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DocFlareon

So-Called Lazy Spectrum Ports on the MSX

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I've seen several videos of games that are purportedly running on MSX machines, but the graphics appear to be straight from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, complete with color cell clashing. Why did this happen? It can't be that hard to switch to using hardware sprites. I am beginning to believe that it was not laziness or incompetence that lead to the "Lazy Spectrum Port", instead it was vindictiveness.

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I know that Gremlin, Ocean, and Mastertronic did this quite often and I'm sure more developers did the same.

Here's an example with Way of the Tiger:

 

 

I have no honest idea about the European MSX scene, I've never looked into it too much, but I'm sure that the system was a minority compared to the Spectrum in some areas. Why spend time and money to make a whole new version of a game when you can quickly create a (dirty but "serviceable") port to do the same?

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"Vindictiveness"? Dear Lord... The whole "lazy ports" trope is usually pretty lazy itself, but that new angle is quite ridiculous. Sure, a cabal of devious devs had a secret plan to sink MSX by adding new games to its library, because of that time when MSX spilled ZX's beer down in the pub...makes total sense...also, aliens.

 

Meanwhile, in the real world, there were simple realities and economies of releasing games. Not every company had time, money or skills to invest in a proper port playing to the strengths of the target machine. And imo, a "lazy" port is better than no port at all (it's the same when people complain about ZX to CPC, ST to Amiga, etc...).

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The Konami game WEC Le Mans also is an example of a ZX Spectrum to MSX conversion. I think it was a combination of saving time and perhaps not having full documentation on MSX (though the custom chips had been around for several years) that caused these sloppy ports. Generally the Amstrad CPC versions seem more polished, perhaps because CPC represented a bigger market share than MSX did, in Europe.

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Looking at the MSX and ZX conversion, it makes sense in a few ways.  The graphics modes appear similar.  I would chalk it up to a matter of economy, as you could use the same soft-sprite calculations for the MSX's bitmap or character modes.  Much easier to produce budget titles like this than a rewrite of the game engine.  Similar graphics capabilities in that you can just set the color table and only worry about moving dots, same CPU, plus uniformity of the game across some platforms.  They might have been able to gain some performance by using hardware sprites over moveable software objects, but perhaps not.  Not necessarily lazy, but perhaps efficient.  A shame, for sure, but it does leave the door open for better translations.

 

Now the sound, yeah, I might be tempted to call that lazy.

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On 1/10/2022 at 1:06 PM, OLD CS1 said:

Looking at the MSX and ZX conversion, it makes sense in a few ways.  The graphics modes appear similar.  I would chalk it up to a matter of economy, as you could use the same soft-sprite calculations for the MSX's bitmap or character modes.  Much easier to produce budget titles like this than a rewrite of the game engine.  Similar graphics capabilities in that you can just set the color table and only worry about moving dots, same CPU, plus uniformity of the game across some platforms.  They might have been able to gain some performance by using hardware sprites over moveable software objects, but perhaps not.  Not necessarily lazy, but perhaps efficient.  A shame, for sure, but it does leave the door open for better translations.

 

Now the sound, yeah, I might be tempted to call that lazy.

Mmm, budget titles. I forgot that was a thing in Europe. Brand new commercial release of a game for less than $10US(equivalent) was a thing in the UK. "Budget" here in N. America pretty much bottomed out at $20. It really doesn't make sense to pull out the stops in porting software when the margins are that slim.

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11 minutes ago, DocFlareon said:

Mmm, budget titles. I forgot that was a thing in Europe. Brand new commercial release of a game for less than $10US(equivalent) was a thing in the UK. "Budget" here in N. America pretty much bottomed out at $20. It really doesn't make sense to pull out the stops in porting software when the margins are that slim.

Yes I think this was the big driver. Games were cheaper in the UK and EC. No margin and the desire to capitalize on a property quickly.

 

There were no online reviews back then - you had to stand in the bookstore and read magazines to hope to find a review, and most games were not reviewed. So releasing a quick and dirty port didn't earn the immediate ire that it would today.

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Perhaps piracy was more common in Europe too, so the budget games was a measure to counter copying of games? While it doesn't relate to the MSX, at one point some software publishers denied distribution of games to Sweden because the piracy was so dominant and games spread faster than wildfire. If I recall correctly, that boycott was short lived and only applied to a few publishers.

 

I've never programmed the bitmapped screen on the MSX VDP but I think it is arranged in a different way than the bitmap on the Spectrum, meaning that while it might have been easier to port the graphics as those were, it wasn't an automatic translation.

 

One thing alternative publishers could've considered was to outsource porting to even smaller developers/enthusiasts. I'm seeing quite a few official ports on e.g. BBC Micro and to a lesser extent Oric, that all were made by the same people and published through the IP holder. That  way, European MSX games may have been more polished, but even fewer and even later released vs their C64, ZX, CPC etc counterparts.

Edited by carlsson
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On 1/12/2022 at 4:08 AM, DocFlareon said:

Mmm, budget titles. I forgot that was a thing in Europe. Brand new commercial release of a game for less than $10US(equivalent) was a thing in the UK. "Budget" here in N. America pretty much bottomed out at $20. It really doesn't make sense to pull out the stops in porting software when the margins are that slim.

Oh my, you're far.

On European computers, a 10$ (equivalent) game was the DELUXE version :D ) Usually on floppies.

Prodigy - Amstrad CPC - Artwork - Advert

 

Average games were in the 5 to 10$ range, cheap but usually "tailored to the machine" games were between 3 and 5$, and cheap games (where you see "lazy Spectrum ports) were between 1 to 3$).

At some point when those games ended up in bargain bins, people bought the game because they were cheaper than buying a blank tape.

 

The Budget Kings: 35 Years Of Mastertronic

 

 

The reason you had those lazy ports on the MSX was because... The MSX can run ZX Spectrum games with minimal efforts in game rewrite. If I recall some companies even had software to translate ZX Spectrum graphics on the fly, given the extra RAM and power of a MSX compared to a ZX Spectrum.

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22 hours ago, CatPix said:

Average games were in the 5 to 10$ range, cheap but usually "tailored to the machine" games were between 3 and 5$, and cheap games (where you see "lazy Spectrum ports) were between 1 to 3$).

At some point when those games ended up in bargain bins, people bought the game because they were cheaper than buying a blank tape.

 

How could a publisher make any money at those prices? The low-end games would have to be sold to the retailer at like $.50 or $.60 per unit. The volume of sales would have to be massive to even cover the costs of production. 

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Most of those games were programmer by teenagers, paid in full (receive 10$ for your game and it's over).

 

You have an extreme exemple in this interview from someone who submitted a game for the unfamous Cassette 50 compilation, the computer equivalent of Action 52.

https://pixelatron.com/blog/cassette-50-the-interview/

 

"So, the big question – how did you end up on Cassette 50?
I was 14 at the time, I guess. There was an ad in our local newspaper, The Argus. It was probably the smallest ad in the paper – a tiny little box, black-and-white, asking for Spectrum games to be sent to some address. I don’t think it even had a company name on, just an address somewhere not too far outside South Wales. It was just an approachable ad – it didn’t scare me. If it had been a bigger software house, someone I knew, then I wouldn’t have sent anything off. But I’d written this thing, so off it went. I didn’t hear anything for a couple of months, and then a cheque arrived for £10. I thought, this is it! I’ve made it! £10! That’s fantastic! But the letter did say that by cashing the cheque, I’d give up all rights to the game."

 

I have several tapes games and while most use that typical black or white case with printed label model, several of the cheapest ones use silkscreen print, and I even one that use one of those smoked clear plastic tapes that is typical of music tapes.

Fighter Pilot for Amstrad CPC from Byte Back

Corner-cutting on all sides!

In fact I guess it would be easier to think about the European market for 8 bits computer like the homebrew market today : a bunch of passionnate programmers "underselling" their work to small-scale publishers (except that I'm sure several publishers were in for the money and not passion but heh).

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The European homecomputer market was a very different thing. Even in a country you would have different dominant platforms. In the Netherland where i live the MSX was pretty dominant as was the c64. A friend of my lived near Amsterdam, in his region the zx-spectrum was more dominant, while i never did see a zx-spectrum anywhere near where i lived. Near Helmond where the Home Computer Museum is located, i heard from the owner that he grew up with the CoCo. A machine i also didn’t see where i live. And it is just a 30 minute drive from where i grew up.

I had a cpc464, that was not a very popular system where i lived, but in Germany also a 30 min drive from my town it was a bigger system.

So i think that because the home computer land was so diverse in Europe, ports where made with minimal efforts.

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Shifting from software-driven graphics to sprite hardware would be non-trivial. Depending on the game, you'd need to add delays to account for the time usually spent drawing on-screen, change the code to detect collisions, possibly rethink how the background was drawn/updated, and so on.

 

Assembly language, and most BASICs at the time, didn't have a lot of features to make code modular. So it would take a fair amount of work to go through and find every place in the code that needed changing for sprites.

 

Some companies (like EPYX) did make games that were well-regarded on multiple platforms. It's probably a budget/market size thing.

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