Table of Contents

Page 1: Introduction
Page 2: Hardware (this page)
Page 3: Software
Page 4: Recommended games

The 8-bit trinity

Just as America had its personal computer trinity in 1977 with the release of the Commodore PET, the Apple II, and the Tandy TRS-80, by 1982 a trinity of personal computers had emerged in Japan: the NEC PC-8801, the Fujitsu FM-7, and the Sharp X1.

NEC PC-8801
Launched: 1981
Emulators: PC88Win, M88, X88000

Released as the successor to the PC-8001 (1979) and hobbyist variant PC-6001 (1981), the PC-8801 saw several upgrades and became Japan's number one 8-bit computer, helping NEC to become the dominant force in the Japanese computer industry for most of the 80s and 90s. Originally intended for business use, the PC-8801 was capable of a high-resolution 640x400 monochrome display mode. It was repositioned as an entry-level home machine following the release of the 16-bit PC-9801, however. The PC-8801 series eventually became known for its adventure games and RPGs, and birthed many hits such as Hydlide, Thexder, Xanadu, Ys, Sorcerian, Silpheed, Jesus, and Snatcher. The PC-8801 was also quite popular among doujin circles, and became something of a haven for eroge. Hudson also released several conversions of Nintendo games, including a few awesome originals using Mario!

Sharp X1
Launched: 1982
Emulators: Xmillennium

Originating from Sharp's television divison, the X1 was a surprise product that upset Sharp's earlier MZ-80 series. Featuring a sleek design and various TV integration features, the X1 earned a small but loyal following, especially among shmup fans. Although unsuccessful against the PC-8801, the X1 was generally the better gaming machine and had interesting exclusives, plus several conversions. Often when a game appeared on both, like the original Thunder Force, the X1 version was superior. Collectors should keep an eye out for the X1 Twin, which came with an integrated PC Engine and HuCard slot.

Fujitsu FM-7
Launched: 1982
Emulators: XM7'(DASH)

Originally named the FM-8Jr., the FM-7 was planned as a budget successor to Fujitsu's business-oriented FM-8 (1981). Despite being sold as a cheaper home computer, it could do almost everything an FM-8 could and was technically superior. While unable to shake NEC's PC-8801 from the top of the market, the FM-7 hit a sweet spot of price/performance, and helped broaden the base of computer users. Its successor the FM-77 was backwards-compatible and sported two external disk drives. Later, two further successors were released, the AV (with over 4000 colours and FM sound) and the even more powerful 40SX. Although English information on the FM-7 is still limited, Oh!FM-7 is an excellent Japanese site devoted to the system, with an extensive game database.

These three computers shared many of the same traits. A BASIC interpreter was built-in for amateur programming. Text display was 80 characters by 25 lines. Initially kanji could not be displayed due to the technical issues discussed earlier, and so text input was limited to the English alphabet, katakana, and some symbols. The base graphics resolution was a crisp 640x200 with 8 simultaneous colors. Unfortunately, there was no hardware-level support for sprites, a crucial feature for games. Later revisions would add support for (slow) kanji display, faster VRAM access, and FM synthesis for sound.

Of course, these were not the only computers released around this time. The MSX standard would be announced in 1983 and remained a presence throughout the decade. There was also a strange collection of failures: Tomy's Pyuta range (released as the Tomy/Grandstand Tutor in the West), Casio's PV2000, and Sord's M5 computer range (one of which saw a European release). Plus others which are too poorly documented, even in Japan, to mention.

As the 1980s wore on, the limitations of these 8-bit machines began to be felt, and the balance began to shift towards NEC's 16-bit PC-9801, which had gained an astonishing market share thanks to its popularity as a business machine. Sharp and Fujitsu countered by releasing their own 16-bit models in 1987 and 1989, respectively. With that, a new trinity was formed, and the 16-bit computer era was afoot.

The 16-bit trinity

NEC PC-9801
Launched: 1982
Emulators: Anex86, Neko Project 2, T98-Next

As discussed earlier, the PC-9801 was specifically designed to handle Japanese text at high resolution, and became an overwhelmingly popular business machine. Initially its game library was sparse, often consisting of PC-8801 ports such as Laplace no Ma and Record of Lodoss War. However, major updates meant that from 1986 there was a massive jump in quality and greater divergence between the two systems, and over the years the PC-9801 game library would swell to over 4000 commercial titles, not to mention an uncountable number of doujin games. As the dominant computer architecture in Japan, the PC-9801 was even cloned by Seiko Epson, and NEC would remain the market leader until Japanese computers merged with Western standards in the mid-90s. Later PC-9801 models and the upgraded PC-9821 series ran various versions of Windows, making them the best to import. See Tokugawa Corp for an article on buying one (contains one NSFW image), as well as a game database containing more than 3,000 screenshots.

Sharp X68000
Launched: 1987
Emulators: WinX68k, XM6

In 1987 Sharp released the – for the time – extremely powerful X68000, an enthusiast's dream machine. Rather than competing with NEC head-on, Sharp designed an expensive but powerful computer squarely targeted at core gamers, programmers, artists, and musicians. The X68000 was so powerful that Capcom used them as development machines for their arcade CPS1 titles. The case was designed in a stylish "Manhattan shape", with separate vertical case sections inspired by the twin towers of New York City's World Trade Center. The X68000 is perhaps best known in the West for its arcade ports and a Castlevania spin-off (later ported to the PlayStation as Chronicles). But the X68000 also saw many awesome exclusives, which are now sadly overlooked by Westerners too focused on its arcade ports. Ignore these, since there are dozens of other games you won't find anywhere else.

Fujitsu FM Towns
Launched: 1989
Emulators: Unz

Fujitsu finally appeared on the 16-bit scene in 1989, with a computer that was worth the wait. The FM Towns included a CD-ROM drive as a standard component, along with a mouse-driven OS, 24-bit color, and PCM sound. The CDs were even bootable. With its hardware-level sprite support, the FM Towns was as capable a game machine as the X68000. By 1991 Fujitsu had 8.2% market share, just under Seiko Epson. By 1995 this stake had more than doubled, giving Fujitsu second place to NEC. Fujitsu was also successful in convincing Western developers such as Psygnosis, Infogrames, and LucasArts to port their games to the FM Towns. To this day, these FM Towns ports remain the definitive versions of games like Zak McKracken and the Ultima series. Modern gamers are also blessed with the excellent emulator Unz, which will play most Towns games flawlessly.

Sharp and Fujitsu chose very different tactics in order to compete with NEC's ruling PC-9801. Being the smallest company of the three, Sharp carved itself a specific niche by appealing to hardcore gamers and content creators with the X68000's powerful, arcade-level hardware. Fujitsu instead pursued families and schools with its flashy and versatile FM Towns. Meanwhile, NEC was able to cement its lead with the PC-9801 by forging strong ties with third parties and creating a massive software library. To draw a loose analogy with today's scene, the X68000 was like the PS3, the FM Towns was like the Wii, and the PC-9801 was like the Xbox 360. What resulted was a trio of unique computers with various strengths and weaknesses, and a diverse array of games to match.

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