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Hardware Classics: NEC PC Engine

Posted by Damien McFerran

Emotion Engine

It's a common misconception that the Nintendo Super Famicom and Sega Mega Drive were close rivals in their native Japan. In reality, Sega was in fact third in the pecking order, and it was NEC's PC Engine which fought so bitterly with Nintendo for domination of the sales charts. A collaboration between hardware manufacturer NEC and game-maker Hudson Soft, this 8-bit wonder would dazzle gamers with its diminutive size, incredible arcade-quality visuals and seemingly endless array of upgrades and add-ons, and remains one of the most beloved retro gaming platforms of all time.

Released in 1987, the original white PC Engine was nothing short of a revelation. Sleek and compact, it was roughly the size of a CD case. UK magazine Computer & Video Games famously compared the console to a packet of crisps (or potato chips, as American readers would call them); this iconic image would burn itself into the conciousness of many import gamers in the UK, where the system would enjoy considerable popularity and fame, despite the lack of an official release. The size of the console was one thing, but its games were just as surprising. Instead of using bulky cartridges like the Famicom/NES and Sega Master System — the PC Engine's initial adversaries — NEC opted for credit card-sized delivery method called a "HuCard" (or "TurboChip" as it would become known in the US). The small size of these cards allowed NEC and Hudson to package their software in sleek CD cases, something which only seemed to add to the system's appeal.

As the PC Engine's competition matured from 8-bit challengers to 16-bit powerhouses, NEC started a process of augmenting the core technology to create a lineage of hardware revisions. 1989's abortive SuperGrafx was an attempt to maintain pace with the Mega Drive, but NEC found more success with its CD-ROM add-on (the first of its kind for any home console) and the later TurboDuo, which played both HuCard and CD software. Despite the arrival of CD games such as Dracula X: Rondo of Blood and Ys: Book I & II, HuCard-only titles continued to appear right up to the end of the format's life, with offerings like Soldier Blade and PC Kid 3 (Bonk's Big Adventure in the US) illustrating just how powerful NEC's hardware could be.

The PC Engine's enduring popularity with hardcore gamers and import collectors has ensured that the console remains a firm favourite even today. The wide range of hardware variants makes the process of collecting quite a challenge, as does the sheer volume of HuCard and CD software on offer. Key CD-ROM games can fetch handsome prices on certain auction sites, and the savvy nature of the average PC Engine collector means that the most desirable releases are tricky to find for a reasonable cost. However, the system's robust commercial performance in its native Japan means that it's possible to pick up a console and some decent games for a respectable amount of cash. The original white PC Engine will need modification to work on modern TV sets, however — the example shown here has been tinkered with to output a crystal-clear RGB SCART picture. If you don't fancy paying extra cash for modification work, aim for the CoreGrafx or CoreGrafx II revisions, which come with composite connections.

The PC Engine — its North American guise, the TurboGrafx-16 — is one of the formats that Wii owners can enjoy using the Virtual Console service. However, possibly more so than any other retro format, part of the console's intrinsic appeal is tied to its physical collectability; with so many hardware variants and revisions available — not to mention the gorgeous designs of said hardware — the PC Engine family practically begs to be sought out and acquired. There are some elements of retro gaming that simply cannot be replicated via digital distribution, and hunting down NEC and Hudson Soft's legendary format is most certainly one of them.

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User Comments (27)

Blue-Thunder

#2

Blue-Thunder said:

I never had a PC engine but I love Galaga 90 on the VC. I always taught it was a 16 bit machine, if its not its a pretty impressive 8 bit console to produce them graphics.

Kifa

#3

Kifa said:

Gate of Thunder. 'Nuff said. Probably one of the most underappreciated systems of all time.

Amigaengine

#4

Amigaengine said:

Been a PC engine gamer since 1989 and was nothing I did not love about the machine's NEC offered.
Wish Nintendo had done a better job with the VC releases. The quantity of titles and the emulation quality was spotty at best. Maybe they will redo some of those for the WiiU.

RantingThespian

#7

RantingThespian said:

I have never played a PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16, nor have I ever seen one (until this article). Growing up, the only systems people owned were the NES, SNES, Gameboy, Sega Master System, Gamegear, and The Sega Genesis.

XyVoX

#9

XyVoX said:

I had a PC Engine Duo then sold that when most of the games i wanted came out on Wii VC so i picked up a Core Grafix 2 which i still have along with around 40 something hu-card games, have to say though this machine had a slickness,speed & fluidity to games that you didn't often see on the Snes or Megadrive it was a Sprite powerhouse.

Zodiak13

#10

Zodiak13 said:

TG16 is still to this day one of the very few gaming devices I have never owned. However, I really enjoyed the article, good way to start the day.

ouroborous

#12

ouroborous said:

shame it was a JP only console (basically), means we all probably missed out on alot of classic gaming fun back in the day. not that we didnt have plenty to play already. most of the time i dont care anymore about playing games on the original console, but seeing as we missed out entirely on the PCE, it would be really nice (if ridiculously impractical) to have hard copies of the console and some decent games. ah well.

Kirk

#13

Kirk said:

Another genuine classic.

I've never actually owned one of these consoles but I've played a lot of it's best games.

Great system that really could have been a much bigger hit if it saw a proper release is the west.

Also, I never realized the console was so small before seeing it in that image next to a NES cartridge.

MeloMan

#15

MeloMan said:

Kudos to Pickled Chips and Journey to Silius. Man, NL loves showing off that JtS NES cart :)

Demonic_St33V

#16

Demonic_St33V said:

Still have mine. My favorite games for the system were "Bravoman", the "Nuetopia" series and this bizarre racing RPG that I can't remember the name of. Random encounters in the game's over-world were resolved via dirt-track car racing. Instead of weapons and armor? Car parts.

Zombie_Barioth

#18

Zombie_Barioth said:

Thats a really slick looking console there, especially for a classic one. Too bad it never caught on over here in the west, especially since I grew up playing classic shooters and still have a soft spot for them.

ThreadShadow

#21

ThreadShadow said:

I wish it had had more releases on the VC. How can you have the TG16 VC and not have the Legendary Axe games rattling around? There was a handful never released that I would have liked to see.

ecco6t9

#22

ecco6t9 said:

Reminds me that the 3DS never did get the Turbo Grafx games we were supposed to get.

ToneDeath

#23

ToneDeath said:

Doesn't Konami own Hudson and their games now? I'm not sure I've heard that Konami are doing anything with them though; I hope the Turbografx makes a comeback on the Wii U's Virtual Console, and a new Bomberman wouldn't go amiss (with a bonus Metal Gear themed stage; why not!).

TheRealThanos

#25

TheRealThanos said:

Great console, many great games and a great piece of writing. A very enjoyable read and a nice trip back to memory lane. Well done, Damian. Oh, and this:

"There are some elements of retro gaming that simply cannot be replicated via digital distribution"

needs to be set in stone or put on a ceramic tile and sold to people that don't get TRUE retro gaming and want their current or new console to be fully backwards compatible so everything will work on it. I still have ALL my old consoles and handhelds and play the games on their own platforms, as they should. To me it just seems very weird to play a SNES game with a Playstation or Xbox controller, but that's just my opinion. Maybe I'm starting to get too old or maybe I'm expecting too much from 'new' gamers. I tried to instill the same respect from the origins of gaming into my 13 year old nephew but he just thinks that anything lower than the current gen is ugly and he doesn't have the patience to get into it either. (funny thing is that he does play Minecraft, though) He even clicks away intro's and cut scenes in current games because he 'just wants to play'. I tried to explain to him that it's unwise to do so because an intro will get you into the story or even give you hints and cut scenes might even be of importance to the game or tell you what you need to do, but alas... oh well. It's nice to read articles like these every now and then, especially since I've consciously lived through every console from the Atari2600 and up and also played most of them, which is why I understand that without these humble beginnings we would never be in the current generation in the first place and therefore I still enjoy and to some extent respect old games.

Nekketsu3D

#26

Nekketsu3D said:

I don't terminate mention the amount of games that have this incredible console n ot only CD, the version of HuCard surprising even to this day, a magic that I wonder why no rescues nintendo Nintendo 3DS virtual console. Bonks, Adventure Island, Jackie Chan, Hana Taka Daka, Ninja Ryukenden, Daisenpuu, Street Fighter 2, Raiden, Hellfire S, Spriggan, Strider, R-type, Download and huge and many more.

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