Saturday, June 6, 2020

TFW you find the last cartridge

I don't consider myself an obsessive collector because I'd rather use my vintage systems than simply collect for them. The majority of the systems in my back office may just be toys, but I don't collect (much) junk just for display, nor do I want to accumulate junk since I don't have much additional room to have out all the systems I'd like to and I try to regularly use them to keep them serviceable.

However, the exception to this rule is the very first home computer I ever had, the Tomy Tutor (that's my personal site dedicated to it), the toy company's one and only attempt at an American home computer system. This machine, whose closest hardware relative is actually the unreleased Texas Instruments 99/8, descends from the earlier Japanese-only Tomy Pyuuta (ぴゅう太). I still have the exact computer I used as a child before we upgraded to a Commodore 64 (that's me with it in the picture in my old apartment), and it still works. I figure if I'm going to be obsessive about one system, it should be that one, and I've now crossed the threshold where I have every single cartridge for it that Tomy ever manufactured. A few small-volume tape titles still elude me along with some third-party ones that I'll probably never find, but this particular last cartridge I've been trying to track down for a long time, and a boxed one (!) finally showed up for a not-impossible price relatively recently. COVID-19 has really upset international shipping and it took awhile to get it but it finally arrived.

The last cartridge I had yet to find was the Japanese domestic demonstration cartridge with a copyright date of 1983, intended for shops exhibiting systems for sale complete with a pretty little pink box. The great irony is that it actually doesn't work properly with the (Americanized) Tutor. I expected that it would appear wrong on-screen since the American Tomy Tutor naturally lacks katakana, but the demo cartridge additionally has its own menu — which seems to defeat the purpose of being a standalone demonstration cartridge — and it wouldn't read any of the Tutor's keys. So I dug out one of my Pyuutas and plugged it in and used it as it was intended. Let's look at some grabs.

Main title screen of the Pyuuta.

Main menu of the Pyuuta; you can read more about the system specifically, but everything is either in uppercase romaji or relatively primitive katakana glyphs, even Japanese native words. Typical of early Japanese home computers, this can sometimes makes it a little tricky to translate everything and my Japanese isn't so hot but I'll do my best. Here we're selecting the cartridge.

Pretty flowers and big sprites.

The demonstration cartridge menu's "three functions," namely, "color graphic," G-BASIC (the very limited peculiar subset of BASIC common to the Tomy computers, in this case the original Japanese keyword variant), and "cartridge game." The sprites shown are from Saurusland, which is vaguely related to the Tomy tabletop Caveman, but Saurusland isn't actually demonstrated here (read on). This is where the cartridge failed on the Tutor; it wouldn't register any of the number keys. There is a way documented on the box of going into an unattended mode with the SHIFT key but I couldn't get that to work.

The color graphic(s) demo using the classic Tomy built-in GRAPHIC paintbox. The Texas Instruments 9918A graphics are pretty well demonstrated here, along with sprite animation ("In addition, it's easy to make animation on the Pyuuta").

G-BASIC (GBASIC on the Tomy). Despite the Pyuuta and the Tutor being programmed in Japanese and English respectively, the internal representation uses the same tokens, so a tokenized program is actually mutually intelligible on both systems (once you account for differences in tape encoding). The blurb says, "Pyuuta is a personal computer. Programming is done in G-BASIC. G-BASIC is Japanese. In addition, it is easy to operate. Combining G-GBASIC with Pyuuta graphics can make beautiful original software."

The Pyuuta is advertised as having 20K of ROM, 16K of RAM and a 16-bit CPU (the Texas Instruments 9995). This is in fact incorrect; the Pyuuta has 32K of ROM. The Tomy Tutor has 48K of ROM owing to having both GBASIC and regular BASIC (descended from TI Extended BASIC) but is otherwise the same. The blurb adds, "Here a G-BASIC program is demonstrated."

G-BASIC "programming" is thus shown; you can see how simultaneously terse and inefficient this BASIC dialect is. The keyword kake is transliterated into English GBASIC as PRNT. In the monitaa (monitor) we are telling the Pyuuta jikkou (execution) to run the program.

The program is a simple math table generator.

Finally, cartridges. The blurb reads, "For Pyuuta, there are a lot of cartridges as well. Just insert a cartridge to easily enjoy a video game. Not only games but also other things such as education and home finance are planned for sale." Tomy never released these, though SKUs for them were reported in at least one Japanese marketing circular; all the Japanese domestic cartridges are games, and exactly one of the American Tutor cartridges is education-related despite similar promises here.

Despite using Saurusland sprites in the demo menu, the cartridge proceeds to show off Night Flight instead ("Here just a little of this fun cartridge game is demonstrated") which is fortunately a much better game (essentially the Tutor's answer to Qix, and subsequently ported by Colpax to MSX). This game never made it to American shores, by the way. You can't actually play it but the music and the graphics are exactly as they would appear on a real cartridge.

The Japanese demonstration cartridge was significantly rewritten for the American market, and you can see grabs of that cartridge (plus other Tomy marketing material). Not only was the language changed to English, but the cartridge menu was largely dispensed with, there were some minor changes to the sprites (a satellite instead of an astronaut), a completely new and different BASIC section replaced the G-BASIC segment with a primitive non-interactive card game, and the demo cartridge was changed to Traffic Jam (in my opinion the Tutor's best).

The most interesting difference between the Japanese and American demo cartridges, however, is the very last screen. I'll reproduce them both here.

Keep in mind that the Tutor was being sold in a rather different market somewhat later in 1983. Both systems have the TV, CPU and cartridge shown, though only the Tutor advertises the Joy Stick [sic]; the Pyuuta just has the Joy Controllers. Both systems also advertise a voice synthesizer (unreleased) and the cassette Data Recorder (released), which the Tutor calls a T. RECORDER even though it was sold as the Data Recorder here too.

The other expansion peripherals are where it gets a little different. The Pyuuta's "development schematic" has an orange box labeled mazaaboodo (motherboard), which connects to a line printer, floppy disk drive and onkyou kapara (acoustic coupler modem). In the Pyuuta manual each of these connect through a bespoke interface, such as an RS-232 serial interface for the acoustic coupler and a floppy controller board for the disk drive. Presumably this idea is what evolved into the BASIC-1 peripheral for the Pyuuta, which does indeed connect to the mainboard's expansion slot rather than through the regular cartridge port on top, but it only furnishes the printer interface (plus adding Tomy's version of TI Extended BASIC). The printer, disk drive, acoustic coupler and the other respective interfaces were never released nor to my knowledge demonstrated.

The Tutor, however, shows the printer connecting directly to the system (which is impossible, as there is no interface for it, and only homebrew ones ever existed). However, the most notable difference is the presence of the TI-ADAPTER. This is in fact nothing less than Tomy's planned rebranding of the TI Peripheral Expansion Bus cage, and there are mockup pictures of Tomy's version which provided the necessary interfaces for the disk drive and printer, but it was also never released (assuming it ever existed beyond a mockup in the first place). The PEB was even less well known in Japan, which probably explains why Tomy never bothered with that there.

It's a real feeling of accomplishment to complete this piece of my collection, even if there's still a few other items to mop up, and particularly when the last item has such interesting history behind it. I'll be updating my Tomy Tutor site with some of these grabs and some of my new tape acquisitions, but for those of you unfamiliar with this odd little computer, now you can share a little of my joy.

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