Thanks to the Internet, nearly any game of the past can be downloaded and emulated, and almost every piece of information has been documented somewhere… except perhaps the world of Japanese home computers, arguably the last uncharted frontier for English-speaking games enthusiasts.
Japan has long been viewed by the West as a console-centric country, ever since Nintendo and the NES. But there is another, mostly forgotten world of Japanese gaming history, in which thousands of games were developed for various Japanese computers over an 18 year period that stretches from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. For all that Nintendo started, it was the open hardware of NEC and other companies that allowed small groups to form and become giants.
A forgotten era
The personal computer industry in Japan began much like everywhere else: as a response to Intel’s creation of the world’s first microprocessor, the 4004, in 1971. Both NEC and Toshiba successfully developed their own microprocessors in 1973, and over the next few years a number of personal computer kits and homebew packages were released by companies such as Hitachi, Fujitsu, NEC, Toshiba, and Sharp. Much like in the West, these early computers were primarily for electronics tinkerers and enthusiasts, and had to be programmed by the users themselves.
The early 80s saw the release of the first fully-fledged 8-bit computers designed with average users in mind, rather than amateur programmers (although there were still plenty of those). Three companies eventually shared the 8-bit crown: NEC, with its PC-8800 series; Fujitsu, with the popular FM-7; and Sharp, with the X1. NEC would later come to dominate the Japanese computing scene for over 10 years with another computer, the 16-bit PC-9801, but Fujitsu and Sharp were able to maintain a small but loyal following by staying competitive and eventually releasing two incredible 16-bit machines of their own: the Fujitsu FM Towns, and the Sharp X68000.
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 Castlevania 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
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.