Columns

I had to give a presentation at work recently, and I really sweat those things. I decided I would help myself look forward to the day by planning to go to Akihabara after the presentation was finished. I went to my favorite vintage computer shop – BEEP – and looked through their stuff for the first time in a long time. BEEP used to be a weekly visit for me because my customer was located in Okachimachi – about a 15-minute walk to Akihabara. But Covid19 changed a lot of things.

Anyway, I rarely buy anything from BEEP because it’s awfully expensive, but their “junk” items are often reasonably priced. I picked up a few tape games for the FM-7 and FM-8, and an unexpected find – some J3100 software. The J3100 software was only 330 yen! There were four or five identical sets, and they included the games Tenka Toitsu and Columns. I picked up two sets in case one didn’t work, and at that price, why not?

Columns is an extra special game for me because my friends and I used to play it many hours at a time in hotly contested battles at my old apartment in California. This isn’t exactly the same version but it is close and contains many of the best elements of the game I used to play.

Playing on this system is always a bit bittersweet. There’s only the PC internal speaker for sound so often you’re playing in silence or with simple beeps for sound effects. But at least you get to look at the beautiful plasma screen!

As I have mentioned before, it’s really hard to get a good capture of the plasma screen. The oranger-looking shots are a bit closer than the redder-looking ones.

NEC PC-8001

A legend in the history of Japanese computing. This machine is built like a tank with its metal exterior giving it quite a bit of weight. It doesn’t try to be fancy but its simple and clean aesthetic is charming.

This is the oldest machine in my collection, first available to consumers in May 1979, when I was still three years old. Much like me, it still works. It boots up to the BASIC screen and the keyboard functions smoothly, allowing me to type in my simple BASIC program.

It’s capable of high-res graphics and 40- or 80-column text display with 8 colors over digital RGB, pretty typical of those that followed it until the mid-80s. There was also a third-party PCG (programmable character generator), an add-on device that I don’t possess that allows for a character replacement approach to graphics. The PCG was integrated into the later PC-8001mkIISR, but both the add-on and the PC-8001mkIISR tend to be quite expensive.

Many of the games are character based, whether you had the PCG or not. First is Asteroid Belt, a space shooter that maybe comes closest to Space Invaders, but is much more difficult because the projectiles are more numerous and come at you at a 45 degree angle, and after the first stage the invaders jump up and down, making them unpredictable:

Another game I’ve got a fondness for is called Wild Swat. You play as a police car that is chasing and trying to shoot a motorcyclist while avoiding traffic. Avoiding the traffic seemed like a tremendously difficult task at first, but the game actually gives you quite a bit of leniency as long as you don’t hit them with the front of your car. This might be an early example of having a “hit box”. The challenging aspect is hitting the motorcyclist, you have to be very precise. But the actual problem with the game is that the course is very short. I wish navigating the traffic were a little easier but the traffic pattern random. As it is, the pattern repeats after about 20 seconds so you get a good sense of where you should be after playing for a bit.

The game is nonsensically colored, where everything in the same section of the screen is the same colors, so cars change color as you pass them. I suppose they were just messing around with color and they figured this was good enough. When you hit another car, the very simple sound generator creates a loud noise and the screen presents a garbled set of colors and characters on the screen, I suppose to simulate the crash. It’s kind of an interesting visual effect. When you quit the game you are treated to a goofy animation and dumped back into BASIC.

Compare those games to the demo tape, which makes use of the high-res graphics that the machine is capable of. Looks very nice but it is definitely a chore for the computer to display some of these. Long draw times, especially on the 3D images, which are calculated, not pre-rendered.

NEC PC-8801 FH

I’ve seen this around on Yahoo Auctions occasionally. It commands a much higher price than it’s beige sibling. It certainly looks cool, I think the only PC-8801 model to have a black version (or anything besides beige, for that matter). If you manage to find one as a set of keyboard and system, it’s very expensive, and if you find only the keyboard or the system, there’s no telling how long it might take to get the complementary item, and it could potentially be more expensive anyway.

“The only way I’ll ever get one is if I can find it reasonably priced on Mercari, and good luck with that,” I thought. But suddenly one popped up! I was compulsively reloading Mercari and one moment it wasn’t there and the next moment it was, which in my mind, totally justifies my behavior. I received it and holy cow is this thing beautiful. There are a few light scuffs here and there but basically looks unbelievable for its age.

The main system has a couple of love taps but you really have to be looking for them.

Despite the low signs of wear, the keyboard managed to accumulate quite a bit of grime on it. I gave it my standard cleaning, and this is much better than when I got it, but looking at the closeup photos, I think each keycap probably needs to be taken off and cleaned from all sides. The curl-cable has a good springy feeling to it after all these years.

The three-volume manual collection is also in good shape, with pages still crisp to the touch and I didn’t spot any handwriting on my quick check. The floppy disks are clean and free of mold.

The great news is that it works. It displays and plays audio correctly, the keyboard responds smoothly to each press on the first time, and I tested it with the PC-8801 version of Archon and the included demo disk.

However, I don’t see myself getting rid of my PC-8801MA2, as it has the more advanced sound board and has been fully recapped by my expert repairperson. But the black FH is so beautiful and it also has a cassette port, which the MA2 doesn’t have. So much like my X1 Turbo Z and X1 D, they’re going to have to learn to put egos aside and live with each other.

NEC PC-TV151

I’ve got so many computers that either require or look best over digital RGB but only one monitor that supports it. If anything happens to that monitor, I can’t (optimally) use many of these machines. I decided to mitigate the risk by replacing one of my other monitors with this one. Nice and crisp text output, although photos come out slightly blurry due to the front glass cover.

The NEC PC-TV151 supports digital RGB, JP21, and composite. This is an excellent combination as I have a few systems that output over JP21 as well. But this one supports digital RGB using 15 colors, as opposed to the 8 colors that most digital RGB monitors support. Of course, supporting 15 colors is useless unless the computer also supports 15 colors, but that is indeed the case with the PC-6001mkIISR.

I don’t know how many games take advantage of the 15 colors, but one such game is Dig Dug. Here is a side-by-side comparison of 15 color more on the PC-TV151 and 8 colors on the PC-TV455.

The title and high score screens have some noticeable differences, for example the 8-color mode completely lacks orange, and the 15-color mode has differently mapped shades of blue, and although it came out a bit subtle in the photo, two shades of green (the 3rd and 4th high scores). But the major difference is in gameplay. The colors in 15-color mode are more natural because 8-color mode doesn’t output brown. The 15-color mode matches the colors output over composite on the PC-6001mkII (non-SR version).

Sharp MZ-700 Briefcase

A company called ACE made a suitcase specifically for the MZ-700. It came in a beautiful burgundy color, fits perfectly around the MZ-700, and has the MZ-series logo on the case.

I’ve seen them now and again, but either end too expensively on Yahoo, or are in gnarly condition on Mercari, but then this popped up on Mercari yesterday. It sure looked good in the photos, and came with a handful of extras, which helped make the price a little easier to swallow (although this was by far the best bargain I’ve seen thus far). So I took the chance. Due to the amazing courier service in Japan, it arrived in under 24 hours and it is as good in person as it looked in the photos.

Barely a scratch on it, no rust on the locks or other hardware, and still with the keys and bag manufacturer’s introduction card. If I hadn’t bought it on Mercari and someone said “Oh, look at my new briefcase,” I’d definitely be all “Hey that’s a nice new briefcase you got.” Sorry some shots are darker than others, I was kinda playing with my new phone’s camera features.

I am no bag expert, but I noticed that in several places, they took care that the internal pouches wouldn’t get stretched. The big center pouch has two latches on the side to hold it in place, and they’re adjustable in case you have more stuff to stow inside. And the two smaller pouches have a loop for each button so it can move without stressing the pouch itself depending on the shape of the contents.

The machine itself works and it came with some extras: a user manual, an MZ-700 programming book, a bound copy of a Turtle graphics software package user’s manual, and some printer hardware. This is also the first time to receive a set of plotter pens. Surely they’ve dried out by now but maybe I’ll give them a shot.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve picked up five MZ-700s. Basically I get them to convert the tapes to wav files, maybe keep a couple of original tapes, sell on the system, etc. I definitely don’t need five MZ-700s! But of all these lots, one thing that’s still managed to evade me is a clean user’s manual. This is the nearest I’ve gotten, it’s pretty clean but there’s a giant crease in the front cover. And while there’s a plastic film protecting the cover that can be cleaned up well, this has a bit of dirt that actually seemed to have penetrated the film and just won’t clean up.