast Fame survived at least into the GBA era, possibly around 2003 or 2004, with its games for that system including the genuinely excellent Digimon Sapphire, the Engrish-tastic Digimon Rury/Ruby, a new Zook game called Rockman & Crystal, plus Lord of the Rings, Super Robot Wars and Three Kingdoms games. Maybe more! It was also around this time that they collaborated with fellow Gamtec-connected company Sintax on another GBA game, based on “Digimon Adventure” for the SNES, which Sintax proceeded to recycle about 10 times over like some terrible Godfrey Ho movie, because they’re classy like that. But I’ll cover that whole debacle some other time.

And that, I guess, is where the Vast Fame story ends. Or does it? YEAH PROBABLY. but we'll see.