Hardware Focus - TurboGrafx-16
Posted by Corbie Dillard
It's Turbo time!
The history of the TurboGrafx-16 system is basically a tale of two countries. Electronics giant NEC and game developer Hudson joined forces in 1987 to design and release the PC Engine game console to compete head to head with Nintendo and Sega's 8-bit systems.
Offering a nice step up in terms of visuals and audio capabilities, the console immediately caught on with Japanese gamers and became one of the most successful consoles ever released in Japan. The PC Engine still sports one of the largest game libraries of any console ever released. But as successful as the PC Engine was in Japan, the console didn't fare nearly as well in other countries.
While it's a standard practice for Japanese console makers to wait several months before releasing their new consoles in the US, and sometimes even longer for a European release, NEC and Hudson waited almost a full two years before releasing the PC Engine system outside of Japan. In 1989 they released the system in the US changing the name to a more 'American-friendly' TurboGrafx-16. The system also saw a limited released in Europe as well. The biggest hurdle for the TurboGrafx-16 in the US and Europe was the lack of availability at retailers. NEC and Hudson decided to focus their marketing on the larger cities in the US and Europe and this caused a serious lack of availability at many retailers in the two countries. European gamers even resorted to importing the Japanese PC Engine systems and having RGB modifications performed on them in order to display on European PAL televisions.
The TurboGrafx-16 also had another obstacle to contend with. By the time the TurboGrafx-16 was released in the states, Sega was already about to drop their new 16-bit Genesis console onto US gamers and Nintendo was already creating a firestorm with news of their upcoming Super Nintendo system. Gamers in the US and Europe didn't want to hear about a game system they knew nothing about and couldn't find in most stores, let alone one that wasn't even as powerful as the upcoming Sega and Nintendo offerings. Needless to say, most gamers passed on the TurboGrafx-16.
The 16-bit era could just as easily be called the 'mascot' era. It seemed like every console maker sported some type of mascot for their system. Nintendo had Mario the plumber and Sega had Sonic the hedgehog. NEC was looking for anything that might spark sales of their failing TurboGrafx-16 system, so they too came up with a mascot in their lovable, but not terribly bright caveman, Bonk. Bonk's Adventure became one of the best-selling TurboGrafx-16 titles, but still wasn't enough to jump-start sales of the system. At this point, the Geico caveman couldn't have done much to help the faltering TurboGrafx-16 system.
In 1990 NEC decided to go after a piece of the handheld gaming market that Nintendo was thoroughly dominating with a portable version of their TurboGrafx-16 console. The Turbo Express was the first fully console-powered portable game system ever released. At $250 it was an impressive piece of technology, but the system required 6 'AA' batteries that would only provide about 2 hours of playing time. If you do the math, that gets expensive quickly. There was also a huge shortage of the systems when it was first launched, and many retailers that actually had the system in stock had jacked up the price to $399 to take advantage of the Christmas shopping season. The system would also be severely plagued by dead pixels, a common fault given how new the LCD technology was during this time period. Sadly, the Turbo Express did little to boost TurboGrafx-16 sales.
NEC had already released a CD-ROM attachment to their PC Engine system in Japan to rousing success when they decided to bring the system stateside. This new technology added some amazing features to gaming, but these new features came at a high price. The unit retailed for $399.99 and that was with no game included. NEC originally marketed this CD-ROM attachment in New York and Los Angeles, but would later make it available in limited quantities across the rest of the US. It really didn't matter, as most people didn't even own a TurboGrafx-16 system to attach it to anyway. Despite the many gaming advantages these CD-based titles offered, the technology was just too new and expensive for the average gamer to invest in. The failures were beginning to mount on NEC and Hudson, but they did manage one last ditch effort to keep their head above water in the console race.
In 1992 NEC and Hudson would unite to form TTI. The company developed an all-in-one TurboGrafx-16 and CD unit called the Turbo Duo system. This new unit also featured the newest version of the system cards that the CD system used, another unique feature of the TurboGrafx-16 system that most gamers outside of Japan never got to experience. The Turbo Duo would be aggressively marketed across the US, but by this time, most gamers were already heavily entrenched in the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo systems and didn't have an additional $300 to throw down on yet another console. Sadly it was yet another TurboGrafx-16 system that would never really take off.
Over the years the TurboGrafx-16 and PC Engine systems have become one of the most collectable game consoles in history. Gamers around the net buy and sell these games and systems more now than they did back when the consoles were new. Some of the hard-to-find titles can fetch as much as $400 on internet auction sites. Nintendo's Wii console and its Virtual Console service have also resurrected the TurboGrafx-16 system by releasing classic game titles on a weekly basis. In fact, the TurboGrafx-16 titles have been among the best-selling games available on the Virtual Console to date. It seems that Virtual Console fans are finally finding out what TurboGrafx-16 fans have known all along.