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The Story Of The MSX

It’s the latest format to hit Antstream Arcade and our CEO’s favourite computer of all time. But just how did the MSX computer come about and why did it fail to ignite the micro world?

Open up any computer magazine in the early Eighties and you are sure to discover pages and

pages of advertisements for new micro computers. From the more well-known machines such as the ZX Spectrum and Apple II to the less successful Dragon 32 and TRS-80 CoCo, it seemed that every electronics hardware manufacturer was trying to jump onto the home micro computer craze with its own particular model. The extreme competition meant that there was zero attempt at standardisation – virtually every company had a different operating system, a different processor and a bespoke software format. Potential purchasers were faced with a huge dilemma – which machine was going to succeed and which was going to become an expensive door stop? A little company by the name of Microsoft saw this problem and had the solution. At least, it thought it had.

MSX Specs

3.58MHz Z80 Processor

16kb video RAM

8-128kb RAM – usually 32 or 64kb

AY-3-8910 Sound Chip

256x192 Resolution

16 Colours

Media Formats supported: Cassette, floppy disk and cartridge

The story of the MSX begins with Kazuhiko Nishi, the founder of ASCII Corporation in Japan, a popular publisher of games magazines and books. After joining Microsoft’s Far East division in the

late Seventies, Nishi became vice president of new technologies, eventually proposing his dream of a standardised computer, entitled the MSX. The idea was as brilliant as it was simple. Manufacturers would be able to create their own model of MSX as long as it conformed to a certain set of specifications and sported the MSX logo. Several notable names in Japan were interested in the idea:

Sony, Toshiba and Panasonic were all on board with the concept and ready to create their own

particular brand of MSX computer. Those specs included the Zilog Z80 processor, a uniform

keyboard, cartridge slot and expansion ports, as well as the MSX BIOS and Microsoft’s MSX BASIC. Companies could then add their own embellishments depending on how they were going to market their computer.

Helped by the backing of the ASCII Corporation’s publishing empire, the MSX was a solid hit in Japan, with consumers investing in the computer with confidence, knowing that a number of

manufacturers supported it. Videogame companies were naturally also attracted and many famous franchises originated on the computer, such as Konami’s Metal Gear series. Sadly, despite the popularity in the east, the MSX failed to take off elsewhere.

By 1984 the American market was

dominated by the Commodore 64 computer and the country was unwilling to look at what they saw as an inferior product, despite the universal possibilities. In the UK, the Commodore machine had a serious rival with the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and another hindrance was the cheap nature of cassette software. With expensive disk games virtually unknown, the superior yet high-priced cartridge games of the MSX were well above what most gamers were used to paying and as a result the computer became stricken with many shoddy ports of Spectrum games on cassette, something that didn’t help its cause.

Yet in Japan, the format persisted with good support from notable software companies such as

Konami, Enix and Hudson. Nevertheless, the MSX’s days were numbered. The 16-bit era was arriving and when the Commodore Amiga appeared in 1985, even Microsoft realised the format’s time was ending. Keen to avoid abandoning its principle, the MSX2 upgrade was introduced, expanding memory capacities and housing a faster processor and graphics chip that eliminated some of the issues that had affected the original. In keeping with the original tenet, the MSX2 was also backwards compatible and included a disk drive, a cheaper alternative to those costly cartridges. Unfortunately, beyond Japan, the story was largely similar for the MSX2, with much of the world ignoring its valiant attempt at a uniform standard. The lone exception was the Netherlands where manufacturer Philips created its own MSX computer which became popular within Holland but failed to make an impact in other territories.

Distracted by the emergence of the IBM-PC in the late Eighties, Microsoft eventually abandoned the MSX, focusing instead on its nascent Windows operating system. In Japan, ASCII Corporation

soldiered on, creating a new standard in 1989, the MSX2+. But support was dwindling and despite the amazingly precognitive idea of connecting MSX computers worldwide to form a primitive internet, the decision not to adopt the CD-ROM storage format killed off any chance of success for the MSX3 or Turbo R, the last attempt at keeping the concept alive. Finally deserting the idea, Kazuhiko Nishi left the MSX behind, focusing instead on the traditional publishing interests of ASCII Corporation.

In the west, history has not been kind to the MSX, rendering the computer a failure on par with the 3DO console and a range of other also-ran 8-bit machines. But in reality, the model, its creators and manufacturers, were all founded on a solid base, the idea of setting a template for a standardised form of computer something that, looking back, we can today appreciate and admire.

MSX Trivia

  • The MSX Standard was announced to the world on June 16 th , 1983 by ASCII Corp and Microsoft.

  • The meaning behind the letters MSX is hotly debated and still unclear. However creator Kazuhiko Nishi has been quoted as saying that it stands for ‘Machines with Software eXchangeability’ which makes sense, if nothing else.

  • According to Wikipedia, a total of 22 different companies had a go at creating an MSX computer. The real number is probably much higher as…Over 250 different variations of MSX Computer are rumoured to have been created, with many more remaining undiscovered.

  • The standardising idea came from the home video market where a tough battle between VHS and Betamax was taking place.

  • The system’s purpose of playing games was clear with its processor and video chips both culled from games consoles, the ColecoVision and Sega SG-1000.

  • In a 1986 article in the Wall Street Journal, Kazuhiko Nishi revealed how the cracks were starting to appear in the ASCII-Microsoft relationship: “Bill Gates demands 100% loyalty and demands being his subordinate. I’d be happy to work with him, but I don’t want to sell my soul to him.”

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