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The FM Towns (commonly spelled FM-Towns, FM TOWNS, or FM-TOWNS) (エフエムタウンズ efuemutaunzu) system is a Japanese PC variant, built by Fujitsu from February 1989 to the summer of 1997. It started as a proprietary PC variant intended for multimedia applications and PC games, but later became more compatible with regular PCs. In 1993, the FM Towns Marty was released, a gaming console compatible with the FM Towns games.
The name “FM Towns” is derived from the codename the system was assigned while in development, “Townes”; this was chosen as an homage to Charles Hard Townes, one of the winners of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics, following a custom of Fujitsu at the time to codename PC products after Nobel prize winners. The e in “Townes” was dropped when the system went into production to make it clear that it was to be pronounced “Towns” rather than “Tau-Ness”, and the “FM”, which stood for “Fujitsu Micro[computer]”.
Fujitsu, which had the best-selling 8-bit home computer FM-7, and the Fujitsu Micro 16s PC in early 1980s in Japan, decided to release a new home computer after the FM-7 was overcome by NEC’s PC-8801 computer. From this experience, Fujitsu learned that software sales drove hardware sales. In order to acquire usable software quickly, the new computer was to be based on Fujitsu’s “FMR50” system architecture. The FMR50 system, released at 1986, was another x86/DOS-based computer similar to NEC’s popular PC-9801. The FMR50 computers were sold to moderate success in Japanese offices, particularly in Japanese government offices. There were hundreds of software packages available for the FMR, including Lotus 1-2-3, Wordstar, Multiplan, and dBASE III. With this basis of compatibility, the more multimedia-friendly FM Towns was born.
NEC’s PC-9801 computers were widespread and dominated in the 1980s, at one point reaching 70% of the 16/32 bit computer market. However, they had poor graphics (640×400 at 16 of 4096 colors) and sounds (4-operator/3 voice monaural FM sounds). Just as Commodore saw an opening for the Amiga in some global markets against the IBM PC, a computer with improved graphics and sounds was considered to overcome the PC-9801 in the home-use field in Japan.
With many multimedia innovations for its time, the FM Towns was that system, though for a number of reasons it never broke far beyond the boundaries of its niche market status.
Eventually the “Towns” lost much of its uniqueness by adding a DOS/V (PC Clone + DOS with native Japanese language support) compatibility mode switch, until Fujitsu finally discontinued making FM Towns specific hardware and software and moved to focus on the IBM PC clones that many Japanese manufacturers who previously were not players in the PC market were building by the mid to late 1990s. To this day, Fujitsu is known for its laptop PCs globally, and FM Towns (and Marty) users have been relegated to a small community of aficionados.
Several variants were built; the first system was based on an Intel 80386SX processor running at a clock speed of 16 MHz, with the option of adding an 80387 FPU, featured one or two megabytes of RAM (with a possible maximum of 64 MB), one or two 3.5″ floppy disk drives and a single-speed CD-ROM drive. It was delivered with a gamepad, a mouse and a microphone.
The earlier, more distinctive models featuring a vertical CD-ROM tray on the front of the case (1F, 2F, 1H, 2H, 10F and 20F) were often referred to as the “Gray” Towns, and were the ones most directly associated with the “FM Towns” brand. Most featured 3 memory expansion slots and used 72-pin non-parity SIMMs with a required timing of 100ns or less and a recommended timing of 60ns.
Hard drives were not standard equipment, and were not required for most uses. The OS was loaded from CD-ROM by default. A SCSI Centronics 50/SCSI-1/Full-Pitch port was provided for connecting external SCSI disk drives, and was the most common way to connect a hard drive to an FM Towns PC. Although internal drives are rare, there is a hidden compartment with a SCSI 50-pin connector where a hard drive may be connected, however the power supply module does not typically provide the required Molex connector to power the drive.
The video output was RGB using the same DB15 connector and pinouts as earlier Apple Macintosh computers.
The operating system used was Windows 3.0/3.1/95 and a graphical OS called Towns OS, based on MS-DOS and the Phar Lap DOS extender (RUN386.EXE). Most games for the system were written in protected mode Assembly and C using the Phar Lap DOS extender. These games usually utilized the Towns OS API (TBIOS) for handling several graphic modes, sprites, sounds, a mouse, gamepads and CD-audio.
A minimal DOS system that allowed the CD-ROM drive to be accessed was contained in a system ROM; this, coupled with Fujitsu’s decision to charge only a minimal license fee for the inclusion of a bare-bones Towns OS on game CD-ROMs, allowed game developers to make games bootable directly from CD-ROM without the need for a boot floppy or hard disk.
To boot the system from CD-ROM disk, the FM TOWNS had a “hidden C:” ROM drive in which a minimum MS-DOS system, CD-ROM driver and MSCDEX.EXE were installed. This minimal DOS system ran first, and the DOS system read and executed the TownsOS IPL stored in CD-ROM disk after that. The Towns OS CD-ROM disk had an IPL, MS-DOS system (IO.SYS), DOS extender, and Towns API (TBIOS).
Various Linux and BSD distributions have also been ported to the FM Towns system, including Debian and Gentoo. A version of GNU called GNU for FM Towns was released in 1990.
The FM Towns featured video modes ranging from 320×200 to 640×480, with 16 to 32768 simultaneous colours out of a possible 4096 to 16.7 million (depending on the video mode); most of these video modes had two memory pages, and it allowed the use of up to 1024 sprites of 16×16 pixels each. It also had a built-in font ROM for the display of kanji characters.
One unique feature of the FM Towns system was the ability to overlay different video modes; for example, the 320×200 video with 32,768 colours could be overlaid with a 640×480 mode using 16 colours, which allowed games to combine high-colour graphics with high-resolution kanji text.
The FM Towns system was able to play regular audio CDs, and also supported the use of eight PCM voices and six FM channels, thanks to Ricoh RF5c68 and Yamaha YM2612 chipsets, respectively. The system had ports in the front to accommodate Karaoke, LEDs to indicate volume level, and software to add popular voice-altering effects such as echoes.
Games on the FM Towns regularly used Red Book (audio CD standard) orchestral music tracks, especially if they were designed specifically for the Fujitsu system (Games ported from the PC9801, for instance, might have used only PCM/FM music). This was a novelty and innovation far ahead of other PCs of the time made possible by the standard CD-ROM drive in every FM Towns computer.
The FM Towns was capable of booting its Towns OS, a graphical, GUI OS straight from CD in 1989, a full 7 years before the boot-from-CD capable Windows 95B OSR2 was released in 1996 (and that was still not to run the OS, but for installation purposes only).