Examination: the Sharp X68000
One of Japan's best-kept old secrets, dusted off and exposed to the unforgiving scrutiny of NRW's resident gaming madman. Stark horror, MSPaint-style nudity, FM synthesis, and those old 5.25" floppies, remember those?
This one is about computers. As much as console gaming forms the crux of what I discuss here at NRWG, it is occasionally my duty to draw attention to that parallel road, that meandering yet meaningful story of mankind’s attempt to entertain itself with computers before they were all plugged into phone lines. (Hell, many of them were before it was even a thing.)
So you remember back in the 80s when you thought your MS-DOS shit or your Amstrad CPC was cool? Do you remember the days before Japan started dropping unfathomable machines on the West one after another? Back before the Internet forcibly occluded every dark corner of electronics culture in stark detail, there was a time when Japan kept the best shit for themselves. And I can’t blame them when I look at some of it. We wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it. Like apes confronted by Arthur C Clarke’s monolith, we would have felt so many emotions that we were reduced to hooting until dusk at the x68000.
Sharp released the first model in 1987, naming the machine after its 10MHz CPU. It boasted one whole megabyte of ram, which today is about enough juggling space for one small photograph. ( I realize RAM and disk space are two different things, I’m trying to be illustrative here.) Despite IBM-style PCs in the West having moved on to the concept of built-in hard drives, the x68000 had no such bulk; it had its own OS that bore astounding similarity to MS-DOS but pulled all extra data from floppy.
We’re not here to get soggy over this thing’s data capabilities. When it comes to graphics and sound, the only things the Western world has that came close were the Amiga and the Atari ST… and neither could hold a shaky, barely-lit candle to this heartbreaker. During a time when a lot of people were gradually making the stroll from boxy candy-colored shit to VGA graphics, the standard color palette on the Sharp x68000 was 65,535 colors in a maximum resolution of 1,024×1,024. By comparison, VGA’s 1987 vintage can output 256 colors at a resolution of 320×200. Better get your bifocals out. Needless to say, this graphical depth demanded audio of comparable richness.
Regular readers (if I have any; I certainly hope so, or I’m still in that coma and this isn’t even happening) are already aware of my desire to basically fucking marry the Yamaha YM2612 – the exquisite little weaponized synth chip that makes all our favorite Genesis soundtracks go boom-boom. The Sharp x68000 uses a slightly more grown-up, sophisticated cousin of the YM2612. The YM2151 boasts eight channels to the 2612’s six, and to put it in plain terms, the end result sounds far “cleaner” and also offers more potential detail. In other words, the music output on even the off-the-shelf model is delicious. I am terrible for saying this, but aside from the minimal loss of “ass-end” I seem to hear on x68000 soundtracks, I may actually like this chip better. Two key examples of its power to deliver are the x68000 retooling of Akumajō Dracula and the port of Thunder Force II. It even makes River City Ransom sound gnarlier!
Japan’s decision to only market this marvel domestically kept the x68000 a near-secret in the 80s and 90s, but the sheer volume and variety of titles released for it makes the secret all the more unbelievable. You would think more buzz would have been generated – even now, in 2017, when everyone has seen everything and it’s been made into twelve shitty memes, I look at the screenshots and the videos with a certain awe. I humbly present some highlights of what I have found in my plodding research.
It’s a remake of the original, but it’s arcade-quality. (in fact, the x68000 was the test system for the Capcom CPS system for many years.) I digress – the difficulty level is increased just enough to re-engage, the music is remarkable, and I especially love that Stage Clear theme. “Epic” applies here.
Dead of the Brain
It’s all in Japanese, but I get the general idea. It seems to be a really cool spin on Re-Animator by way of Return of the Living Dead… definitely inspired by both. The music’s not as mind-blowing here, but the graphics are really turned-out. It’s hard to do effective horror stuff in a game medium, especially the earlier you go in the timeline, but Dead of the Brain really impresses me by melding cartoony with frightening.
I’m sorry, these just fascinate me. I’m noticing a dual theme with these graphical-text adventures: prominent tits and horrible things happening or being found.Still, really detailed illustration, great color choice to make for a dark theme.
A Preponderance of NSFW shit
Big Surprise, 1987-1993
Just in case you wanted to jack off to this, well hey, at least it’s better than the same image would be rendered on a VGA machine. Don’t think too hard about what you’re doing, bucko. I guess people made do back then. Some of it’s awfully MSPaint, though.
Heart of Saphilamun
Annandule Project, 1991
I found very little background info on this one, in either language. It was apparently a hit, but in a flash-in-the-pan sort of way. Something about the screenshots and video intro I’ve found really unsettles me. Maybe it’s the brief, silent sequence depicting a nude woman literally fucking falling apart against a black background. Maybe it’s the horrifying winged snake thing. Maybe it’s the fact that I even asked on forums and couldn’t get a synopsis… it’s apparently loosely based on Lovecraft. I’ll buy that.
All of this has enraptured me with this mysterious device. I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing this glimpse into the grey shadows with me; I live for this kind of shit, and it’s part of why I love to write these articles. I get to pluck artifacts from the dusty ground of the wasteland, wipe them off, and decide they need talking about. Cheers.