Sharp X1 Turbo Z

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- and 16-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 integrated with 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 digital RGB, with the ability to display over both at the same time. The Turbo Z added analog RGB and 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 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 closer to 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!

Shanghai (Mahjong):

Tetris (duh):

Daikokai Jidai (released in English as Uncharted Waters)

Denno Suikoden (graphic adventure based on classical Chinese literature)

NEC PC-6001

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.

Fujitsu FM77AV20EX

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. FM77AV 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!

Sharp MZ-700

Another machine I bought on a whim. Never heard of it before buying it, but found the design aesthetics to be beautiful. It was a tested-working item and in nearly immaculate condition, but as Japanese vintage computers go, it was not terribly expensive. The seller included a hand-written note when he shipped it. To date, this is the only time I’ve experienced that.

The MZ-700 is pretty unique not only in design, but also unexpected built-in features. The flagship submodel was the MZ-731, which includes a built-in cassette recorder and a color plotter-printer. That’s quite an impressive ready-to-roll solution for its time.

I received it and connected it through composite video through the RCA jack. Speaker is internal. Fired right up, as expected. The MZ-700 does not have BASIC on ROM, so you boot straight into a monitor. The most typical course of action is to press “L” and then press play on the cassette recorder.

In Japan, not only is selling copied software prohibited, but some everyday users make it a point to report auctions that do so. In addition, they’ll report auctions that even include such software, even if it’s clearly not the main focus of the auction. To a point, I can understand, but this can leave many people without any means to use the machine.

So while this system wasn’t sold with any software, I was very glad that the seller included two copies of BASIC (S-BASIC and HuBASIC), and a compilation of about eight games on a single tape as an undisclosed bonus.

It’s also lovely on the inside. Such a modular machine with easily removable components. You don’t have to open the case to remove the tape drive or printer.

Another really unique thing about this machine is that there is no graphics mode. Games make use of system character glyphs, letters and numbers, and large blocks. When I think of that style of game, I think of the rinky-dink games like Ladder or ASCII-Invaders or what-not. But these games are quite well done. One example is Yellow Balloon, a game where your balloon soars ever upward, avoiding obstacles that will pop your balloon while shooting to the side to rack up points. For all its primitiveness, it’s a colorful and graphically pleasing game.

Sony HB-F1XD

This machine is one of Sony’s MSX2 models. It features an attractive black and gray case with red accents and many LEDs and a couple of gadgety-looking slide controls to make it look cool. And indeed, it does look cool! I really like the style. The built-in floppy drive is a very nice touch, too.

It was purchased as a tested-working system, so it was no surprise that it booted right up. MSX 2 and MSX have BASIC on ROM, so I could begin using the system immediately.

I only have one game that is specific to MSX 2 – an RPG called Last Armageddon. I chose it because of its bizarre visuals. All of these photos are from the intro.

Of course, there is a big difference in image quality between MSX and MSX2. It is higher resolution and has a larger color palette. It also has analog RGB output, which grants a large increase in clarity. This is tremendously helpful in reading kanji, as the characters are too much of a blur for me to read over composite. Still, the Sharp X1 Turbo Z is much much clearer.

I enjoy the MSX2 quite a bit more than my first MSX machine. Although the MSX had a keyboard and a cassette port for loading tape-based games, cartridges got a much bigger push, and you just connect a joystick and start playing the games, so it really felt more like using a console than a computer. Of course, that was just my experience based on what was cheaply and easily available to me at the time; MSX is a fully capable computing platform, too, but these disk games with all their swapping and having a game that requires keyboard interaction really gives me a more solid computing experience.