Bomberman. The PC Engine. To mark its 50th anniversary, we take a fond look back at one of Japan’s earliest and most important video game companies, Hudson Soft.
At the height of its powers in the late 1980s, Hudson Soft was a force to be reckoned with: its PC Engine console, created in partnership with Japanese hardware giant NEC, was threatening to eclipse Nintendo’s Famicom in terms of sales. At the same time, the Sapporo-based firm was developing highly successful games for other platforms, while a separate publishing division in North America ensured its games were being pushed in that territory. Hudson wasn’t a household name like its rivals Sega or Nintendo, admittedly, but for more than a decade, it was still one of the biggest – and historically significant – video game companies in Japan. Not bad going for a business that almost started out as a coffee shop.
Hudson Soft was founded in 1973 as CQ Hudson, an electronics store mostly specialising in amateur radio equipment. Brothers Yuji and Hiroshi Kudo were, it seems, intent on simply starting a business, and weren’t particularly bothered about what they were going to sell; Hudson (named after their favourite train) might have wound up as a café had its founders not realised there was already a similar establishment in the same building.
Within a couple of years, Hudson pivoted to selling early computers, such as NEC’s TK-80, Sharp’s MZ-80K, and Commodore’s PET. The home computer market was still in its infancy in the mid-1970s, and software was in short supply. To counter this, Hudson began writing small programs to give away to their customers. “The games we made were tiny,” recalled one of the company’s earliest employees, Takashi Takebe, in Read Only Memory’s book, Japansoft: An Oral History. “We would include five to 10 of them as a bonus with the purchase of a new computer.”
Seeing the potential in software, Hudson began to sell its games and other programs on audio cassettes: it would put out adverts in magazines, and sell them via mail order all over Japan. The sheer number of competing computers available at the time meant there was a ready market for games, and so Hudson had to grow to meet the demand: a second office was opened in Tokyo, and extra staff were hired to keep up with the process of porting software to different systems. The early Japanese home computer scene was, in short, quite similar to the UK’s: it was a time when a developer could make a game within a few weeks or even days, get it on an audio tape, and sell it to a community of computer users hungry for a new diversion.
The quality of Hudson’s early output varied wildly as a result, with the young company putting out dozens of titles per month in the early 1980s. Still, there were some ingenious ideas in the mix – not least the 1983 game, Bomber Man, released in the UK under the strange moniker, Eric And The Floaters. Later known as Bomberman, the explosive maze game would prove to be one of Hudson’s most enduring contributions to the medium, appearing on just about every platform imaginable, and still going strong in 2021.
In fact, 1983 marked a major turning point for Hudson as a video game company. Not only was it the year that Bomberman was first born – thanks to programmer Yuji Tanaka – but it was also the year when Hudson signed on as the first third-party developer for Nintendo’s then-new Famicom console. For Hudson, this was a risky move: manufacturing cartridges was expensive, and Nintendo was still a new player in the console market: in 1983, the Famicom’s success was far from preordained.
Ultimately, though, Hudson and Nintendo would quickly forge a strong partnership, with Hudson first porting several of its computer games to the system – among them the unforgettably-named platform puzzler, Nuts & Milk – before getting the go-ahead to translate some of Nintendo’s biggest names to other machines. Thanks to Hudson, such games as Balloon Fight and Mario Bros. appeared on Japanese systems like the PC-88 and Sharp X1. Hudson also developed the software side of Family BASIC – a combination of keyboard and development platform designed to turn the Famicom into a fully-fledged home computer.
By the mid-eighties, Hudson Soft had flourished into a major industry player: its Famicom ports of Bomberman and puzzle-platformer Lode Runner had sold over a million copies apiece, and its annual series of Caravan events (see below) helped spread Hudson’s brand all over Japan. Meanwhile, a marketing executive named Toshiyuki Takahashi became the public face of the company as Takahashi Meijin: appearing on comics and television, he became famous for his rapid-fire prowess at 2D shooting games, and even starred in his own series of video games.
Hudson had made its mark as a developer of video games and other software by the mid-eighties, while its technical prowess was such that it had begun to design its own custom graphics chip, which it unsuccessfully tried to sell to Nintendo. At the same time, NEC was looking to enter the console market, and partnered up with Hudson Soft to develop the venture. The resulting system, 1987’s PC Engine, was arguably the most forward-thinking games machine of its era: it was compact, flexible – a CD-ROM add-on, the first of its kind for a console, came out the following year – and far ahead, technically, of Nintendo’s Famicom.
As well as co-developing the PC Engine, Hudson Soft released a hefty library of games for the system over its lifespan – such titles as Bonk’s Revenge (or PC Genjin), Bomberman ’94, and Soldier Blade were among the best ever made for the console. NEC’s attempt to push the PC Engine in North America – where it was rebranded as the TurboGrafx – was met with only limited success, but still, the system endured in its home country until well into the 1990s.
What’s worth noting is that, even at the height of its success, Hudson Soft never lost its geeky, playful edge. Its research and development laboratory on the leafy outskirts of Saporro, for example, had a miniature railway track that staff could sit on and ride around the offices – the track even snaked around the outside of the building, like a bantam theme park ride. Even Hudson Soft’s logo – a cartoon bee – had a hint of nerdiness to it: in Japanese, the number eight, hachi, also means bee. The radio call sign for the Hokkaido region is JA8, and so a bee was chosen as Hudson’s mascot – a nod to its amateur radio origins.
Sadly, Hudson’s glory days couldn’t last. The 1994 successor to the PC Engine, the PC-FX, was a major commercial misfire; by the time it was scrapped in 1998, it had sold just 400,000 units – to put the disaster into perspective, the PC Engine had reportedly sold half a million units after its first week on sale. An even bigger blow came from far outside Hudson itself: the firm’s bank, Takushoku, went bust in the late 1990s, severely damaging Hudson’s financial standing in the process. In order to raise much-needed capital, Hudson went public in 2000, a move which allowed it to reinvest money in such new ventures as the growing mobile gaming market, as well as a publishing deal with Infogrames in France.
At the same time, however, floating Hudson on the stock market left the company open to a takeover – which is precisely what happened when Konami brought some 5.6 million Hudson Soft shares in 2001. This was, in essence, the beginning of the end: with Hudson under control over its majority shareholder, it was gradually absorbed into Konami’s corporate bulk, and by March 2012, had vanished altogether. Many of Hudson Soft’s properties still survive – Super Bomberman R successfully revived the series in 2017, while Konami capitalised on the lingering nostalgia for retro consoles with the PC Engine Mini device, released in 2020.
For a company with such a long and important history as Hudson Soft, though, the cold nature of its demise seemed all the more cruel. Today, its old R&D office and miniature railway stands empty. Over at its former headquarters, Hudson’s distinctive bee logo stood proudly over the entrance until 2017, when a pair of builders arrived and quietly took the signeage away. What remains, though, is its huge library of games and equally sizeable impact it made on the medium’s history – thankfully, that’s one legacy that can’t be so easily erased.
Caravan of Courage
For a period of approximately 15 years, Hudson Soft held a series of competitive tournaments, which it took all over the country under the Hudson All-Japan Caravan Festival banner. Players competed in two- to five-minute bouts on a specific game chosen each year: 1985’s game was Star Force, a top-down shoot-‘em-up that set the pace for future tournaments. Between 1985 and 1992, all but one of the games taken around Japan were shooters – the glaring exception being 1988, when the featured game was a baseball title called Power League. When the shooter began to ebb in popularity in the early nineties, Hudson switched to Bomberman games: Hi-Ten Bomberman, a title developed exclusively for the Caravan Festival in 1993, ran on an early HD television and supported up to 10 players.
10 unmissable Hudson Soft classics
Bomberman, yes, and lots more besides…
Stop The Express | ZX Spectrum | 1983
One of a handful of Hudson titles released for the ZX Spectrum in the west, this was also one of the 8-bit micro’s best action games. Later reworked as one section of the Famicom title, Challenger, Stop The Express also featured one of the great final messages in gaming: “Congraturation! You Sucsess!”
Lode Runner | Famicom/NES |1984
Hudson didn’t create this fast-paced puzzle platformer – full credit to Doug Smith – but its rendition of Lode Runner was a key release for the developer. It was its first game for the Famicom, and its first console hit. Lode Runner also marked the first appearance of what would later become the classic Bomberman sprite.
Star Soldier | Famicom/NES | 1986
An influential shooter with plenty of zip, Star Soldier was Hudson’s refinement of Tecmo’s markedly similar Star Force, which Hudson ported a year earlier. Star Soldier was far superior, though, and sparked a whole string of increasingly feisty sequels, many of them appearing in Hudson’s Caravan competitions.
Bonk’s Adventure | PC Engine | 1989
Of the strangely prevalent cycle of caveman themed games (among them Chuck Rock and Joe & Mac) Bonk is arguably the best. An anarchic platformer with lots of surreal set-pieces, Bonk (aka PC Genjin) was the PC Engine’s refreshing alternative to the wholesome Super Mario.
Soldier Blade | PC Engine | 1992
The last Star Soldier game for the PC Engine, this sequel took the vertical shooting template and sharpened it to a gleaming point. Fast and eminently replayable, Soldier Blade was one of Hudson’s greatest ever action games.
Saturn Bomberman | Sega Saturn | 1996
Opinions differ over which of the numerous Bomberman games is the best, but we’d choose this 32-but outing. Not only is its multiplayer mode the most raucously enjoyable, but its single player campaign is also the most colourful and imaginative.
DoReMi Fantasy | Super Famicom | 1986
Not all rare games are collectible because they’re worth playing, but this is absolutely the case with this charming Japan-only platformer. A sequel to the much darker Famicom title, Milon’s Secret Castle, this one offers plenty of charming, colourful run-and-jump action.
Mario Party 3 | Nintendo 64 | 2000
Hudson’s relationship with Nintendo continued well into the new millennium as the developer put out a whole series of these digital boardgame/mini-game collections. This third main entry for the Nintendo 64 was perhaps the best of a simple yet consistently entertaining bunch.
Ninja Five-O | 2003 | Game Boy Advance
Another one of Hudson’s more obscure releases (and known in some regions as Ninja Cop), this run-and-slash action fest plays like a belated answer to the original Ninja Gaiden games. Tough yet consistently engrossing, Ninja Five-O is also one of the GBA’s more scarce titles.
Lost In Shadow | Wii | 2010
Hudson’s best days were long behind it by this point, but Lost In Shadow displayed a late glimmer of creativity. A vaguely Ico-like platformer where you control a silhouette, it was a cracking third-party Wii game that was sadly buried under the avalanche of forgettable shovelware crowding the system at the time.
This article originally appeared in issue 53 of Wireframe magazine.