Commodore 64

What? What is this doing here? The Commodore 64 is as American as apple pie, right? Commodore has a lesser-known side to it – Commodore Japan.

Actually, this is by far the rarest piece in my collection. I struggle to find exact numbers, but I have only seen this item appear on Yahoo Auctions four times since I started paying attention about three years ago. By contrast, I’ve seen probably 100 MAX Machines in that time, which themselves are considered quite rare.

From a distance, it looks like a standard Commodore 64. In fact, the product name is just that: Commodore 64. But this is the Japanese edition. What’s the difference? Well, in some ways they are very similar, but in other ways, they are night-and-day different.

If you crack open (not literally!) the machine, you’d think you’re looking at a regular Commodore 64. Don’t think there’s any component in here that you couldn’t find on a standard Commodore 64. CPU is the same, SID (6581) is the same, PLA is the same, VIC-II is the same, and I gather the smaller ICs are also the same. The contents of the character ROM and kernal ROM are different. We’ll look at how that pans out later.

Put the cover back on, and with a more careful look, some differences are apparent. Probably the most eye-catching thing initially is that the shift-lock key has been replaced with what we’ll call “C=-lock” (and verbalize as “commodore-lock”). Off in the opposite corner, the £ key has been replaced with the ¥ key. But take a look at those characters on the fronts of the key caps. On almost every key is a Japanese katakana character.

Before we start, we have to turn on the computer. And that’s when we see another set of differences: at the BASIC screen, the default color scheme is different, the font is different, and the amount of free memory is different (more on this later).

So let’s get to typing that katakana! When you type, though, the alphabet appears. How do you access the katakana? First, you must enter the second character mode, by pressing C= + shift (lowercase mode on a standard Commodore 64). After that, katakana is accessed the same way you access the petscii characters in the corresponding locations on a standard Commodore 64: by pressing C= and typing the characters. That’s why that C=-lock key is so useful!

The ¥ key produces the yen symbol without the need for the C= key. And although they are not visible on any key cap, there are also three kanji that the system can produce. They are directly accessible by pressing shift and typing the +, -, and ¥ keys. The characters are 年 (year), 月 (month), and 日 (day) All of the katakana and kanji characters are handled by a one-to-one replacement in the character ROM.

Katakana is usually used for writing or typing loan words from western countries, but it contains every sound of the Japanese language, meaning you could type an entire document or book with it. It would be a nightmare to try to read a large body of text that way, but it would be possible.

Compatibility with western software is varied. First, it’s NTSC only, so PAL games that don’t work on a North American Commodore 64 won’t work on this machine, either (although I feel PAL and NTSC incompatibility, while certainly extant, is overblown). Additionally, due to the character ROM difference, games that rely heavily on text may load but could be unplayable unless a custom character set is employed by the software. And most cracked software won’t work as-is because of the memory offset, although this can usually be easily worked around.

For the most part, though, I find original games load just fine. Here it is playing Alternate Reality: The Dungeon, my favorite game of the time.

The first picture is a title screen and shows the kinds of problems that may occur due to the character ROM difference. Fortunately, that’s all sorted out before the actual game starts. The second picture is from the game’s introduction. This image made a big impression on me since the first time I loaded it, and it will stick with me forever – it shows just how beautiful and vibrant this 16-color computer is really capable of being. The third is an in-game shot.

NEC PC-TV455

This is the monitor I use almost exclusively with my Japanese vintage computers. This is one serious CRT. I love my 1084S but this is just on a different level when it comes to functionality and connectivity.

The PC-TV455 is a tremendously flexible monitor. It can sync at 15kHz, 24kHz, and 31kHz, allowing perhaps any Japanese or western vintage computer to output to it. And just look at this array of connections:

Holy cow. From top left, we have VHF antenna, digital RGB, analog RGB 15-pin/analog RGB 9-pin (shared), UHF antenna, RGB21 (sometimes referred to as Japanese SCART), PC control on/off switch, composite 1/S-video (shared), composite 2, and composite out.

And look at all these knobs and switches to futz around with under the control panel cover.

But it’s not just functional, the image quality is superb! Here is what it’s currently displaying, by connection:
Digital RGB: NEC PC-8801MK2 (24kHz) – Nintendo Golf
Analog RGB: Sharp X1 Turbo Z – (24kHz) – Gradius
RGB21: FM-77AV20EX (15kHz) – F-BASIC 3.0

This is a highly-sought after monitor and as such it commands a pretty high price on Yahoo Auctions. I had a kind of tattered and beat-up version of this monitor before, it worked but the picture was a touch slanted and it didn’t have a base to stand on. I got it for a (relatively) low price and used it for about a year before finding this one. I hope to sell the old one in order to cover 60-70% of the cost of the new one. *fingers crossed*

FM Towns 2F

I’ve had my eyes on FM Towns ever since I started paying attention to the Japanese vintage computing market. It had always been in the back of my mind to get one, but they can be pretty expensive and it was something I decided I would just put off until later. I was certainly not expecting to buy one right now, because my room is hitting a tipping point in storage, and I’d just picked up a second X1 a few days before.

But it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I saw this full system on Yahoo Auctions and it would appear in my recommended items list from time to time.

I expected it to end expensively, but as time went on, there continued to be no bidders. I checked at the last four hours, the last hour, and even the last five minutes, but there were no bids. So I bid on it and watched the clock down to the end of the auction. No competition! I got it for the paltry sum of 10,000 yen plus about 2000 yen shipping.

It was untested, but even if nothing else worked, the keyboard often goes for that price, and non-functioning keyboards are pretty rare, so I thought it was a good gamble. But when I got it home and started plugging things in and testing it, it all just worked. Amazing!

At least, to the minimal extent I could test it. I couldn’t figure out how to get to the BIOS, and I didn’t have any bootable media, so I could only really test the monitor and that the system could pass the memory check. But it was a promising start!

One potential reason for the low price was that the auction only had one photo attached, which showed the small amount of damage visible to the corner of the CD ROM drive, but what wasn’t apparent was that the rest of the machine was so clean.

The main system:

The monitor:

The keyboard:

The next day, on my lunch break, I went to BEEP in Akihabara and bought a game called Mega Spectre for 980 yen. Bonus, I found a mouse there, too! But compared to the rest of the system, the mouse now seems expensive.

It was just to test the system, but it’s a kind of weird game with unusual imagery, so I was kind of intrigued. It’s fairly straightforward to play, you drive a vehicle and capture flags, shooting other vehicles you encounter. The best news, though, was that I could confirm that the system works! The only thing I haven’t been able to test yet is the floppy drive.

My model is FM Towns 2F. At its core is a 386-16MHz with 2MB of main memory and 640KB of video memory. It has a CD-ROM drive and two floppy drives, and while there is no hard drive, one can be added by the external SCSI connector on the rear panel.

Sharp X1-D

Since I began vintage computing, I had two rules:
1. Don’t get two machines with the same function.
2. Don’t get more than you can comfortably store.

Well in one single move, I broke both rules.

This is the most recent addition, the Sharp X1-D. The D is, I assume, for disk, as opposed to tape, and it has a built-in floppy drive. The machine is an older, less-capable version of my Sharp X1 Turbo Z (the black machine shown sitting above the X1-D in the picture above). It has nothing to offer that the Z cannot do, and the Z can do so much more, and has the ability to do it better. This machine I got for looks alone.

The main unit and keyboard have a shiny metal appearance and a nice color scheme to it. The main unit is in excellent condition. The keyboard has some yellowing on the number pad and the cable is frayed and unreliable and needs to be replaced, although it can be made to work as-is.

This is another as-is, untested machine. First thing I did was just plug in the unit and turn on the power. The power indicator and floppy drive both lit up, and the floppy drive light quickly went off when it discovered no media. So far, so good.

Next I hooked up the keyboard and digital RGB to verify that it was actually functioning. I got the welcoming IPL screen and was able to access the timer programmer without issue. After saving the timer, the timer indicator on the main unit lit up.

Not only does this system offer no advantage over the X1 Turbo Z, but it also has a 3″ floppy drive (not 3.5″) and the media for that is not easy to find at all. Original games pop up once in a while on Yahoo Auctions, but they’re not cheap. Fortunately, for the time being, I can use my HxC floppy emulator. I tasked it with loading BASIC and a game and everything appears happy.

The only question now is where to put it. Until this machine arrived, I was able to store everything on the desks intended for vintage computing and inside a single cabinet with some adjustable shelves. But now I’ve overstepped that limit. For now I’ve stuck it up on top of the cabinet, but this is a non-ideal solution. And in the next two or three days, I am expecting one more large system! I’ve got to get this figured out.

Jelda II

I am not big on cockpit-view flight games of any kind, but this game has a very pleasant aesthetic and I enjoyed it a bit just to see how the scenes changed throughout the game. As expected, it’s a bit sluggish as it’s trying to render even these simple graphics, it is how I remember every flight sim of the day. But it has a certain charm. Not a bad way to have spent thirty minutes. Don’t think I’ll be rushing back to it, but I won’t say I’ll never try it again.