Recently I found myself eyeing up another fellow collector's purchase - the Sharp X68000, a Japanese home computer known for its incredible shoot-em-ups and near perfect arcade ports. It's a stylish looking system, with its outer case resembling that of a sleek gaming skyscraper. Trouble is, the system is not only rare, but also quite expensive. Games alone often fetch over £100, and working hardware often holds a price-tag to dissuade any gamer. After spending longer than I'd hoped admiring this obscurity, I curiously stepped into eBay 'just for a look'.
With the exception of the usual consoles from Japan, I haven't really paid much attention to gaming on other Japanese platforms. In fact I only know about the Sharp X68000 after seeing it a few years ago at an anime convention. The MSX phase passed me by back in the 80's but I always had an appreciation of how nice the computers looked even back then. Despite this background knowledge, I was shocked to find that Sharp made another series of computers way back in the depths of the early 80's. Turns out that eBay is not only a place to drain your bank account, but it's also a wonderful place of learning and discovery. Just keep away from the 'Buy It Now button'.
Poking around eBay can be a very dangerous business, especially if you are easily swayed and have a curious nature. Like me.
Having totally failed to find an X68000, I shifted my attention to the next line in my search results: a Sharp MZ-700 listed as 'spares or repair' with its original packaging and some accompanying software for £20 plus delivery. Before I realised I even wanted it or what it was, PayPal had already shoveled the money from my account and a few days later a large package was sitting on my kitchen table covered in tape.
Up until then I had no idea this thing existed, what it could do, or more importantly, what I could do with it. As we live in this enlightened age, Google once more came to my rescue. Not only are there various websites dedicated to this series of machine, there are even people creating new software for it today, so new that the latest release was just last year. Yes, you read that right, games on tape, delivered to your door in 2017. Its like the 80's never left us.
Introducing the Sharp MZ-700
Unlike other 8 bit computers of its time, the Sharp MZ-700 doesn't have its operating system on ROM. This has the advantage of being able to load whatever language you want upon boot (unlike, for example, the Commodore 64 which had BASIC loaded into memory from boot). So far I have found several flavours of BASIC as well as FORTH, LOGO, PASCAL and FORTRAN. All fascinating entry points, but as I am anything but a programmer, it's a little wasted on me.
There are, however, some pretty good games to be enjoyed on the platform, even though it's lsomewhat imited in the graphics department. No hi-res visuals on offer, just ASCII characters used to resemble sprites and artwork, all of which made from a decent set of 512 characters. All sound is played through the onboard speaker, which actually adds to its charm and it sounds pretty good despite its age. The system's main feature is its wonderful 'clacky' keyboard that you'd expect to find on old terminals in 80's movies, light years from the dull non-tactile nonsense we have to put up with today. It's a pretty thing as well, the design and build quality is superb, and I'd be happy even if it didn't work to display it as an object in the collection.
Gaming on the Sharp MZ-700
After a little fiddling, I managed to get 'Ladybug' to run, and it's a really good version of the game. It's not much to look at, but it plays really well (something that is sometimes lost these days). Next up a text adventure game called 'Adventure' which reminded me why I don't play text adventures any more...
- Me: Look
- Game: You see a lamp
- Me: Get lamp
- Game: You cant do that
- Me: Get the lamp
- Game: There is no 'the lamp' here
- Me: Turns on Famicom
Poking around on eBay some more proved that there were enough companies creating games for these machines back in the 80's, with a decent selection to keep myself interested. Seeking further information on the recommended titles online, British based developers Sharpworks got in touch to announce that they recently released their very own version of Snake for the Sharp MZ-700 on cassette tape (the same one which had countless Nokia owners glued to their phones in the late 90s). This brand new homebrew release, however, decided that the game needed explosives adding into the mix... who wouldn't want to play that?
After checking out MineSnake, the game arrived a few days later. This marked the arrival of my first video game purchased on a cassette tape since 1988, along with a couple of stickers of the company logo, a nice touch.
Aside from the obvious elements of gameplay, the difference here is that you and the food are separated by various objects and walls. These need to be removed by placing down an explosive mine, destroying part of the wall or object, and thus getting access to the food. The explosive comes out of the end of the snake meaning timing and placement become very important as your body grows. This adds a nice twist to the game and a bit of strategic thinking previously unseen in the original.
Manage to eat 10 pieces of food and its on to the next level. The game is well implemented with user and randomly crafted levels in addition to the 21 that make up the conquest mode. Also included is the original version of snake which is another very nice touch.
I find old hardware like this fascinating. The god-like Commodore 64 and Spectrum that started the whole revolution of bedroom coding sometimes overshadow other systems such as the Sharp MZ-700. That said there always people out there dedicated to these obscure platforms who continue to develop new software for them and support them. Although a bargain on eBay today, the MZ-700 was fairly expensive upon release and sadly failed to hit the sales targets Sharp wanted - despite having some very interesting and forward thinking ideas on offer. While it's doubtful it will become the centre of my gaming collection, it's still a beauty of a system and holds plenty of interesting quirks which make it a very nice addition.
SharpMZ.org is an invaluable rescource of information on the machine, loads of downloads, PDFs and information
MZ80a.com where to find MineSnake and a huge amount of information on Sharp 8 bit computers. Downloads, information and lots more on other machines in the range.