Hardware Classics: NEC PC Engine
Posted by Damien McFerran
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.