You’d be forgiven for not remembering the MSX. It was created as a joint venture between Microsoft and the ASCII Corporation back in 1983 and was swiftly buried beneath the encroaching avalanche of the NES, which was about to completely dominate the gaming landscape for a number of years (until the arrival of Nintendo’s own SNES followup, in fact).
That’s a shame, because the MSX actually has a lot of great games to offer. Many of the franchises you love likely got their start on the MSX, including some surprising ones; Konami championed this machine early, and it gave us some of their best work. Without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the best MSX games out there, in no particular order of quality. With a little effort, you should be able to get these up and running somehow (wink, wink).
Metal Gear (1987)
Few may know that Metal Gear got its start on the MSX, rather than on the PlayStation, as some might assume. Don’t play the horrible NES port, which was butchered and doesn’t play anywhere near as well as the MSX version. Play this original one, which features Solid Snake’s first outing and sees him take on Big Boss for the very first time. This conflict would go on to become history, but this is the very first time the gruff soldier-for-hire took on the legendary mercenary. The gameplay might be a touch primitive by today’s standards, but Metal Gear remains an influential classic, so give it a shot if you get a chance.
Vampire Killer (1986)
You probably know Vampire Killer by a different name: Castlevania. That’s being a little disingenuous, though, because although the two titles definitely share surface similarities, they are different beasts underneath. Vampire Killer has many of the same stages and pieces of music as Castlevania, but it’s an altogether less linear affair, one which involves hunting for keys and backtracking through levels in much the same way as Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest did. Vampire Killer has aged slightly poorly; it can be confusing and overly unfair, but it’s still one of the best MSX games out there.
Bomber Man (1983)
If you’re European, you might know this game as Eric and the Floaters, which is the rather unfortunate title by which it was known in that territory. However, for Japan, this game was Bomber Man, and it would go on to spawn countless sequels, most of them based around the typical maze-style puzzle gameplay that this game pioneered. You are the titular Bomber Man, and you must place bombs around an oblong grid in order to anticipate your opponents’ movements and defeat them. It’s deceptively complex and deep gameplay that perfects the “easy to learn, hard to master” credo, so give it a try if you want something surprisingly challenging.
Hideo Kojima really does owe his success to the MSX, at least in part. Snatcher is an adventure game that carries a lot of the themes Kojima holds close to his heart: it’s a cyberpunk game all about identity and the ways in which technology can warp us. It’s also got Kojima’s trademark irreverent humour and self-referentiality down pat; you receive an item called the “Metal Gear Mk. II” early on that helps you in gameplay, pointing to Kojima’s other franchise. Snatcher remains idiosyncratic and brilliant, and it’s well worth a look if you love Kojima’s other work; it’s one of the best MSX games, but it’s also a great place to see where Kojima’s unique vision and aesthetic come from.
Bubble Bobble (1986)
Much like Bomber Man, Bubble Bobble represented the start of something special. It’s a rather innocuous yet adorable puzzle platformer in which Bubby and Bobby’s girlfriends (it was a simpler time) have been kidnapped by the nefarious Baron Von Blubba, so they must work together in order to get their loves back. Bubble Bobble has couch co-op, making it a rather harmonious affair; when you were done battling your friends in competitive multiplayer games, you could play a round or two of Bubble Bobble to cool off and restore harmony to the friendship. Bubble Bobble is still eminently playable today, so give it a try!
Unfortunately, if you want to play the MSX version of the Zelda-esque adventure title Golvellius, then you’re going to need to play a Japanese copy, as it was never released outside of Japan for MSX. It’s available on other platforms, but as you might expect, the MSX version is the best. Top-down sections meet side-scrolling dungeons and other gameplay innovations in Golvellius, which features a rudimentary upgrade system and lots of exploration to balance out its combat. If you were a Japanese MSX owner and didn’t have a Nintendo Entertainment System, then Golvellius would have provided an excellent alternative to Zelda.
Aleste 2 (1989)
Yet another Japan-exclusive game, Aleste 2 is a lightning-quick shooter that bears similarities to games like Konami’s Life Force. It’s a scroller that fills the screen with enemies and projectiles, daring you to field its many hazards and emerge victorious. The original Aleste was also only available in Japan; the MSX was a more successful platform there than it was in the West, so it makes sense many Japanese gaming companies wouldn’t want to release translated versions of their games. It’s a real shame, though, because games like Aleste deserve to be experienced, especially by disciples of the scrolling shooter genre.