Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Case for Composite

The SNES and Genesis lead the pack of the 4th generation of video game consoles.  The common versions of these consoles can support RGB without any more effort than acquiring a cable and a monitor.  The Turbo Grafx 16 can be modded to support RGB.  But in this article I will demonstrate that RGB is not always the best choice for 4th generation graphics, at least when dealing NTSC composite video

1.  Sega Genesis

The Sega Genesis usually uses a 320x224 graphics mode.  Some games use a 256x224 mode.  The 320x224 mode's horizontal resolution is so great that not all the pixels can be fully resolved in a composite video signal on a standard TV.  There is frequent color fringing in thin-font text through the composite signal.  Additionally, with alternating colors,  you can obtain color artifacts to give graphics a transparent or blending effect.  This effect was used fairly often and works best with long alternating vertical lines.

Unfortunately, this effect is lost with an RGB monitor.  Compare the Genesis screenshots on this page for examples :

Here are some examples from several Sega Genesis games.  For these screenshots I am using Kega Fusion v3.64, with the normal RGB output and a video capture of a real Sega Genesis Model 1 for composite video.  In each pair of Genesis screenshots, you will see the RGB first, then the composite.

Earthworm Jim is particularly ugly looking with RGB :

Note the edges of the mountains in the background :

The waterfalls of the Sonic series just don't look as convincing in RGB, composite video gives them a transparency effect :

Also, compare the fronds of the palm trees in Sonic 2 :

Some games use a checkerboard pattern that allows for dithering to give a transparency effect.  It is not quite as seamless on a composite monitor as the vertical stripes method, but gives a more acceptable picture on an RGB monitor.  Streets of Rage 2 uses the effect to simulate the characteristics of a studio spotlight during the nightclub stage :

The effect looks obvious with RGB, as do the color limitations in this title screen for Echo the Dolphin :

You can even see dithering being used in Street Fighter II, which uses a 256x224 mode, to smooth out the color gradient's in the carpet in this stage :

However, sometimes composite video can produce some very unsightly artifacts, as shown in the empty life bars of Castlevania Bloodlines :

2.  Super Nintendo

The Super Nintendo almost always uses a 256x224 graphics mode.  The Turbo Grafx 16 and CD typically used a similar mode but unlike the SNES could do a 320x224 mode.  Thus for games using these resolutions, artifact graphics are not typically available.  Even in these systems, shadows and smoke/fog do make some us of the less-than fine resolution of composite video :

However, late in the SNES's lifespan, Nintendo sought to improve the graphics quality of some of its games by creating 3D models of sprites and background tiles on advanced Silicon Graphics computers and then storing what was needed in a pre-rendered form on the cartridge.  Pictures of these graphics looked awesome on boxes and manuals and magazines.

Games with this look, like the Donkey Kong Country series, Killer Instinct, Super Mario RPG were very popular and helped extend the life of the SNES without a silly and expensive CD add-on.  When playing the game, they looked amazing back in the day.  However, when played through and emulator or to a lesser extent through RGB, the flaws cannot be denied.  The graphics have been so reduced in resolution from their SGI originals that they tend to look fuzzy, even with the perfection an emulator like higan 0.94 can provide :

Composite video can help hide the sharp edges from the down-conversion.  It is kind of like free anti-aliasing.

The SNES could do true transparency, but even so, dithering was sometimes used to provide something akin to free transparency.  The first screenshot, from Chrono Trigger, shows natural transparency by the light streaming in from the window :

The second screenshot, from Secret of Mana, shows true transparency with the water covering the rocks, and dithered transparency in the text box :

The final screenshot, from Mortal Kombat 3, shows a transparent effect with the life bars :

To give a flavor of more accurate dithering I used a composite capture device and real hardware (an early 2-chip PPU model revision).

Occasionally, Genesis-like artifacting does appear on the SNES.  Consider Kirby's Dream Land 3, which uses a 512x224 resolution.  The increased bandwidth of an RGB monitor can essentially resolve 512 pixels, but a composite monitor cannot, and the result is free transparency on the lower quality device.  Compare the following :

The first screenshot shows artifact graphics in the object partially covering Kirby, but you can see the gaps in between the lines.  The second screenshot shows the transparency effect you would see on a composite monitor.

The original model of the SNES is capable of S-Video output without modification, but you really begin to lose the transparent effects and forgiving qualities of composite video output.  In light of the successful development of HD Retrovision's component video cables for the SNES and Genesis, giving North American gamers the equivalent of RGB video out, this is a timely topic.

3.  Atari 5200 and 7800

Unlike the Atari 2600, the 5200 and 7800 support 320-pixel wide graphics modes.  The Atari 5200 uses the same hardware chips as the Atari 8-bit home computers.  Choplifter for the Atari 5200 was ported from the Atari 8-bit home computers, which was in turn ported from the Apple II.  All three versions use composite artifact color.  The Atari 5200 only has an RF connection, so unless you mod your system for S-Video (the Atari 800 has Separate Luma/Chroma on its video connector port), you will always see artifact color.  When Atari later released Choplifter for the XEGS, another Atari 8-bit home computer games console, it redid the graphics for a 160-pixel wide mode, eliminating artifact composite color.  Look here for more information :

The Atari 7800 also had a 320-pixel wide mode that supported artifact color, but relatively few games supported it.  Its 160-pixel mode was much easier to use and supported more colors on the screen.  One of the few games that do support artifact colors on the 7800 is Tower Toppler, a.k.a. Nebulus a.k.a. Castelian.  This might have been because the game was being ported to the Atari 8-bit and XEGS and the Atari 7800 at the same time by the same programmer.  As explained here, the Atari 8-bit version was canceled :  The Atari 7800 only has RF output, so you will always see composite artifact colors when playing the game on a real, unmodded NTSC system.  Playing it on a PAL system will result in very stripey, sometimes monochrome graphics.  This video will show you what the graphics should look like :

4.  Sega Master System

The Sega Master System does support composite artifact color after a fashion.  It uses a 256-pixel wide mode but unlike the NES, it does not use a fractional color pixels that give a 3-line staircase effect.  It also does not vary each frame by one pixel.  This has the effect of making artifact colors rather stable and vertical on the SMS but diagonal and shimmery on the NES.  Sometimes you can see this in games.  See here for more information :

Monday, March 23, 2015

250 NES Games Worth Playing

In my opinion, there are many indisputable classics on the NES.  I also recognize that the library contains many, many other games that may not be indisputable classics, but are worth playing.  I decided to make a list of the games I would recommend to somebody when they ask "what's a good NES game?"

One thing I wanted to do is to cover as many genres as possible.  Even though sports games are not my forte, I wanted to try and fill as many holes as possible.  There are virtually no Street Fighter II style fighting games on the NES, so what is there, if it is at all decent, gets on the list.  I did not include any casual games outside classic puzzlers, nor did I include games that typically will be categorized as edutainment.  

Some games are here solely because of their peripheral support.  R.O.B. is a waste of money and the Power Pad is extremely impractical to use, and I would not inflict the Power Glove or the U-Force on a friend.  But the Zapper was an integral part of the NES experience and there are good games for it.  Arkanoid is on this list because it is fun to play with its VAUS paddle controller.  

Some games I recommend with reservations.  If you want a 100% authentic version of the original Archon or M.U.L.E., you won't find it in these ports.  You will find the essential essence of both games, an excellent two player head-to-head game in Archon and an easy way to get 4 player M.U.L.E. for the latter.  North and South also qualifies in this.  Double Dragon II can be unforgiving to get the best ending, but add a few Game Genie codes to make it fairer.  Ditto for Ironsword and either Battletoads game.  

Usually with a game series I recommend all the games in the series.  You will see every Mega Man game here, although some are better than others.  However, there are certain entries in a series that are really weak and are not going to be on this list.  1942 is just too shrill and boring and Contra Force is too slow to stand alongside Contra and Super C.

Other games on this list just barely make the cut.  Strider for the NES does not compare to the arcade original or the Genesis conversion, but it has just enough, despite its bugs and oddness, to make the list.  WURM is almost a guilty pleasure for me, but it is one of the better games that tries to implement more than one style of gameplay (and does not have those stupid mazes like Golgo 13).  Godzilla is another, if it weren't for the excellent use of the license, it would be a very mediocre game.

Some computer game ports are on the list, others are not.  The Wizardry and Ultima series are best experienced on computer platforms, especially the latter.  I chose Swords and Serpents because it is a good and more forgiving Wizardry clone that can only be found on the NES.  Pool of Radiance has merit in that it is a less unforgiving version of the original game while still retaining the essence of it.  Maniac Mansion is far truer to its computer forebear than King's Quest V and has awesome and exclusive if repetitive music.

This list is limited to North American NES releases during the NES's official lifespan.  This includes games released from and including 1985 up to and including 1994.  Unlicensed games released during that time frame are included, but not thereafter.  There are no Famicom or PAL NES exclusives, and no homebrews or prototypes/reproductions.  The list would probably double if all those were included, but I have narrowed the list to cartridges you could actually find on this continent.  Of course, there are some expensive cartridges like Bubble Bobble 2 and Little Sampson on this list.  

There are some "classics" that won't be on this list.  The original TMNT was a top 10 seller for the NES, but I cannot recommend it over so many other games that were not colossal disappointments.  Ikari Warriors was popular, but Guerilla War and Iron Tank (also from SNK) are better than all three Ikari NES games combined.  

1943: The Battle of Midway
3-D Adventures of the WorldRunner
A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Pool of Radiance
Adventure Island
Adventure Island 2
Adventure Island 3
Adventures in the Magic Kingdom
Adventures of Lolo
Adventures of Lolo 2
Adventures of Lolo 3
After Burner
Alien Syndrome
Bad Dudes
Balloon Fight
Barker Bill's Trick Shooting
Baseball Simulator 1.000
Baseball Stars
Batman Returns
Batman: Return of the Joker
Battle of Olympus, The
Battletoads & Double Dragon
Bee 52
Bionic Commando
Blades of Steel
Blaster Master
Bomberman II
Bonk's Adventure
Bubble Bobble
Bubble Bobble Part 2
Bucky O'Hare
Burai Fighter
California Games
Casino Kid
Casino Kid 2
Castlevania II: Simon's Quest
Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse
Caveman Games
Chessmaster, The
Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers
Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers 2
Clash at Demonhead
Cobra Triangle
Code Name: Viper
Cowboy Kid
Crystal Mines
Déjà Vu
Desert Commander
Destiny of an Emperor
Disney's Darkwing Duck
Disney's The Little Mermaid
Dizzy the Adventurer
Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong 3
Donkey Kong Jr.
Double Dragon
Double Dragon II: The Revenge
Dr. Mario
Dragon Fighter
Dragon Warrior
Dragon Warrior II
Dragon Warrior III
Dragon Warrior IV
Duck Hunt
DuckTales 2
Dudes with Attitude
Dusty Diamond's All-Star Softball
Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy, The
Fantasy Zone
Faria: A World of Mystery and Danger
Felix the Cat
Final Fantasy
Fire 'n Ice
Flintstones: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, The
Flintstones: The Rescue of Dino & Hoppy, The
Freedom Force
Galaga: Demons of Death
Gargoyle's Quest II
Ghosts'n Goblins
Godzilla: Monster of Monsters
Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode
Goonies II, The
Gremlins 2: The New Batch
Guardian Legend, The
Guerrilla War
High Speed
Ice Climber
Ice Hockey
Immortal, The
Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II
Iron Tank
Jackie Chan's Action Kung Fu
Journey to Silius
Kabuki Quantum Fighter
Kickle Cubicle
Kid Icarus
Kid Klown in Night Mayor World
Kid Niki: Radical Ninja
Kirby's Adventure
Kiwi Kraze
Krion Conquest, The
Kung-Fu Heroes
Krazy Kreatures
Legacy of the Wizard
Legend of the Ghost Lion
Legend of Zelda, The
Legendary Wings
Life Force
Linus Spacehead's Cosmic Crusade
Little Nemo: The Dream Master
Little Ninja Brothers
Little Samson
Lone Ranger, The
Low G Man: The Low Gravity Man
M.C. Kids
Mach Rider
Mafat Conspiracy, The
Magic of Scheherazade, The
Maniac Mansion
Marble Madness
Mario Bros
Mega Man
Mega Man 2
Mega Man 3
Mega Man 4
Mega Man 5
Mega Man 6
Mendel Palace
Metal Storm
Mickey Mousecapade
Micro Machines
Mighty Final Fight
Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!
Milon's Secret Castle
Ms. Pac-Man (Tengen)
NES Open Tournament Golf
Ninja Gaiden
Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos
Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom
Nintendo World Cup
North & South
P.O.W.: Prisoners of War
Panic Restaurant
Pinball Quest
Pipe Dream
Power Blade
Power Blade 2
Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom
Pro Wrestling
R.C. Pro-Am
R.C. Pro-Am II
Rad Racer
Rad Racer II
Rainbow Islands: The Story of Bubble Bobble 2
RBI Baseball
River City Ransom
Rockin Kats
Rolling Thunder
Rush'n Attack
S.C.A.T.: Special Cybernetic Attack Team
Section Z
Shadow of the Ninja
Snake Rattle 'n' Roll
Snow Brothers
Solar Jetman: Hunt for the Golden Warpship
Solomon's Key
Solstice: The Quest for the Staff of Demnos
Spiritual Warfare
Spy vs. Spy
Super C
Super Dodge Ball
Super Mario Bros.
Super Mario Bros. 2
Super Mario Bros. 3
Super Spy Hunter
Swords and Serpents
Tecmo Bowl
Tecmo Super Bowl
Tecmo World Wrestling
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project
Tetris (Tengen)
Tetris 2
Thunder & Lightning
Tiny Toon Adventures
Tiny Toon Adventures 2: Trouble in Wackyland
Tombs & Treasure
Totally Rad
Trolls on Treasure Island
Vice: Project Doom
Wario's Woods
WCW World Championship Wrestling
Wizards & Warriors
Wizards & Warriors III: Kuros: Visions of Power
Wrecking Crew
WURM : Journey to the Center of the Earth
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Zen the Intergalactic Ninja
Zoda's Revenge: StarTropics II
Zombie Nation

Honorable Mentions:

Adventures of Bayou Billy, The
Captain Comic
Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones
Festers' Quest
Friday the 13th
Godzilla 2: War of the Monsters
Metal Gear
Mission: Impossible
Monster in my Pocket
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters
Wizardry: The Knight of Diamonds
Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Forgotten Switch : The Atari 2600's B&W/Color Switch

The original Atari 2600 VCS had six switches to control the various game functions, Power On/Off, B&W/Color, Left Difficulty, Right Difficulty, Game Select and Game Reset.   In the early models of the console, there were six aluminum switches, symmetrically spaced on either side of the cartridge slot, three on the left, three on the right.  Later, Atari redesigned the console to reduce costs and put the left and right difficulty switches on the back of the console and used standard plastic switches instead of aluminum.  Even with this change, there were still two switches to the left of the cartridge slot and two to the right.  This continued into the Atari 2600jr, except that all the chrome switches had been replaced with plastic.  Nonetheless, the symmetry of the Atari 2600 is an aesthetic that has been seldom been so rigorously pursued in a console's design throughout its lifespan.

Atari 2600 Light Six Switch
The standard Atari joystick only had one button and the cartridges were too small at first for title screens, menus and logos.  Changing settings were done by these switches and the program reading the appropriate port.  Only the Power On/Off switch had a fixed function, it was connected directly to the electrical path that powered the console.  The other five switches were each connected to a bit on an I/O port.  The game could do whatever it wanted with them, but by convention the Game Select and Game Reset switches usually did just as they indicated.  While Left and Right difficulty were originally intended to set a handicap for one or both players, human or computer, they could just as easily be used to adjust game characteristics.

Atari 2600 Woodgrain Four Switch
The Black and White switch is the focus on this blog entry.  It is just as important as the other switches, yet too frequently overlooked and left off modern products.  The original intent of this switch was to alter the game to switch its colors when the switch was set to the B&W position.  The player should set it if playing on a B&W TV to improve contrast between the player/missile/ball graphics and the playfield/background.  The Atari 2600 had sixteen choices of colors or hues and eight levels of brightness or luminances.  Typically, when the B&W side of the switch was activated, the program would switch to using the eight monochrome shades offered by the 2600.  Sometimes, it would use more muted colors.  On a Color TV, the B&W choices would come very close to simulating what the image would like on a true B&W TV.  Here are two examples to show when this would be useful :

Combat - Color Switch
Combat - Color Switch on Simulated B&W TV
Combat - B&W Switch
Air-Sea Battle - Color Switch
Air-Sea Battle - Color Switch on Simulated B&W TV
Air-Sea Battle - B&W Switch
However, it is very important to remember that a B&W TV was often the second TV in American households in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  If the parents did not want the kids to hog the main TV with video games, they would hook the system up to a second TV.  Few U.S. TVs had two color TVs during this time frame.  Many kids grew up playing video games on B&W TVs, it is a very important part of retro gaming that is too often overlooked.

From 1977 until 1982, most Atari and then Activision (made up of ex-Atari programmers) games used the B&W/Color Switch as originally intended.  In fact, until Atari's silver label cartridges and Activision's special label cartridges, it is easier to compile a list of games that did not use the B&W/Color switch as originally intended.  They are as follows :

Atari/Activision Games that Do Not Support B&W

3-D Tic-Tac-Toe
Demons to Diamonds
Super Breakout
Yar's Revenge

Activision Decathlon
Keystone Capers
Plaque Attack
Pressure Cooker
Robot Tank
Spider Fighter

When it comes to Atari Silver, Children's or Red labels or Activision's Special labels, unless the game was previously released as a text or picture label, it will almost certainly not use the B&W/Color switch as intended.  In addition, relatively few third party games released during the 2600's official lifespan use it.  There are some exceptions, and this is not intended to be a complete list but for illustrative purposes :

Other Companies that Support B&W as Originally Intended

Star Wars ESB
Bank Heist
Music Machine
Star Voyager
Space Tunnel
Realsports Volleyball
Mega Force
Worm War I
Crash Dive
Revenge of the Beeksteak Tomatoes

Finally, there are several games that use the B&W switch for a special function unrelated to its original intent. Often it could be used to pause the game, but other games assigned a unique function to it.  Here is a list of games that I have verified :

B&W Switch used for Something Else

Space Shuttle (engine controls)
Cosmic Ark (turn on/off star field on some cartridges)
Fantastic Voyage (pause)
Solaris (inverts planet horizons)
Mouse Trap (removes playfield)
Starmaster (brings up Galactic Chart)
Beany Bopper (pause)
Flash Gordon (pause)
Spacemaster X-7 (pause)
Secret Quest (brings up Status Screen and password)

There are undoubtedly more games than on this list, but it serves as an illustrative example of why the B&W/Color switch should not be utterly ignored.  Devices like the Atari Flashbacks which do not include the B&W/Color switch will not function as originally intended with these games.  

Activision Logo

On a totally unrelated Atari 2600 subject, it is interesting to note how consistent Activision was with its in-game logo.  Activision always displayed its logo "Activision" on the game screen for every game.  In its early games like Fishing Derby, the logo would simply be present somewhere on the bottom of the screen.  For the later games, like Pitfall, the text Copyright 198x would appear, then the Copyright text would scroll up and Activision would appear. On games released near the crash, there would be a rainbow leading into the A in Activision.  The A itself was redesigned, otherwise the logo pixel pattern seems identical :

Scrolling Logo 1982-1983
Scrolling Rainbow Logo 1983-1984
Beamrider is the only game where the Activision logo is not always seen during gameplay from the pre-crash era.   Beamrider was the first game to use the (c) character instead of the word Copyright.  It is also the last time the rainbow version of the Activision logo would be used.  Ghostbusters is unique in that it does not have the word Activision is not using the standard appearance.   After Ghostbusters, the (c) and year would be instantly replaced with the non-rainbow Activision logo, no scrolling.  Also, if the game was licensed from another company, that company's name would appear after Activision's.  

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Japanese Invasion : Japanese PC games on Western PCs

Japan has a fine tradition of its own home-grown computers.  In the United States, Apple, Atari, Commodore, Tandy and Texas Instruments all produced computers for the mass-market that were incompatible with each other and with the emerging IBM PC standard.  The United Kingdom had its own computer industry with Sinclair and Commodore and Amstrad churning out budget machines that were not going to replace serious IBM PCs.  In Japan, NEC, Fujitsu and Sharp were the big PC players in the 1980s and the MSX machines also had some popularity.

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
Thexder was Sierra's first release in 1987 and probably its best seller of all the Japanese games it released.  However, as far as conversions went, you could tell they were still finding their feet.  Thexder is not a very varied game, so the little things count.  The beam in NEC Thexder is thin, multi-colored, uses circles to indicate hits and explosions, and uses the sound chip for its sound effects.  The title screen has scrolling sky.

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
However, one good thing Sierra did was to use the EGA 640x200x16 mode.  This allows the PC graphics to appear similar or identical to the Japanese graphics.   They would continue to support high resolution modes.for all their future releases.  There are also CGA and Tandy and even MCGA graphics, the last of which draws from an expanded range of colors.  These graphics were drawn in the lower resolution, 320x200, than any contemporary Japanese version outside the NES or MSX.  This made the graphics easy to port, but conversion work was required for players without a VGA or EGA card.  Oddly enough but only one of Sierra's releases supports Hercules Graphics (Zeliard), despite the high resolution mode of that card.

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
In later games, using a digital gamepad is definitely the way to go, whether on a IBM PC compatible or a PC-8801. Of course, on a PC these games only support the standard analog gameport, but these games have simple joystick reading routines where above and below a certain threshold response equals movement on an axis and a reading in between those responses means no movement.  A Gravis Gamepad works perfectly with a three state axis reading routines, and is the best way to play these games on real hardware.  This stinks if you have a Tandy TX or earlier machine, which has a joystick port that does not function identically to a standard PC port and does not work with Gravis Gamepads, even with an adapter.  A Tandy TL can disable its built-in gameports in software, so you can use a standard gameport on an ISA card.


Silpheed PC-8801 Title
When Silpheed was released in 1988, there was nothing quite like it for western computers.  There were shmup like games on the home computers of the time, but they were mainly ports of arcade games and small independent works.  Silpheed used a very unusual perspective for its time and since.  It plays close to a top-down shooter, but the perspective was angled like a pinball machine.  Objects were given the appearance of depth and the original game developers used polygon ship designs.  Silpheed is very challenging.  The enemies came fast and furious and the difficulty in dodging constant attacks and the difficulty of keeping your ship's lifebar up could get very unforgiving.  The overall polish of the product cannot be denied.

Silpheed PC-8801 Game
Sierra had been transitioning from autodetecting graphical capabilities and supporting Tandy sound if run on a Tandy to fully selectable graphics support and support for popular sound cards.  It also introduced document-based copy protection to the Japanese games.  This was one of the initial games for which Sierra had included support for sound cards.  It supported the Tandy 3-voice sound chip, the Ad Lib Music Feature Card, the Roland MT-32 and the IBM Music Feature.  Game Blaster support could be added via a patch and version 2.x supported it out of the box and the Yamaha FB-01 (identical music to the IBM Music Feature).  Sierra did the music justice on the MT-32.

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
However, in version 3.0, Sierra supported the IBM PS/1 Audio/Game Card, which had a DAC.  Now Xacalite's speech was clear, the voices when you dock the ship are restored, and the sound effects sound comparatively great.  IBM was so impressed with the game that they bundled it with the card.  Unfortunately, this version was apparently not released outside IBM's offering, came well after the game's original release in 1991, did not support a wide variety of hardware and was obscure for many years.

Fire Hawk : Thexder II The Second Contact

Fire Hawk PC-8801 Title
Fire Hawk continued the improvements to Sierra's releases.  One of the best features of Sierra's Japanese releases was that the box art showed some awesome mecha for Thexder and Silpheed, and Thexder's sequel was the best of all.  Fire Hawk improved on the original by having power ups in addition to the blaster, more varied enemies and environments and a full music track instead of the two tracks that Thexder used. There was also a substantial back-story and there were some attempts to develop the story during the game. While Fire Hawk could be cheap, it was not quite as unforgiving as Thexder.  This was the only other game in this Sierra series to support manual-based copy protection.

Fire Hawk PC-8801 Game 4MHz
Fire Hawk PC-8801 Game 8MHz
Fire Hawk PC-8801 Cinematic Sample & Heroine
Fire Hawk pushed the limit of the PC-8801 series.  With a 4MHz machine, there would be no backgrounds, just black space.  With an 8MHz machine, the game would draw the backgrounds and the gameplay would be significantly less choppy.  Sierra had an install option to instruct the game not to draw these backgrounds on slower systems, but gave the user the choice. Also, the game would take advantage of the more advanced YM-2608 chip found in the later machines to enhance the existing music.  The music is not radically different compared to the machines with the YM-2203.

Fire Hawk - Tandy & MCGA
Fire Hawk - EGA
Sierra was beginning to slide a bit by this time.  The music compositions are a bit hit and miss if you do not have an MT-32.  The MT-32 has its own unique sound which competes heavily with the YM-2608 original tunes.  In addition, the Japanese versions had the opening story told in game via Ninja Gaiden-like cinematics, but Sierra relegated it to a comic in the manual.  Also, the MCGA graphics option does not take any advantage of the larger color palette (unlike the same option in its predecessor) and looks identical to the Tandy graphics option.  There is no CGA option, so owners with that level of graphics capability were out of luck.

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
Zeliard was the last Game Arts' game Sierra released.  The port of the game is excellent, the graphics are nearly identical to the original, the MCGA option is more colorful than the EGA or Tandy or CGA options.  The music is spot on, this time, with the Tandy 3-voice music a particuar highlight.  (Yes Sierra, you can use the noise channel for percussion!)

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
Unfortunately, Sierra's marketing for the game seems to be virtually nil.  The box art is pretty bad, the manual is slim and only accompanied by a map poster.  Music support is limited to PC Speaker, Tandy, Ad Lib and MT-32.  However, there is support for CGA and unique among Sierra's ports, Hercules monochrome graphics.  Additionally, there is no copy protection in this game or Sorcerian (but the manual is kind of required for the latter).  Zeliard uses Composite Sine Mode to loosely approximate voices during the introduction.  The PC version does not support this, although the hardware of the YM-3812 in the Ad Lib did support Composite Sine Mode.  Instead it uses high to low pitched notes to give some aural expression to the text.

Zeliard - CGA
Zeliard - Hercules
Zeliard - Tandy
Zeliard - MCGA
Zeliard - EGA
Getting Zeliard to run in a PC-8801 is not obvious, unlike these other games.  You need to boot Disk 3 and let it format a user disk (use a copy of Disk 3 with an emulator or a blank formatted disk).  Despite what TOSEC says, there are only three game disks. Then start the game with Disk 1 and Disk 2 in drive 1 and 2, respectively, let it get past the intro and then insert the user disk you created.


Sorcerian PC-8801 Title
Sorcerian was the last direct port from Japanese PC games Sierra released.  Sorcerian was originally released by Nihon Falcom in Japan, and is the fifth canonical game in its Dragon Slayer series.  Unlike the earlier games, this one only supports 640x200x16 graphics, requiring an EGA or VGA card.  It also appears to require a 286-class system, based on the box sticker that says "IBM AT VERSION".

Sorcerian PC-8801 Menu
Even though Sorcerian was a side-scrolling adventure like Zeliard and its predecessor, Dragon Slayer IV : Drasle Family (better known as Legacy of the Wizard on the NES), it was very ambitious.  It has a character select system like Ultima III that allowed you to create multiple characters and form parties with them.  Your characters had classes, occupations and could change as they aged.  Each character went into shops to buy his own equipment like Wizardry.  You don't control one character but four, which move and jump in unison.  The game gave you fifteen quests instead of a singular goal.  In Japan Falcom and other companies released expansion scenario disks to add new quests to the game, but Sierra only released Sorcerian with the basic 15 quests.

Sorcerian PC-8801 Game
Sorcerian's music support is limited to the Ad Lib, Game Blaster, MT-32 and the Yamaha FB-01. Unfortunately, Yamaha FB-01 music tends to crash in the gameplay screens, only in the option screens and the music guild.  The music guild option is not readily available in the PC-8801 version, but there are more sound effects in the PC-8801.  Unfortunately, Sierra went back to its lazy ways of using only the PC speaker for sound effects, regardless of music device chosen.

Sorcerian - EGA
Unfortunately, Zeliard and Sorcerian were not huge sellers, and Sierra turned from its partnership with Japanese companies.  Its next partnership was with the developer it bought, Dynamix.

Here is a list of the graphics and sound support for each of Sierra's releases :

Thexder Silpheed Fire Hawk Zeliard Sorcerian
Hercules N N N Y N
Tandy Y% Y%$ Y Y N
MCGA Y Y (16-Color)$ Y (16-Color) Y N

PC Speaker Y Y Y Y Y
Tandy 3-Voice Y Y Y Y N
Tandy DAC N N Y N N
Ad Lib MSC N Y Y Y Y
Sound Blaster DAC N N Y N N
Game Blaster N Y^ Y N Y
Roland MT-32 N Y Y Y Y
IBM Music Feature N Y N N NW*
Yamaha FB-01 N Y^ N N NW
IBM PS/1 Audio Game N Y& N N N
Roland D-110 N Y N N Y*
Casio MT-540 N N N N Y*
Casio CT-460/CSM-1 N N N N Y*

^ - 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
This is the first Japanese PC game published by Broderbund.  This is unfortunate because Ys 1 is a very good game but Broderbund did it no favors.  The only graphics options are CGA, Tandy and EGA 320x200 graphics.  Hercules graphics are supported, but don't convey the original high resolution graphics of the original Japanese version.  As bad as the graphics are, and they make the main character look like a walking turd, this is nothing compared to the laziness of the sound engine.  Only PC speaker is supported, and there was no excuse for this in 1989.  The port was done by Unlimited Software, Inc., the porting arm of Distinctive Software, Inc.  While the company did have some experience with sound chips, their ports generally are rather middling in quality (TMNT U.S. version was impossible to finish, Castlevania with anything but the PC Speaker slows the game to a crawl on 286s), and Ys is no exception.

Ancient Ys Vanished Omen PC-8801 Game
On the plus side, the game plays like the Japanese original, even down to the keys used to bring up the menu screens.  One benefit to having the translated PC versions is that the menu options and other text in English are usually in the same places as in the PC-8801 versions, making games like Ys and Sorcerian much easier to play. But the glorious music, composed in part by the legendary Yuzo Koshiro, is done no justice here. It appears as though the PC speaker was assigned to one instrument, which would have given Tandy music a fuller sound had it been supported.  Broderbund also released an Apple IIgs port, and while the graphics are no better than the PC port, the music is done some justice due to the IIgs's synthesizer.  The PC port uses disk-based copy protection, which was already considered passe' by the time.

Ancient Land of Ys - CGA
Ancient Land of Ys - Hercules
Ancient Land of Ys - Tandy & EGA
Ys was also ported to the Sega Master System (which uses the same sound chip as the Tandy) and later to the Turbo Grafx 16 CD with its sequel, but these are the only forms which the West ever officially received until the release of Legacy of Ys: Books I and II for the Nintendo DS in 2009.  In the PC and Apple IIgs ports, names are changed.  Adol Christin becomes Arick andDark Fact becomes Malificus.


Wibarm PC-8801 Title
Broderbund's second Japanese PC game did improve slightly in the presentation from the first.  Wibarm was originally developed by Arsys Software.  While the graphics options and resolutions have not changed, this port at least supports Tandy 3-voice music.  Fortunately the music is rather good, with nice use of noise channel percussion.  It is not the same music as in the PC-8801 version.  There is not a lot of music in Wibarm, so what is there becomes repetitive.  Document based copy protection is used.

Wibarm - Game Overworld

Wibarm - Game Building
Wibarm - Game Battle
Unfortunately, Wibarm is an unfairly obscure game.  I do not believe there is a FAQ or even a full English copy of the manual available.  The similarities to Thexder are obvious, but the game uses a hub-like world, first person perspectives inside building, and an odd battle screen that you might fight any enemy you touch.  Unfortunately figuring out which enemies you can defeat and whether you can spare the energy is a trial and error process.

Wibarm - CGA
Wibarm - Hercules
Wibarm - Tandy & EGA
It obviously was and not a great seller for Broderbund, who obviously put little marketing behind the title. Considering how close it is to Thexder, which was a big seller, this is surprising.  Wibarm is also a small nightmare to get running on a PC without the original install disks and manual or reference card.  It does not like being installed on a hard drive other than C: or with more than 50-60 subdirectories in the root of the drive.  It needs both WIBARM and WIBARM.DAT as subdirectories in the root directory of the drive.

Cosmic Soldier : Psychic War

Cosmic Soldier 2: Psychic War PC-8801 Title
This game was known as Cosmic Soldier 2: Psychic War in Japan, and as its name implies, it is a sequel to Cosmic Soldier, both originally developed by Kogado.  The game, like Ys, was brought over from Japan by Kyodai Software Marketing, Inc., a joint venture of Japanese computer game developers created to introduce their games to the West.  Broderbund handled the distribution.

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
This is an futuristic RPG with a first person perspective like Wizardry and the Gold Box games.  You start as a single character with a female cyborg that acts like a guide.  Along the way, you can encounter enemies and sometimes you can bring them to the point of defeat, where they will offer to join your party.  You can have a maximum of four party members.  Attacking is done by a mental beam, and it like you and your opponent push beams against each other and whoever's beam touches will cause damage.

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.