The Japanese Connection

Posted by Alex Lee on 9 December 2009 | 15 Comments

Tags: Apple IIGS, PC88, PC-8801 MK II SR, Thexder, Silpheed, Ancient Land of Ys, Japanese RPGs, Square Enix, Falcom, Game Arts

I've always loved playing Thexder, Silpheed and especially, Ancient Land of Ys on the Apple IIGS. But with equal enjoyment came equal fascination: where exactly did these games originate in Japan? Research to answer this question lead me on a wonderful retro computing journey of discovery that, quite to my surprise, came full circle and ended up back to the Apple II again.

Being a child of the 80s, Thexder was a no brainer given the transforming robots craze of the day. Silpheed was one of the few rare computer games with its intense bullet dodging and weapon power ups to rival arcade button mashing originals but surpass them with many more music compositions than normally included in an arcade game soundtrack. Ys' new style of real-time action role-playing combined with memorable and emotive music makes this triumvirate responsible for many hours of enjoyment.

Fascination stemmed from Sierra and Kyodai's marketing, respectively, reassuring us that these imported titles from Game Arts and Falcom were major hits for the Japanese personal computer market. Evidently then, in the 80s the Japanese weren't using the same computers as western countries like the Apple II, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST and IBM compatibles otherwise we'd have already been playing these games alongside our Japanese brethren in 1985, the original release date of Thexder. Nowhere on the game boxes or manuals did it reveal what platform these games originally came from.

 

Sierra Catalogue from 1988, featuring Thexder and Silpheed

 

You always want what you can't have and my interest in these games only heightened more when Sierra weened itself from the IIGS in 1989, but continued to convert Japanese games for MS-DOS. Sorcerian was announced in Sierra's Autumn 1989 newsletter: I dearly would have loved to have played that during those timeless, carefree days back in high school after thoroughly relishing Falcom's other major RPG franchise, ‘Ys'. Further envy followed with Sierra's next Game Arts import Thexder 2: Codename Firehawk. And only recently did I discover a hidden gem: Zeliard. It was the last Game Arts title Sierra translated, an action platformer with some mild RPG elements added for good measure. Upon discovering it I started something I thought I'd never do, just to try playing it: emulate MS-DOS. It was a cold day in hell that day I can assure you. Playing these games was good, but I was still intrigued about where they originally came from, or more specifically, what computers were they initially designed for in their own exotic market? How is it that when Ken Williams, president of Sierra, went to Japan on a trip to secure selling more of his titles to the Japanese market, that he ended up licensing Japanese games for western audiences? The answer is not only the creative talent that went into making these games, but also the unique hardware for which the games were developed.

 

Thexder 2: Codename Firehawk

 

Zeliard

 

Japan developed its own personal computers out of necessity; early personal computers such as the Apple II, although much respected in Japan, had difficulty accommodating the many characters within the Hiragana and Katakana ‘alphabets', not to mention the many hundreds more in Kanji. Not content with the language hacks applied to western computers, Japan started to develop their own systems to better accommodate the Japanese language and their own market, with personal computers being a way to increase productivity during the financial boom of the 80s.

NEC was one of the first companies to release a Japanese personal computer, the PC-8001 in 1979 and dominated the industry throughout the 80s. New hardware releases saw the PC-6001 and the PC-8801 series in 1981 and in 1985, the PC-8801 Mk II SR, the platform upon which Thexder was born and is said to have had the most impact on the hardware's sales success; quite impressive and not to mention ironic, given that these computers were never specifically designed to be games machines. At last! I had found the answer at the heart of my curiousity! Competitors to NEC for the Japanese market were SharpFujitsu and the many hardware manufacturers supporting the MSX standard, which all sported similar specs.

 

Sierra Catalogue from 1988, featuring Thexder and Silpheed

 

Something I'd always found interesting was that both Thexder and Silpheed on the IIGS used the 640 x 200 super hi-resolution graphics mode: unusual as it greatly limited the number of colours in the palette, which you usually want to maximise for visual impact. It turns out that the PC88 (for short) predominately uses a graphics resolution of 640 x 200, just like most IIGS applications that follow Apple's Human Interface Guidelines and the desktop metaphor. Unlike the IIGS however, 8 colours can be displayed from a palette of 512 colours, where the IIGS can really only display 4 true colours or 16 dithered colours (with black and white being ‘true' and red, blue, green and yellow requiring to be dithered), although the palette can be chosen from 4096 colours.

Luckily however, the graphics of Thexder were designed for 4 colours (once the multi-coloured explosions were removed) and translated perfectly to the IIGS (but, like Devo, I like explosions too). Silpheed's graphics had to compromise a little more on the IIGS in regards to colour, but this perhaps resulted in a more sensible and less gaudy colour palette than the PC88 original. But again, the IIGS version lacks something of the original: the rolling planetary graphics seen during battles in orbit.

 

Thexder for the IIGS (sans explosions) 

Thexder for the PC88 (with explosions)

 

Graphics resolutions are just the start of more similarities to the IIGS. The PC-8801 Mk II SR and the models that came after it also shared an amazing sound and music capability, which quite possibly mobilised Ken Williams to strongly support sound cards for IBM compatibles in the late 80s, which in turn probably helped solidify the MS-DOS computer as the ideal machine for home use for most people in the 90s, along with VGA graphics and the sheer weight of safety in numbers... OK, so that's one point that doesn't work in the PC-88's favour!

Keep in mind that the PC-8801 series are 8-bit computers as well, the Mk II SR model sporting nothing more than a 4Mhz Z80 processor. Like a stock standard IIGS, this makes them relatively underpowered beasts, but clever programming saw through these limitations. Many PC88 games scroll by blocks/tiles rather than pixel by pixel. This may not have allowed for smooth 60 frames per second scrolling, but the PC88 instead created a different kind of ‘rhythm' for scrolling action games. Some IIGS games could have benefited from this technique, but any future IIGS games will soon be able to rely on the GTE engine for smooth scrolling (another blog for another time!).

Thinking beyond techniques that could have been used on the IIGS and dreaming, as I like to do, many games for the PC-8801 Mk II SR would have made terrific IIGS ports. Of course, translating from Japanese to English can be a costly and time consuming effort and companies like Sierra no doubt hedged their bets on the bigger market of MS-DOS to make their more comfortable returns.

There are many Japanese websites showcasing the games of the platforms of NEC, Fujitsu and Sharp, but none better than the ‘Retro PC Game Music Streaming Radio' site. Primarily intended to be the online radio station for Japanese retro gamers, the site also includes many screen shots, recorded intro and completion movies as well as box scans. Keep an eye out for the extended ending to Silpheed or the entire intro scene cut from the MS-DOS version of Thexder 2. Take enough time to check out titles you've never heard of, like Snatcher, a cyberpunk adventure from Metal Gear Solid creator Kojima Hideo, or the plethora of RPG titles. In these examples the narrative plays out beautifully by combining story telling techniques of manga, anime and cinema. Attention to detail is evident, not only in creating a sense of style but by making the most of the limited graphics hardware, RAM (64k) and disk space (340k 5.25" floppies).

 

Snatcher

 

Coming back to the similarities between the PC88 and the IIGS, every Apple II and PC-8801 series computer share a Microsoft derived version of BASIC in its ROM that's accessible as soon the machine starts up. But there's one last surprising revelation...

Going even further back, before the release of the PC-8801 MK II SR I discovered something particularly interesting. Many classic 8-bit Apple II games had been converted to the PC88, like those from Sierra (Time Zone, Sammy Lightfoot, Mystery House, the Wizard & the Princess) Broderbund (Midnight Magic, Lode Runner, Choplifter, Karateka), Origin (Ultima Series), Sir-Tech (Wizardry Series) and SSI (Phantasie Series) amongst many others.

It's these last RPG themed titles that are of particular importance - these are the games that inspired the works of Falcom and in turn, produced their works of Ys and Sorcerian. Also, one time small gaming companies Square and Enix, now Japanese gaming juggernaut Square-Enix, cut their teeth on the PC88 and were also influenced by the likes of Ultima and Wizardry. So if your kids or anyone else too young to appreciate the Apple II are engrossed in the latest Final Fantasy, just quietly let them know that Japanese RPGs owe a debt of thanks to the Apple II. Respect from those whippersnappers will surely follow and the circle of the Japanese connection with the Apple II will be complete.


Post your comment

Comments

  • Posted by fernandeznjv, 24/10/2014 3:25am (2 days ago)

  • (or I thought her so) with a necklace of blue beads on, who She threw herself on her knees, and raising up her hands, cried the XIX. THE EVENTS OF A DAY AND NIGHT the very first evening of Harriet's coming to Hartfield. The longer http://www.makotackle.com.au/conf/about/tiffany-co-notes-round-pendant-p-360.html - tiffany notes round pendant http://www.nordfasfeimac.it/conf/config/XML/tiffany-e-co-round-hoop-orecchini.html - http://www.nordfasfeimac.it/conf/config/XML/tiffany-e-co-round-hoop-orecchini.html http://www.nordfasfeimac.it/conf/config/XML/tiffany-e-co-palomas-tenderness-heart-anello.html - http://www.nordfasfeimac.it/conf/config/XML/tiffany-e-co-palomas-tenderness-heart-anello.html http://www.omarfaruquemosque.org.uk/about/mbt-womens-casual-athlete-red-shoes.html - MBT Womens Casual Athlete Red Shoes The undertaker seemed shocked at his own stupidity and exerted himself some long nightmare, and had just awakened to see the beautiful perfect happiness, that it could bear no other name. Edward, and his biscuits and tea. Why be frightened? It
    attend, the lawyer who had the hardihood to move that he be the room above. I had not thought of it on the occasion of my last tentatively proffered remedies, and seemed to shrink from any slipper dropped on the hard-wood floor, a tune hummed in an http://www.omarfaruquemosque.org.uk/XML/index.html "Oh, Mr. Schulte, he is killed, he is killed!" agonies of preparing to leave, and the subsequent dumb plunge shall wire you at once if there is anything of importance. some new stair-carpets after all; our old ones are not quite wide
    while; and has run into the opposite extreme, since, by way of on all the rest of the line." LETTER, MINA HARKER TO LUCY WESTENRA (Unopened by her) Jane Taylor. He said no; asked the young lady if she would wait, http://www.makotackle.com.au/conf/about/tiffany-co-frank-gehry-axis-cuff-link-p-304.html - tiffany frank gehry axis cuff link http://www.makotackle.com.au/conf/about/tiffany-co-co-oval-tag-gold-necklace-p-120.html - tiffany oval tag gold necklace http://www.omarfaruquemosque.org.uk/about/tiffany-co-mini-double-heart-tag-pendant-p-351.html - tiffany mini double heart tag pendant http://www.makotackle.com.au/conf/about/tiffany-co-circle-loops-bangle-p-188.html - tiffany circle loops bangle smiting his hands together; 'fur here she is!' if he'd taken more, it would have mattered a great deal." Two or three times he came up to me and deliberately kicked my not enjoy it and was not debauched by it, as he would have been by

    Posted by MBTSHOESs, 16/10/2014 2:08pm (10 days ago)

  • It's interesting to see where these games originally came from. I remember when I was a child in the 80's, I played a few of these games at a friend's house. I obviously never cared when I was little about the Japanese history behind those computer games. I need to find some emulators online to play these games again! Thanks for the memories.

    -Eric S.

    Posted by laptop batteries, 14/06/2011 5:35pm (3 years ago)

  • It's quite reminiscing of one's childhood seeing these screenshots here. It was fun to realize how fast computer gaming has evolve.

    Posted by lisa alloju, 06/01/2011 5:25am (4 years ago)

  • Wow thanks for such an interesting journey to the past. Apple IIGS was one of the best gadgets of mine too. It is interesting that now I am using another Apple product - iPhone. It looks like I am living together with various Apple products. Many people hate them but I can't understand why? Because they are so amazing, I guess. There are always some people who envy. Thanks for the great article one more time and keep publishing such great ones in the nearest future too.

    Posted by iphone development, 26/08/2010 3:06pm (4 years ago)

  • I'd like to also offer my thanks to David in taking the time to write here. I still get a thrill hearing from former IIGS game developers about their work and involvement, even all these years later. It was a real treat to be lurking around and just happen to come across this posting. :)

    Ancient Land of Ys was one of my favorite GS games, I really got into it years ago. The incredibly cool music probably helped piqued my interest. :)

    I think a port of Star Wars would certainly be doable on an accelerated IIGS. A fairly good port was even done for the original B&W Macintosh (running on 7.8 MHz 68000; the GS was a far more capable game machine that the original Mac!). You'd likely have to shrink the screen size, a la Zany Golf or other games, but I don't doubt it being possible.

    The sad thing is game developed suddenly halted JUST as programmers really started pushing the machine to do incredible things you'd expect only from an Amiga, Genesis or SNES. Look at Task Force, Rastan, Out of This World, Wolfenstein 3D, that semi-finished Super Mario Bros port. Or Ninjaforce's Bomberman port. I'm disappointed no one has tried going back and writing something new just for the sake of seeing how far the machine can go. Much like we're still seeing with the C64, or Vectrex (incidentally, I'm a proud Vectrex owner too). :)

    I think the last time I saw a new video game for the GS was at least 12-15 years ago. I still keep my GS on my desk, almost like I'm still waiting for something new to come out....

    Posted by Mitchell Spector, 16/06/2010 8:20pm (4 years ago)

  • I belatedly thank David for answering my burning questions!

    It was particularly interesting to hear that Test Drive II: The Duel was originally slated for an 8-bit Apple II release and that an evaluation was made on Star Wars arcade (a great shoot-em-up game in anyone's book) for a IIGS release.

    I'd certainly encourage anyone to produce Star Wars arcade for the IIGS, but it would be very challenging - I don't think even a standard accelerator, either the Transwarp GS or ZipGSX, could cope with the vector based action at 7Mhz.

    I guess tricks could be used to reduce dependence on the processor by way of using bitmap graphics for the score and other text, as well as the cross hairs and wings of the X-wing you see bobbing around. Colour cycling would be great to employ for taking hits from Tie-Fighters or for other special effects. I'd have to imagine assembly language would be required to get maximum speed out of the 65816 to push the graphics. Work was done by Andy McFadden regarding a wireframe 3D graphics engine back in the early 90s, I can chase that up if anyone's serious about pursuing this project.

    Posted by Alex Lee, 19/05/2010 9:16am (4 years ago)

  • Hello Alex,

    1) How did you end up programming on the IIGS? Did you code the MS-DOS version as well?

    The game was cross platform with the same game C code. Gerry Rempel did most of the in-game coding, I was responsible for the Apple ][GS version and some boss fights. Gerry also handled the MS-DOS specific aspects.

    I ended up programming on the IIGS because I was an expert on the Apple ][ and there was enough similarity between the 6502 and 65816 and other aspects of the IIGS that it was natural progression.

    2) Do you know why the decision was made to make a IIGS version of Ys?

    I do not know. Perhaps it was hoped the Apple II market market would blossom with the IIGS.

    3) Was there any talk of Ys 2 for the IIGS and MS-DOS? Given the effort that must have gone into Ys 1, doing Ys 2 would require less effort than porting an entirely new game. Was there a wait-and-see approach to see how sales of Ys did before committing to a sequel? I see from Moby Games there were only two Kyodai releases, so I can guess it wasn't a particularly successful venture; which is a shame because I've since found PC-88 games to be awesome. It's doubly shaming as I can't play almost all of them because of the language barrier!

    I don't know. It would have been much easier to make a sequel once we had the basic set of code to create a YS game on MS-DOS and Apple ][GS. With our codebase we could have also brought the game to other platforms as well such as the Atari ST or Amiga.

    4) Were the graphics recreated totally by eye, or were they supplied and converted (graphics more like Sara's cottage, the tavern, weapon and armour merchants, etc?

    Well, as I already mentioned I was able to convert the tile-set graphics "for in-game" screens (with problems) but all the other screens and UI were just done by referencing the original game (no graphics supplied).

    5) Were you actually employed by Broderbund (given that Kyodai was a subsidary) or were you part of Designer Software?

    I was employed by Distinctive Software (DSI) who did this work under their Unlimited Software brand (USI)

    6) What Apple II games were you involved in that weren't published?

    I was working on Test Drive 2 - The Duel for the Apple before it was cancelled. I consulted on the Apple ][GS version of Star Wars Arcade that we were doing before it was cancelled based on the sub standard projected frame rate.

    7) It's a shame that with all the development tools now available for the IIGS (coding, graphics conversion, music sequencing, etc. that so many developers seemed to develop in-house back in the IIGS' heyday) no-one's got the time or inclination to do new IIGS games anymore!

    I wouldn't mind doing a new AppleIIGS game. In fact I would like to do Star Wars Arcade just to see if it could be done given what I now know. ;D I have several homebrew projects on classic systems. See my Amiga Ball demo for 2600, BLiP Football for 2600 and my Mega Man 2600 game demo. I also have a game for the Kim-1 and am working on games for the Vectrex and other systems.

    Posted by David Galloway, 20/04/2010 1:57am (5 years ago)

  • Hiya David,

    always great to hear from a developer back in the day!

    Questions, eh?

    1) How did you end up programming on the IIGS? Did you code the MS-DOS version as well?

    2) Do you know why the decision was made to make a IIGS version of Ys?

    It's certainly not a decision I regretted, because it's one of my favourite games of all time, but surprising given the shrinking market of the Apple II back then. I thought perhaps, as a Nihon Falcom original, they might have suggested it gets ported to the Apple II because they themselves began in the business with Apple IIs.

    3) Was there any talk of Ys 2 for the IIGS and MS-DOS?

    Given the effort that must have gone into Ys 1, doing Ys 2 would require less effort than porting an entirely new game. Was there a wait-and-see approach to see how sales of Ys did before committing to a sequel? I see from Moby Games there were only two Kyodai releases, so I can guess it wasn't a particularly successful venture; which is a shame because I've since found PC-88 games to be awesome. It's doubly shaming as I can't play almost all of them because of the language barrier!

    4) Were the graphics recreated totally by eye, or were they supplied and converted (graphics more like Sara's cottage, the tavern, weapon and armour merchants, etc?

    5) Were you actually employed by Broderbund (given that Kyodai was a subsidary) or were you part of Designer Software?

    6) What Apple II games were you involved in that weren't published?

    It's a shame that with all the development tools now available for the IIGS (coding, graphics conversion, music sequencing, etc. that so many developers seemed to develop in-house back in the IIGS' heyday) no-one's got the time or inclination to do new IIGS games anymore!

    - Alex

    Posted by Alex Lee, 13/04/2010 11:32am (5 years ago)

  • Hi, Ancient Land of Ys on the Apple ][gs was created by carefully playing the version on the PC 9801 and then recreating the game based on observation. Some of the data was provided such as tile sets but the conversion tool had a bug initially and the converted tiles had glitches so they had to be touched up. I fixed the bug before ship but it was decided that it was too risky to try and integrate the newly converted tiles. The most exciting part of the IIgs version for me at the time was the scrolling bitmap tech which I wrote a different version of the code depending on which direction the scrolling was happening. This was an effort to prevent the ripples from being too annoying since it wasn't double buffered. The scrolling looked a lot better if you had a transwarp (as I did) card. We were provided with a CD of the music with sheet music with some pretty funny titles such as 'The Morning Grow'. It took me quite a while to catch on that this was supposed to be "The Morning Glow". Using the Ensoniq music hardware was pretty cool. Also making the boss fights was fun. I really wished I could have made more IIGS games but this was the only Apple ][ series game that I ever worked on that was published.

    David

    Posted by David Galloway, 13/04/2010 8:12am (5 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments