On Sunday, I received a small lot of copied disks to use for my Sharp X1. It was a pretty good cross-section of stuff. It includes everything from arcade classics like Mappy and Galaga to typed-in BASIC games in a variety of states of disarray, although I finally found one or two that actually worked. I also discovered a pretty unique shooter game I want to talk about, but that will wait for another day.
What I am going to introduce today is “Tokyo Nanpa Street.” It’s basically an early dating simulator. At the beginning you get asked about twenty tedious questions ranging from age and body measurements to personality and interests to home and job. It seems pre-loaded with questions depending on what choices you make, too, because for example if I said she lives in a dorm, it asks how the headmaster feels about her going to a boyfriend’s home. I’ve only explored one set of options so far.
My date went like so: Go to disco at 8:28. (at this point I have 60 yen (about 55 cents) left – not a good sign) Complement her voice. Complement her hair. Try to kiss her. She leaves at 8:30. Game over.
At the end of the game, it also gives me a phone number, which I can enter earlier in the game. I haven’t tested it yet, but perhaps it allows me to skip the questions if I want to try the same circumstances again.
I finally got around to firing up my X1’s included “Graphics Tool”, part of the included “Z’s Staff-Z” software bundle that came with my system. I am no artist by any stretch and I figured loading up and attempting to use an 8-bit paint program would be an excruciating exercise. But I wanted to explore more about my Sharp X1 Turbo Z. There were definitely moments of frustration, but it was also a great experience.
The opening screen launches you into low-res mode where you have two choices for video resolution – 320×200 or 640×400. Images made in one resolution cannot be opened in the other. I went with 320×200 for starters.
The interface appears minimal, with a single row of menu options at the top. The entire screen is your canvas.
If you look at the final picture, most people would probably imagine that the background was filled first first, but that’s for people who have a plan, and that does not include me! Nonetheless, to make it look like a progression of the picture creation process, I went back and took a screenshot of a black screen.
Here’s what actually happened first: I’m not particularly creative in this kind of environment, but I grabbed the mouse and started free-drawing a curvy line. I thought perhaps it could become a tree, so I went with that. When I finished the base structure of the tree, I mixed a custom brown color and filled the tree, then I thought the tree didn’t look quite normal, but perhaps I could give it some legitimacy by making it a creepy environment, so it became a nighttime sky.
Next I finished the moon with just a simple circle and added some “craters”, which sounded good at the time but actually probably made it worse. Added some grass by drawing sloppy lines with the freehand tool. But the part I like best is the clouds. I struggled with those clouds, trying this and that with different pen sizes, different shades of gray, different diffusion tools, nothing I tried didn’t look like garbage. I actually gave up on the clouds for a while, but there is no screenshot of that stage, so here’s another fast-forward screenshot:
Having given up on the clouds, I thought I’d make a wooden fence. I thought I saw a tool that would be good for that, but once I started drawing the fence with it, I quickly learned that this was, in fact, the tool for drawing clouds. The fence was ultimately made by a series of thin, dark brown (so dark it barely shows up in my photograph, but believe me, it’s there!), and then going back to the freehand tool with black to give the fence a more unkempt appearance.
And that’s about enough for the picture. Hokusai, I am not. But the program left a good impression on me. As much as I thought that this antiquated program would be tedious for me to get anything done with, I was pleasantly surprised. For a 64KB computer, they crammed in a lot of features and made it a nice tool to explore and even an amateur can have a little fun with it.
The edit page was surprisingly powerful compared to my impression of the icons. I assumed it was just simple things like flip or rotate the entire image, but actually you make a selection of what you want flipped or rotated. You can also copy and paste (which I wish I’d known before I did the grass). It also has a “grow selection” function that does a decent job of stretching out elements of your image.
The text input took some time to figure out. You can only add one character at a time, and it appears to be fixed spacing. But therre are some cool effects available, too. You can use or turn off any of the three features – characters, outline, and shadowing. Outline and shadow are basic but the unusual thing to me is being able to turn off the characters, so you can just have the outline and/or shadow. You can also set double width, double height, and italics for the characters.
The only part that I find really frustrating is that it has no concept of “undo”. But I think there just isn’t enough memory for it to remember what pixels were changed and what their original colors were. So “undoing” is actually “cover up with an appropriate color” or “restore from last save.”
So getting back to the resolution choices at the launch of the program, the reason I went with 320×200 is because it allows access to the computer’s hefty 4096-color (12-bit) color palette. Thanks to a hefty 96KB of video RAM, each pixel can have its own color. Obviously I didn’t take advantage of that, but I could have!
The software offers you five pages of 16 quick-select colors, but you can alter the colors anytime with the HSV (hue/saturation/value) sliders, and changing a color does not affect pixels already drawn on the canvas using the previous color.
640×400 is four times the resolution, so is limited to 8 colors (3-bit color). Some of the interface elements are replaced with kanji so it looks a little different. And as you can see, it looks a lot cleaner. And of course, all the extra real estate that 4x resolution provides is nice. But you’re giving up 4088 colors!
For those curious but maybe don’t know how to calculate it, I checked the numbers and it is indeed necessary to drop down to 8 colors to achieve 640×400. Look: 320×200 = 64000 pixels, 4096 colors = 212 (12 bits = 1.5 bytes) 64000 * 1.5 = 96000 640×400 = 256,000 pixels, 8 colors = 23 (3 bits = .375 bytes) 256000*.375 = 96000 As the computer has 96KB of video RAM, these are the limits at these resolutions.
Japan had its own computer revolution in the 80s that we might say paralleled that of the western world. It’s absolutely overwhelming at first to look through all the potential offerings. In the US, we had three big-time 8-bit players – Commodore, Atari, and Apple -and a host of manufacturers with smaller market shares. In Japan they also had three mighty participants – Fujitsu, NEC, and Sharp.
Sharp is a multi-faceted business, with two separate arms participating in the computer industry with their own 8-bit offerings. First was the Sharp MZ series from Sharp’s computer division, which contains many different models with a wide variety of often amazing aesthetics. And later, Sharp’s TV division would go on to release the highly-touted X68000 series.
What I want to talk about is a product that came out between those two ranges – the X1. It, too, was released by Sharp’s TV division, and the computer is indeed loosely connected to TVs, although I find the computer itself far more interesting than its rudimentary TV interaction capability.
My particular model is the Sharp X1 Turbo Z. We can think of it as a third-generation model in Sharp’s nearly non-stop onslaught of new releases of the X1. It offered some major advantages over the original X1.
The original X1, which itself had many models, offered 8-color graphics on a high resolution screen (640×200) over digital RGB, but the X1 Turbo introduced 8-color 640×400 graphics over either analog or digital RGB, with the ability to display over both at the same time. It also had lower resolution modes that allowed up to 4096 colors on the screen at once. That seems really impressive for an 8-bit machine! The Turbo Z also had these advanced graphic capabilities.
The second big advantage that the X1 Turbo (and Turbo Z) had over the original X1 is the audio capabilities. I don’t know a lot about audio terminology, but I will explain as best I can. The original X1 used PSG technology for its audio, whereas the X1 Turbo introduced FM synthesis. It is like night and day; you don’t need any sort of a finely tuned ear to catch the difference. PSG is perhaps a little more sophisticated than a IBM PC clone’s internal speaker. FM synthesis sounds like real musical instruments coming from your machine. The Turbo Z also kept this far more advanced audio technology.
The third big advantage of the X1 Turbo Z is storage. The X1 and X1 Turbo had two base choices – tape drive or two double density floppy drives, with add-ons for either system to be able to use both storage technologies. The X1 Turbo Z introduced two high-density floppy drives. This approximately tripled the available capacity of the previous X1s and X1 Turbos that used floppy disks.
On the front of the X1 Turbo Z we find many switches and dials, which I think add a lot of charm to the computer but they have it all tucked away under a push-button drawer.
And they control a lot of important functions, here are the ones that may not be entirely self-explanatory: – The third dial from the left is a PSG-FM mixer, which, depending on software, allows a sort of hardware-based balance between background music and sound effects. – The red and white buttons are both reset. The red one will reset the computer entirely. The white one, again depending on software, may take you to the opening instructions of the software, or if it has no handler, will also completely reset the computer. – The first black button switches between DD and HD mode (and LEDs change color based on mode! YAY LEDs!). – The next black button is the VTR mode, which I am guessing allows it to interface with a VCR and launch a recording session. – The next two work in conjunction with one another, basically you want both to be “on” to enable and enforce high resolution mode. Some software can’t handle high resolution mode, though, so for example, CP/M should be booted in standard resolution.
The X1 series has a distinct keyboard style, which didn’t change much between different X1 models. Mine also came with an X1-specific keyboard cover, kind of reminiscent of the covers I have for my Commodore computers.
On the back we can find a host of ports that are pretty typical for Japanese computers of the time. A couple of perhaps unexpected items are the video in/out ports for the “telopper”, which I believe allows for an overlay to the X1’s video output, and the TV-control, which allows for keyboard control of a monitor or TV that conforms to this standard.
Inside, the computer is quite attractive, having a clean and well organized, not to mention somewhat colorful collection of boards and cables. With its expansion port capabilities, it looks a little more like a modern PC as we know them than the Commodore 8-bit line does.
When you turn on the computer, you are greeted by this screen:
You can boot from floppy, access software stored on a ROM (there is no ROM-based software included), launch a program from cassette tape, or enter the timer.
The timer is an interface to control when to turn on and off your TV and what channel to set it to. You can set up as many as seven timers, which are stored internally.
The system shipped with three programs, BASIC CZ-8FB02, Graphic Tool, and FM Synthesizer Music Tool. These are actually the names of the software packages, and each is on its own floppy disk. The disks are presented with snazzy-looking labels in a nice case. Here is also a very simple BASIC program that shows the machines vibrant colors (eight-color mode) and about half of the katakana character set.
Additionally, there is a version of CP/M available for the X1. It is not included with the system.
So what do the games look like? I actually don’t have too many available at the moment. I don’t have a floppy emulator, so I am relying on the few games I managed to pick up at a decent price. But here are some examples!
Daikokai Jidai (released in English as Uncharted Waters)
Denno Suikoden (graphic adventure based on classical Chinese literature)
The PC-6001 by NEC was one model I decided I never needed. I had bought the NEC PC-6601SR before, which was supposed to be a far more sophisticated version of the PC-6001, and wasn’t very thrilled with it. So I wasn’t paying an ounce of attention to the 6001. But one showed up in my search for FM-77 auctions, because there was a bulk lot auction of a PC-6001 system and software with three bonus FM-77 games.
I won the auction and had the intention of testing the PC-6001 and software to sell it and hopefully make most of my money back, and then just keep the FM-77 games. But in a weird twist of fate, I didn’t find the FM-77 games to be very interesting, but quite enjoy the simplicity and primitive nature of the PC-6001. So in a total reversal of plans, I have sold the FM-77 games and kept the PC-6001 and software!
It came to me fairly filthy, but in my experience, the greater the grime, the better protected the machine is from more complex forms of unsightliness. Indeed, it cleaned up fantastically.
I found it to be quite an attractive system, actually.
As is often the case, it was untested, but fortunately it works perfectly. I still haven’t secured a working tape drive, though, so I can only test the two cartridges – Tennis and Othello. But sooner or later I’ll be able to test out this treasure trove of software and play around on the machine more thoroughly.
How’t that for a model name? Rolls right off the tongue, right? I have to mentally prepare myself a bit to say it. But it’s quite a sophisticated machine. FM-77AV is one of few Japanese 8-bit computers to support hardware scrolling, so in theory it should have some of the best-playing games. Unfortunately, I have very few games to test it with at this point.
I got this as a fairly standard auction on Yahoo Auctions from yugen2plus, a reputable seller, fully tested and working. It was a low-risk, high-cost purchase.
It is a pretty grand machine, though. It features a handsome black case and keyboard. One nice thing about the keyboard is that the cable is completely removable and replaceable with a standard S-video cable. In fact, mine had already been replaced with an exceptionally long S-video cable, which came in handy.
It comes with BASIC on ROM, which means even without games you can poke around on the system a bit.
But frustratingly, it has a separate, disk-loaded version of BASIC that you need if you want to access your floppy disks from BASIC. This means you can’t even format a disk unless you track down the disk version of BASIC, which has proven hard to find. Not impossible, though!
It also has a 6809 CPU, which I’ve heard referred to as the most powerful 8-bit CPU available. Earlier models had the choice of one or two drives, but by the time we got to the 77AV20 models, all systems came with two 3.5″ 320KB floppy disk drives. Stock RAM is 128KB, video RAM at 96KB, capable of displaying 4096 colors at 320×200.
Someday I would like to upgrade to the even more powerful FM-77AV40EX, but for now I will be satisfied with this!