The PC-9800: Japan's Dominant Home Computer

A lot of column inches in retro gaming are devoted to the land of the consoles: the NES! The SNES! The Genesis/Mega Drive! The Dreamcast, cut down in its prime!

But in recent years, there has been a real resurgence of interest that occurred on the home computers of the 80s and 90s. YouTubers love booting up a Commodore 64 game, or on the considerably cruder ZX Spectrum, and discovering a whole library of computer games unknown to them.

Numerous are these micro and home computers of the past: the aforementioned C64 and ZX Spectrum, the Apple II and Macintosh, the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga. What do all of these things have in common? Well, they’re all from America or Europe.

Japan had a thriving home computer market, as you’d expect, and it was mostly dominated through the 1980s and 1990s by one company: the NEC Corporation of Minato, Japan.

This is the NEC Headquarters — it sort of looks like the last stage of a Final Fantasy game, doesn’t it?

This is the NEC Headquarters — it sort of looks like the last stage of a Final Fantasy game, doesn’t it?

We’ve looked at NEC a little before, with their sadly misbegotten PC-FX console getting highlighted over here. But in the home computer market, NEC stood tall over its competitors like a Colossus.

NEC has a long, long history producing a load of machines, so for the purposes of brevity in this article we will just look at the line that produced the most games — the legendary PC-9800 line.

The first PC released in this line was the PC-9801 in 1982. It was a powerful home computer, boasting 128k of RAM that could easily be expanded to even more. In Japan, home computers were luxury items, and for a country in the midst of unprecedented economic growth (which would never, ever go away of course), luxury items sold well. The PC-9801 was a hit.

As time went on and other Japanese PCs eclipsed it for power (like the Fujitsu FM Towns and the legendary Sharp X68000), the PC-98 line remained reliable for games production. A number were initially coded for and released for the PC-98 system: Hideo Kojima’s ambitious adventure game Policenauts debuted for the PC-9824 in 1994, Technosoft’s influential strategy game Herzog debuted for the system in 1988, the groundbreaking murder-mystery adventure game J.B. Harold Murder Club was borne in 1986, among countless other dating sims, visual novels, RPGs, and other games.

The interesting thing about the PC-98 line is that unlike the ambitions games-friendly microcomputers of the early 80s like the Commodore 64 and Atari ST, the PC-98 was primarily successful in the business market that by the early 1980s IBM had entirely sew up with its Personal Computer (and, of course, the legion of clones that are the precedents to virtually every computer we used today). Through he 1980s, about 60% of PC-98 models sold were used in the office — this was due to its productivity suite, Ichitaro, which was throughly well-crafted for the Japanese market.

The PC-98 and its many iterations deserve a deeper look, for sure, but this was just a quick overview and look at what was, for a time, Japan’s best-selling home computer.