MSX: A Computer Architecture Ahead of its Time

by Ben Beck

The Forgotten Consoles series has mostly focused on just that — consoles. But what about something like Microsoft Japan’s MSX architecture, ahead of its time and actually wildly popular in parts of the world, but swallowed up in the 90s by IBM-compatibles running MS-DOS, Windows 3.1, OS/2, and then Windows 95? This…is its story. *Law and Order donk donk noise*

Public domain image

Public domain image

We take compatibility for granted these days, in the world of PCs. Sure, if you’re a Mac owner there’s a host of software you can’t use even with the same Intel chipset under the hood as a PC (without using a PowerPC workaround), and it’s not like the upcoming Doom game is going to run flawlessly on a $399.99 Acer laptop you pick up at a grey market superstore. But for the most part, we expect PC software to run on PCs.

This was absolutely not the case through the 1970s, 1980s, and even through much of the 1990s. Competing personal computer manufacturers like Commodore, Texas Instruments, Atari, Apple, and IBM all tried their hardest to ensure that you had to buy one of their machines to run their software. While there were companies who made their bones selling clones of other machines (hello…Compaq) and companies like Tandy that seemed to “accidentally” provide compatibility for other computers’ machines, it was a world of closed architecture.

For companies that didn’t have skin in the home computer manufacture game, software and OS developers especially, this was frustrating. It was annoying for small production houses to program software not only for different machines, but for machines with significantly different boards with different processors. And since, especially in the 1980s, dev kits and dev manuals were woefully buggy, underwritten, or evem nonexistent, developers were left in the dark doing multi-platform development.

Nazuhiko Nishi, then vice-president of Microsoft Japan and the Director of Tokyo’s ASCII Corporation, viewed the recent slew of early-80s Japanese micro-computers from companies like NEC, Hitachi, Yamaha, and Fujitsu as an opportunity to implement some architectural standards into the industry. Inspired by the standardization of VHS that had happened several years prior, Nishi got to work developing a compatible architecture that would allow new companies like Panasonic, Casio, Bandai, and Pioneer to develop their own PCs.

Nishi’s vision was implemented through the combination of off-the-shelf parts similar to those found in the Spectravideo SV-328 computer: Zilog’s 3.58MHz Z80 CPU, Texas Instrument’s TMS9918 16kb VRAM graphics card, as well as General Instrument’s AY-3-890 sound chip. The result was something that tech company could easily put together and get running in no time.

While there were many plusses to this board, and indeed Nishi’s idea of a shared computer architecture, the machines failed to succeed outside Japan. One of the reasons for this was that it was very difficult to port existing software, especially games, from European systems like the ZX Spectrum due to how the Intel 8255 Programmable Peripheral Interface chip handled interaction with the keyboard — the most infamous example of this was Spectrum computer game ports to MSX systems were forced to use the clunky arrow keys as directional, rather than the industry standard “Q-A-O-P” system of steering.

Despite the MSX architecture not really catching fire in the crowded markets of Europe and the US, MSX did thrive in its home country, as well as various pockets worldwide. A number of game franchises, from Metal Gear, to Parodius, to Bomberman, all first appeared on the MSX computers.

As we take our PC compatibility for granted today, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t always like this, and that there were earlier attempts to allow developers an easier time in creating multi-platform software.

Just turns out Microsoft need another decade or so.