Pac-Land and Controller

I have been after this controller for quite a while. It’s a dedicated Pac-Land controller designed to mimic the arcade controls on your X68000. It uses three buttons, defaulting to: left, jump, and right. These are configurable in the in-game menu. This controller was included with the game originally, but is not required to play. However, you may find some parts difficult if you are using a regular joystick, and perhaps nearly impossible with a gamepad.

First, let’s look at the controller itself. It looks in good shape for being around 30 years old. It is a sturdy metal case, not so heavy but definitely with a bit of weight to it. It operates as expected.

I’ve always loved the Pac-Man characters, with their vibrant colors and distinct appearance. And I love the image of the original Pac-Man maze. But if I’m being brutally honest, the game is very simple and these days I can’t play it more than about once in a sitting, and with a fair amount of time between sittings.

Pac-Land and Pac-mania are great evolutions of the original; Pac-mania staying true to what made the original so loved, but adding a lot of new features, while Pac-Land takes a few key elements from the original, but heads in a bold new direction. Both became treasured games in my youth, although I only played them in the arcades. Here are some scenes from this game.

This is very faithful to the original, as X68000 games tend to be. Below is the first critical spot where the custom game controller comes in handy. When you jump off the platform to cross the lake, you crash pretty fast and land in the water, losing a life. To prevent falling, you have to alternatingly press left and right to “flutter” to the ground. I’ve managed to do it on a joystick, but it was after several failures, and it was a very deliberate task, turning the joystick ninety degrees and using my right hand to go up and down as quickly as possible, and even then I don’t always succeed. A D-pad would probably be substantially more difficult still. But these buttons make it a breeze. The jump itself can be a little difficult to nail, though.

Once you pass the lake, you continue a little bit more before you’re rewarded with special jumping boots and you can start to make your way back home. After your family greets you at home, you begin a level similar to the first, but it becomes later in the day and quite a bit more difficult. I haven’t gotten much further than this.

Game over, and this might be my highest score thus far in Pac-Land, but I’m sure it’s not that high compared to people who are actually good at the game. Gotta get in a bit more practice!

Amaranth III

I’ve always been a fan of computer RPGs. When I started getting into Japanese vintage computers, I would make a point of getting an RPG or two for every major system. Problem is, RPGs consume a lot of time, if they’re any good. So I end up just adding to a queue of RPGs that I have tested once to ensure they work, then never get around to finishing (or sometimes even starting)

One major exception sticks out, and that’s Amaranth III for FM Towns. Owing to its vibrant graphics and its varied soundtrack, it was a quick hook. The combat system is somewhat innovative and there are many still frames of beautiful artwork. I’m moving slowly because there are many new words in the game that I usually take the time to look up, but I’ve made substantial progress.

You start out assuming the roles of two deities -Rian and Deen – laying low in the inn of a small town. Deen seems to thrive on attention from the local mortals, so she has set up a dream-reading booth in the city, where she proves to be quite popular.

They catch news of a nearby fair where nemuri-byo, a state of sleep from which one doesn’t wake, is claiming victim after victim. Deen thinks she has the power to stop it by entering the dream and freeing the dreamer. They buy tickets at the train station to go to the fair, but she had raised the ire of a powerful enemy that comes in by hijacked train to attack her.

Deen and Rian defeat the enemy’s foot soldiers and escape with their lives but have to find a way to sneak out of the down now because the more powerful enemies have commandeered the train station. They decide to sneak out as stowaways on a trade ship.

On the ship, they are eventually discovered to the annoyance of the ship’s captain, but they prove themselves useful by helping the crew to defeat a band of attacking pirates. The pirate ship captain presents himself as the first boss, but it’s not quite in the realm of the main story line, sort of a tutorial boss, I feel.

After defeating the captain, you discover two hostages, a woman and a girl. We learn that the girl has nemuri-byo, but the woman is her protector and forbids Deen from trying to enter the girl’s dream to help. So as soon as the woman goes to sleep, that’s exactly what Deen does. Deen and Rian enter the dream as in-dream characters and their first real adventure begins!

One fun thing about this game so far is the animation of the spell effects. Healing spells are pretty simple, but check out the fire and ice spell animations.

FM16π

This is actually my second FM16π, that is supposed to be a “pi” symbol but it looks pretty much like a table in some fonts. This one came along and offered some obvious benefits over my first, so I decided to bite the bullet on it and sell my first one to cover some of the costs.

First benefit, it comes with this handsome, dedicated briefcase with the logo in white on the bottom right.

Everything fits snugly inside, including the special printer, the second benefit over my first one. It’s kind of a novelty, so I am not sure if I will keep the printer or not, but given the perfect fit in the briefcase, it sort of seems like those two items should be kept or sold together. I took them both out and the system powered on without issue, the printer readied itself for printing.

And the third benefit I knew about when making the purchase is that the FM16π itself is much cleaner. Here’s its glamour session:

And the printer’s:

And there was also one hidden benefit over my original system. Either this is a slightly different model with more memory, or it has had a memory upgrade performed, I would guess up to 512KB, whereas my first FM16π probably had 256KB. I’m just guesstimating by the reported free memory when launching F-BASIC86, it’s about 230KB greater than before. I’m sure I’ll never put it to use.

It is a CP/M-86 based system, and in addition to BASIC it comes with a menu program, a terminal program, and JW (I think this is short for J-Word). Either my installation is incomplete (on both of the FM16π systems that I’ve used), or commands and capabilities of this implementation of CP/M-86 are different, because I haven’t been able to execute many commands successfully. The menu system offers some system setup options, so you can do things like change the date outside of the command prompt. Actually, I don’t even know if you can change it from the command prompt.

J-Word is a menu-driven text editor? Word processor? I’m not sure which category it falls into yet. The menu commands are plenty, but they don’t really seem to be much about formatting, so I guess it’s probably a text editor. In any event, it’s the program in my possession most ready to start printing, so I fired it up and set the printer to task.

Results were not fantastic, but using 30-year-old printing ribbon doesn’t do anyone any favors, especially since it was opened and installed. I can read most of it. I tried changing the settings, both in software and hardware. The menu allows you to choose a 16-or 24-pin kanji printer, defaulting to 24 but setting it to 16 only produced those black squares, so that clearly wasn’t the answer. The printer has a dial for light or heavy printing, and the final image is set to the two extremes, neither of which addressed the problem of splotches of completely missing print. So now I have to decide whether to open one of the two spare ribbons it came with to see if it works or not.

Sharp MZ-80K2

I’ve had my eye on one of these Sharp machines with the integrated monitor for as long as I’ve been perusing Yahoo Auctions. They come in a variety of models and they’re all really quite striking. They vary in price but they’re not necessarily that expensive, but I’ve always avoided buying them because they’re just so gargantuan. See:

So as you can see, my resolve was broken, I finally got one. I’m a sucker for a bargain and this was the cheapest I’ve ever seen one priced, and shipping was included. In addition to big, it’s also heavy, as expected; I estimate it’s a good 15kg.

The MZ-80K series comes in three colors – red, green, and brown – brown being my third choice by a long shot, but bargain hunters can’t always be choosers. Now that I have it here, though, I can see why some would choose brown. It’s a pretty handsome-looking machine.

The seller included a short laundry list of minor problems but so far none of them have actually happened on my watch. In fact, it seems to be working quite well, with the only noticeable problem being that the tape deck controls are kinda stiff. I sometimes have to press play, rewind, or fast forward a couple of times for it to trigger. No big deal. It came with three tapes: BASIC (essential!), Poker (playable! but with a terrible fortune telling app on the back), and Montage (where you try to remember the details of the face of a criminal and the answer the police-computer’s questions about it in an attempt to recreate the face, which is really boring, yet it seems someone actually sold this game).

The keyboard works, the tapes all work, but something isn’t quite right… oh! That’s right. The monitor is black and white but it’s supposed to be green. That must be why I can’t catch a break in the poker game. How do I enable green mode… aha! Here we are.

There we go. The Poker game requires the green overlay to be installed in order to function properly, I guess. Mine has a small crack but that doesn’t seem to matter.

The BASIC tape included a little note about turning on auto-repeat for several keys, most notably the space bar, cursor keys, and backspace key. Also clear/home, but I’m not clear on the benefit of that. The command must be typed every time you start BASIC, as it only changes the setting in memory. Set to 0 to turn auto-repeat on, set to 1 to turn it off (counter-intuitively).

The MZ-80 is a very close cousin the MZ-700, so in addition to the cassettes I received, I also have my existing MZ-700 library to test. Not everything works, not by a long shot, but it can load some games, both BASIC and machine language games. The best-working games so far are Pac-Man and Zombie Panic, which are unfortunately almost the same game.

Unfortunately, the controls are awkward. As I mentioned, the MZ-80 is a series, and in the series, K means “kit”, at least, 50% of the time (once). So the MZ-80K was sold as a DIY-kit for you to assemble. The MZ-80K2 was not sold as a kit, but rather a low-end version of the MZ-80B, and resembles the MZ-80K in a lot of ways, including the keyboard.

The keyboard is quaint and although I’ve seen a variety of states of the K-class keyboard, I’d say the plastic covers have done a nice job of preserving the keys on my keyboard. I like the aesthetic. *Using* it, on the other hand, is not superb. The keyboard really struggles if you type too fast, so you have to slow down. If you have two keys down at the same time, it almost certainly won’t pick up the second one (excepting the shift key, of course). And the layout is not at all standard, although it does follow QWERTY order.

The result is that the game keys are often laid out terribly. Pac-Man keys are all on the same row, with N・comma・forward-slash・first blue key controlling left, right, up, and down, respectively. I mean, you can probably get used to this, but it’s not very natural. And another quirk, if you don’t press S to start, the game will automatically start for you after the mini demo. This doesn’t happen on the MZ-700.

Zombie Panic seems a little more straightforward, because it uses the cursor keys. But wait! It’s the Commodore 64-style cursor keys! So going down or right use the cursor keys, but going up and left use shift plus cursor keys! Again, you can probably get used to this, and this game is in BASIC so it could probably be fixed fairly trivially, but it’s basically the same game as Pac-Man with much lower production value, so it’s probably not worthwhile.

HuCAL is probably the most compatible software from my MZ-700 library, but that’s probably because timing isn’t critical in a spreadsheet program like it is in a game.

Other games like Galaxian will load and attempt to play, and if you are familiar with the MZ-700 version, you will see that it looks pretty similar but with incorrect characters, and the incorrect characters somehow seem to amount to collision so you can’t move when the game starts, you just die immediately.

And still other games just won’t load. They’ll get to the end of the tape and still think they’re loading, or will have frozen. So despite their similarities, they’re clearly different enough to have spotty compatibility.

Sega SC-3000

This machine has, for better or for worse, replaced my SG-1000 II with keyboard attachment SK-1100. I reasoned that the integrated keyboard would make it much more convenient to use the programming cartridges, and the composite video output capability of the SC-3000 (compared to RF only output of the SG-1000 II) would make it easier to use, both in terms of connecting and easier on the eyes while in operation.

I have actually bought two of these machines. The first one had a spotty keyboard, all keys would work but some, especially ins/del, needed to be pressed *really* hard to be input. The second one also had an imperfect keyboard, but it was much better than the first. I swapped out the keyboards so I could keep the more attractive case of the first SC-3000. Even still, I have to admit, the typing experience on the SK-1100 was much better (the owner of that machine took phenomenal care of his systems).

Taking the keyboards apart is fairly obnoxious, with their 15 screws and tiny posts for the rubber keys to attach to, and weird square tab indents to hold the top rear portion in place. After reassembling, they don’t quite feel the same; the functionality is fine but it seems a little creaky. I think the plastic top doesn’t sit as well as it used to. Maybe it’s just my own poor skill. In any event, my recommendation is to get one in great condition with working keyboard so you don’t have to mess with it!

I finally bought the composite video cable adapter after a few weeks of messing with it over RF. The double-headed design is clever, it seems it works in the SC-3000, SG-1000 Mark 3, Master System, and the MegaDrive/Genesis, including the last revision with its oddball connector. The composite video output is definitely simpler and doesn’t require tuning, but it oddly seems lower video output quality than the RF. It was a really cheap cable, so perhaps that’s the reason why.

Enough of the cheap shotting, though. It’s easy to pick on rubber chiclet keyboards and old video output, but this system’s got heart, too.

Like its predecessor, it has no built-in BASIC ROM, so you have to plug in a cartridge for it to do anything. This more than anything gives it a console feeling despite appearances, similar to the Commodore MAX Machine. Many Sharp machines also didn’t include a language ROM, but they did include a monitor so you could interact with the machine without loading anything.

The selection of BASIC cartridges is surprisingly varied; I know of five for this system. They vary depending on number of available commands and cartridge-supplied memory. The one I have is the most advanced that I know of, using BASIC level III B and containing 32KB of RAM, which gives you plenty of room to write programs. And the system comes with audio in/out ports on the back for saving your programs to cassette.

And besides BASIC, of course, there are a lot of games. Some of these are probably familiar to many, it includes a solid version of Congo Bongo, and this port of Lode Runner runs really smoothly. The third may be a Japan-only game, at least I’d never heard of it before, called Hustle Chumy. I’m not yet clear what you’re supposed to do in the game. I get to the top of the stage and nothing really happens, so I probably need to somehow manipulate the ladder covers earlier in the level.

The SC-3000 is completely compatible with the cartridges made for the SG-1000 II, and I’ve actually picked up quite a few games along the way. There are probably a good four or five in here that I’ve yet to even test.

The one other shortcoming of this system compared to the SG-1000 II is that it doesn’t come with the convenient side hooks on the system to hold the gamepads in place. In fact, while it has two joystick ports, it doesn’t even seem to have dedicated game controllers of any sort. And the joystick ports have moved from the back (which is okay, that’s not such a great solution for controllers with such short cables, anyway), opting instead for the Commodore-style joystick port placement, where both are on the same side. The games all work with the keyboard, so I guess that’s what you were expected to use. For the time being, I’ve kept my SG-1000 II controllers.