NEC PC-8001

A legend in the history of Japanese computing. This machine is built like a tank with its metal exterior giving it quite a bit of weight. It doesn’t try to be fancy but its simple and clean aesthetic is charming.

This is the oldest machine in my collection, first available to consumers in May 1979, when I was still three years old. Much like me, it still works. It boots up to the BASIC screen and the keyboard functions smoothly, allowing me to type in my simple BASIC program.

It’s capable of high-res graphics and 40- or 80-column text display with 8 colors over digital RGB, pretty typical of those that followed it until the mid-80s. There was also a third-party PCG (programmable character generator), an add-on device that I don’t possess that allows for a character replacement approach to graphics. The PCG was integrated into the later PC-8001mkIISR, but both the add-on and the PC-8001mkIISR tend to be quite expensive.

Many of the games are character based, whether you had the PCG or not. First is Asteroid Belt, a space shooter that maybe comes closest to Space Invaders, but is much more difficult because the projectiles are more numerous and come at you at a 45 degree angle, and after the first stage the invaders jump up and down, making them unpredictable:

Another game I’ve got a fondness for is called Wild Swat. You play as a police car that is chasing and trying to shoot a motorcyclist while avoiding traffic. Avoiding the traffic seemed like a tremendously difficult task at first, but the game actually gives you quite a bit of leniency as long as you don’t hit them with the front of your car. This might be an early example of having a “hit box”. The challenging aspect is hitting the motorcyclist, you have to be very precise. But the actual problem with the game is that the course is very short. I wish navigating the traffic were a little easier but the traffic pattern random. As it is, the pattern repeats after about 20 seconds so you get a good sense of where you should be after playing for a bit.

The game is nonsensically colored, where everything in the same section of the screen is the same colors, so cars change color as you pass them. I suppose they were just messing around with color and they figured this was good enough. When you hit another car, the very simple sound generator creates a loud noise and the screen presents a garbled set of colors and characters on the screen, I suppose to simulate the crash. It’s kind of an interesting visual effect. When you quit the game you are treated to a goofy animation and dumped back into BASIC.

Compare those games to the demo tape, which makes use of the high-res graphics that the machine is capable of. Looks very nice but it is definitely a chore for the computer to display some of these. Long draw times, especially on the 3D images, which are calculated, not pre-rendered.

NEC PC-8801 FH

I’ve seen this around on Yahoo Auctions occasionally. It commands a much higher price than it’s beige sibling. It certainly looks cool, I think the only PC-8801 model to have a black version (or anything besides beige, for that matter). If you manage to find one as a set of keyboard and system, it’s very expensive, and if you find only the keyboard or the system, there’s no telling how long it might take to get the complementary item, and it could potentially be more expensive anyway.

“The only way I’ll ever get one is if I can find it reasonably priced on Mercari, and good luck with that,” I thought. But suddenly one popped up! I was compulsively reloading Mercari and one moment it wasn’t there and the next moment it was, which in my mind, totally justifies my behavior. I received it and holy cow is this thing beautiful. There are a few light scuffs here and there but basically looks unbelievable for its age.

The main system has a couple of love taps but you really have to be looking for them.

Despite the low signs of wear, the keyboard managed to accumulate quite a bit of grime on it. I gave it my standard cleaning, and this is much better than when I got it, but looking at the closeup photos, I think each keycap probably needs to be taken off and cleaned from all sides. The curl-cable has a good springy feeling to it after all these years.

The three-volume manual collection is also in good shape, with pages still crisp to the touch and I didn’t spot any handwriting on my quick check. The floppy disks are clean and free of mold.

The great news is that it works. It displays and plays audio correctly, the keyboard responds smoothly to each press on the first time, and I tested it with the PC-8801 version of Archon and the included demo disk.

However, I don’t see myself getting rid of my PC-8801MA2, as it has the more advanced sound board and has been fully recapped by my expert repairperson. But the black FH is so beautiful and it also has a cassette port, which the MA2 doesn’t have. So much like my X1 Turbo Z and X1 D, they’re going to have to learn to put egos aside and live with each other.

NEC PC-TV151

I’ve got so many computers that either require or look best over digital RGB but only one monitor that supports it. If anything happens to that monitor, I can’t (optimally) use many of these machines. I decided to mitigate the risk by replacing one of my other monitors with this one. Nice and crisp text output, although photos come out slightly blurry due to the front glass cover.

The NEC PC-TV151 supports digital RGB, JP21, and composite. This is an excellent combination as I have a few systems that output over JP21 as well. But this one supports digital RGB using 15 colors, as opposed to the 8 colors that most digital RGB monitors support. Of course, supporting 15 colors is useless unless the computer also supports 15 colors, but that is indeed the case with the PC-6001mkIISR.

I don’t know how many games take advantage of the 15 colors, but one such game is Dig Dug. Here is a side-by-side comparison of 15 color more on the PC-TV151 and 8 colors on the PC-TV455.

The title and high score screens have some noticeable differences, for example the 8-color mode completely lacks orange, and the 15-color mode has differently mapped shades of blue, and although it came out a bit subtle in the photo, two shades of green (the 3rd and 4th high scores). But the major difference is in gameplay. The colors in 15-color mode are more natural because 8-color mode doesn’t output brown. The 15-color mode matches the colors output over composite on the PC-6001mkII (non-SR version).

NEC PC-6001mkIISR

Over the past year and a half or so, I’ve worked my way up from the PC-6001 to the PC-6001mkII, and now I’ve made it to the final stage in the series, the PC-6001mkIISR. I was not expecting to get this machine because it usually ends up around 25000 yen for just the machine, but here was a full set including box, manuals, and demo tapes, with the machine powered up and shows to be working to the main menu, for a good chunk less than that.

Actually, although it was shown in the auction to be working up to the above screen, the computer was not well at all. If you started in modes 2 or 4, the computer would fill up with corrupt graphics, a sign of bad RAM. In modes 1, 3, 5, or 6, it would look okay at first but fail to load games, and would still show the same corrupt graphics if you changed the current memory page. In addition, even if you thought you’d just poke around with BASIC a bit until the memory problem was solved, the PSU started making a horrible noise.

My friendly technician and patient friend Edoardo gave it proper treatment. He replaced the PSU with a new one, added ZIF sockets for the RAM and replaced the memory chips, and recapped the motherboard. When he brought it back to me, it was good as new. When he recaps a machine for me, it really helps cement its place as a permanent member of my collection. In addition, the machine is in amazing cosmetic condition. I mean, just look at it!

The box, manuals, and tapes were also in surprisingly good shape. I am not much of a box guy, being in Japan with limited space, and often see it as a mild deterrent to purchasing, but it sure does look pretty handsome. The manuals do show a bit of wear but not so bad

After getting it back, I threw Pac-Man at it. It runs in mode 5, which utilizes the full 64KB, and the game takes nearly 10 minutes to load from tape, so in my mind it’s a pretty thorough memory check but in reality I have no idea. In any event, it runs well and looks beautiful with its sharp digital RGB colors.

The main thing it’s missing that the PC-6001mkII had is composite output. Digital RGB is extra crisp, but composite sometimes outputs the “correct” colors. There are two main examples I can think of for this: Dig Dug and Eggy.

Dig Dug is a little bit subtle. It’s already a colorful game with some unnatural choices, so if you don’t pay much attention to it, it probably goes unnoticed. But the bottom layer of dirt and the rocks are brown over composite, but they’re magenta over digital RGB. The colors in the high score chart are also a distinct color for each entry in composite, but there is overlap in digital RGB because they’re being interpreted as the same color.

Eggy is a bit of a surprise. Actually, Eggy is essentially a black and white game, but it makes use of NTSC hacks to generate color. It’s really quite a feat because it looks very colorful! When you play it over digital RGB, while it does look crisp, it’s completely black and white!

Like the PC-8001mkIISR and PC-8801mkIISR, the main distinguishing feature between SR and non-SR models is advanced sound capabilities. It has almost everything the PC-6001mkII has, but adds an FM sound generator and includes two (male and female) digitized voices. They speak only in Japanese so it’s kinda cheating as there’s little challenge in pronunciation, but it’s an amusing extra.

It also comes with a “digital telopper” option, which prepares the output from the computer to be recorded. This is a feature usually reserved for the flagship computers such as the X1, FM77AV, or PC-8801’s upper-end models, so it’s pretty surprising to see it on this final iteration of NEC’s low-end line.

PC-6001 Demo Tape

This is NEC’s official demonstration tape for the PC-6001, which offers the user a glimpse into what is possible with their new computer.

It begins with a simple program that loads from tape in about five seconds, called “color”. It just shows off how many colors your computer can display (eight, although BASIC can only access them in terrible ways), and shows a couple of simple images that make use of these colors. The second picture shows that this cheap computer is just as capable as all of the expensive computers you can’t afford, as long as you sink a small fortune into expansions and peripherals. Motivating!

The second program shows some graphic capabilities. You can make graphs and charts and propel your career forward. If I recall correctly, the fifth image in this batch is from the third program, which shows off the audio capabilities of the machine, which are primitive, but still certainly add to the ambiance of a game.

Up last is probably the most interesting program on the tape, which shows a series of squares being drawn in different colors, rotated slightly and drawn over the existing squares, in series until the overall shape looks increasingly like a colorful circle.

I think there were more programs on the second side, I forget. I actually took these photos a few months ago. Anyway, I think this is a sufficient sample to get the idea.

One thing to remember is that NEC wanted to show users the machines capabilities, but actually the machine is *far* more capable than what you see here. You may recall the PC-6001 port of Eggy I posted about recently, it does a far superior job of showing the machine’s true power. Commodore had the same situation. Their demo disk showed so little of what the computer could do. To really push the limits of the machines, you have to get it into the hands of serious game developers, musicians, and even business software developers. These demo tapes and disks are really just the tip of the iceberg.

Also, since I took these pictures, I have acquired a PC-6001mk2. The difference is unreal. Quadruple the memory, far more sophisticated graphic modes and capabilities, vastly improved audio. The difference is really comparable to going from a VIC-20 to a Commodore 64 (which is not to say the machines themselves are quite comparable to the VIC-20 and Commodore 64, but the difference realized is about as big). Hard to believe they slapped on the same model number and just referred it as a new version, when it offered so much more.