Zuiki X68000 Z
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Since Nintendo reinvented the micro console with the NES Classic Edition in 2016, the retro console market has become a mini-industry all of its own, with a surprising number delving into increasingly hardcore territory. Now, perhaps the most obscure and luxurious mini console of all is finally here.

Developed by Zuiki, the manufacturer behind Taito’s Egret II Mini and Sega’s Astro City Mini, the X68000 Z is a recreation of Sharp’s X68000, a 16-bit Japanese home computer first released in 1987 and discontinued in 2000. This Amiga-like system never left its homeland but has long been coveted by Western gamers for its excellent arcade ports, shoot-‘em-ups and shareware curios. The X68000 Z represents a (relatively) accessible way to check out what made this legendary computer so special.

Is it worth the cost of importing it from the Far East, however? That's what we're about to find out...

Zuiki X68000 Z Review: The Hardware

Zuiki X68000 Z
Image: Ashley Day / Time Extension

The X68000 Z is available directly from Japan in three configurations:

  • The STARTER pack comes with the console, a joypad and a copy of Gradius on SD card for ¥29,535
  • The BASIC pack comes with all of the above plus a fully working mouse and keyboard for ¥65,780
  • The astonishing COMPLETE pack includes everything in the first two, plus a mini HDMI monitor, Game Collection Vol.1 and a soundtrack CD for ¥87,780

In the interests of journalism (or perhaps due to insanity), we opted for the Complete edition. At £484 ($586 USD) plus shipping and import tax, this is easily the most expensive mini-console around, and comparable in price to modern next-gen systems. Even the Starter pack will set you back a fair whack – so what do you get for your money?

The good news is that the standard Zuiki has achieved with the hardware is nothing short of exceptional. The original X68000 has one of the most distinct and fun designs of any computer of the era. From its twin tower structure to the retractable handle, the little volume dial and light-up eject buttons, everything is delightfully recreated and functions as you’d expect. Even the twin disk drives are functional, with in-built SD card slots, and there's a tiny internal speaker built into the casing – just like on the original system.

As you’d hope, the mouse and keyboard are similarly faithful and well-built. They’re essential if you want to experience everything the system has to offer, and both connect using USB, so you could use them with a Windows PC if you like. The mechanical keyboard is pretty special, featuring all of the unique keys of the original computer’s custom keyboard and boasting best-in-class Cherry MX Red switches.

While there were many controllers released for the X68000, Zuiki has chosen a design closely modeled on Hudson’s 'Joy Card' controller. It does the job well enough, and includes Start/Select buttons and auto-fire toggles, which are great for shmups. The D-pad is a little sharp-edged for our liking and gave us our first thumb blister since the '90s, but you can plug in other USB controllers. We tested the Mega Drive Mini and Astro City Mini pads, and both worked just fine, which is handy for two-player games.

Then there’s the five-inch LCD monitor. We like that it’s shaped like a CRT, and the small size allows us to play the system at our desk. It has a tilting stand so you can adjust the viewing angle to your liking. The picture quality is good enough, and the HDMI connector means it’ll work with other mini consoles, too. Of course, the X68000 Z will work with any HDMI display, so the monitor is the least essential extra.

Finally, the system also comes with a mysterious UART serial cable. It’s less clear what this is for, but we're told that it can be used to enable connectivity with some original X68000 peripherals, and some people have already used it to connect to MIDI sound devices. It’ll be interesting to see what other uses the community find for it in the coming months.

Zuiki X68000 Z Review: The Games

Zuiki X68000 Z
Image: Ashley Day / Time Extension

While we're very impressed with the standard of the hardware, the included games are the biggest disappointment at the time of writing. Unlike other mini retro consoles, there are no games built into the X68000 Z. Instead, officially licensed games are available on separate SD cards, which come packed in fun containers resembling floppy disks.

Every model of the Z comes packed with Gradius, which is a fantastic choice given the iconic status of Konami’s seminal shmup and the high quality of its X68000 conversion. It’s emulated very well and remains a pleasure to play, but we can’t help but wonder why they didn’t opt for the X68000-exclusive Nemesis ’90 Kai.

Zuiki X68000 Z
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Game Collection Vol. 1, meanwhile, is one of the strangest things ever seen from a mini console. Insert the SD card into the X68000 Z for the first time, and you’ll be presented with a bewildering sight. Only one game, Mad Stalker, is available to play, with the other five presented as gift-wrapped presents and labelled "coming soon". It turns out that Zuiki couldn’t quite perfect the emulation for the other games in time for launch, so users are expected to patch the collection via a free update from Zuiki’s website.

There are a few hoops you’ll need to jump through to do this, including registering your hardware’s unique serial number online and downloading the patch to your own SDHC memory card – so it’s not exactly simple, especially if you don’t read Japanese. We got there in the end, with some help from the internet and a translation app, but we were surprised to find that the current patch still leaves most of the games wrapped up, and only added an alternative version of Mad Stalker.

Zuiki X68000 Z
Image: Ashley Day / Time Extension

Mad Stalker is a great mech action side-scroller, but the two versions – the original and one designed around the specs of the Z – aren’t that different to our eyes. So, we must admit we felt a little galled, having paid well over £500, just to have only Mad Stalker and Gradius to play. The other games will come in time, and there are more packs available to buy, but Zuiki’s approach isn’t exactly user-friendly and is way below the standard set by rival systems.

If you’re looking for a plug-and-play retro console, then this will be the most off-putting element of the system.

Zuiki X68000 Z Review: Emulation

Thankfully, the X68000 Z has an in-built emulator that more than makes up for the lack of on-board games. Activated from the system’s simple but effective GUI, the emulator allows players to either load Sharp’s Human68k operating system from the included SD card or any disk image they happen to have.

Setting this up can be a bit of a faff at first. The system only recognises disk images in .xdf format, which are difficult to find, so we had to use a Python script to convert pre-existing images, and the way the X68000 handles multi-disk games means you’ll need two SDHC cards loaded with all your disks and inserted into each drive.

After a while, though, you’ll soon get the hang of the emulator, and the wonderful world of the X68000 will open up. We haven’t managed to get every single game to work, but we'd say we've had a roughly 80% success rate and sampled some of the greatest games, such as Konami’s exemplary Castlevania remake (which formed the basis of Castlevania Chronicles on the PS1), the stunning homebrew shmup Cho Ren Sha and Exact’s technically astonishing Jumping Flash predecessor, Geograph Seal.

There are also a handful of fan translations out there if you want to try the system’s RPGs. If you love Japanese arcade games or you want to sample a different side of computing history, then there’s plenty of awesome experiences to discover.

Zuiki X68000 Z Review: Where To Buy

The Zuiki X68000 Z has only been released in Japan. You'll be able to find resellers with units on sites like eBay, or you could ask your local importer if they're planning on stocking the system. Failing that, you can order directly from Japan using the links below.

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Zuiki X68000 Z Review: Conclusion

Zuiki X68000 Z
Image: Ashley Day / Time Extension

The Sharp X68000 has long been the preserve of the most hardcore retro gamers, and in many ways, the X68000 Z is no different. It’s ludicrously expensive and more complicated to get working than your average mini-console, but if you’re prepared to go to the right lengths, the rewards are there.

For the vast majority of retro gamers, we’d recommend going with the Starter pack. It’s the most affordable option, and most of the import-friendly games you’ll want to try are perfectly playable on the joypad. You’ll miss little more than frustration if you don’t get Game Collection Vol. 1, and the excellent emulation options mean you’ll be able to play almost every essential game without it.

As expensive and complex as the X68000 Z is, it’s still a lot more affordable and simpler to use than the real thing, so if you’re an adventurous retro gamer who’s always been curious about Japanese computer games, then you’ll find plenty to love on this beautifully recreated system.