Sharp X68000
Image: Time Extension / ZUIKI

While it's not really all that famous outside of its homeland, the Sharp X68000 computer has quite the reputation in Japan, so much so that ZUIKI – a company which has recently worked on the Mega Drive Mini, PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini, Nintendo Famicom Mini, Astro City Mini, Astro City Mini V, and Egret II Mini – is releasing the X68000 Z as its next 'mini' console project.

Released in 1987, the Sharp X68000 was effortlessly the most powerful home gaming machine available at the time, even though it was marketed as a computer first and foremost. Boasting a 16-bit processor running at a blistering fast 10MHz, 1MB of RAM (which was expandable) and a dedicated GPU, The X68000 quickly became a hotbed for incredibly accurate arcade conversions – mostly because the cutting-edge tech it offered allowed third-party developers to produce ports that were so close to the coin-op originals it was often hard to tell them apart (the architecture of the X68000 is very similar to that Capcom’s CPS-1 arcade board, and Capcom duly supported the platform with a host of titles which were often markedly superior to ports on other home systems of the period).

Chairman Akira Saeki and President Haruo Tsuji
Chairman Akira Saeki and President Haruo Tsuji — Image: Sharp

These "arcade perfect" ports – which include the likes of Gradius, Ghouls 'n Ghosts, Strider, Space Harrier and ImageFight – are relatively well-known, but did you also know that they're arguably the least interesting games on the system? Almost all of these titles have since been released elsewhere in arcade-perfect form, and the X68000 has plenty of fantastic exclusives found nowhere else; in fact, it hosted one of the most important precedent-setting releases in video game history.

It's difficult to state exactly how many games were released for the X68000, since after being discontinued by Sharp in 1993, both professional and hobbyist (or doujin) developers continued to produce software for it. For research purposes, we found over 640 commercial releases and over 1000 doujin or homebrew releases. Wikipedia, meanwhile, gives a single figure of over 820 games. We asked Joseph Redon of Japan's Game Preservation Society about this number, to which he replied:

For 'pure' commercial releases, I would say less than 820 in fact. The X68000 was not successful. But I am not sure if you include doujin, because the line between commercial and doujin can be thin.

We contacted Sharp directly to get the inside story but were informed that due to how long ago it was, there was no one who could answer questions. They did however provide us with an archive photo of Sharp's Chairman Akira Saeki and President Haruo Tsuji, circa 1986, not long before the X68000 launched.

It was a different era, with Japan's computer scene evolving in a Galápagos syndrome-like bubble. NEC, Sharp, and Fujitsu were the dominant trio during the 8-bit era, with the PC-8801, X1, and FM-7 respectively - in a way mirroring the UK's C64, Spectrum, and Amstrad scenes. The X68000 was Sharp's follow-up to its X1, and it was for a time one of the most powerful computers around. It was marketed as a work computer; many developers such as Masayuki Suzuki, creator of the Langrisser series, used it to draw pixel art or program.

The distinct idiosyncrasies of the system have been better described elsewhere, so instead, we're focusing on its games. This is not a definitive list of any kind. Such a thing is impossible until players outside of Japan fully explore and document its back catalogue. Instead, consider it a fleeting glimpse of an as-yet unexplored retro frontier.

We hope our list – presented in a carefully chosen though deliberately esoteric order – encourages you to dig deeper and find other forgotten gems. Hopefully, some of these will make it onto the forthcoming X68000 Z.

Sharp X68000
Image: Sharp

Akumajou Dracula (X68000)

We almost wish this had never been ported to the PlayStation as Castlevania Chronicles, since there's an allure to the idea of a lost and forgotten 16-bit Castlevania exclusive to an obscure Japanese computer. This was designed by Hideo Ueda and is described as a remake of the Famicom original. However, SNES developer Masahiro Ueno has said he also had the original game in mind when creating Super Castlevania IV, so it seems fair to put both of these alongside Bloodlines on Mega Drive and Rondo of Blood on PC Engine. In a way, this tetralogy is a perfect barometer for discussing the 16-bit era, be it consoles or computers. Which unique 16-bit Castlevania title is your favourite?

Dancing Sword (X68000)

The first of many homebrew doujin games we want to get more attention. This doesn't have the slick graphics or production values of some others, but the concept is something we've not really seen elsewhere. Using the X68000 mouse, you move a spinning blade around the screen slicing enemies. Holding one of the two mouse buttons imbues the blade with fire or ice, needed to defeat enemies of the opposite element. See those adorable penguins? Light 'em up! There are also bosses and you can activate "bombs" to clear enemies. If you like the mouse control, there are a lot more doujin games which use it (we also rather enjoyed Asteroid Queen). Could doujin games make it onto the X68000 Z? It's perhaps unlikely, but there were rumblings that the version of Darius that was included on the Mega Drive Mini was heavily inspired by a fan-made port, so you can never say never...

Aquales (X68000)

How many glorious 2D mecha games have graced our planet? Ranger X, Target Earth, Cybernator, Metal Warriors, Gun Hazard, Final Zone, Genocide 2, Mad Stalker, even Night Slave. Well, Aquales is better than half of them (we bet you're wondering which half). Don't believe us? The only way to prove us wrong is to play it. Go ahead, we'll wait... Aquales came out in 1991, predating several of the above, but it takes the 2D mecha formula and adds a grappling hook system ala Bionic Commando (it doubles as a weapon), plus RPG mechanics. As you explore the mazelike levels, you'll discover new equipment: improved grappling wires, energy blades, plus different varieties of guns and missiles (flamethrowers, bounce shots, homing, etc.). Levels feature multiple layers of parallax scrolling, vibrant colours, and clever gimmicks such as underwater transparencies or using a flashlight in darkness. The developer, Exact, would go on to make two more X68000 must-owns: Étoile Princesse and Geograph Seal.

Knight Arms: The Hyblid Framer (X68000)

Designed and programmed by Kotori Yoshimura this forms part of an astounding portfolio. She was programmer on the original Thunder Force, helping define the early years of Tecno Soft; programmer and designer on WiBarm, a precedent-setting 3D polygonal RPG; same again on Star Cruiser and its sequel, a pair of astounding FPS/RPG hybrids; finally designer on Omega Boost for PlayStation, a technological showcase and intense mecha blaster. Knight Arms is slightly less impressive, but still worthy given its system exclusivity. Alternating between Space Harrier-style 3D segments and free-roaming 2D sections, you might be reminded of Axelay which came out some years after. The side-scrolling sections are cool since enemies zoom in and out to create a faux sense of depth, and you can fly anywhere. The only letdown is its brutal difficulty.

Valusa no Fukushuu (X68000)

Created by the infamous Zainsoft, this is the last entry in its Tritorn saga, a series of platform RPGs. Most places Romanise it as 'Barusa', but the villain in the first Tritorn was named Valusa. The music is astounding, the graphics detailed, the gameplay rock-hard. It's also quite a simple hack-n-slash, despite pre-release adverts showing it to be an RPG, with a magic meter, gold, and selectable equipment.

The game's programmer Kensuke Takahashi explains:

It was because we didn't have enough time to put it in. Only about 60% to 70% of each game was completed. We had plenty of unused graphics data. It was a dilemma. In order to sell our games, we had to get featured in the magazines. But because of the magazine scheduling, we had to prepare the screenshots very early. Sometimes we didn't know whether we were creating assets for the game, or just creating assets for screenshots in the magazines. I remember that for Valusa we hadn't actually started development. The designer simply used the X68000 to draw these images. These aren't actual game screens, they're mock-ups. The advertising agency that created the ads and game packaging created everything with no information to go on, and without ever playing the game. And we let them print it without even checking the final proofs.

If you want something similar, plus more great music, the doujin title Gardis Light is a fantastic hack-n-slash. Check out that incredible multi-jointed snake boss!

Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers (X68000)

By the time Capcom ported Super Street Fighter II to the X68000, the computer was no longer significantly more powerful than the competition. The 3DO was on the market and was capable of hosting amazing arcade ports, while the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation were about to hit store shelves. Even so, this X68000 conversion is remarkable in how close it is to the arcade original, with the visuals being an almost complete match. As was the case with the equally impressive X68000 port of Street Fighter II Dash / Champion Edition, the game was sold with an adapter for the CPS Fighter joystick controller so that players could benefit from the full six-button layout. On the downside, if you didn't have access to a HDD on your X68000, there are seven floppy discs swap between during gameplay.

Street Harrier (X68000)

Sure, the X68000 had a port of Street Fighter II, and an excellent port of Space Harrier, but what if those two series were combined (yes, we realise it's actually Street Fighter I being used and not II), along with just about every other arcade game of the time? Welcome to someone's Fantasy Zone, as Ryu flies around battling the ship from Galaxy Force, towers of Tetris blocks, Outrun cars, the muscleman from Forgotten Worlds, and countless other characters ripped from various titles. Sure, it's just a fan-hack of Space Harrier and perhaps highly unlikely to appear on the X68000 Z, but you have to love how much work and passion went into it. How many cameos can you spot?

Baraduke (X68000)

The X68000 wss home to many arcade ports, but Baraduke is unique because the X68000 version was the only home port until Namco Museum Volume 5 on PlayStation. The arcade original was developed by Professor Yoshihiro Kishimoto, who also created Pac-Land. He explained:

Takahashi was the planner for Baraduke; he was a newcomer and was practising drawing. At that time there was no artists, the planner would draw things. At one point he drew my face and his face, and said he wanted to have these faces in the game. So I said fine. If you continuously kill Paccets the faces appear after every 10th one. If it were done today somebody would have asked, 'What is this?' But back then nobody checked, so it got released as it was. <laughs> The good old days!

The X68000 also had a magnificent unofficial spiritual successor to Baraduke in the form of Chitei Senki - check it out!

Cho Ren Sha 68k (X68000)

Developed by Koichi "Famibe No Yosshin" Yoshida, 1995's Cho Ren Sha 68k is arguably the most famous homebrew title for the X68000. A blistering tribute to the work of legendary shmup studio Toaplan, the game combines amazing level design, fantastic music and epic boss battles with an involving scoring system and fairly straightforward gameplay. A Windows port arrived in 2001, but it actually runs faster, making it harder to play, and uses an upscaled resolution which makes it appear less sharp visually.

Étoile Princesse (X68000)

There's a diverse selection of top-down action-RPG style games on X68000. Étoile Princesse is on the simpler side, being more Pocky & Rocky than Zelda, but it means the language barrier is less of a problem. As you defeat each stage's boss you rescue a new playable character for your team, with up to three being selectable for each subsequent stage. They all handle differently, with unique magic attacks, and your chosen three can be freely swapped via the menu. You also have equipable items that restore health and magic, some occasional platforming, and simple environmental puzzles. The graphics are big and cute, plus it's a system exclusive, making it an essential play. If you want something similar but with a bit more RPG, check out Silk Road 2. It's equally as adorable and you'd never guess it was doujin! There's also Lagoon fan-translated into English and the weird hyper-realistic remake of Ys I.

OverDriver (X68000)

There are a lot of innovative shmups on the X68000, and OverDriver is right near the top – we've never seen anything like it. Along with standard fire you can shoot a sticky thread, almost like a yoyo, that can attach to two separate surfaces, allowing you to send energy down it. You can attach it to tough enemies to wear them down, or affix the thread in two places to act as a shield against oncoming enemies or falling debris. You can also "juggle" the two thread anchors in front of you by firing them rapidly. It revolutionises the genre as you use it to control open spaces. It's fast, fluid, and puts you in a different headspace to hori-shmups like R-Type. A video might explain it better.

Blue Knights - Blue Wings Part 2 (X68000)

The X68000 isn't short of vertical shmups. The most well-known is Cho Ren Sha 68K, which had a Windows port and later patch for modern OS. If you have the extra RAM model of X68000, you might try Illumination Laser, with its fancy CG graphics. We prefer Blue Knights for its weapon and power-up system. There are six secondary weapons and three jets which each have a unique mix (laser, shotgun, bomb, etc.). At any time you can select one from a limited supply, thus granting that weapon for a short period. You can also mix and match (ie: laser + bomb = the "exprode" attack), or double two together for a lot of possibilities. You can only hold a maximum of six of each, and the risk/reward nature of spending one, plus the alchemy of combining two, makes for captivating play. Also, the dinky little sprites used in the backgrounds are adorable.

Star Cruiser (X68000)

They say Japan doesn't understand the first-person shooter, and yet we have Star Cruiser from 1988, a first-person 3D polygonal RPG with some intense shooting! The original came out on underpowered 8-bit computers, making the 1989 remake for X68000 the definitive version (run it at 15Mhz for smoother movement). It's faster, looks better, sounds better, and is kind of incredible when you think about it. Taking place over the entire human solar system, it's a complex RPG with multiple characters, items, weapons, ship combat, and first-person corridor blasting. In fairness, it's more RPG than FPS, but when you do get into a gunfight, it's superior to similar games of the time like MIDI Maze. There was a Mega Drive port in 1990, which is also excellent, but the weaker hardware meant it was severely cut down. Thankfully the X68000 release was fan-translated.

The Last Tempest (X68000)

For a long time, this was thought impossible to emulate due to copy protection, until someone cracked it in 2013. Mechanically it feels similar to Snake, Rattle 'n Roll on the NES and Mega Drive: you control a serpentine head with a multi-jointed tail that follows your movement. You also need to make precise jumps over voids in an isometric environment (stages loop around seamlessly when you reach the edge). The main difference is that instead of eating Nibbley Pibbleys to grow larger, you simply need to kill every enemy by ramming them (also some bosses). What makes The Last Tempest especially interesting is its scathing portrayal of religion; all of the enemies are based on Biblical characters and stages are littered with religious iconography, including bleeding crucifixes. Do not load this up near anyone offended by blasphemy. It's a bit too difficult, with strict time limits and tricky jumps, but there's infinite continues and honestly little else like it.

Geograph Seal (X68000)

One of the X68000's best exclusives. It was developed by Exact, the same company behind Étoile Princesse, and after Geograph Seal they would develop Jumping Flash! on PlayStation. This basically is Jumping Flash!, but with a heavy metal soundtrack and a visual style similar to the first Star Fox. It's relentlessly fast, features massive vertical jumps, and is obscenely fun - along with Aquales it's the main reason to play the X68000. Geograph Seal is also another extraordinary early example of the Japanese FPS and was released a mere three months after the original Doom by id Software. It's a shame the Japanese computer scene was globally so isolated, this could have been huge.

Star Wars: Attack on the Death Star (X68000)

This is not a port of the Atari arcade game, but a unique creation and one of the most important games ever released. Think of any 3D game you've played. Could you manipulate the camera? If yes, it's because of this. Sega filed a fraudulent patent for 3D camera changes and it took the court testimony of Star Wars' creator Mikito Ichikawa to overturn it.

As Ichikawa explained:

Sega was originally granted the patent, and they used it to issue injunctions against the sale of certain Nintendo games. But Nintendo counter-argued that Sega's patent was invalid. My company's game was the first instance of the technology, so I cooperated with Nintendo, and testified that the Sega patent was bogus.

As for the game itself, it's a fun blaster with clever wireframe graphics and plenty of voice samples from the movie. You can change the viewpoint to look out the side and rear windows, and the camera also shifts to third-person when an enemy is on your tail.

Reinforcer (X68000)

Another Zainsoft game, and possibly their most polished and complete, released right at the end of the company's life. It plays like a cyberpunk Crack Down crossed with Gauntlet. You're assigned specific characters for different stages, are given a diverse arsenal of weapons, and face numerous bosses (sometimes three or more in a stage). The graphics are a little sterile, but the controls are responsive and the combat tight (make clever use of grenades to reach entrenched enemies).

For something similar check out Die Bahnwelt, another overhead shooter, which plays like an anime-infused Chaos Engine - plus it's fan-translated and freeware.

Final Fight (X68000)

One of the early Capcom ports that came to the X68000 was this conversion of the company's seminal 1989 belt-scrolling brawler, Final Fight. Much was made of the fact that the leading home version up to this point – the SNES port – was missing vital elements, such as the two-player mode and one of the characters. The X68000 version, in comparison, is in a different league entirely, playing almost identically to its coin-op parent (there are fewer enemies on-screen at any one time, but that's the only real difference). Sure, there have been numerous perfect ports of the game since then, but this has to rank as the most impressive conversion from back in the day.

R-Type (X68000)

Irem itself handled the X68000 port of R-Type, and it shows in the end result. While there are a great many R-Type conversions handled by external studios, this example is practically arcade perfect at a time when that phrase didn't always denote a 100% faithful port; outside of the obvious difference in screen resolution compared to the arcade, this is as close you could possibly get back in the early '90s to playing Irem's legendary shump at home. Again, we've seen several superior conversions since, but that doesn't take away from the fact that this is massively impressive work.

Nemesis '90 Kai (X68000)

Originally developed for the MSX computer platform, Nemesis 2 / Gradius 2 is the first true sequel to the original Gradius and actually cooks up a lot of original ideas. It's a fantastic game, but is let down by the limitations of the MSX hardware; smooth scrolling was difficult to achieve on the system. Thankfully, Konami decided to port it to the far more powerful X68000 platform in 1993 with the help of SPS, and a number of improvements were made. The visuals are completely redrawn and are more in keeping with the arcade Gradius outings, and the music and sound is also superior. There are also two new stages and new bosses to fight.

Special thanks to Kurt Kalata of Hardcore Gaming 101 for allowing use of Knight Arms images. Interview quotes taken from The untold History of Japanese Game Developers Volumes 1 through 3.