Games | NES | The Flip Side: The MSX Counterparts of NES Games

Article by Jeremy Parish? | October 12, 2010

Debuting in Japan on practically the same summer day in 1983, the Famicom had a curious mirror-universe twin in the MSX computer standard. Before the NES turned Nintendo’s system into an international juggernaut, many publishers chose to release their games in both formats, perhaps as a way of hedging their bets.

The MSX standard, however, was rather less accomplished technologically than the NES, so certain creative adjustments had to be made. Even so, some games actually debuted on MSX, only later making their way to NES. But the MSX was only a hit in Japan (and a lesser success in Europe); it never found a foothold in the U.S.

You may know these games from their NES incarnations, but did you know about their evil twins from another land?

Capcom | Shooter | 1985

The NES version of 1942 is infamously terrible, one of those slapdash disasters outsourced to Micronics. It ran at a terrible framerate, the action was sluggish, and the music was wretched. The same is true of the MSX version, but at least it had the excuse of running on hardware that had no business hosting a scrolling shooter. In some ways, the MSX version is more enjoyable, since its rudimentary graphics better justify the jerky gameplay. There’s no excuse for the music in either version, though.

Akumajou Dracula (Castlevania/Vampire Killer)
Konami | Platformer | 1986

Arcade-to-NES adaptations are legendary for being liberal reinterpretations of the games on which they’re based; unable to recreate a technologically comparable experience, many developers instead went for depth. But MSX counterparts of NES games sometimes did to the originals the same thing that NES games did to their own arcade inspirations, compensating for technical limitations with added depth. Such was the case with the original Castlevania: Stuck on hardware that couldn’t easily support scrolling, Konami dialed down the action elements of the game and played up the adventure aspect. Each level was an open-ended, self-contained maze that bore a loose resemblance to portions of the NES game -- Castlevania as structured after Konami cousin The Goonies. Insanely difficult and maddeningly unbalanced, it’s pretty easy to see this version of Castlevania (called Vampire Killer in Europe) as the kernel of inspiration for Simon’s Quest.

Hudson | Maze | 1985

The Bomberman series began life on the MSX, oddly enough... and the original game really is an oddity, pitting the eponymous hero (whose name was two words at the time) against an army of angry balloons in a random maze. Oddly, the hero is a portly chap in suspenders, and the concept of power-ups seems entirely nonexistent. When the series migrated to NES a few years later, the hero was given a makeover to become the blue-and-white robo-warrior we know and love, and an upgrade system was implemented. The result was considerably more strategic, not to mention attractive. Of course, both versions of the game are ultimately pretty out of sync with their sequels, since neither features the multiplayer element the series is known for.

Dragon Quest & Final Fantasy
Enix/Square | RPG | 1986/1987

The two biggest RPG franchises in the world got their start on NES... and on MSX. But even in these early days, Square and Enix just couldn’t help but find themselves at odds with one another. The MSX rendition of Dragon Quest is notoriously poor, with pokey controls, compromised graphics, and out-of-sync sound—worse even than the underwhelming Famicom version of the game, and vastly inferior to its U.S. version, Dragon Warrior. Final Fantasy’s MSX debut, however, was in some ways an improvement over the NES original; the graphics were moderately spruced up, and the music was great. Granted, it was designed for the superior MSX-2 spec while Dragon Quest was for the vanilla hardware, but still!

Legacy of the Wizard
Falcom | Action RPG | 1987

Released in three flavors -- NES, MSX, and MSX-2—the game we know as Legacy of the Wizard wasn’t wildly different in any incarnation, though there were a number of subtle tweaks in the MSX ports. Both MSX versions made a number of adjustments to the game’s mazes, leaving the general layout the same but redesigning many rooms in ways both small and large. Otherwise, the differences were largely cosmetic, with the baseline MSX rendition of the game easily being the least visually impressive, while the MSX-2 game had a slight edge over the NES game.

Eggerland (Adventures of Lolo)
HAL | Puzzle | 1986

Like Bomberman, HAL’s Kirby precursor Lolo got his start on MSX. The actual lineage of the Lolo games is a mess (the releases we saw in the U.S. are confusing mish-mashes of the Japanese games), but the series’ definitive start was in the MSX game Eggerland, which appears to have contributed a number of puzzles to first U.S. release. The core concept behind Lolo was strong enough that the series never really evolved much beyond this initial release; HAL got it right from day one. As such, the only real difference between this and Adventures of Lolo are the specifics of the puzzles and the level of graphical detail.

The Goonies
Konami | Platformer | 1986

Though largely similar on NES and MSX, Konami’s Goonies games were two distinctly different experiences. Both put players in control of Mikey Walsh on a mission to save his friends from the Fratelli gang, and both featured maze-like levels packed with similar hazards. The NES version, however, felt like a classic arcade game, with more items, enemies, hidden items, and a steady difficulty curve. The MSX game felt more like what you’d expect to see on an 8-bit microcomputer: Simpler graphics, a rudimentary experience system, and more complex level design right from the word “go.”

Guardic (The Guardian Legend)
Compile | Shooter | 1987

This strange Compile shooter combined top-down combat with non-linear maze navigation. Players would advance from screen to screen, choosing their power set for each tableau and clearing the area of enemies before moving along to the next screen’s conflicts. Its sequel, NES classic The Guardian Legend, separated out the game’s uncomfortably conjoined ideas into two different modes: Auto-scrolling shooting and on-foot corridor exploration. The result was a masterpiece, unlike the game to which it served as a sequel.

Metal Gear
Konami | Adventure | 1987

E asily the most famous MSX counterpart of an NES game, Metal Gear actually began life on the computer system, and most of its unique design elements -- specifically its screen-by-screen layout and emphasis on stealth -- were simply kludges to work around the computer’s limitations. Quite a lot of Metal Gear changed en route to NES: The programmers turned several basement areas into new buildings (leaving odd empty destinations in the elevator scenes), creating annoying maze sequences to link them. A number of elements which became series traditions were removed in the NES version. On MSX, Snake began the game by infiltrating a fortress via water, battled a Hind-D helicopter, and -- oh yes -- actually had to fight a machine called Metal Gear. None of the that was present in the U.S. version, and since we never saw the MSX sequel Solid Snake, the series’ iterative elements were lost on Americans when Metal Gear Solid came around. On the other hand, the NES game retained the overall feel and focus on stealth, so that’s something. Konami didn’t turn Metal Gear into a callow action game until the NES-only sequel, Snake’s Revenge.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Konami | Platformer | 1989

Ultimately, the MSX was an 8-bit microcomputer along the lines of the ZX Spectrum and the Amstrad CPC, and that commonality tended to manifest strongly on the European side. Take, for instance, the MSX release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: It appears to have been closely patterned after Probe’s Spectrum game, which in turn was loosely designed in the style of Konami’s first NES TMNT game. Like a photocopy of a photocopy, each successive iteration moved further and further away from the quality of the original... which, to be honest, wasn’t especially fun to begin with.

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