Yamaha MSX machine used in Soviet schools
The MSX was a peculiar system that straddled the border between consoles and home computers. It was the brainchild of Kazuhiko Nishi, then Microsoft's Vice-President for the Far Eastern operations and chief executive of Microsoft Japan. It was inspired in part by the success of the VHS
standard and intended to popularize home computers in Japan.
Nishi first conceived the standardized home computer when he observed VHS's impact on the Japanese economy, and believed that the same could be achieved in the computer market. Together with ASCII Corporation, the major Japanese publishing house specializing in computer literature and software, he founded the MSX consortium to develop a standard 8-bit computer specification. It was based on popular and inexpensive off-the-shelf components, and released to the public in 1983. Any manufacturer could build a computer based on it. In fact, Nishi attempted to do the same thing in the home computer market that Don Estridge did two years before with the IBM Personal Computer
, and, arguably, some of his design decisions made more sense than Estridge's.
The MSX offered a powerful (for the time) 8-bit system using the Z80 CPU
and Texas Instruments' TMS9918 GPU
. Most MSX systems offered 64K of the main memory from the outset, at a time when the first series of the ZX Spectrum
had only 16K, and it could provide arcade-quality graphics at the fraction of the cost. It was often called the
best Z80-based system of all time. It also had not one, but two
cartridge slots connecting to the system bus, allowing for system expandability and avoiding the cheap but cumbersome and unreliable cassette tape distribution system.
Later generations of the standard improved the machine's capabilities even more, and with Sony and Yamaha getting involved in the technical development, it acquired more and more features of a business machine. In the most popular revision of the standard, MSX2 (1987), 3.5" floppies became the standard equipment, video was upgraded by the installation of Yamaha 9938/9958 GPUs (successors to the original 9918), most machines had at least 128K RAM, and Microsoft supplied its latest versions of BASIC and DOS. Most of the MSX machines produced were MSX2s, and major Japanese and Korean hardware manufacturers like Sony, Yamaha, Toshiba, Samsung, and Panasonic produced, in all, about 5 million of the machines in all versions.
In Japan, the MSX was the
home computer of the '80s (the PC-88
and later on the PC-98
and Sharp X68000
being the only true competition it had). Sony and Casio discontinued their unsuccessful SMC-777 and PV-2000 computers in favor of ones based on the MSX standard; Sega
vainly tried to establish the SC-3000 (a variant of their SG 1000
) as a competing, technically comparable standard, but their system failed and many of its games would also be released on the MSX. Top-flight software houses like Konami
(if there was no Konami for the MSX, we might not be discussing the MSX
), Hudson Soft
, HAL Laboratory
contributed hugely to its success. In fact, Konami started its business developing solely for the MSX. Nintendo
similarly opened up HAL expressly for Satoru Iwata
(now the President of Nintendo) and his friends to compete in the PC market under another name, in case it flopped; It didn't — HAL Labs also ended up doing plenty of NES games as well.
In South Korea, Daewoo adapted the MSX hardware into a keyboardless console called Zemmix, which captured the local market before competing Japanese consoles entered it. Korean game companies often took advantage of the Sega Master System
's similar hardware to cheaply rerelease MSX games; many Korean game companies, however, merely distributed pirated copies of Japanese MSX games, especially before 1987, when Korean copyright law began to protect computer software.
Unfortunately, the computer never took off in the US or UK
, where the Commodore 64
and later the Nintendo Entertainment System
(in the US) and ZX Spectrum and Master System (in Europe) would dominate. This is largely because Japanese manufacturers were wary of the intensely competitive Western market and were content with the huge domestic demand. The fact that the UK gaming and home computing community immediately developed immense animosity to the platform, which was seen as a threat to such British establishments as the Speccy
and BBC Micro
, didn't help either.
It, however, found a notable success in the Netherlands and Brazil
, and in Brazil it was even marketed as an inexpensive business computer: most Brazilian businesses couldn't afford significantly more powerful, but extremely expensive PCs, due to the ludicrous import tax (or the outright ban), imposed on the foreign computers by the military dictatorship of the time, as per their "Market Reserve" policy. There was a loophole
, however: under this policy, the MSX was considered a video game console, not a personal computer, so it was exempt from the computer taxes, making it the most powerful affordable
Also, the Soviet Union
started a high school informatics program in 1985, and—as domestic industry couldn't satisfy the demand—struck a pretty lucrative deal with Yamaha, acquiring huge numbers of MSX and then MSX2 machines more or less cheaply for use in high schools. (A similar action on the UK's part jump-started the Speccy's popularity.) It didn't go on sale, but still enjoyed great popularity among the students due to its immense gaming library (oh, Metal Gear
!), impeccable build quality, and excellent durability
—especially compared to some of the more ramshackle local designs, which often didn't survive even one school year. The same story happened in many Arabian countries where MSX was marketed as Sakhr
As the 80s wore on, however, updates became somewhat sluggish, and the standard started to fall behind the times. Microsoft, now getting most of its revenue from the PC market, lost interest in the project, and, with ASCII concentrating on its core publishing business, it gradually became abandoned. Unfortunately, unlike the PC, with which it shared many ideas and architectural similarities, the MSX was never marketed like a business machine — a significant oversight, as Brazil's case showed, that eventually doomed the very promising system. (The PC-98
line, meanwhile, was
, and it really began to tell in sales around 1987-88 or so.) With its prime movers losing interest, the software manufacturers threw their complete support behind either Nintendo's Famicom
, Super Famicom
and Game Boy
, Sharp's X68000
, Sega's Mega Drive
and Game Gear
as it was to late for the Mark III in Japan
or NEC's PC-98
and PC Engine
offerings, and both Sony
would later go on to make other video game systems. A few MSX games were re-released on the Wii Virtual Console
service in Japan.
The console retains significant fan-followings in places like Brazil and Japan. Most notably, three MSX fanatics were the people who created the freeware Windows game La-Mulana
, which uses an MSX-like graphical style, has the main character using an MSX (and later an MSX 2
), and includes multiple references to (and even some imitation gameplay samples of) famous and obscure MSX/MSX2 games.
Its CPU was a venerable Z80A running at 3.58 MHz, pretty standard for the '80s home computer, but its standardness was a major selling point. Due to the very small hardware differences between it and the Master System, porting was a breeze.
- Later models, starting with the MSX2, could be theoretically overclocked up to 6 MHz, and some implementations even provided a Turbo switch, but this mod was non-standard and could disturb some games. The MSX2+ had the official Turbo mode at 5.3 MHz, but this version was released only in Japan.
- TurboR machines, another Japan-only release, had the 7.16 MHz-clocked ASCII R800, a modified version of Zilog Z800, a 16-bit follow-up to the Z80. It used 4 times less clock ticks to process one Z80 instruction, so it was sometimes marketed as "28 MHz". While using an extended Z80 instruction set, the R800 was partially incompatible, in that some undocumented features were unavailable, so TurboRs had another processor, a real Z80, for backward compatibility.
The original MSX1 standard specified a RAM amount of no less than 8K, but hardly any machine was so spartan, as memory became much cheaper in '83 than it was in the 2600
heyday. A couple of budget offers had 16K, but most machines provided at least 32 or 64K, and some later releases sported even 128K.
- Even 16K of memory was a rather generous offer for a low-budget computer at the time, as it was the same amount that the first run of ZX Spectrums were equipped with, and even some later machines (like the Soviet BK-0010, with its strange mismatch between its monstrous CPU and anemic memory/graphics) had just that.
- Later versions not only upped the minimum amount of memory to 64 KB, but the MSX2 introduced the bank switching MMU, which, given its cascading nature, allowed for almost unlimited memory expansion. The largest amount of RAM ever installed on the MSX was reported to be 32 megs, and 1-4 meg configurations were common in the 90's.
- Last revision of the standard had 256K as a minimum amount of RAM.
The main power of the MSX lay in its GPU
, which was one of the most powerful and sophisticated 2D graphics engines ever
. It was an extremely advanced (for its time) video coprocessor, supporting not only simple tile-based graphics and sprites, like Famicom's one, but also featured a lots of graphics modes (text was actually output as a set of tiles on the graphics screen, allowing their free combination); hardware-accelerated bit copy, area fill, line draw, scrolling, etc; and even a limited overlay support in later versions.
- Even its first version, Texas Instruments' TMS9918, used also in the Colecovision, Sega SG-1000 and TI-99, had such capabilities:
- 16 KB of video RAM
- 40x24, 32x24 text and 256x192 graphics modes
- 16 colors. Some attribute clash existed, but the limitation was 2 colors for 8 pixel line, not 8x8 block like on Spectrum.
- 32 sprites, monochrome, 4 on a line
- Its follow-up, Yamaha V9938, used in a MSX2 machines, greatly expanded on these features and was specifically developed for MSX, getting dubbed MSX-Video. Its resolution and color capabilities rivaled the PC's VGA, released the same year (1987) at the much higher price point, and it also had hardware acceleration for many graphic tasks, the thing that VGA and its successors got only in the 90'es.
- 64 KB of video RAM (some machines had even 128 KB)
- 32x24, 40x24 and 80x24 text modes, 256x192, 256x212, 512x192, 512x212 graphics modes
- Vertical resolution could be doubled in interlaced mode, so highest resolution was actually 512x424, but it was very awkward to program.
- 16 or 256 colors, without any limitations.
- 32 sprites, 16 colors, 8 on a line
- Hardware accelerated bit copy (with programmable manipulations), line draw, area fill, etc.
- Hardware vertical scroll.
- It was later supplemented by Yamaha V9958, an incremental upgrade that introduced horizontal hardware scrolling, a new high-color mode (256x212x19268) and fixed a VRAM amount at 128 K.
- After the system's official support died out, another video chip came out, the Yamaha V9990 (aka The GFX 9000) this give the MSX 4 background layers, 125 sprites, and ups the color pallet up to 32768 colors.
- General Instruments AY-3-8910 on MSX1 (same as on Spectrum 128).
- Yamaha YM2149 on MSX2.
- Konami SCC and SCC+. The SCC+ is basically an SCC an extra programmable channel and 64kB of extra sound memory; it came with Snatcher and SD Snatcher and could also be used with Konami's Game Collection disks.
- Yamaha YM2413 (OPLL, aka MSX Music) as an additional chip on later machines.
- Yamaha Y8950 (MSX Audio) was not used that much in retail software, mainly used in home brew software.
- Yamaha YM2151 (Yamaha SFG-01) was used as a music maker and was bult into some Yamaha MSX units, also has a sister unit, the Yamaha YM2164 (SFG-05) as well.
- Yamaha YMF278B (Moonsound) the most advanced sound chip on the MSX.
- The Turbo R did use a 1 channel PCM chip, Konami also did used a PCM chip as well in 1 game (Hai No Majutsushi Mahjong 2)
- Most later models had a MIDI port.
- Parallel port for printers
- MIDI port
- Cassette port
- 2x Joystick ports
- 2x Cartridge ports
- They plugged directly into the computer bus and allowed any conceivable extension, much like PC expansion cards.
Original titles and Multi-Platform games/series that started here:
Tropes associated with the MSX: