The first three companies produced machines more targeted to the business market. Their machines emphasized resolution over graphics capability. Because Japan used Kanji characters in written communication, high resolution support was necessary for business machines. Kanji characters are difficult to decipher in less than 16x16 pixels, whereas the regular Latin alphabet and Katakana and Hiragana scripts can work with 8x8 pixels. Typically, a Japanese computer had graphics modes that went to 640x400 at 8 or 16 colors. They achieved this resolution at a cost of features and color depth. Any machine that did not support high resolutions, like the MSX machines, were viewed mainly as game consoles like the Famicom and PC Engine.
If the MSX machines were like the Commodore 64 of the Japanese home computer market, then the NEC PC-8801 was the Apple II of that market. Most computer game developers seemed to cut their teeth on this machine, of which there were many iterations. In the beginning it used a Z-80A CPU running at 4MHz, but it was easy to port games from it to its more expensive brother, the 8086 based NEC-9801, and the similar Sharp X1 and Fujitsu FM-7 machines.
Each of these machines supported a 640x200 graphics mode with 8 colors and this is what games primarily used for most of the 1980s. Those colors were often, but not always, the standard eight colors : black, white, red, green, blue, yellow, cyan and magenta. However, the games described here could choose from a palette of 512 colors on the NEC PC-8801. This was more impressive than CGA, PCjr. or Tandy machines using high resolution graphics modes, but EGA and VGA cards could do 640x200x16. In the 640x200x16 mode, the PC ports usually look almost identical to the PC-8801 games, albeit with a somewhat darker color palette. Eventually as the color depths and resolutions improved, they would still use the high resolution, lower color modes compared to imported western games that used lower resolution, higher color 320x200x256 VGA graphics.
However, when it came to sound support, these machines had the IBM PCs beat for most of the decade. The Sharp X1, Fujitsu FM-7s and MSX machines had AY-3-8910s or YM-2149s which were slightly better than the TI SN 76496 used in the IBM PCjr. and Tandy 1000s. By 1985, the PC-8801mkII SR had an internal Yamaha YM-2203 FM and PSG sound chip and the PC-9801s were using more advanced YM-2608s. (The PC-8801s would get the YM-2608 with the PC-8801 FA). Even with fewer sound channels, the YM-2203 had better capabilities than the Adlib YM-3812 and the people who composed for the PC-8801 like Yuzo Kojiro were far more skilled at FM synthesis composition than the Adlib composers.
While Japanese consoles were at the vanguard of the Japanese video game invasion, Japanese computer games also had a smaller, less celebrated role to play. Western games like Ultima and especially Wizardry were extremely popular in Japan for a while, and other genres like adventure games had a niche. Ken Williams of Sierra On-line went to Japan and was so impressed that he established a branch of Sierra over there and secured rights to port several popular Japanese PC titles to IBM PCs and some other Western home computers. From 1987-1990, Sierra released Thexder, Silpheed, Fire Hawk : Thexder II - The Second Contact, Zeliard and Sorcerian. The first four of these games were developed by Game Arts, and the last by Falcom. Sierra was not the only company to get into the act, as Broderbund released Ys The Vanished Omens (also by Falcom), Wibarm (by Arsys Software) and Cosmic Soldier : Psychic War (by Kogado). All these games were originally developed for the NEC PC-8801, so the rest of this blog entry will discuss how the PC releases held up to the Japanese originals.
|Thexder PC-8801 Title|
The PC version uses the Tandy/PCjr. sound chip for the background music and the PC speaker for the laser beam sound effect. However, when played on a non-Tandy or PCjr., the PC speaker is used for background music, or if the music is turned off, for the beam sound effects. The beam is a thick white line, and there are no contact explosions. Undoubtedly, the PC Speaker does justice to neither the music nor the sound effects. This game was too early for sound card support.
|Thexder PC-8801 Game|
It does not appear that Thexder supports a joystick on the PC-8801, but the other games do. The PC-8801 supports a standard Atari-style digital joystick port with two buttons using the MSX pinout. Thexder, like all other PC-8801 games featured in this post, requires a PC-8801 with the V2 graphics mode. This was first introduced with the PC-8801mkII SR in 1985, and all subsequent machines support this. The 8801mkII SR and the later machines also support the joystick, which leads me to believe the lack of joystick support was intentional to make the game harder. However, if that was not sufficiently challenging, the gameplay speed is much faster than Sierra's ports. It plays at Warp Speed by comparison. Even the other Japanese versions are more sedate. Sierra's joystick support and sane speeds makes its version arguably more playable than the original.
|Thexder - CGA|
|Thexder - Tandy|
|Thexder - MCGA|
|Thexder - EGA|
|Silpheed PC-8801 Title|
|Silpheed PC-8801 Game|
However, the rest of the sound presentation left something to be desired. Sierra attempted to recreate Xacalite's speech at the beginning of the game, but failed so miserably that they added subtitles in version 2.0. Sierra used PWM PC Speaker for the effect, but the sound chips could have done better. The original PC-8801 version uses Composite Sine Mode to loosely approximate human speech. Other speech samples, such as when the Silpheed fighter docks with the ship, were not included. The sound effects for the laser gun only use the PC speaker, and there are no sounds when enemy ships are hit. Although the sound effects were not particularly impressive on the original, it is better than silence and PC speaker warble.
|Silpheed - CGA|
|Silpheed - Tandy & MCGA|
|Silpheed - EGA|
Fire Hawk : Thexder II The Second Contact
|Fire Hawk PC-8801 Title|
|Fire Hawk PC-8801 Game 4MHz|
|Fire Hawk PC-8801 Game 8MHz|
|Fire Hawk PC-8801 Cinematic Sample & Heroine|
|Fire Hawk - Tandy & MCGA|
|Fire Hawk - EGA|
With Fire Hawk, Sierra finally allowed sound effects to be played through something other than the PC Speaker. Fire Hawk supports both Tandy and Sound Blaster DACs for the sound effects, and they sound great. Unfortunately, the drivers pair these DACs with their respective sound chips, so you will only be able to officially hear Tandy music with the Tandy DAC option and Ad Lib music with the Sound Blaster option.
|Zeliard PC-8801 Title|
The game itself is a side-scrolling action adventure similar to Ys III : Wanderers from Ys. The controls are rather loose, even with a game pad, and hit detection is very generous from the monster's perspective. There are some enemies, like bats, that cannot be hit very easily because the overhead attack is tricky to pull off. The environments are very maze like and virtually mandate the use of maps. Fortunately Sierra included some in the box. Caution is the rule of the day in these games.
|Zeliard PC-8801 Game|
|Zeliard - CGA|
|Zeliard - Hercules|
|Zeliard - Tandy|
|Zeliard - MCGA|
|Zeliard - EGA|
|Sorcerian PC-8801 Title|
|Sorcerian PC-8801 Menu|
|Sorcerian PC-8801 Game|
|Sorcerian - EGA|
Here is a list of the graphics and sound support for each of Sierra's releases :
|MCGA||Y||Y (16-Color)$||Y (16-Color)||Y||N|
|Ad Lib MSC||N||Y||Y||Y||Y|
|Sound Blaster DAC||N||N||Y||N||N|
|IBM Music Feature||N||Y||N||N||NW*|
|IBM PS/1 Audio Game||N||Y&||N||N||N|
|^ - Version 1.x requires patch||$ - Not available in Version 3.x|
|& - Version 3.x only||% - PCjr Graphics Support (Version 2.x for Silpheed)|
Ys the Vanished Omens, a.k.a. Ys : Ancient Ys Vanished (Omen), Ancient Land of Ys
|Ancient Ys Vanished PC-8801 Title|
|Ancient Ys Vanished Omen PC-8801 Game|
|Ancient Land of Ys - CGA|
|Ancient Land of Ys - Hercules|
|Ancient Land of Ys - Tandy & EGA|
|Wibarm PC-8801 Title|
|Wibarm - Game Overworld|
|Wibarm - Game Building|
|Wibarm - Game Battle|
|Wibarm - CGA|
|Wibarm - Hercules|
|Wibarm - Tandy & EGA|
Cosmic Soldier : Psychic War
|Cosmic Soldier 2: Psychic War PC-8801 Title|
This game supports CGA, Hercules and Tandy/EGA, PC Speaker, Tandy and Ad Lib sound. One can see the gradual improvement in sound support from Broderbund distributed products, but no high resolution support. Nothing in terms of sound effects, but the original game was rather sparse. The Tandy and Ad Lib music is surprisingly decent.
|Cosmic Soldier 2: Psychic War PC-8801 Game|
|Cosmic Soldier 2: Psychic War PC-8801 Game Over|
|Cosmic War: Psychic Soldier - CGA|
|Cosmic War: Psychic Soldier - Hercules|
|Cosmic War: Psychic Soldier - EGA/Tandy|
Koei released innumerable historical strategy games in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga's Ambition series, as well as other strategy games detailing other time periods like Napoleon and Liberty or Death as well as fantasy settings in Gemfire. While Koei is must better known for Dynasty Warriors today, in the 1980s and early 1990s it was solely known for its strategy games. They were among the most detailed for their time and more than just simple wargames. You had to manage provinces, supply armies, recruit generals, employ spies and assassins, conduct diplomacy, set tax rates as well as wage war in Koei's turn-based strategy games.
Koei released English-language versions of many of their games for the NES, SNES and Genesis. One might suppose that the slow pacing, intimidating interface and overwhelming number of options of most of their games would deter most people, but Koei kept on releasing games for consoles. They also released sixteen of their games for DOS with full English translations. Apparently people kept buying them, so they kept porting them. Unfortunately, they have generally not aged well.
Koei games are pretty bare-bones hardware-wise. All their earlier games support only 640x200x16 EGA graphics, although the earliest also support 640x200 CGA monochrome graphics (black and white). Its final releases use 640x480x16 VGA graphics and look very nice due to the large number of colors available for the palette. Sound support is usually just the PC speaker, although Adlib and Sound Blaster began to be supported in the 1990s. Mobygames has screenshots for all these games.