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Feature: The Making Of The PC Engine

Posted by Damien McFerran

With NEC's machine turning 25, we take a look back at the history of the Famicom's biggest rival

Western gamers tend to consider Nintendo and Sega as the two major players in the 16-bit war. On European and American soil this was certainly the case - the Super Nintendo and Mega Drive (Genesis to North American players) battled it out for supremacy, selling millions of units and making their creators household names in the process. The story was ever so slightly different in Japan, however. Nintendo remained amazingly successful but it was NEC’s PC Engine that emerged as their main rival, leaving the unfortunate Sega to make do with a disappointing third. Remarkably, this popular Japanese console struggled in the US and bypassed Europe altogether. Unravelling the complex lineage of this intriguing system isn't straightforward thanks to numerous hardware amendments, name changes and add-on enhancements – not to mention the involvement of three different parent companies - but by thunder, we’re going to try.

This highly promising union would result in one of the most successful and influential Japanese consoles of all time

Back in the late 80’s many companies - both inside and outside the video game industry - observed the runaway success of Nintendo’s NES/Famicom with mounting envy. One such corporation was Japanese electronics giant Nippon Electric Company, more commonly known as ‘NEC’. Established at the turn of the 20th century to produce telephone components, NEC had gone on to become one of the world’s leading computer manufacturers. A new conquest was beckoning in the form of the lucrative console market and while NEC undoubtedly had the financial clout to enter this arena, it lacked vital industry experience. Approaches were made to several leading video game studios for support and it was soon discovered that Hudson Soft - the first developer to obtain a license to develop for the Nintendo Famicom – also happened to be tentatively exploring the possibilities of producing its own system.

Founded by brothers Yuji and Hiroshi Kudo in 1973, Hudson didn't start out in the field of interactive entertainment. “They originally began by selling telecommunication devices and some art photographs,” comments John Greiner, former President of Hudson Entertainment in the US and now the head man at Monkey Paw Games. “Within two years they began selling computer related products and soon afterwards, the company started to make games. In fact, they were the first to publish a PC game in Japan.” Hudson had created the high-powered ‘LSI’ chipset but didn't possess the necessary cash to enter the console race alone. “They realized they needed a partner to manufacture and market to a large base," explains Greiner. "Fortuitous timing landed NEC as a company that was interested in entering the console market.” This highly promising union would result in one of the most successful and influential Japanese consoles of all time.

Small is Beautiful

In terms of pure aesthetics, the PC Engine must surely rank as one of the most iconic designs in the history of electronic entertainment. The original white system was petite and attractive, making rival consoles look positively ugly in comparison. “Hudson and NEC wanted to create a system that was appealing in design,” Greiner says. “The previous generation of consoles felt more like toys, so they wanted to create a system that was sleek yet powerful.” With dimensions of 135 x 130 x 35mm, it remains the smallest home console ever made. This appeal was further augmented by the unique delivery system for software, as Greiner recalls: “The PC Engine used a unique chip-on-board media instead of cartridges. These credit card sized ‘HuCards’, or ‘Turbochips’ as they were called in America, were marvels in design. They were extremely durable, portable and cool.”

The slender size of the machine belied the impressive technical specifications contained within. The custom-built dual 16-bit graphic processors (HuC6260 and HuC6270A) allowed the PC Engine to display stunning arcade-quality visuals. Remarkably, the unique HuC6280A CPU that powered this minuscule wonder was 8-bit - a fact that would provoke many playground arguments about whether or not the machine should be classed in the same league as ‘true’ 16-but consoles like the SNES and Mega Drive.

NEC launched the PC Engine in Japan on October 30th 1987 and by the end of the subsequent year it was the best selling console in the country, dethroning the Famicom in spectacular fashion. One of the key reasons for this triumph was impressive third party support, which previous consoles like Sega’s Mark III (known as the Master System in the West) had struggled with, largely thanks to Nintendo’s stranglehold over software developers. Striking technical specifications combined with the rampant enthusiasm shown by NEC and Hudson – two highly respected companies in Japan – encouraged many developers to support the console. Namco, Irem, Masaya, Konami and Human all flocked to the PC Engine banner, bringing some of their most treasured franchises with them. Amazingly, permission was also secured to port several highly esteemed Sega coin-ops, including Afterburner 2, Power Drift, Space Harrier, Outrun, Wonderboy III and Fantasy Zone. These were proficiently reprogrammed by internal studio NEC Avenue (later known as ‘NEC Interchannel’, and more recently ‘Interchannel-Holon’, as the company is no longer affiliated with NEC) and ironically they frequently outclassed Sega’s own efforts on the Mega Drive.

NEC and Hudson were driven by what a CD could bring to gaming: amazing sounds, robust animation, and seemingly unlimited storage space

With a successful launch out of the way, NEC soon set about creating what would be the first of many hardware updates - the ‘CD-ROM2’ add-on. “At the time, publishers were constrained by the cost and memory of carts,” Greiner remembers. Released in 1988, it came with a fetching briefcase-style set-up and remains one of the most desirable pieces of PC Engine paraphernalia. Early CD software was hampered by lack of RAM but this was thankfully rectified via a series of ‘System Card’ updates (which came in HuCard form and granted more usable memory). This in turn gave birth to the renowned ‘Super CD’ criterion, which allowed programmers to be more flamboyant and really put that additional CD storage space to meaningful use. “NEC and Hudson were driven by what a CD could bring to gaming: amazing sounds, robust animation, and seemingly unlimited storage space,” confirms Greiner.

Commitment to largely unproven CD-ROM technology showed that NEC intended to remain on the cutting edge, but in 1989 this burning desire to innovate resulted in a near-fatal error of judgement. Despite the runaway success of the PC Engine, Nintendo’s Famicom remained the console to beat and when solid information regarding the specifications of its successor began to surface in the Japanese press, NEC panicked. They rashly decided to launch a new console and the SuperGrafx was born. Essentially a PC Engine with additional graphic chips and four times as much RAM, this bulky machine was handicapped by the fact that it utilized the same 8-bit CPU as its older stable mate. Coordinating the extra chips created a massive drain on processing power and developers struggled to achieve satisfying results.

Incredibly, only five dedicated games ever saw the light of day (a ‘hybrid’ version of Darius Plus was also released that would also play on a standard PC Engine). Thanks to an impressive conversion of Capcom’s Daimakaimura (Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts) and excellent overall compatibility (it is able to play HuCard games and can be connected to the CD-ROM drive, making it the only machine in the PC Engine dynasty with the potential to play all available software), the SuperGrafx remains a highly sought-after collector’s item, regardless of its abject commercial failure.

Go West

In spite of this slight hiccup, success was virtually assured on home soil. With proven technology and a library of excellent games, it made perfect sense to unleash the console Stateside, as Greiner recalls: “The US market was stirred into a fevered state by fans wanting a true gaming upgrade from the 8-bit era.” NEC’s American arm rechristened it ‘TurboGrafx-16’ and the external casing of diminutive console was retooled in order to make it look more substantial and imposing. Nevertheless, the fortunes of the TurboGrafx-16 stood in stark contrast to that of its Japanese sibling. “The success of the PC Engine was undeniable in Japan, where at one point it captured nearly a third of the market,” states Greiner. “In the US however, it was a different story.” Sega released the Mega Drive (Genesis) in North America at almost exactly the same time and began relentlessly and ruthlessly marketing their new console. “Sega were hard-hitting, gaining an irreverent edge which best suited the US demographics,” explains Greiner. The early promotions were extraordinarily successful and the selection of available software - which not only included some of Sega’s key arcade titles but was also more tailored to a Western audience – gave it the edge. NEC’s machine was lumbered with a very ‘Eastern’ assortment of games and Hudson struggled to craft titles that would appeal to US players. “It was a tremendous challenge launching so many games in such a short time frame,” remembers Greiner. “That is why you initially saw so many games that were ported from Japan and from genres that were most popular in that country, like shooters.”

Marketing and understanding the US gamer mentality was always a challenge for NEC

Nintendo’s dominance over third party developers became apparent once again with American software companies being just as fearful of Nintendo’s wrath as their Japanese counterparts. “Unfortunately, while Hudson created many great games for the system initially, it still wasn't enough. Many of the big name brands from other publishers simply couldn't be published,” states Greiner. In a similar situation to that witnessed in Japan, Nintendo stipulated that if a third party game was produced for the NES, it couldn't be released on a rival console. “That became a challenge that was not easily overcome,” Greiner reflects, mournfully. Nintendo’s bullying tactics were later found to be illegitimate but by then it was too late. To make matters worse, NEC vastly over-produced their hardware. “They listened closely to retailers, who were very aggressive in their belief that 16-bit gaming was going to be a big success,” explains Greiner. “NEC therefore over-ordered units and this proved fatal in the long run as they committed tremendous financial resources to create the hardware, which ultimately handcuffed them in marketing spend. Sega were able to successfully steal market share away with a ‘bad-ass’ image and an unfettered marketing bankroll.” The seemingly unbridled success experienced in Japan had sadly eluded NEC in America. “Arguably, the TurboGrafx-16 had better games, but a number of missteps took place when it came to hardware styling, box art, pack-in and release schedule,” comments Greiner. “Marketing and understanding the US gamer mentality was always a challenge for NEC.”

Around this time there were faint rumblings of a European release. Early in 1990 it was revealed that a UK company called ‘Mention’ were intending to sell specially modified machines that would circumvent the various problems UK importers were experiencing. Known as the ‘PC Engine Plus’, this slightly altered system did not have the official blessing of NEC and unsurprisingly never took off. Despite several magazines reporting that NEC themselves were ‘literally months away’ from officially launching the console in the UK for ‘under £100’, it never happened. “Europe was neglected as this was NEC’s first foray into the console market,” comments Greiner. “However, there was considerable grey market penetration as Europeans also wanted to participate in the new gaming revolution”.

The Dynamic Duo

Back in Japan, the amazing success of the freshly-released Super Famicom provoked NEC to consolidate the existing PC Engine hardware in the form of the ‘Duo’ system. As you might expect from the snappy moniker, this was a PC Engine and CD-ROM drive combined. The need for (easily misplaced) System Cards was also negated as the Duo had the necessary RAM built in. Launched in 1991, the machine arguably represented the zenith of the PC Engine brand. A US release followed via the newly founded Hudson/NEC venture ‘Turbo Technologies Incorporated’ (TTI for short), but the re-branded TurboDuo suffered the same ignominious fate as the TurboGrafx-16 before it - despite having some excellent software, it failed to gain a significant market share and faded quickly. Incredibly, it’s since been confirmed by a former TTI employee that the company was offered exclusive home console rights to Midway’s arcade hit Mortal Kombat, but the head office in Japan decreed that fighting games were oversubscribed in the US and neglected the offer.

The success of the Japanese Duo allowed NEC to further strengthen their position, applying intense pressure on Nintendo with a series of excellent titles whilst keeping poor old Sega firmly in third place. Classic games like Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, Gate of Thunder, Star Parodier and Ys proved that even in the relative infancy of the CD-ROM age, the extra space afforded by the format could be put to sterling use. Fortunately, the humble HuCard was not forgotten and a noteworthy conversion of Capcom’s Street Fighter II: Champion Edition pushed the maximum capacity of the credit card-sized format up to a muscular 20 megabits.

1994 saw the introduction of the Japanese-only ‘Arcade Card’, which increased the PC Engine’s power to previously unimaginable levels. Slick coin-op conversions of Fatal Fury Special, World Heroes 2 and Art of Fighting soon appeared and while these incredibly faithful ports won the console a whole new group of admirers, they came too late to make a truly telling impact. The 16-bit party, which the 8-bit PC Engine had skilfully managed to gatecrash, was beginning to wind down and a new wave of powerful 32-bit behemoths loomed ominously on the horizon. Sales started to dwindle, forcing NEC and Hudson to develop a successor – the ill-fated 32-bit PC-FX. Built around the rather misguided belief that FMV-style games represented the future of the console industry, it unsurprisingly flopped at retail.

After nearly a decade of unwavering commitment to one another, NEC and Hudson finally parted company in the middle of the nineties. The former went on to supply the graphical muscle behind Sega’s Dreamcast while the latter continued to produce games for a wide range of consoles, before eventually being purchased by Konami in 2011. A year later - following the closure of the US-based Hudson Entertainment - the Hudson Soft name ceased to exist as the company was absorbed entirely into Konami.

This feature was originally printed in its entirety in Retro Gamer magazine, and is reproduced here with kind permission. Special thanks to Aaron Nanto for providing exclusive hardware photos.

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User Comments (33)



Shiryu said:

Lovely article, I really wished it was available in Europe back then, but alas...



Spoony_Tech said:

I loved my Turbo-Grafx 16. I had plenty of good games and have download some of those on the virtual console. Those were wonderful times back then with Nintendo and my Turbo!



SammyOfMobius said:

Why is this on a Nintendo website... well, I'm glad these consoles were discontinued, so Nintendo will RULE!!!



gojiguy said:

It's sad that Hudson is a shell of its former self due to the Konami takeover...



XyVoX said:

I still have my PC Engine Core Grafx 2 with about 30 or so of the premium titles that were available for it i also had a PC Engine DUO which i ended up selling as most of the best CD specific games that i had came out on the Wii Vc, what i remember was that the games had a silky fluidity to them you didn't often see on the SNES or MD it chucked sprites around with serious ease.



Ristar42 said:

Yep, the PC Engine never made it to the UK to my knowledge, though I remember reading about it in gaming magazines at the time.

Was really pleased to see the console on the VC and discovered some great games.
It is also the only system on the VC that always runs at 60Hz on a PAL Wii!
Now, if only they would release Parasol Stars on the Wii VC...



XyVoX said:

@Ristar42 thats the reason i hardly bought anything for my UK Wii on Vc Stupid Nintendo 50hz nearly all of the games making them 'to me unplayable'.



Ristar42 said:

@XyVoX Am sure you're not alone there, funny to think the 3DS VC is the first time Nintendo have actually released NES games running at the correct speed in Europe.
Lets see if they can sort out the Wii VC with Wii U...



hYdeks said:

The TurboGrafix16 was a great system that actually had alot of cult hits in North America Too bad they never really had any success other than PCEngine in Japan.



TheDreamingHawk said:

I like the PC engine CD the most, thanks to YS.

Speaking of PC engine... WHERE ARE THE PROMISED 3DS VC GAMES ANNOUNCED AT GDC 2011? Don't say Konami halted them, they announced TG-16 plans AFTER the whole company was dissolved.



cyrus_zuo said:

Loved my TurboGrafx-16! (+CD)

I remember when the Genesis and TG-16 were coming out. A store at the mall had a Genesis set-up, so I went there, weekend after weekend. Played Altered Beast, that helicopter game, and Ghouls 'N Ghosts. After passing GnG I decided I didn't really like the visuals of the Genesis. Something about the TG-16 looked much more "next-gen" to me .
Turns out it was the on-screen colors. The limitation was 64 for the Genesis (16 for the NES). The TG-16 had 481! For me it made everything much more vibrant. I bought one and never looked back (I'm quite sure my love of Japanese games comes from many hours of gaming on my TG-16!)

Eventually I bought all 3 consoles from the 16-bit era, but the TG-CD is what I loved the most. Many fond memories of Y's (first game with real voice - something hard to imagine back then + amazing CD quality sound) and Lords of Thunder (still beautiful tough as nails shooter) among others, and great 5-player Saturdays with friends playing Bomberman, Dungeon Explorer & Moto Roader (long before 4 controllers was standard on systems).

Good trip down memory lane, great article. Thanks!



KeeperBvK said:

Why is there no mention of the already produced European TurboGrafX machines? You can still find new and fully boxed machines on the internet for relatively low prices.
Mind you, there are no European games, but the console can easily be bought.



Urbanhispanic said:

thanks 4 the article. It was interesting to read about a console that was largely ignored here in the U.S. I once had a TV made by NEC back in the day and actually knew someone who owned the Turbo Express. I wish Nintendo would continue to release more tg-16 titles to the VC. : /



Corbs said:

That was a wonderful article. Still a system I'd never be without. PC Engine rocks!



TheRealThanos said:

wtf? Are you for real?
Even though this is a Nintendo site, you don't have to go all fanboy and state that it's good that other consoles have died, that's truly pathetic and VERY narrow minded.

The TG-16 had some great games and as many others have already said, a couple of gems can now be found on VC. (or through emulation on PC or Wii softmod)

ALL consoles and/or home computers in general have contributed in some way to games and or technology that is used in today's consoles, so it is very nice that Nintendo Life honors that and gives credit were credit is due.

Try out some of these games on your PC through emulation and see what they're all about and you'll find they're just as much fun as NES, SNES or GBA games. It might even broaden your perspective on gaming as a whole and you may even benefit from it yourself as far as opinion forming is concerned, because no one likes fanboys.
Not saying this to insult you, and a bit of open minded thinking never hurt anyone...

As for titles to recommend, other commenters have already named a couple of good ones.



Nekketsu3D said:

I wonder what do you expect Nintendo to bring this jewel console in Nintendo 3ds Eshop USA ¬¬...
I own one and it certainly has an incredible amount of great games that dream would enjoy in a handheld



AgentAPE said:

After reading the article, I kept thinking about the kind of impact having MK exclusive on the TG16 would have been. I remember the mortal monday ads and commercials. I think it would have put sega in a tight spot if not squeezed them out the race entirely.If anything it would have push a hell of alot more consoles for NEC. Nintendo may have released the "Snes Playstation" just to compete.



JebbyDeringer said:

The TurboExpress was the most powerful portable for a long time. It was really advanced at the time but very expensive. Many of the ones you find now have dead or dying capacitors though you can pick them up for $30 and spend less than $20 to fix them if you know how. I almost picked out a TG16 for my birthday one year when they were being cleared out of Radio Shack for $50 but instead I bought a Soundcard (which wasn't great).



Starwolf_UK said:

@Ristar42 Before Wii VC and Animal Crossing (NES games there run in 50Hz). Zelda Collector's edition was 60Hz only and the NES classics on GBA were also correct speed (though the every x vertical line missing is lamentable).

@KeeperBvK I did a quick search and came across this:
What isn't is it uses some sort of chip to convert the NTSC signal to PAL.



Windy said:

I miss these machines. They were just tons of fun to play and collect games for.



Neram said:

This was a very interesting article! The first time I played a Turbografx-16 was when I was about 9 years old, so I feel lucky I got to play one. I will admit that my interest was renewed greatly by the release of its games on the Wii Virtual Console, prompting me to research the console and where it came from. I think it's completely relevant and I'm happy to see articles like this here on NintendoLife.




The first I ever knew of this systems existence was when the Wii launched and Turbografx games were available! I still play Chew Man Fu to this day! And Bomberman 93 and 94!

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