Best MSX Games
Image: Time Extension / Konami / Compile

2023 marks the 40th anniversary of the MSX, the Japanese computer standard that ran from 1983 to 1993 and spanned dozens of hardware variations from manufacturers such as Sony, Philips, Panasonic and many more. The MSX was most popular in Japan, but also had its fair share of fans in Spain and The Netherlands, and enjoyed limited success in the UK, South America and Kuwait – though it’s generally considered quite obscure by most.

If you know MSX for anything, it’s almost certainly as the computer that hosted the first two Metal Gear games. In fact, Konami was a huge supporter of the system, releasing over 70 games across cartridges, floppy disks, Hudson’s Bee Card format and even Laserdisc.

Konami also took great advantage of one of MSX’s best features: its twin cartridge slots. Plug in specific combinations of cartridges and they would unlock special bonus content. For example, play Yie Ar Kung-Fu 2 with the original Yie Ar Kung-Fu in the second slot, and when you’re low on health, your dad will appear and give you a nice cup of tea!

MSX is an essential retro gaming purchase for fans of Konami, but it also sports early hits from many of Japan’s biggest names, including Nihon Falcom, Square, Compile, Sega, Taito and once legendary, now forgotten studios like Microcabin, T&E Soft and the fabulously named Pony Canyon.

A fantastic system for RPGs, shoot-‘em-ups and platformers, MSX is a treasure trove of hidden gems waiting to be discovered. Here are just a few of the best…

Aleste 2 (MSX)

Though MSX is often criticized by shoot-‘em-up fans for its choppy scrolling, that only applies to horizontally scrolling games. Vertically-scrolling games run just fine, and the exclusive Aleste 2 actually runs so fast it’s still jaw-dropping today.

As well as speed, it features excellent visuals with interesting, detailed backgrounds, memorable boss battles and a power-up system that never leaves you feeling anything less than awesome. Compile was obviously very proud, boasting selling points like “HYPER SCROLL”, “GRAPHIC SURPRISE” and “SHOOTING ARMAGEDDON” on the back of the box. How could anyone resist?

Dead Of The Brain (MSX)

If you’ve finished Snatcher and you’re looking for more Japanese horror adventure games, then Dead Of The Brain makes a fantastic follow-up.

This was one of the last major releases for MSX and features some excellent high-res visuals, perfect for its highly detailed and shocking scenes of gore and violence.

Dead Of The Brain received a fan translation in 2020 and features a script that balances its dread with wry humour, giving it a similar tone to cult horror movies like Return Of The Living Dead.

Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family (MSX)

Legendary RPG developer Nihon Falcom made its name on early Japanese computers, and MSX has a wide selection of its classics.

Dragon Slayer IV, better known as Legacy of the Wizard, is probably the most import-friendly of the era, featuring a Metroidvania-like design differentiated by the need to switch between various members of a family, including the dog, who all have their own powers and traversal abilities.

Complex, demanding, and occasionally mind-boggling, Dragon Slayer IV presents a vast, involving challenge.

Feedback (MSX)

Fans of Thunder Force may know that Technosoft (or Tecnosoft, whichever you prefer) started out on Japanese computers and made quite a few MSX games, including the original Herzog (minus the Zwei).

Feedback is an obscure exclusive that shows early signs of the technically impressive shoot-‘em-ups the developer would eventually be known for. Obviously inspired by Space Harrier, it boasts astonishing “3D” graphics that make smart use of the hardware, running far smoother than horizontal shmups did on the same system.

In this zippy shooter, you get to pilot a giant robot through space and across planet surfaces before taking on a massive screen-filling boss. The “Dyna-Saur” at the end of stage one, which reveals itself to be a mechanical monster when you blast away its skin, is one of the most spectacular moments you’ll find on MSX.

Gradius 2 (MSX)

The MSX port of the original Gradius is pretty decent but, due to the limitations of the hardware, is far from the best version of Konami’s classic. Gradius 2, however, dodges that bullet as a unique sequel, totally different to the arcade game.

This is every bit as great as a mainline Gradius title, but with new ideas, including the wild option to fly inside the core of a destroyed boss to take on a secret level within.

This alternative take on Gradius is explored further still in the MSX-exclusive sequel, Nemesis 3, making the pair two of the finest shoot-‘em-ups on the system.

The Maze Of Galious (MSX)

The second part in Konami’s Knightmare trilogy, The Maze Of Galious follows the first game’s medieval shoot-‘em-up with a totally different idea… a non-linear platform adventure that’s a little bit Metroid and a little bit Zelda.

Exploring the overworld and its dungeons is a rewarding experience that can sap hours of your life as you map out the world and discover its secrets. Mastering this epic adventure is best done with a guide by your side, due to its old-fashioned near-obtuse game design, but that’s all part of the rich depth that makes Maze Of Galious so special.

Metal Gear (MSX)

There’s very little to be said about the original Metal Gear that hasn’t been said before. By now, it’s a well-worn story that, assigned to the MSX instead of the Famicom, Hideo Kojima designed an action game around the slower limitations of the computer and effectively defined the stealth genre in the process.

What’s less well-known is that this seminal classic remains just as fun to play today as it always was. The MSX exclusive sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, is even better, but you’ll need to get one of its modern re-releases to play that one in English.

Mr. Ghost (MSX)

Not only is Mr. Ghost an MSX exclusive, it’s fair to say there’s no other game like it on any platform.

Though it resembles a shoot-‘em-up, it really defies any genre. You control a ghost in a side-scrolling action game with two methods of attack – a very slow boomerang-like shot and a backwards dashing butt smash.

It’s a strangely controlling game that takes a while to get used to, but you’ll eventually find yourself butt-smashing one enemy into another, like ghostly snooker balls, with glee.

Pampas & Selene: The Maze Of Demons (MSX)

Even at 40 years old, MSX is regularly blessed with fantastic new games thanks to a vibrant homebrew scene. Unepic Fran is one of the system’s greatest supporters and in 2023 released what might be MSX’s best homebrew game.

Essentially a spiritual sequel to The Maze Of Galious, Pampas & Selene retains everything that’s great about the original but adds modern features like an in-game map, natural hints, a battery-backed save and even achievements.

In Pampas & Selene, Classic gameplay meets modern design sensibilities so you can enjoy the feel of a contemporary Metroidvania through the lens of old-school hardware.

Parodius - Tako Saves The Earth (MSX)

You’d be forgiven for assuming MSX Parodius was an 8-bit conversion of the arcade game, but it’s actually the very first game in the series, and exclusive to MSX.

Famously a parody of Gradius, this instalment misses some of the spectacle and humour that defined later games, but it has some unique charms all of its own, including the exclusive option to play as Popolon from MSX stablemate, Knightmare.

Penguin Adventure (MSX)

Best known as the first game a young Hideo Kojima worked on, Penguin Adventure is a technical marvel with bags of charm.

Featuring a slick into-the-screen perspective that lends it a real wow factor, it sees you control the iconic Pentarou as he travels the world and back, in search of a magic apple for his poisoned girlfriend.

A mixture of skill-based gameplay and seemingly endless secrets to discover make this one of the most rewarding 8-bit games you’re likely to play.

SD Snatcher (MSX)

While the original Snatcher is available on MSX and does have a fan translation, it’s the exclusive SD Snatcher that really deserves your attention.

Essentially a remake of the original game, it adapts the visual novel into a turn-based RPG with “super deformed” chibi characters. Fans of the original will want to play just to see the story continue in its exclusive final chapter, while RPG players will lap up the innovative battle system that allows individual parts of each enemy to be targeted with a variety of projectile weapons and bombs.

Space Manbow (MSX)

A number of Konami’s most famous shoot-‘em-ups can be found on MSX but Space Manbow is a special one. It’s completely exclusive to the system and has rarely been reissued since.

Though it has a more straightforward power-up system than Gradius, it excels in other areas, with smooth horizontal and vertical scrolling, as well as a spectacular opening stage, featuring a single, giant rolling fortress that spans multiple screens – rivalling even R-Type’s famous stage 3 for spectacle.

If you own an MSX and love shmups, then Space Manbow is essential.

Undeadline (MSX)

Created by the same team behind the Hydlide series, Undeadline features the fantasy setting, spells and RPG-like mechanics T&E Soft were known for, but in an on-foot vertically scrolling shooter.

The difficulty is extremely high, but you can select the stages in any order you like and level up in-between, so with practice, you’ll find an ideal route through its stunning selection of fantasy-horror worlds.

A Mega Drive / Genesis version also exists, but it was exclusive to Japan and is quite pricey these days.

Vampire Killer (MSX)

Developed in parallel with the Famicom Castlevania, Vampire Killer feels like a different spin on the same concept.

The fundamental gameplay remains, as does the excellent soundtrack, but the level layouts are different and divided up into a series of still screens to avoid any jerky scrolling. The focus is much more on exploration, with Simon Belmont hunting for keys to treasure chests and the door to the next stage.

This gives Vampire Killer a more non-linear feel, with tons of secrets to be discovered. Is it better than Castlevania? Definitely not, but it’s a fascinating alternative and fun in its own right.