Sharp PC-3100S

In addition to the X1 and the MZ series of computers, Sharp had another line of 8-bit computers. This would have been released around the time of the NEC PC-8001, and could probably be considered its peer, but did not achieve a fraction of the notoriety that the PC-8001 did. Information on this system appears scant.

Kudos to the Japanese couriers for the way they treat packages. One of the stickers on each box reads “do not crush box; putting heavy items on this box is forbidden.” Indeed, they arrived in good shape, for being approximately 40-year-old cardboard boxes. I opened up the boxes and laid out the components.

The machine and matching monitor are in amazing condition! This is all pre-cleaning but the worst thing I can see was done intentionally – the tape to hold the function-keys guide in place. But now the big test… does it work? If either one of these pieces doesn’t work, I’m up a creek, at least for a while, because I would need to bug someone to make me a custom cable for either the monitor or the system to be able to test them separately.

But luckily, they fired right up! I breathe a sigh of relief every time I see these ancient beasts still beat their electronic hearts. Okay, I see we are dumped into BASIC, as is customary for most of these computers, although now that I think about it, both the MZ and X1 series don’t, so I was pretty pleased that the PC series does, as I wouldn’t be able to do much without it. BASIC, though, I can do something with. Or can I? The most basic of BASIC commands, PRINT, is recognized but doesn’t do what one would expect it to.

First, when you make an error, the PC-3100S *really* wants you to stop and think about what you’ve done. It beeps three times, displays your error at the bottom, and doesn’t give you your cursor back! Never seen anything like it. As far as I can tell, you have two options for proceeding, up-arrow to get your line back and fix it, or CL to erase the line and start over. DISP seems to work the same as PRINT in standard BASIC. Perhaps in this BASIC, PRINT is for interacting with a printer? This is far from the only difference in BASIC. From the one and only source of informationI could find about this system, which also isn’t terribly detailed, this BASIC is similar to Sharp’s pocket computer BASIC. So that might be a source of information, too.

Let’s take a closer look at the aesthetics and connections of this machine. First is the main system itself. It has a decidedly unique keyboard. The first thing I noticed quickly was that there is no shift key. You instead go from mode to mode using the dedicated keys. You start in alphanumeric mode, and you can switch to katakana mode or punctuation mode. And although it’s not a mode per se, you can also enter another set of characters and graphic symbols by holding down control. Parts of this system resemble the MZ-700, although the MZ-700 does also have a shift key. The directional arrow keys surrounding the home key is also unusual. But really, aside from having a QWERTY layout, they made this different in almost every way.

And the monitor. You can adjust the viewing angle and the height by pivoting or sliding it along the rails on the side. That’s pretty cool! It’s also much lighter than most, I guess because it’s monochrome and doesn’t need all of the extra electronics to process and generate color. And another first for me, there’s no plug for the video source of any sort, you screw in three wires for video, sync, and ground. I’m not sure if mixing these would produce disastrous results or not, but I’m certainly glad they left the cable attached!

I do believe there is a problem with the system. It largely appears to work, but the way it stores code and displays it seems problematic. I’m trying to figure out the pattern and will post more soon, but I think there’s probably something wrong with a RAM chip. There are many other quirks, which may just be standard system behavior or may be glitches. This system is so unlike anything I’ve used before, I’m not able to clearly determine.

Alternate Reality: The City

This is another game from my younger years. It’s only got an honorable mention on this blog because I played it on my Toshiba J3100 and it’s a snazzy way to show off the screen.

I say it’s from my younger years, but actually I’ve just about never played this game. Maybe a combined total of an hour or so, over several decades. But I’ve played its successor – Alternate Reality: The Dungeon – for thousands upon thousands of hours. The City is an incomplete game, it was intended to be your “home” that was set above The Dungeon. The Dungeon doesn’t really need The City to feel complete, but The City needs The Dungeon. Additionally, the Commodore 64 version has some serious problems, including lack of music.

Still, it has a place in my heart, and I’ve heard the 16-bit versions of The City are a little more complete than the 8-bit versions, so I am going to give it a bit more effort. Actually, as the PC version also lacks sound card support, I know the Amiga version is going to be the best, but it requires an A500 with no upgrades to play. It really is kind of an elusive game for me, although I know some people love the 8-bit version.

Anyway, to the game. When you load the game, it asks you if you want the EGA or CGA version. The J3100 plasma screen is driven by EGA, so I chose that. The intro screen showed up, and although the graphics are different, it is the same design as the intro screen for The Dungeon. The image made such a big impression on me back then, it was one of the best images I’d ever seen on the Commodore 64. I like it on the PC, too, but the lack of music stings. It’s followed by a starfield animation with credits and a song with lyrics, but of course the song is missing in this version.

After the intro, you are presented with options for starting the game – start a new character, start a temporary character, or resume an existing character. I went with a temporary character. Enter your name, confirm your name, and pass through a gate with rolling numbers that determine your stats and starting bankroll.

You’re then dumped off around the City Square, where your adventure begins. So what do you do first? Whatever you want! This is an early example of an open-world game. A little too open, perhaps? The City lacks quests, while The Dungeon did not. Just explore the area, visit the establishments, and build up your character slowly.

Looking around the city, you see the sun, which changes positions based on the time of day. There is also rain and possibly other weather effects, which are absent in The Dungeon, so that’s one thing The City has going for it. There are many walls and doors, the doors often leading to establishments.

The establishments are among the expected standards for an RPG, but I feel this game offers some unexpected twists. For example, you can get a job at an establishment to earn extra money. But the jobs may have stat requirements, so you can’t just get any job, but one suited to your character. You can bargain with shopkeepers to get better prices, but if you lowball them, they may kick you out.

To level up, you have to kill baddies. But it’s far more likely you will be killed by baddies. The game is brutal in the early levels. It also has a stricter moral system than most, where killing humans, evil or good, is considered immoral, so you’re not supposed to go around fighting everyone, anyway. Proceed building your character with caution. Here are some examples of lifeforms you’ll encounter early on in the game.

So it turns out my level 0 character wasn’t quite ready to deal with an arch-mage. Who knew?

You may have noticed, but one thing about playing this game on this computer is that I can’t see my stats. I’m not exactly sure why, it would make sense if the game were SVGA, but since it’s EGA, there should be a one-to-one color mapping for the screen. Maybe my monitor ignores the intensity factor, allowing for only eight shades of orange? It’s a little hard to tell.

The PC version of the game came on three disks – game disk, CGA graphics disk, and EGA graphics disk. It included a manual and a map printed on nice quality paper made to resemble parchment. The C64 version was a little more accurate, this looks comparatively bleached, but still nice.

Anyway, I’ll end the introduction here. I could probably go on for pages about the details of The Dungeon and how the game was originally planned to be a huge series, but that’s kinda beyond the scope of this blog.

Laser Planet

After finally getting an X1 tape drive, I can now play Laser Planet! I bought it a few months ago on Mercari even though I couldn’t immediately use it, because it was a good deal.

However, one doesn’t simply play Laser Planet. It requires dB-BASIC in order to run. So you load dB-BASIC first and then you change the tape and load Laser Planet.

I don’t generally expect a lot from BASIC games because I tend to assume it’s too slow to push graphics around in an exciting way, but this game manages to pull it off well. I suppose that’s the advantage of the programmable character generator, it isn’t pushing graphics around so much as it’s pushing characters around, which BASIC can do pretty well.

The object is to bomb targets to make the lase beams disappear, allowing you to proceed to the next target. Bomb all the targets and land your spacecraft to claim victory! I think. I haven’t beat level one yet.

Heaven & Earth

I bought this game back in the mid-90s because the screenshots looked interesting, and because it came with a high-quality Mickey Mouse mouse pad (it was released by Buena Vista Software, owned by Disney, so I am sure they got a nice discount on the licensing deal). One thing that stuck with me from this game through all these years was the very unique card game. But there is a lot more to this interesting collection of “stuff to do”.

This version didn’t come with a mouse pad, and I am sure even if it did, unless it was unused and in a protective bag, it would probably be nasty, so just as well. However, and I didn’t notice it back in the day, the semi-glossy, 80-page manual is pretty darn impressive.

You are going to get a sort of oddball view of this game, because it’s coming through the lens of my Toshiba J3100 with its plasma EGA screen. Text isn’t quite as clear as it would be on a 256-color display, puzzles that rely on color become quite a bit more challenging, and some things simple don’t display. For example, if you look at this “gateway” picture, where you choose what aspect of the game you will play, the three rocks in the foreground are supposed to be runes with pictures depicting what the activity is, but it simply doesn’t show up on this screen. That’s okay for me, though, I enjoy seeing this beautiful screen display things as best it can, perfection not necessary.

The first rune is for the pendulum activity. You use your mouse to control the direction of the wind, to cause the pendulum to come to a temporary stop over a series of jewels before it swings back the opposite direction. I remember this being a very relaxing activity back in the day, but doing it via keyboard wasn’t very easy! I wonder how difficult it will be to track down a serial mouse. In the photos below, you can see I completed level one, marked by the disappearance of the jewel in the 11:00 position.

Next is the card game rune. Perhaps you remember I said I was interested in the Japanese card (video) game Hanafuda, because it reminds me of a game I used to play? This is that game. And something I didn’t realize before, but it says in the manual that this game is indeed based on concepts from Hanafuda, so my mental connection between the two appears to be well-grounded.

The game begins with a blank field and a stack of 48 cards. Four cards are turned over at a time, and you pick one. After twelve iterations, you have your round’s hand. The next round you choose from three, and then from two, and finally you are left with the last hand of 12 cards.

You try to match the cards to maximize point value. Each card has four features – landscape, season, element, and month. Month is derived from element and season, but is still important. You can match two cards (opposite month – months that are six months apart, for examplle January and July) or three cards (by landscape, season, or element, or a combination of these). Additionally, some cards have natural phenomena or weather effects, such as a supernova or a tornado, which give you a multiplier to work with. The multiplier can be negative, so not every special card is desirable, but if you match two negatives, it does become positive, and sometimes you want to use a card even if it is negative, because you get a bonus for using all cards in a round, and that bonus increases every time you achieve it within a game. Very fun game with many factors to consider!

Finally is the “illusions” rune, which is a series of many kinds of puzzles. You choose which kind of puzzle you want to try from this selection screen, which is pretty hard to read on this screen.

They start out super easy but the difficulty ramps up pretty fast. Here are just a few examples. The first kind I tried is a simple rearrangement puzzle. They show you the target and you just rearrange to match. The only catch is, if you touch two pieces together, they become a single unit and can’t be separated. Starts out easy, but becomes trickier as time goes on. This kind of puzzle suits this screen fine.

The next one is a classic “slider” puzzle, where there is one empty space and you have to slide the pieces around to match the target arrangement. This requires a lot more concentration because instead of multiple colors, you have slight variations in shades of orange. But definitely doable.

Finally is this fairly unique puzzle. You start as one block and traverse a maze filled with other blocks you can pass through, and other blocks you cannot pass through. When you pass through a block, you become that block, and your old block becomes an impassable block, so you have to consider your path carefully. The first one was very simple to demonstrate how the mechanisms work, but by the third or fourth maze you have quite a challenge on your hands. The incomplete maze below I did pass the second or third time, but the following one (not pictured) eluded me.

And these are just three of the twelve styles of puzzles available.

Sharp CZ-8RL1

The X1 series of computer has a proprietary CMT (tape player) port, and the tape players are also kind of special, and they are prone to failure. So if you see a working one on Yahoo for auction, you shouldn’t be surprised to see it get up to about 20000 yen.

But I found one in a bulk-lot auction, and I saw the potential to get it quite a bit cheaper. So I bought the whole lot for about 30000 yen and am now in the process of seeing how much I’ll be able to get back by selling unneeded items. The tape drive was untested, but fortunately, it works!

So after having Mario Bros. Special for about a year or so, I was finally able to play it. Well, that’s not entirely true, I’ve been playing it all along as a disk image via the HxC floppy emulator, but using the original was a first!

The tape drive is a little unique in that the controls are digital. Unlike most tape players, you don’t really push the buttons “in”, it’s more like clicking the buttons like a VCR. It gives it a more technologically sophisticated feeling.