Retrogamer and Champion of the Obscure and Defenceless
"Bosconian" is an obscure 1981 arcade game by Namco, best known for the classic shoot-em-ups Galaxian (1978) and Galaga (1981), in addition to revolutionising rail shooters with 1995’s Time Crisis and making 3D fighters accessible with the Tekken series starting in 1994.
Bosconian was a modest enough success that a port for the MSX series of home computers was developed and released in 1984 under the title Bosconian: Star Destroyer. A reworked version for the big 3 8-bit computers (ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC and Commodore 64) would see the light of day in 1987 under the title Bosconian ’87.
For this review, I will be focusing on the MSX port, as it is the most faithful conversion of the original arcade classic. I came to know of this version thanks to Bosconian ’87 on the ZX Spectrum, which is considered to be inferior to the original game due to its supposed “improvements” that actually took away the very things that made Bosconian unique and enjoyable.
The MSX is a family of home computers conceptualised by Microsoft and the ASCII Corporation in the early 1980s.
The goal was to make a unified computer architecture, a single standard for all computer platforms in a similar way that home video formats such as U-Matic and VHS had paved the way forward in the home cinema/entertainment field – the meaning of the MSX’s acronym is debatable – then-ASCII Corporation director Kazuhiko Nishi stated it stands for “Machines with Software eXchangeability”, while others think it means “Microsoft Extended”.
The MSX itself is not a single computer, but rather a standard to which computers are held, adhering to certain core specifications while adding some unique features varying from manufacturer to manufacturer. The original MSX standard (later renamed MSX1) was introduced in 1983. It showed promise and was succeeded by the MSX2 standard in 1985, which became the de facto standard even after successors were introduced such as the MSX2+ in 1988 and MSX Turbo R in 1990.
The MSX family, while virtually unknown in North America and the United Kingdom, was most successful in Japan, although it did make a name for itself in the Benelux region of Europe (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) as well as countries with budding bedroom programming communities like Italy and Spain, in addition to parts of South America and even the Soviet Union, where it was apparently marketed as an educational computer with untapped programming potential.
The most prolific supporters of the MSX family were Sony, Panasonic (known in Japan as Matsushita), Konami, Hudson Soft and Yamaha, as Microsoft themselves abandoned the concept shortly after its inception.
The MSX family, like many home computers of the domestic microcomputer revolution (circa 1976 to 1992), used a 9-pin D-subminiature (DE9) connector for connecting external controllers such as mice, joysticks, light pens, light guns, etc.
While the ports may appear to be identical to those used on its competitors, which utilised the single-button Atari 2600 joystick protocol, the MSX series used its own standard, which was wired up somewhat differently and was generally intended for Japanese machines such as the NEC PC-98 and Sharp X68000 series, supporting up to two (2) separate buttons, similar to but not compatible with the Sega Master System/Mark 3, whose controllers could be used on computers like the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga for 2-button games.
Thankfully, many games for the MSX also support keyboard inputs in addition to joystick controls.
When the game boots up, the MSX logo is first displayed (depending on which standard/generation of MSX hardware, the transition for the logo as well as the logo itself will vary) before bringing up the title screen as seen in the screenshot above.
This game supports both keyboard and joystick controls – for the purpose of this review, I will play the game using my custom-made 2-button arcade stick. As this game is for the MSX1 family, it will run on all MSX machines.
Surprisingly, for a game on a machine of this era, some sampled speech is included just like in the original arcade version. However, while the arcade machine was voiced with multiple samples (a rarity at the time due to the high cost of memory and processing power), this version appears only to have a single sample, heard when the game begins or when the player starts with a new life after losing their current one.
The player begins with three (3) lives and can obtain an extra life first at 10,000 points, then 50,000 points, after which all future lives will be granted every 50,000 points. The player can have a maximum of 42 lives, which equates to a score of 2 million points, although this is unlikely to occur due to the increasing difficulty of each stage as the game progresses.
The objective of the game is to survive for as long as possible, clearing rounds of enemies and destroying alien space stations, which are marked in green on the in-game map (shown on the right of the main gameplay window). Above the map is a colour-coded alert indicator, letting the player know their current state as follows:
The player can steer their ship in eight (8) directions, including diagonals. What sets this game apart from other space-themed shoot-em-ups of its era and genre is the bidirectional firing system (in other words, pressing the fire button will allow the ship to fire from both the front and back simultaneously). This adds an element of skill and strategy in addition to the speed and reflexes required to obtain a high score in games of this type.
The player’s ship must destroy all the green alien space stations on the current round in order to advance to the next combat zone.
The space stations consist of a hexagon with unidirectional cannons mounted on each vertex or corner along with a central red core (which contains a bidirectional cannon), and they can be destroyed either by taking out each cannon separately or firing a single well-aimed shot into the core, which will open and close itself from time to time – the player is granted more points if they go for the core.
This game lacks presentation, if one must be honest – the title screen is rather plain (although it does feature a nicely stylised logo) and the lack of an attract mode or demonstration, while not necessarily a dealbreaker, makes this port of the game feel slightly rushed. However, when it comes to the in-game presentation, things improve drastically, as the coders have tried to integrate as many aspects of the arcade game as possible into an 8-bit computer with a fraction of the memory and processing power.
The game makes good use of the MSX1’s colour palette, which is somewhere in the middle between the Amstrad CPC’s vivid tones and the Commodore 64’s muted pastel look. Every sprite is colourful and well animated and given attention to detail that would leave owners of competing machines such as the ZX Spectrum, CPC and C64 just slightly green with envy, especially when considering this conversion is unique to the MSX1, not counting the poorly-received remake Bosconian ’87. This game’s appealing looks will attract both novices and experts alike with its colourful world and easily intuitive user interface.
The sound effects are rudimentary but then this is the MSX1 computer standard – it would be with the MSX2 that the MSX family would begin to truly take off and spawn some amazing auditory and visual games such as Space Manbow, Vampire Killer and Metal Gear.
The sampled speech (“Blast off!”) for when the game begins or the player loses a life and starts anew is the only sample taken from the arcade version, as it would have been prohibitive to allow for further samples, but the rest of the sound effects are there, albeit in a slightly downgraded form – and they work, providing a cathartic form of feedback for the player, including the alarm sound for when the player is pursued by spies or enemy ships. There is no music save for some brief fanfares serving as “get ready”, “game over” and “level complete” anthems.
The controls are smooth and responsive for Bosconian, and indeed for a game on the MSX1 platform, as games from this early generation of the MSX computer family were choppy and stilted, but this game has silky smooth controls and they work incredibly well.
The 8-way movement for the player’s ship is a welcome change and improvement from this game’s competitors, which were typically restricted to 4-way or 2-way movement. Here, the player has complete freedom of movement for digital controls, allowing greater precision for those crucial moments when an alien vessel’s central core is in their sights.
The gameplay is the jewel in the crown for Bosconian – the bidirectional firing system, the radar-like mechanic and the slow but fair incrementation of a careful balance between difficulty and challenge.
The game starts off slowly but soon picks up speed, and then the real fun begins for the player as they try to stave off enemy ships and destroy the alien installations as best as they can, all for the sake of a high score, just like the original arcade version. The gameplay is tailored for both novices and experts alike and its simplicity and ease of use means anyone can pick it up and play while working out the controls and mechanics, what few there are, in little time.
Bosconian on the MSX1 is a must-own for the system and a game which any fan of space-themed shooters must play at least once, as its innovative controls and unique mechanics left behind a legacy which can be felt in today’s arcade-like shoot-em-ups.
For fans of arcade classics that are not Space Invaders or Galaxian or even Namco’s signature hit Galaga and want to find something slightly less common but still influential in its own special way, they need to look at this game, both the original arcade version and this port for the MSX1.
Fun, addictive and tantalising to the senses, Bosconian is a game every gamer needs to play at least once in their lives and is well worth the price for those seeking to purchase a physical copy for their MSX computers.
Final Score: 4 ½ out of 5.
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