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September 27, 2022

MSXALL

Everything about MSX, and more…

Aquarela

10 min read
A made in Brazil graphic editor that brought to the MSX a set of tools before only found in much more advanced systems.

A Brazilian software house called Paulisoft introduced to the MSX scene a new advanced graphic editor based on a modern design known as MacLike (interface with windows and icons). In 1989 the Aquarela graphic editor was created by Luis Carlos Barbosa de Oliveira, who wrote the program with the purpose of simplifying the process of digital drawing for both, novice and professional artists. In addition to its incredible look & feel, the program also brought to the MSX the concept of dialogs – primitive for today’s time, but advanced for the ’80s -, which was inspired by more advanced platforms and used to expand tools’ options without disrupting the current operation.

All of those advanced features and its innovative interface got the MSX users very excited. As a result, amazing screens and pictures were created or finalized in the Aquarela program, and countless alphabets and sprites/shapes collections were created using the program, making it famous all over the world. Even the gorgeous opening screen of the program was entirely created using a beta version of the software by Luiz Paulo Bonci

The Aquarela took approximately 2 years to be developed. During this period, the software house that launched the program (Paulisoft) also helped with the program’s final steps and fine-tuning, which was something unusual at the time. As a result, the Aquarela was not only well constructed and a thoughtfully tested product before release, but also a solid and well-planned application in terms of features. 

Created specifically for MSX 1 computers with 64Kb of RAM, the only requirement was that the equipment would need at least one disk drive. Almost everything it offers was ahead of its time. The program was, for instance, “mouse ready”. Also innovative in the ’80s and in special on MSX programs. However, as mice were a rare luxury among MSX users at the time, the developers took advantage of the joystick and allowed it to be used to simulate a mouse, which was a very clever and cool idea but not exactly practical or efficient. 

The Aquarela came out-of-the-box “print ready“, capable of converting digital images to matrix dot pixel and print them in 80 or 132 columns, a great advance at the time. Even color matrix printers, which were rare but available, could be used by the program and the results were – in fact – astonishing.

Aquarela drawings are saved in the .GRP format, which is a standard format used by the Basic commands BSAVE/BLOAD to store Screen 2 images on MSX 1. It was built like that to facilitate the conversion of images created by Aquarela to other editors, making the Aquarela the only program compliant with the standard Screen 2 type of images.

General Features

The program was second to none in features comparison, even against other more advanced platforms.

For pixel design artists of the ’80s and ’90s, the flexibility of drawing on the screen was much more centered in certain specific aspects other than the resources of the equipment. For instance: quick pallet selection and zoom were important elements to allow designers to be creative without disruption, and Aquarela was well design for that. In addition, it brought to the MSX artists tools like Eraser, Paint Rollers with Editable Patterns, Pencil and Sprays, Geometric Figures and Lines, Mirror and Flip/Invert tools, Stamp, Drawing Banks and much more. Pretty much everything a creative artist needed at that time (and more) to express an artistic view and polish a final creation. All within the MSX and on a single program.

Out of the box ready to use disk drives, the program allowed artists to switch drawings as needed. It was fairly easy for users to create and manage collections of images that could be easily accessed and loaded from the program interface.

Because images were saved in .GRP format, other programs like MSX PageMaker Deluxe and Professional Publisher could also use images created by Aquarela to compose more advanced pages like newsletters. The same applies to other file types Aquarela was able to create, such as Sprites and Fonts.

Other Features

Beyond being a complete art tool, Aquarela was also capable of creating sprites and fonts. MSX programs in any language could load those ready-to-go objects in memory and use them to replace the traditional alphabet of the MSX on the fly simply for fun, or it could be used to create games and tools using sprites. Such features brought the Aquarela program to the toolset of programmers and enthusiasts as well.

Beyond the creation of fonts and sprites that can be saved and loaded as needed, the program allowed users to use the fonts to write over the current drawings. The sprites can also be placed anywhere on the current screen, always observing they follow the 16×16 standard. Once placed on the screen, they are “imprinted” in pixels, becoming part of the drawing.

Similar to the Screens that use standard Screen 2 (.GRP) file format, the sprites are also saved in the standard MSX format (.SPR), which means a Basic program can load them by using the command BLOAD”<name>.SPR” to then be accessed and used via Basic instruction PUTSPRITE. Generally, programmers have to “draw sprites” in code using the command DATA, but when using Aquarela it makes it very easy for them to simply draw the sprites and, whenever needed, fix them without having to rewrite any line of code, which is something that nowadays is common sense, but in the ’80s was highly innovative.  

All those tools and features were accompanied by a very creative tiles pattern, that could be used almost everywhere to enhance the images and simplify the process or creating specific designs.

Design Flaw

As nothing is perfect, the Aquarela has a fundamental design flaw: it requires an FDD Interface based on ports, which in Brazil was the standard at that time. As the rest of the world adopted disk drive interfaces based on addresses, the Aquarela software will simply fail for most people, and will only work on standard Brazilian disk drive Interfaces, such as DDX. The good news is that most emulators are capable of emulating such a device and it is possible to use the Aquarela in most emulators with the correct device set.

Currently, there is no known patch or fix to resolve this issue.

Conclusion

For a program based on MSX 1 and requiring only 64Kb of RAM, Aquarela is nothing less than remarkable and impressive. The program was sold with 2 disks, one with the program and a manual in text format, and another with a library of images, shapes, and fonts. In certain cases, the program was also sold with a printed manual, but we are not aware of a specific program box. There is a version in .ROM format found in many repositories of MSX nowadays, but it is not confirmed if a version in a cartridge was ever officially sold. Most likely it is a fan-made conversion from the disk version.

Related Article: Interview with Luiz Paulo Bonci, creator of the Aquarela opening screen.


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