This Week in Gaming History: Data East proves they are bad enough dudes0 Comments
It is one of the wildest rides of any company in video game history. On April 20, 1976, Data East was founded in Japan by businessman Tetsuo Fukuda. The timing was perfect for this new firm, coming in just before Taito's Space Invaders came on the scene in 1978, turning the video game industry into the hottest thing on the planet almost overnight. While everyone else was scrambling to get into the industry at that time, Data East had already been hard at work.
One of the earliest products released by the company, which was also known as DECO during this time, was an interchangeable arcade game system. The DECO Cassette system was a permanent hardware setup, with a small data cassette and dongle that determined what software ran on the system. Rather than moving entire arcade cabinets to keep vending routes and gamerooms fresh, Data East's system gave operators the ability to swap out just the software and avoid the hassle of moving heavy arcade games.
The DECO Cassette system, released in North America at the end of 1980, did okay for itself. However, the units never truly caught on in the exploding arcade video game market. Many operators were concerned about the durability of the cassette tapes, while others felt the DECO cassette cabinets simply did not look attractive, especially when set beside the attractive cartoon characters of Pac-Man or the sleek black look of Defender. It also probably didn't help that the company kept licensing what were arguably their best games to other, better established companies.
Astro Fighter was the first, a Space Invaders-inspired space battle game that was a hit with gamers. In addition to the DECO System version, Data East licensed the game to Sega/Gremlin, who made a dedicated non-cassette version of the game that sold very well. In 1981, they did this again when they licensed well-done Pac-Man style game Lock 'n' Chase to Taito. In 1982, many industry critics felt that Data East's BurgerTime and Bump 'n' Jump had the chops to be the biggest new hits of the year. Both games were also licensed to Bally Midway, the top American arcade game company at the time. At least one Play Meter critic questioned Data East's decision to essentially compete against their own system by licensing their best games to companies that operators are far more comfortable purchasing from.
Sure enough, BurgerTime was a major hit, with the dedicated Bally Midway version of the game outselling the DECO Cassette version by a considerable margin. Despite an increase in demand for arcade conversion solutions in 1983, Data East slowly phased out the system in favor of releasing dedicated arcade machines and fully solid-state conversion kits. That said, the idea of easily convertible arcade game systems was revisited by many other companies in the decade to follow, including Nolan Bushnell's Sente, Nintendo's VS. System, and SNK's Neo Geo.
Despite slumping market conditions in 1984, Data East struck gold by releasing Karate Champ and Irem's Kung Fu Master into North American arcades. Both games happened to hit the streets just as the martial arts were becoming a hot pop culture trend in the U.S. Both games are credited with spawning and inspiring numerous other games in both the side-scrolling beat-em-up genre and the one-on-one fighting game genre. In fact, one of the first games spawned by the latter genre was a bit too close for Data East's tastes.
Computer software publisher Epyx released a game entitled International Karate for various home computers. The game was obviously similar to Karate Champ, and Data East sued for copyright infringement. They originally won their case, but eventually the decision was overturned stating that both games were attempting to represent the real-world sport of karate and that items such as scoring and joystick controls were not subject to copyright protection. This was historic for the video game industry in many ways, standing as the first time in gaming history that the defendant won in a look-and-feel copyright case. This decision continues to influence game design to this very day.
Good fortune continued for Data East throughout the mid-and-late 1980s. Commando, which they licensed from Capcom, gave them a solid follow-up to the success of Karate Champ and Kung Fu Master. Other titles such as Sly Spy, Heavy Barrel, and Karnov also performed well, landing them the ability to license movie properties such as RoboCop and continue their long line of hits. 1988's Bad Dudes also became a huge hit and eventual pop culture sensation. Inspired by 1987's Double Dragon, Bad Dudes sent two American martial arts experts on a mission to save the president from ninjas. Magazine ads proclaimed it to be better than Double Dragon, which interestingly enough was created by Technos Japan, a company founded by former Data East programmers.
The resurrection of the American home video game industry created a huge demand for licensing Data East's line of arcades hits. For several years, most of the company's successes were ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System and every home computer on the market. The company also ventured into the pinball industry, licensing properties such as Star Wars along the way.
However, all great things must come to an end, and Data East's momentum quickly slowed down in the mid-1990s. The pinball division quickly became a financial money pit for the company at the same time they hit an overdue slump in finding success in the video game industry. By the end of the 1990s, the company liquidated all of their American division's assets and filed for reorganization. By 2003, the company was forced to file for bankruptcy.
The rights for Data East's long line of video game hits are now in the hands of various companies, but outside of a hardly-seen 2009 compilation disc for the Nintendo Wii, these classics have hardly seen the light of day this century. Some of the iconic creations left behind, such as the BurgerTime characters, have made cameos in films such as Pixels and Wreck-It Ralph, while quotes from Bad Dudes are emblazoned across t-shirts. While the company is now long gone, the legacy of Data East is as secure as any company in industry history, even as gamers across the world wait for the opportunity to play their old favorites once again.