Panasonic MSX2 computer (and Akumajou Dracula for MSX)

You don’t have to look too far into 80s Japanese gaming to see that the biggest competitor to the Famicom was not the Sega SG1000 or Mark III – but a console-like home computer platform – the MSX. Invented by Microsoft Japan, MSX was designed to be a standard platform for computer manufacturers, for which Microsoft could provide the operating environment and sell their other software. In effect an early version of the racket they later managed worldwide with Windows.

I became aware of the MSX in the late 80s, when many of the catalogues and promos that came with my imported Famicom games featured ads for MSX games.

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Panasonic FS-A1 Mark II with matching controller

What got many Japanese gaming enthusiasts’ attention early on were the big Konami franchises like Akumajou Dracula (Castlevania) and Metal Gear that got early entries on the platform. Many Hudson Soft game series started on MSX as well.

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Akumajou Dracula MSX

What’s nice about MSX computers is that they bear much more resemblance to consoles than lots of other 80s PCs. Most are standalone, single piece units with the keyboard built in. This model is one of the most compact models – so even with the built-in keyboard it’s smaller in size than many consoles.IMG_4794

They were designed to be plugged into a TV, so there’s no looking around for specific retro monitors or video converters. Most MSX computers have standard composite AV out, and many have RGB out, allowing for a great quality picture via any RGB capable TV (or modern scalers like Micomsoft XRGB units).

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Probably best of all, MSX computers feature a cartridge slot, and while this design feature was present in many 8-bit and 16-bit computers, unlike most of the others a good deal of the best software for the platform was released on cart. This means plug and play simplicity, and less fiddling around trying to get old floppy disks to work.

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Power wise, there are two main generations of machine, the MSX and the MSX2. The MSX was first announced in June 1983, and features similar graphical and processing power to the Sega SG1000 and several other platforms that used the same basic design, including the Colecovision and the ZX Spectrum. While there are some good games (including the first ever Parodius game) MSX1 games are fairly primitive, mostly featuring 1/2 colour sprites, and little scrolling. The lack of hardware scrolling makes the many shooter games on the platform very choppy, as they ‘scroll’ 10+ pixels at a time. Ultimately, just like the SG1000 it is dramatically outclassed by the Famicom in terms of gaming, despite the Famciom being released earlier.

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My Mitsubishi MSX1

The MSX2 was introduced in 1986, and is much closer to the Famicom. It can produce more detailed graphics and features more colours, but usually at a lower framerate, so games feel more choppy. In a pretty huge design oversight for a post Super Mario Bros platform, the MSX2 hardware is still not capable of horizontal scrolling. As such, a huge number of games for the system utilise Legend of Zelda or Montezuma’s Revenge ‘flip screen’ style progression. This heavily influenced the way many games were designed for the system, and Metal Gear as we know it today was created around these limitations.

Is the MSX worth it as a pseudo-console retro gaming machine? Absolutely. There are heaps of great games, and the hardware is easy to get and easy to use. It can be confusing because there are a lot of different MSX models, but really any MSX2 model will cover 95% of games. The biggest downside is the price of games. The software typically sold less so is in much shorter supply than the main console platforms, and it has a very dedicated fan base, so prices for top titles these days are sky-high.

Akumajou Dracula for MSX2

I originally got an MSX2 just to play the alternate version of the original Akumajou Dracula. The MSX2 version was released mere weeks after the Famicom Disk game, so they were clearly developed in tandem. The typical MSX flip screen design element is present, and realising the limitaions of the platform for action games, the designers instead focused on other things, and turned it into a Goonies style puzzle adventure. Instead of just fighting enemies and passing platforming challenges, you also have to collect hidden keys to open doors and progress to the next part of the level. It’s really a lot of fun, and a completely different take on the same basic levels. It’s more rough around the edges, but also more interesting.

The big question is – which Akumajou Dracula reigns supreme? Famicom Disk, or MSX2?

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The short answer is the Famicom Disk version, by a small margin, it’s just such a solidly designed classic game. While it’s mostly due to the platform, if you play the Famicom version immediately after the MSX2 version, while the graphics are a slight downgrade, the smoothness and responsiveness really hits you, it’s just a more refined game. The music is also marginally better on the Famicom, despite the game not even using the extra FDS sound channels.

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DraculaFamicom2 DraculaMSX1

The MSX version is still great however, and a completely different experience. And what’s most interesting is that the Famicom Disk-only sequel  Dracula II: Noroi no Fuuin is clearly a sequel to both games. Simon is wearing his red gear from the MSX version, and it expands on the exploration and puzzle elements of that version that were not present in the Famicom original.

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2 thoughts on “Panasonic MSX2 computer (and Akumajou Dracula for MSX)

  1. Fernando Collazo December 17, 2017 / 2:51 pm

    Wow nice Konami collection! Now you can be a true hardcore Konami fan and try to collecting all MSX Konami games:

    Product MSX Year Title
    RC 700 1 1984 Athletic Land
    RC 701 1 1984 Antarctic Adventure
    RC 702 1 1984 Monkey Academy
    RC 703 1 1983 Time Pilot
    RC 704 1 1983 Frogger
    RC 705 1 1983 Super Cobra
    RC 706 1 1984 Konami’s Billiards
    RC 707 1 1984 Konami’s Mahjong
    RC 708 1 1984 Action Boat (not released)
    RC 709 1 1984 Spelling Bee (not released)
    RC 710 1 1984 Hyper Olympic 1
    RC 711 1 1984 Hyper Olympic 2
    RC 712 1 1984 Circus Charlie
    RC 713 1 1984 Magical Tree
    RC 714 1 1984 Comic Bakery
    RC 715 1 1984 Hyper Sports 1
    RC 716 1 1984 Cabbage Patch Kids
    RC 717 1 1984 Hyper Sports 2
    RC 718 1 1985 Hyper Rally
    RC 719 1 1984 Keyboard Master (not released)
    RC 720 1 1984 Konami’s Tennis
    RC 721 1 1984 Sky Jaguar
    RC 722 1 1985 Konami’s Pinball (not released)
    RC 723 1 1985 Konami’s Golf
    RC 724 1 1984 Konami’s Baseball
    RC 725 1 1985 Yie Ar Kung Fu
    RC 726 Not released
    RC 727 1 1985 King’s Valley
    RC 728 1 1985 Mopi Ranger
    RC 729 1 1985 Pippols
    RC 730 1 1985 Road Fighter
    RC 731 1 1985 Konami’s Ping Pong
    RC 732 1 1985 Konami’s Soccer
    RC 733 1 1985 Hyper Sports 3
    RC 734 1 1986 The Goonies
    RC 735 1 1986 The Game Master
    RC 736 1 1985 Konami’s Boxing
    RC 737 1 1985 Yie Ar Kung Fu 2
    RC 738 Not released
    RC 739 1 1986 Knightmare
    RC 740 1 1986 Twin Bee
    RC 741 1 1986 Konami’s Synthesizer
    RC 742 1 1986 Gradius
    RC 743 1 1986 Penguin Adventure
    RC 744 2 1986 Vampire Killer
    RC 745 2 1986 King Kong 2
    RC 746 1 1986 Q-Bert
    RC 747 2 1987 Hinotori
    RC 748 2 1987 Ganbare Goemon
    RC 749 1 1987 The Maze of Galious
    RC 750 2 1987 Metal Gear
    RC 751 1 1987 Gradius 2
    RC 752 1 1987 F-1 Spirit
    RC 753 2 1987 Usas
    RC 754 1 1987 Shalom
    RC 755 1/2 1988 The Game Master 2
    RC 756 2 1988 Break Shot (not released)
    RC 757 2 1988 Pennant Race 1
    RC 758 1 1987 Salamander
    RC 759 1 1988 Parodius
    RC 760 1 1988 King’s Valley 2
    RC 761 2 1988 King’s Valley 2
    RC 762 2 1989 Contra
    RC 763 2 1989 Tentochito (not released)
    RC 764 1/2 1988 Gopher’s Ambition Episode II
    RC 765 2 1989 Majutsushi
    RC 766 2 1989 Pennant Race 2
    RC 767 2 1990 Metal Gear 2
    RC 768 2/2+ 1989 Space Manbow
    RC 769 2 1990 Quarth

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