Sony SMC-777C

I had been looking with curiosity at the SMC-777 series from afar, interested in the machine but not interested in the price. And then one day, on Mercari, I happened to find an SMC-777C for 10000 yen! For this machine, that’s a steal. So I bought it.

This machine has quite a unique design to it, from the location of the integrated floppy drive (did the ill-fated Commodore 65 take a visual cue from this machine?) to the shape of the keys with different sections of the keys outlined in different colors, the unusual approach to the function keys, the directional pad, etc. I was excited to try it!

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn on and that’s when the price started to balloon out of control. I paid my trusty repairperson for a recap and new PSU replacement. While it was under repair, I found the original system software for the SMC-777 (not the C model), which is awfully rare so that ended up costing me quite a bit, unfortunately. But it’s really quite a treasure trove of software and manuals, and Sony definitely gets an A+ for presentation. The lot also contained two 3rd-party books

Once I got the machine back, it powered on and I was able to use it to some extent, but it wasn’t yet 100% operational. My repairperson had to do a blind recap because he doesn’t have a display device that supports digital RGB and the analog RGB connector on the back is somewhat unusual. When I hooked it up to my display, it powered up to a memory error screen. Pressing the reset button actually allowed it to boot from floppy disk into the main system software, but most of the included programs would crash. I picked up some spare memory and had the existing memory socketed so I could try to find out which memory chip(s) were bad. At long last, months after buying it, I have a fully functioning SMC-777C!

Under the hood, the first-gen SMC-777 may seem a bit underpowered compared to its peers, if anything. it’s got a Z-80 CPU and 64KB of RAM but only 32KB of graphic memory. It was limited to 16 colors in 320×200 or only 4 colors in 640×200. Like the MZ-2500, though, there was a “palette board” released for the system, expanding the color display to 4096 colors. Perhaps sensing that everyone would want that, Sony added the palette board functionality as standard to the SMC-777C. I didn’t realize that when I was debating the purchase of one of these computers, but I am quite lucky I ended up with a C model.

To round off this system’s introduction, I will talk about some of the software included on the system disk. It loads up into the above pictured menu, which you navigate with the keyboard’s arrow key pad.

In terms of productivity, the disk includes a suite of programming options, a utility, and an application. As expected, there is a version of BASIC, but uniquely, they also coupled the system with a version of Logo (I believe some versions of the FM-77 also included this), and an assembler and debugger (maybe I should at least learn to do some simple machine language program so I can include photos next time). There is also a simple utility that just shows the amount of free “area” on the disk. And the application is a spreadsheet tool that includes some basic functionality. Someday I will read through the manual so I can make optimal use of it.

All work and no play makes for a boring SMC-777C so they also included three games. For what they are, I think they’re pretty fun.

First is an inverted Block-kuzushi/Breakout style game called “Bird crash!”. You have to eliminate the blocks in the middle of the screen by using your owls (I think?) to scare the bird away from the edges. If the bird escapes, you lose a life.

The next game is Mysterious Boy, a slow-paced action platformer. Climb up the screen and collect weapons, bonus points, and a key to escape the door at the top.

And finally is Pink Cats, the title being a bit strange because so far I’ve only encountered pink dogs and black cats. You walk around the garden, keeping your plants hydrated while the rambunctious pink dogs obliterate your plants by running into them, and the black cat tries to kill you. Actually I haven’t read the manual, it may not be so sinister that the cat kills you, perhaps you just have an allergy.

All that and more in a single 280KB 1DD disk, that’s pretty amazing!

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).