Trivia Tuesday: The rise and fall of the MSX

Father of the MSX: Kazuhiko 'Kay' Nishi, seen here with Bill Gates, also designed one of the first laptops

If you weren't living in Japan, South America, or a select few European countries during the mid-80s, chances are that you missed out on the heyday of the MSX. Despite being built on a Microsoft platform, it was never able to make much of a dent in the US or UK markets, but boy, were things different overseas.

Created at the dawn of the 16-bit era, MSX was designed as "a final, ultimate 8-bit machine," in the words of its 'father', Kazuhiko 'Kay' Nishi, a personal friend of Bill Gates (who described him as "more like me than probably anybody I've ever met") and the founder of ASCII Corp., Mirosoft's Japanese agent. Nishi's story is worth an article in its own right, but we'll save that for later. For now, we're focusing on one episode from his storied career: his quest to create a standardized platform for home computers.

Now, by standardized platform, we don't just mean software; Nishi took inspiration from formats like VHS and Betamax, which were revolutionary at the time, and hoped to bring some of the same cohesion to computing. This meant more than software compatibility - this was going to be a standardized platform, led by Microsoft, right down to the hardware and peripherals. Actually, that's a little bit like what we're seeing from Windows Phone nowadays, isn't it?

Monitors: Most MSX hardware didn't include a monitor

This was partly in response to something that had kept the big Japanese electronics firms out of the early PC market: the total lack of a platform to build upon. Back then, companies like Sony were smart enough to not try their hand at building software, and no one seemed to take the initiative to create an open format. Nishi had the answer, in the form of Microsoft Extended Basic, or MSX.

In the end, MSX wound up being more of a gaming platform than a computing platform. Every piece of MSX hardware had the same basic design, built upon the same basic components: a 3.58 MHz Zilog Z80A, a minimum of 8 KB of RAM and VRAM, with support for eye-popping 16 color graphics, all available at an insanely low price point of around $400. Writing a program for one MSX machine was the same as writing it for another, even moreso than writing a program for a modern Windows machine, and this meant that it was perfect for creating a gaming ecosystem.

If you've never used an MSX computer, then there's still a pretty good chance that you've felt its influence in the gaming market. It was on MSX that franchises like Metal Gear and Puyo Puyo got their start. The MSX version of Metal Gear, by the way, is way better than the NES port.

Cartridges: Many MSX models only supported cartridges

Despite all of that, the MSX died in obscurity. Just as Microsoft had brought the format to life, its lack of support for the platform definitely contributed heavily to its death. Technical difficulties over the development of the MSX3, a more powerful, updated version of the standard, and the failure of the MSX2+, caused Microsoft to part ways with ASCII Corp and opened their own Japanese subsidiary to handle future developments. Unfortunately, by then the platform had virtually no support from hardware makers, and it languished up until 1995, when the MSX TurboR was discontinued in Japan.

Space: A Sony MSX2 made it all the way into outer-space aboard Mir

Still, MSX managed to leave a surprisingly large legacy. In addition to helping to create some of our favorite gaming franchises, it opened the doors for Nintendo to introduce the Famicom, and became a favorite of Eastern European pirates for adding subtitles to bootleg VHS cassettes. A Sony MSX2 machine even made it into space aboard Russia's Mir space station. We're not sure about it being the first Microsoft product in space, but it's got to be close.

And what about Kay Nishi? Well, like we said, he's worth an article in his own right, but in recent years he's still been a fan of the MSX platform, advocating the official MSXPLAYer emulator, and pretty much anything that keeps his baby alive.

Images via Wikimedia Commons, Video Game Console Library, Nexus, and SuperFami

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10 Comments

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Except for the monitor, I actulally still have a MSX computer like the one on the first picture, it has been eons since it was on for the last time, must try and check if it still works some day...

Marcos_Edson said,
Except for the monitor, I actulally still have a MSX computer like the one on the first picture, it has been eons since it was on for the last time, must try and check if it still works some day...

Awesome stuff, I've got a working Apple IIGS myself. Can't beat old computers

"This meant more than software compatibility - this was going to be a standardized platform, led by Microsoft, right down to the hardware and peripherals. Actually, that's a little bit like what we're seeing from Windows Phone nowadays, isn't it?"

HAHAHAHAHA! Fanboy!!! MANY companies have done the same, long before Windows Phone.

SoCalRox said,
"This meant more than software compatibility - this was going to be a standardized platform, led by Microsoft, right down to the hardware and peripherals. Actually, that's a little bit like what we're seeing from Windows Phone nowadays, isn't it?"

HAHAHAHAHA! Fanboy!!! MANY companies have done the same, long before Windows Phone.

Sounds like more of an attempt to go with the Apple model contemporary to the time, more so than anything else.

SoCalRox said,
"This meant more than software compatibility - this was going to be a standardized platform, led by Microsoft, right down to the hardware and peripherals. Actually, that's a little bit like what we're seeing from Windows Phone nowadays, isn't it?"

HAHAHAHAHA! Fanboy!!! MANY companies have done the same, long before Windows Phone.

I'm sorry, could you point me to the part of that quote where he claims that Windows Phone is the first attempt at this? I'm not inside the author's head but I imagine he was just pointing out similarities between two MS products that existed decades apart.

Rampant 'I hate fanboy-ism' is just as annoying (and useless) as the fanboys themselves.

SoCalRox said,
"This meant more than software compatibility - this was going to be a standardized platform, led by Microsoft, right down to the hardware and peripherals. Actually, that's a little bit like what we're seeing from Windows Phone nowadays, isn't it?"

HAHAHAHAHA! Fanboy!!! MANY companies have done the same, long before Windows Phone.

I'm not sure I see this as a positive, considering the platform didn't succeed, wouldn't this comment be the opposite of a fanboy?


I also have to disagree with the author's comparison, as the MSX platform is more like the PC platform of the last two decades, with Windows creating a soft set of standards.

Windows Phones are based on design specifications, which is different than a standardized platform.

However, the modern PC is a standardized platform and not based on design specifications. (This is the better analogy.)

One is tightly controlled and the other is a more flexible set of base technologies.

Before Windows, the PC had very few actual standards, and even then they were limited to very basic hardware consistency. Even the concept of an OS controlling hardware that we expect the OS to handle today like sound, was considered outside the scope of an OS in the late 80s, early 90s.

This level of OS control of hardware was and still is a topic of debate.

Windows and Microsoft see the OS as unifying hardware and software to remove the complexity from the user. This creates 'soft' standards for hardware and software to follow, and things like sound and printing work consistently.

This same anti-MS argument is why there is a lot of emotional attachment to OSes like Linux that do not offer OS level control or standardization of hardware, and expect upper layers to deal with higher level hardware. (I personally think this is an antiquated ideal that no longer serves the original intent of flexibility and simplicity. As hardware and software has increased in complexity, all gains are quickly lost in compensating for the complexity.)


Microsoft doesn't directly control the hardware standards, but they play a major role in them by what Windows uses, and this has created a soft standardized platform for the modern PC.

So in the end, the goals of MSX are realized, but on a grander scale and using existing technology footprints.