Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Adventures in Porting - US PC Game Developers and the FM Towns

Released in 1989, the Fujitsu Micro (FM) Towns home computer was an amazingly powerful gaming computer for its time.  It used a 386DX CPU running at 16MHz with 1MB of RAM (upgradeable to 2MB). It could display many resolutions like 640x480 with 256 colors and could support 15-bit color at 320x240 and lots of sprites.  It came with 1x CD-ROM drive, providing redbook audio support in addition to the 4-Operator FM Synthesis 6-channel YM-2612 chip (also used in the Sega Genesis) and 8-channel 8-bit Ricoh RF5c68 PCM chip.  It also came with 2 HD floppy drives and could be connected to an external hard drive.  The Operating System, FM Towns OS, was a Windows-like GUI operating system.  A bootable only version of the OS was freely available to applications developers so their software could boot in the CD drive without needing to load the OS.

Of course, this powerful machine was available only in Japan, where it competed with the Sharp X68000 and the NEC PC-9801 series.  Of all the three system lines, the FM Towns was the closest, hardware-wise, to the IBM PC compatible machines in the west.  Fujitsu came calling to US companies looking for software to showcase their new machine, and several companies were interested.  Most licensed their games to be ported in Japan, but a few put in something extra when it came to the FM Towns.


LucasArts was quite enthusiastic when it came to the FM Towns, porting many of its classic SCUMM adventure games to the system.  Unlike other companies, they did not ship their code off to Japan for a local company to convert their game.  Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders was their one game where none of the advanced features ever found their way back to the US.

Zak's FM Towns version featured a 256 color graphics update of the 320x200 Enhanced PC version.  There was a great deal more music, with the CD containing 23 CD audio tracks for background music throughout the game.  The original C64 version had music two tracks and none of the other versions had more than that until this FM Towns version.  Most of the tracks consist of ambient noise and sounds appropriate to the scene with new age music themes popping up from time to time.  The sound effects also received an upgrade thanks to the more capable sound hardware.

Zak is easily accessible to non-Japanese players because it kept the English language text.  Not all games would use Japanese text.  However, all of LucasArts' games had a Japanese text option, but in Zak the graphics for the player characters were altered to give their eyes a larger, more anime-style look.  The effect is more creepy than cute and the faces of the non player characters are not altered.

Next we turn to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure.  This game shares the graphics from the 256-color PC VGA version, which was floppy-disk sized.  There were a few 16-color graphics left over in the PC VGA version that were fixed in the FM Towns version.  However, there is an error in the FM Towns version where some of the tiny character sprites are in 16 colors instead of 256 colors as they were in the PC VGA version.

The audio in the PC 16 color or 256 color version supported nothing better than the Adlib, but the FM Towns version's music received a huge upgrade.  The music appears to be taken from the film's soundtrack, so it really cannot get much better, quality-wise.  Not every scene and area in the PC version used music, but there are 14 tracks on the CD devoted to John Williams' recordings.

 After Indy comes Loom.  Here the graphics were updated to 256 colors, except for the icons that appear when you click on objects.  Unlike the PC version, the graphic for the FM Towns' distaff uses a palette not strictly limited to the 16 color IBM CGA/EGA palette.

Whereas the PC CD version of Loom devotes its CD audio space to speech and sound effects, the FM Towns version of Loom devotes it to music.  There are two sets of eight tracks used for music in the game, and they correspond to the music in the PC floppy disk version.  The first set of tracks (1-8) sound like they were recorded with a real orchestra.  The second set of tracks (9-16) were clearly composed with a synthesizer.  When music starts to play, the track from the first set plays, then the second set plays.  Unfortunately, after that the inferior second set track loops.  Whoever thought that was a good idea?

Interestingly, of all the boxes, only Zak and Loom used artwork that was not found on LucasArts' own PC boxes.  Indy's box art and the rest essentially follow the LucasArts' PC boxes.  Zak included a translated version of The National Inquisitor and collectible cards featuring the playable characters.  Lucas or Fujitsu went the extra mile and had the Audio Drama from Loom done by Japanese voice actors.   Loom and Zak took much longer than the other games to be converted due to their 16-color origins.  Indy for the FM Towns had been completed within two months of the PC 256-color version, while Loom took a year to be released after its 16-color PC version.

Since all the dialogue is kept from the PC floppy version and the portraits have been redone in 256 colors, some consider this to be the definitive version of the game.  The cutscenes and animations lost in the PC CD version are kept here.

With the Secret of Monkey Island, the inventory item graphics were in 16 colors compared to the 256 color pictures of the PC CD VGA version?  They were not planning 320x200 EGA 16-color support for the CD version in 1991-1992.  So why bother to create 16-color versions of these graphics?  My theory is that they were in 16-colors because the lower part of the screen is using an overlay mode.

Essentially put, many PC ports to the FM Towns would use the nearest analogous mode, 320x240. However, kanji text requires a high resolution mode.  I believe the SCUMM engine games used 320x240 with 256 colors (the mode is capable of 15-bit color) for the main graphics window and a 640x480 overlay for the text on the submenu and the spoken dialogue. This gives the kanji 16x16 pixels for each character, but the mode only supports 16 colors on the screen.  This minimized the performance hit compared to everything being drawn in a 640x480 resolution.  An unfortunate side effect is that the inventory graphics in SoMI and the closeup graphics in Loom would have to be in 16 colors.

Zak takes advantage of the extra resolution compared to its PC versions.  It essentially uses 432 of its 480 lines for the text-based portions of the game.  This allows the player to select three additional rows of inventory objects over the PC versions.  The rest of these games do not use the extra space and just leave back letterbox-like bars there.  While Loom puts the bars on the bottom of the screen, the rest of the games center the game in between top and bottom bars.  This tends to suggest that these games were made with a 1.6:1 aspect ratio in mind when most PC games, including LucasArts, really were not.

The Secret of Monkey Island looks, sounds and plays like the PC CD version.  This is when LucasArts' ports no longer have substantial value over their corresponding PC versions.

LucasArts also released Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, but Fate corresponds to its PC CD version and MI2 to its PC version, which was not enhanced for CD. Fate's Japanese text option uses the English voice acting.  Neither CD has CD audio, making them rather uninteresting from a PC perspective.  There are some palette changes, but otherwise they play the same.  LucasArts's iMUSE music engine was too complex to be handled by CD Audio at the time.  The only addition FM Towns' MI2 has over the PC release is a Japanese language option.  These games boot to a language selection screen instead of the FM Towns OS. Compare Loom with Monkey Island 2's boot options :

Origin Systems

Another interesting FM Towns port is that of Ultima VI: The False Prophet.  The major CD enhancement for this port is the addition of voice acting.  There is both English and Japanese voice acting, each is used for the appropriate language choice.  For the English voice acting, employees from Origin Studios and their relatives were used. Richard Garriott voices Lord British and Shamino, for example.  The samples are stored on the CD in files, so the resulting quality is 8-bit.  The sound effects have taken a major improvement over the PC speaker sound effects in the PC version.  This particular port was overseen by Origin.  They were probably planning to use their efforts to release an Enhanced PC CD-ROM version, but that never happened.

For Ultima VI, the 640x480 mode's extra height allows for an extra box.  Typically, this has icons to allow the user to select the English or Japanese language language, save or load a game and return to the FM Towns OS. Uniquely of the games I have sampled, Ultima VI allows you to select the language by either an executable or in the game.  When in dialogue, this allows you to select any conversation choice revealed by the dialogue without typing. Of course you can still type anything into the box to ask the character.

Origin also ported Wing Commander to the FM Towns.  The FM Towns version includes both the expansion packs and you can select either expansion pack from the main menu, unlike the PC version.  The CD audio is used for the music, while the sound effects are substantially upgraded.  Unlike Ultima VI, there is no voice acting and selecting between English and Japanese is done via executables.  Interestingly, there are three executables for each language choice, one for each drive you could use to save your progress.  In the FM Towns, Drives A and B are floppies, Drive C is for the internal ROM and Drive D is for an external hard drive.

Wing Commander II requires an installation to a hard drive, and like its predecessor it uses the CD audio for music.  Ultima Underworld uses it for voice acting heard in the introduction in the PC version.  The samples are obviously of higher quality than what floppy disks could hold, but after you finish the intro, the PC and the FM Towns should play identically thereafter.  By this time, the early FM Towns with their 386D X/16 CPUs were not quite up to the task of running these games, so a faster system was recommended.

Origin also ported the first three games in the Ultima Series as the Ultima Trilogy.  The CD audio is used for fanfare.  Richard Garriott recorded a short introduction in his Lord British voice that also plays as an audio track.  Each game has an introduction with pictures accompanied by text and one of the tracks playing.  Character creation for each game is accompanied by another track.  There is in-game music for all three Ultimas, but it is completely original.  The sound effects are digitized as well.  The graphics are completely redone in high resolution and the games may feel a bit off compared to the Apple II or PC versions.  These conversions were not done in-house by Origin.

Additionally, Origin ported Ultima IV and Ultima V to the FM Towns, but they are much less remarkable.  Ultima IV uses Ultima V's PC tiles and has two CD audio tracks with renditions of Towns and Stones.  These are played during the special introduction and main menu, otherwise music is played through the internal FM chip.  Ultima V has CD audio tracks for the Ultima Theme and Greyson's Tale, played through the special introduction and the main menu.  Otherwise Ultima 5 uses the tiles from the PC and similarly plays music through the internal FM chip.  Again these conversions were not from Origin.

For the Ultima ports, Origin used the built-in YM-2612 for music.  LucasArts did the same for MI2 and Fate of Atlantis.  In these games, the Adlib music is roughly ported to the FM Towns chip.  When I mean rough, I mean in the sense that the results are inferior to the original despite the fact that the FM Towns' YM-2612 (which is also used in the Sega Genesis) is mostly superior to the Adlib's YM-3812.

Sierra Online

Sierra only just dipped its toe into FM Towns ports.  It released King's Quest V for the FM Towns apparently before it did for the PC.   It also released Roberta Williams Mixed-Up Mother Goose which also is cut from the same cloth as the PC CD version of the game.

King's Quest V for the FM Towns has Japanese and English voice acting.  The default voice selection is Japanese, you can change it to English by clicking on the mountain button in the settings menu after you start a game.  Unfortunately, you won't be able to hear the English dialog in the introduction in this version.  Restarting the game returns you to Crispin's house, not the Title Screen.  All in-game text in this version is in English, even when the Japanese language option is selected.  No version of the King's Quest V CD version contains text for the speech or a text option.

This game uses the YM-2612 sound chip for music but does have digital sound effects.  The music does sound like it was ported from the Adlib, so do not expect much.  While the PC CD versions play a low fidelity recording of the MT-32 music for the introduction and finale of the game mixed with the voice acting in the audio file, the FM Towns version plays the FM music and the speech is not mixed with anything until the FM Towns mixes the two audio sources.

There is an early and a late version of King's Quest V for the PC CD-ROM, the major difference between the two being the processing applied to the voice samples.  In the early (December 1991 file date) version, there is minimal processing, leading to crisper sample playback but it gives very pronounced sibilant sounds.  The later (April 1992 file date) version suppresses the sibilant sounds and some of the background noise, but the overall output of the samples is noticeably more muffled.  The voice samples for the English and Japanese voice options in the FM Towns version generally follows the later PC CD version, although NewRisingSun observed there is more reverb for the narrator's voice samples.

Interestingly, while the Icon Bar from the FM Towns version is identical to the PC version, the FM Towns uses the black and white mouse cursor icons from the floppy version.  The PC version uses multicolored mouse cursor icons when run in DOS and black and white mouse cursors when run in Windows. Unfortunately, another thing the FM Towns shares with the Windows version is the ugly stretching algorithm used to stretch 320x200 graphics into 640x480 graphics, leading to lines that have uneven heights.


FTL released Dungeon Master and Chaos Strikes Back.  Both have CD audio music, but Dungeon Master II does not appear to have an English language option.  All the tracks for Dungeon Master and some of the tracks for Chaos Strikes Back were released for Dungeon Master: The Album, which could be purchased via mail order as stated in an advertisement booklet in the PC release.  These pieces were done by Western musicians.  Otherwise they look and sound like their western originals.  I must note that Chaos Strikes Back was never released for the PC.

Dungeon Master II was also released for the FM Towns two years before it was released for the PC. Dungeon Master II came on CD and floppy for the PC, but the CD does not appear to offer any advantages over the floppy.  The same CD audio tracks on the FM Towns CD can also be found on the Sega CD version of the game.


  1. Quick request: Could you do a review of the super famicom satelleview?

  2. A few corrections:

    1.) Indy3's audio tracks are not from the original motion picture soundtrack, as a direct comparison They sound like they come from a not-so-cheap synthesizer.
    2.) To think that FM-Town Loom's Tracks 1-8 are from a real orchestra is preposterous. Compare to
    3.) The C64 and PC Tandy versions have at least eight tunes (Intro, Mars Surface, band tape, Airport Theme 1, Airport Theme 2, Good ending, Bad ending, Epilogue), not two.
    4.) Monkey Island 2 hass additional digital sound effects in the FM-Towns version.

  3. Point 3.) in my previous comment referred to Zak McKracken.