Now, on the Sharp X68000

The SuperGrafx is a failed system that had only five games, only three of which seem to be worth playing. The Sharp X68000 series of high-end personal computers, which were only released in Japan, on the other hand, is probably the popular gaming system Westerners have heard the least about.

As I said yesterday, the X68000 cost three grand, and that was just for the base system. If you thought the NeoGeo was expensive, hah. It’s price was justified in that it was a computer, indeed a workstation, and had a variety of software other than games. But it did still have a lot of games, including some of the best arcade conversions, including excellent ports of Rygar, After Burner, Strider, Final Fight, Street Fighter II and Detana! Twinbee, and a well-remembered recreation of the original Castlevania up to then-current aural and visual ideals. The X68000 even got conversions of Atari arcade games like Marble Madness, and even KLAX, that would I would have loved to have played back then.

The X68000 also worked a lot like a MS-DOS machine from the time. It ran mostly HUMAN68K as its OS, a DOS clone made by HudsonSoft, although it also had windowing OSes. Despite how it seemed in use though, it used Motorola 680X0-family processors, like original iteration of the Macintosh. But while it has a DOS-style OS, it’s a home computer with a dedicated sprite chip!

At times it feels like this blog is a recap of my gaming-related Youtube explorations, but I have no qualms about it when they’re as excellent as the two I have this time. One is a review of the “pro” version system from four years ago, from someone who went and obtained one:

Three years later, RMC returned with a more thorough exploration of a different machine of the line:

And this one is about emulating it, which is probably the closest most of us will ever come to trying out any of its software:

On the SuperGrafx

What is the SuperGrafx? Why don’t we remember it as well as its predecessor, the PC Engine/TurboGrafx 16, with which it was backwards compatible?

Sharopolis on Youtube digs into the system and its capabilities (17 minutes):

As you can tell by the video’s cover image: Amazing Power, No games. The SuperGrafx only had five games released for it throughout its lifetime, pretty harsh for a system that cost around $300 by today’s money. That cost, relative to that of the PC Engine CD, which was also expensive but could play CD games with vastly greater storage, was probably what doomed it. For those really seeking an arcade experience in Japan there was the Sharp x68000, famous at the time as the true enthusiast’s system with a good number of nearly exact arcade ports. It also cost around $6,000 in today’s money, and still $3,000 in then-money.

The system used the same chip as the PC Engine before it, a 6502 variant running at 7 mHz, meaning it was only a 8-bit system. But was that really so bad? The major 16-bit competition for it was the Motorola 68000, another venerable chip at the time that was used in the original Apple Mac, the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST. Yet the 68000 also had some more overhead. Many instructions on the 6502 completed in from two to four cycles, whereas the minimum cycle count of a 68000 instruction was four, with some taking up to 20. This, of course, is offset by the 68000’s greater number of registers and ability to work with two bytes at once for many instructions.

Its graphics were essentially two of the PC Engine’s graphics chip, with some circuitry to interface their outputs together. This description brings uncomfortable reminders of people deriding the Wii’s graphics as “two Gamecubes taped together,” but it’s a much closer description of the SuperGrafx’s graphics. But in practice this meant twice the sprites, dual-plane backgrounds, and double the potential colors on-screen at once, while the MegaDrive/Genesis infamously was still stuck with 64.

The SuperGrafx’s failure in the market was one of those inflection points of the growth of video gaming. If it had succeeded then NEC might still be a player in gaming today, and maybe Hudson Soft would still be an independent entity, instead of just another property for Konami to mine for nostalgiabucks.

Sundry Sunday: Louie Zong’s Garlic Jam

Louie Zong makes a bunch of fun song videos! Once in a while they’re game related. This one’s a short album made with Warioware D.I.Y’s composition feature. Even though it’s only about 12 minutes long, there’s ten songs squeezed in there, and each come and gone so soon that none have the opportunity to bore your brain.

The Nintendo Font

Youtuber T2norway educates us on a very commonly used font for Nintendo products from around the Gamecube era onward, especially remembered for its use in Wii Sports and other Wii software:

New Rodin

The video’s only four minutes long but the basic gist is that it’s actually two closely-related fonts, New Rodin and Shin Go, both based on a typeface created in 1975 called Gona. They have been called the Japanese version of Helvetica. They see frequent use in Japan in media, on signage, and of course in games too!

What’s the deal with this font? (Youtube, T2norway, 4 minutes)

Sundry Sunday: Elegy for Waluigi

Let’s explore further the Youtube archives of Matthew Taranto, a.k.a. BitFinity, a.k.a. the Brawl in the Family guy. Last time we met Eario, Janitor of the Mushroom Kingdom. Now we meet his supposed son Waluigi, who Nintendo themselves have never quite known what to do with, and sort of the breakout character of BitF.

Waluigi has long been excluded from the Smash Bros. games as a playable character, at beast appearing as an assist trophy. This video is his lament at his perpetual status as outsider, set to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which scans precisely with “Waluigi”:

In a way though, this video is an echo of an earlier song, a closer tribute to Hallelujah featuring Waluigi, which has sadly seems to have been taken off of Youtube, but lives on in a number of imitators that are easily searchable.

There’s quite a few other Waluigi videos, lying around Youtube like broken dreams. We’ll get to those in due time.

Demo: Back to the PET

The Commodore 64 was not Commodore’s first home computer. It wasn’t even the VIC-20. Their first machines were the line of the PET, or “Personal Electronic Transactor,” as labored an acronym as any.

The PET was a decent machine, with integrated monochome monitor and a heavy metal case. Although it had no color, no sprites, only a basic speaker for sound and no synth, it had a number of things in common with the later C64, particularly the 6502 processor that lay at the core of half of the personal computers sold at the time.

There was something else, something fairly major, that the PET lacked: customizable graphics. No hi-res mode, and no programmable character sets. The graphics were encoded on a ROM that wasn’t even mapped to the CPU’s address space. The letter ‘A’ would forever look like a letter ‘A’. It couldn’t be changed to anything else, even a slightly different ‘A’. This greatly limited what PETs could display, and basically doomed it as a gaming computer.

Commodore tried to compensate for this feature by including “PETSCII,” a set of custom characters included in the upper 128 characters of its ROM intended for makeshift graphics. PETSCII would survive throughout the rest of the Commodore 8-bit line, even featuring on machines that had programmable graphics: the VIC-20, C64 and C128 all had it included too. (The Twitter account PETSCIIBOTS (now inactive) shows off its many graphical characters in making robots.)

On the later machines PETSCII graphic characters were a fun nicety. On the PET, they were all you had, all you would ever have. This is exactly the kind of limitation that demo authors love circumventing where they can, and taking advantage of when they can’t. Hence: Back To The PET, a demo, complete somehow with chiptunes, that runs on Commodore’s ancient machine:

Every character cell of every frame of this video is one of the PET’s 256 ROM-based characters. It had no hardware scrolling, so effects are all faked or done 8 characters at a time. Yet it’s still pretty slick! The PET had quite a better selection of graphics characters than even IBM’s code page 437, including lines of single pixel differences in thickness and horizontal and vertical position. Image what the ASCII artists of the 90s could have done with this selection! Luxurious!

A Video on Wario Land 4’s Sound Design

Did you ever play Wario Land 4 on the Gameboy Advance? It was the last “classic” Wario Land game before its team switched over to making WarioWare games. If you’re a gaming, or at least a Nintendo, enthusiast you probably know what WarioWare games sound like, that endearingly weird crushed and echoey sound, but you might be surprised to discover that Wario Land 4 sounds of a piece with the Wario Land titles! Here’s the intro, hear for yourself:

Here’s the original WarioWare’s intro to compare its sound to. It’s all the good stuff!

geno7 over on Youtube (who has a terrific home page, by the way!) did a 51-minute deep dive into WL4’s sound design that’s just the kind of obsessive attention to detail that our cadre of pixel art loonies appreciate! Have a gawk and a listen and see if you agree.

The Bizarre Music and Sound Design of Wario Land 4 (Youtube, 51 minutes)

The Best Games of Next Fest 2023 Part 1

The first of several videos looking at my favorite game demos from next fest 2023.

0:00 Intro
00:25 Meat Grinder
1:45 Yet Another Zombie Survivors
3:05 Radio the Universe
4:53 Protodroid Delta
6:12 Creeping Deck Pharoah’s Curse
7:39 Dungeons of Aether
9:16 Valfaris Mecha Therion
11:25 Sushi For Robots
12:48 Ninja or Die
14:56 Grim Guardians
16:55 Nocturnal
18:45 Elypse
20:22 The Last Case of Benedict Fox
22:34 Planet of Lana

Sundry Sunday: Eario, Janitor of the Mushroom Kingdom

From the files of the old webcomic Brawl in the Family, which has been gone for years now but is still fondly remembered in some circles, and who’s website is still on the web for as long as Keenspot’s servers survive, is this voiced version of the story of Eario. You know, Wario is Mario with the M upside down, so Eario is Mario with the M… sideways. Kind of.

This working-class version feels like it’s a bit more in keeping with Mario’s blue-collar roots. He wasn’t always the hero of the Mushroom people, he was just a carpenter working on a construction site one day when a gorilla went crazy, grabbed a lady, and climbed a tall building. Mario’s had many adventures since then, and a lot of job changes. Eario is the Mario who wasn’t so lucky.

Behind the Code Examines The NES Punch-Out!! Boxer Engine

Here’s another of those deep-dive NES internal videos from Behind the Code, possibly the most complex one they’ve done to date. Most game engines, when you examine their basic logic, are basically physics simulations, with some AI included to determine how actors behave.

Not so with the Punch-Out!! games. They are essentially entirely different kinds of games from that. You have certain things you can do moment to moment, and opposing boxers do too. Each of those opponents basically runs a big script, made out of byte code, that determines their behavior throughout each round of each fight. I am struck both by the simplicity (no need to simulate gravity) and the complexity (boxers take all kinds of things into account) of the system.

One of the interesting things shown is that the engine can affect more than just the boxers, but can also subtly affect the crowd, which is how the previously-revealed fact that a specific camera person in the crowd uses his flash right at the moment the player must counter Bald Bull’s charge move. It turns out that this isn’t the only instance of this happening in the game!

You don’t need to know 6502 assembly code to get what the narrator is talking about, but a lot of code is shown, so those of you who understand it may get a bit more out of it. Here are a few basics to help you follow along.

The 6502 has only three registers (bits of memory internal to the CPU that can be accessed quickly), the Accumulator (sometimes called just A), the X register, and the Y register. Each is only one byte long. The Accumulator is by far the most flexible, but all three are general-purpose registers. The most common instructions are Loads (LDA, LDX, LDY), Stores (STA, STX, STY), Transfers between registers (TAX, TAY), Incrementing and Decrementing (INX, INY, DEX, DEY), Adding (ADC), Subtracting (SBC), Comparing (CMP), Branches (some of them, Branch Not-Equal to Zero: BNE, Branch Equal to Zero: BEQ, Branch of Carry Set: BCS, Branch on Carry Clear: BCC), Jump (JMP), Jump to Subroutine (JSR), and Return from Subroutine (RTS). While some instructions are just one byte long, the longest any 6502 instruction can be is three bytes, and the opcode (the command itself) is always just one.

(I wrote all of that from memory. I figured, I have all of this in my head from my coding youth, I might as well use some of it.)

The 6502 can only address 64K of memory, so often systems will use bank switching to connect various memories to it within that space. The great majority of NES/Famicom games had to do this. Punch-Out!! was unique on the NES in that it was the only game to use Nintendo’s MMC2 chip. (I wonder if the chip was designed ahead of time, and they made this game as an excuse to use it?) Punch-Out!! uses MMC2 to bank in each boxer’s large data script as needed.

Behind The Code: How Do Boxers Work in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!? (Youtube, 20 minutes)

U Can Beat Video Games: Dragon Warrior III

I’ve been waiting for this one for a long time! U Can Beat Video Games has finally covered the best NES Dragon Warrior, the third game in the series. It was Dragon Quest III in Japan, due to some trademark issue with TSR I think. IV isn’t bad, and has fun characters, but there aren’t as many variant strategies in it, and in the last chapter you don’t get to control the actions of most of your party members. DWIII always gives you full control of your characters, plus it lets you create characters with names and classes of your choosing, meaning, like the first Final Fantasy, you can make completely custom parties and play the game in many different ways. It was the game that spawned the urban legend that the Japanese government requested that Enix release Dragon Quest games on weekends, because so many people ditched work to stand in line to buy it. (I don’t know if it’s true, but the story has often been passed around.)

It’s also the first Dragon Quest/Warrior game that allows for class changing, which resets a character to Level 1 (similar to an human AD&D character who dual-classed), but only halves their stats, and lets them keep all the spells they learned. Since they’re Level 1 again, they gain levels very rapidly for a while, allowing them to quickly surpass their previous heights. It’s kind of an early version of the “prestige” mode of clicker games, where you reset all your progress in exchange for faster progress afterward!

It also has a cool story that eventually connects with the first two games, and has a good variety of activity, including growing a town from scratch like 25 years before Breath of the Wild and betting on monster fights! It’s also got all the challenge of the early Dragon Quest games, with later monsters who can cast instant death spells on everyone in your party at once, as well as doing other horrible things to them.

Because Dragon Warrior III doesn’t pull its punches against the player, the various tricks that the narrator does to use the engine’s bugs against it feel like playing fair, and yet, even with full knowledge of the game and multiple player leveling and cash gaining strategies he still has problems once in a while. It’s a really tough game!

This may end up being U Can Beat Video Games’ magnum opus, at least of the NES era, it’s a really long game that takes three videos, of almost 12 hours total length, to cover in its entirety! Here they are:

EPISODE ONE: Creating Your Party Through to Getting the Ship (3 hours, 59 minutes)

EPISODE TWO: Getting the Ship through to Defeating Archfiend Baramos (4 hours, 22 minutes)

EPISODE THREE: The Dark World to the Final Boss, Plus Extras (3 hours, 35 minutes)

Please enjoy, and Rubiss help us all!