I had to give a presentation at work recently, and I really sweat those things. I decided I would help myself look forward to the day by planning to go to Akihabara after the presentation was finished. I went to my favorite vintage computer shop – BEEP – and looked through their stuff for the first time in a long time. BEEP used to be a weekly visit for me because my customer was located in Okachimachi – about a 15-minute walk to Akihabara. But Covid19 changed a lot of things.

Anyway, I rarely buy anything from BEEP because it’s awfully expensive, but their “junk” items are often reasonably priced. I picked up a few tape games for the FM-7 and FM-8, and an unexpected find – some J3100 software. The J3100 software was only 330 yen! There were four or five identical sets, and they included the games Tenka Toitsu and Columns. I picked up two sets in case one didn’t work, and at that price, why not?

Columns is an extra special game for me because my friends and I used to play it many hours at a time in hotly contested battles at my old apartment in California. This isn’t exactly the same version but it is close and contains many of the best elements of the game I used to play.

Playing on this system is always a bit bittersweet. There’s only the PC internal speaker for sound so often you’re playing in silence or with simple beeps for sound effects. But at least you get to look at the beautiful plasma screen!

As I have mentioned before, it’s really hard to get a good capture of the plasma screen. The oranger-looking shots are a bit closer than the redder-looking ones.

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.

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.

Toshiba J3100-SGT101

Some time ago, I saw somebody post pictures of their machine that had a built-in plasma screen. I was pretty smitten and I kept my eye out for one and came across this. It wasn’t super cheap but the screen was really nice and the price wasn’t that bad, either.

First thing I did after firing it up is to snoop around the contents of the hard drive. What a mess! Nearly everything was dumped into the root of the C drive. It runs on MS DOS 3.1, which was installed to c:\. There is a menu system, conveniently located in c:\. There was a game’s installation files copied to c:\, and c:\ was where it was installed. You might think it was CP/M, but no, it was MS DOS. MS DOS has commands for working with directories, you know!

The game it came with was Igo, pronounced “eego”, which is the game Go, the ancient Chinese game. It isn’t a favorite or anything, but after trying about 10 different executables that ended up being different facets of the menu system, it was nice to see some graphics on this thing!

By the way, it’s not so easy to capture the real color of this screen. I think these Igo pictures are probably the most accurate. It’s a deep orange color.

Under the hood, it’s a 386@20MHz with 2MB of RAM and a 100MB hard drive. Pretty similar to the specs of my FM Towns until I upped the RAM recently, but this machine loses in the multimedia department. No CD ROM drive and no sound capabilities beyond the internal speaker. There is one expansion slot available, but I haven’t opened it up to check out what kind of expansion card it accepts and what my options are.

It came with a custom bag branded as Toshiba, in which it fits snugly. I checked all the pockets and I found the original disk of Igo, and a bonus, almost unbelievably, a copied disk containing Shanghai. This is the fourth system that I’ve had this game for, because in addition to being fun, it’s cheap. In fact, it kind of seems to be following me around!

When I got it, the bag was in pretty nasty shape. I washed it in the washer, and then I washed it again, and after that, it smelled good and it had cleaned up a bit, but there was some deep-lying grime. I tried mold killer, but it didn’t seem to help. Finally I tried a green scouring pad, the kind I use to clean my bathtub, and bathtub cleaner, the kind I use to clean my bathtub, and it finally penetrated. I ran it through the washer one more time to get it rinsed out thoroughly and now it’s definitely in keep-worthy condition.