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 gaming home computer of the '80s (the later Sharp X68000 being the only true competition to the MSX, ultimately displacing it for a time; NEC's PC-88 and later on the PC-98 were more business oriented). 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, Hudson Soft, Compile, Falcom and HAL Laboratory contributed hugely to its success. Indeed, Konami's home division developed solely for the MSX for a few years after their brief turn as an Atari 2600 developer. Nintendo similarly opened up HAL expressly for Satoru Iwata (President of Nintendo from 2002 until his death in 2015) and his friends to compete in the PC market under another name, in case the Famicom/NES flopped; It didn't — HAL Labs also ended up doing plenty of NES games as well and is a firm Nintendo second-party developer to this day.
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 NES (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 some European countries like The Netherlands, Spain, France and Finland, as well as some South American countries like Chile and Brazil, even being marketed in the last country 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 machine available.
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 the 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 and Microsoft Windows, 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 show in sales around 1987-88 or so.) With its prime movers losing interest, the software manufacturers threw their complete support behind dedicated game systems and more advanced computers, and both Sony and Microsoft 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 MSX2), and includes multiple references to (and even some imitation gameplay samples of) famous and obscure MSX/MSX2 games.
The MSX also happens to be Sony's first serious foray into the personal computing and gaming hardware market, as after abandoning its quiz console, Sony moved on to getting a MSX license and building several models of MSX computers for the Japanese market. This, along with said quiz machine, makes Sega's criticism of Sony not knowing how to make hardware even more amusing. And to make things better, Sony created the Vaio line of personal computers with Windows operating systems, which act as spiritual successors to their own MSX computers during 1980s.
Processors 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 in Japan as full computer sets, and as upgrade kits overseas.
- TurboR machines, a Japan-only release not sold overseas, 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.
Memory 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 Atari 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.
Graphics 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 and the Mockingboard sound card for Apple ][).
- Yamaha YM2149 on MSX2.
- Konami SCC and SCC+. The SCC was a 5-channel wavetable card with a paltry 128 bytes of memory. The SCC+ is basically an SCC with an extra programmable wavetable channel (giving it 6 channels instead of 5) 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, also available as a sound card for older machines. Essentially similar to MSX Audio except that it cannot output ADPCM audio.
- Yamaha Y8950 (OPLL with ADPCM mode, MSX Audio) was not used that much in retail software, mainly used in home brew software. Two cards can be paired up for stereo audio and 18 channel OPL 2 synth.
- 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 (OPL 4, aka 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. There were also VHD interface carts to allow hooking up an MSX to a VHD player to play VHD games there.
Original titles and Multi-Platform games/series that started here:
- Antarctic Adventure
- Penguin Adventure
- Athletic Land
- Back To The Future
- B.C.'s Quest for Tires
- Cabbage Patch Kids: Adventures In The Park
- The Castle
- Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family (developed in parallel with the Famicom version)
- Eggerland Mystery (This game and its MSX sequel were the first two games in the Adventures of Lolo series)
- The Goonies (Substantially different from the two NES games)
- Gradius 2 (Known as Nemesis II in Europe, unrelated to the arcade Gradius II)
- Salamander (Shares the same tracks as the arcade versions, but is otherwise a substantially different game)
- Gofer no Yabou: Episode II (Known as Nemesis III: The Eve of Destruction in Europe)
- King's Knight
- King's Valley
- The first two games in the Metal Gear franchise
- Oh Shit!
- Parodius (Yes, it started out on the MSX, not with the arcade game Parodius Da!.)
- Princess Maker
- Puyo Puyo (Again, predating the more popular arcade game)
- Roller Ball
- Rune Master
- Space Manbow
- Uncharted Waters
- Xevious: Fardraut Saga
- Yie Ar Kung Fu 2
- Adventure Island
- Bubble Bobble
- Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom
- Congo Bongo
- Contra (Very different from the preceding arcade and NES versions)
- Dig Dug
- Dragon Quest I
- Dragon Slayer (One of Square's earliest releases)
- The Fairyland Story
- Final Fantasy
- Ganbare Goemon
- Gradius (Port of the original arcade game; known as Nemesis in Europe)
- Salamander (Plays much differently from its arcade counterpart)
- Green Beret
- Hydlide 2: Shine of Darkness
- Hydlide 3: The Space Memories
- Jet Set Willy
- Keystone Kapers
- Macadam Bumper
- Moon Patrol
- Road Blaster
- Rastan Saga
- River Raid
- Seiken Acho (renamed port of IREM's Kung Fu Master)
- Super Cobra
- Taiyou No Shinden Asteka II
- Fire Hawk: Thexder the Second Contact
- Time Gal
- Time Pilot
- The Tower of Druaga
- Track & Field 12
- Hyper Sports 13
- Vampire Killer (arranged port of the NES Castlevania)
- Yie Ar Kung Fu (a completely different version of the arcade original)
Tropes associated with the MSX:
- Just Here for Godzilla:
- Nintendo Hard: Many of the MSX games, along with the MSX itself, are pretty difficult for many gamers. The keyboard controls were deemed too hard for the gamers at that time. However, those who played MSX games might have grown up playing newer PC games.
- Spiritual Successor
- Many. Notably Games for Windows and Xbox line which were also developed by Microsoft.
- It was also a spiritual predecessor of Microsoft Windows, despite never being the global standard it was intended to be. To wit, the MSX-DOS is a variation of MS-DOS, which later developed into Windows.
- The 3DO Company would try out a similar licensing model for its console with less success. Only Panasonic, Sanyo and Goldstar ended up producing 3DO systems before the hardware was unceremoniously discontinued.