It's almost impossible to not fall in love with the NEC PC Engine. In its original Japanese form it remains an engineering masterpiece; it's the tiny console that could. Even after all these years it's easy to see why the system took Japan by a storm and gained legions of fans among "grey importers" in the west – not only did it look fantastic, it played host to some astonishingly brilliant titles, including an (almost) arcade perfect version of Irem's R-Type, which – for many – was the system's killer app in those early years. The PC Engine is also historically significant because it was the first console to genuinely rival the Nintendo Famicom in its homeland; released in 1987, it entered a market dominated by Nintendo, yet it managed to find a foothold and even kept a resurgent Sega – with its 16-bit Mega Drive – at bay.
Playing the PC Engine today is a massively rewarding experience due to the relatively low cost of entry and wide selection of excellent software. However, it's also something of a minefield for newcomers because NEC was addicted to releasing as many iterations and add-ons for the system as humanly possible. The base console was revised twice (the Core Grafx and Core Grafx II) while the CD-ROM² attachment – a first for the games industry – came in two variants. Then there's the PC Engine Shuttle, SuperGrafx, Duo, Duo-R and Duo-RX to consider. Confused yet? Throw in multiple memory-boosting "System Cards" which are required to play certain CD games, and it's easy to see why the PC Engine is regarded as something of a mystery, even by seasoned retro gamers.
Thankfully, Spanish company Terraonion – which is behind the superb NeoSD Neo Geo flash cart – has come up with an all-in-one solution which not only overcomes the limitations of the original PC Engine, but adds in all of the CD-based goodness required to fully explore the console's library of titles. The Super SD System 3 is a module which bolts onto the back of the standard PC Engine and, via a MicroSD card, allows you to load HuCard ROMs and CD-ROM² ISOs.
It also includes support for the Arcade Card, the final card released for the console which introduced an additional 2MB of RAM for graphically complex titles like Fatal Fury Special, Strider and World Heroes 2 – as well as previous CD-ROM² and Super CD-ROM² games. As if that wasn't enough, the module also comes with RGB output, something that is only possible on the original hardware via modification (composite AV is the best most PC Engine variants can manage, but in the case of the white PC Engine, RF is the only output option). To cap it all off, save data can be committed to the MicroSD card without having to use the Ten no Koe Bank add-on device – which is fortunate, because the Ten no Koe Bank connects to the same port that the Super SD System 3 occupies, so it's impossible to use them both at the same time.
As you can imagine, all of this makes the Super SD System 3 something of a dream ticket for PC Engine fans; it even allows you to play SuperGrafx ROMs – as long as you connect it to a SuperGrafx console, of course. The AV multiport also handles composite video (more on that in a bit, though) and the RGB signal via SCART is absolutely stunning (especially when run through an upscaler like the Open Source Scan Converter); it even has stereo audio. When you consider that many modders charge quite a bit to add RGB-out to existing PC Engines, the relatively high cost of this unit is easier to stomach – even more so when you add up the combined cost of buying items like Super CD-ROM² drives, Arcade Cards and (of course) the games themselves. $290 / £210 / €240 sounds pretty appealing.
Like the NeoSD, the Super SD System 3 comes with a lovely front-end which is easy to navigate and pretty to look at. To access the menu you have to hold down Start when booting up the system; you can then toggle between HuCard games and CD-based titles. Load times are short and we didn't encounter any issues with the titles we tried; everything runs like a dream without the headache of failing CD drives or the need to plug in several different pieces of hardware to get everything working. You just drag-and-drop ROMs and ISOs onto a MicroSD card, load it up and the Super SD System 3 does all the rest.
Of course, it's necessary to leave your morals at the door when you're using a device like this; downloading ROMs and ISOs is an infringement of copyright, and by doing so you're not supporting the companies that made these games possible in the first place. Given the age of the PC Engine it's to be expected that there are a great many games which are no longer in active circulation, and the studios and publishers behind them have long since passed into memory. ROMs are, for many people, the only realistic means they have of experiencing these past classics.
However, titles like Dracula-X: Rondo of Blood, Bonk's Adventure and Soldier Blade have been re-released on several different platforms, giving you the chance to legally own them. We're not going to lay down any guilt-trips here – if legal avenues exist which allow you to support content-makers, then you should take them – but we're also not going to pretend that the world of ROM distribution doesn't exist, and that it doesn't provide a valid means of keeping the past alive. Given that both CD and HuCard formats have a limited lifespan – not to mention that CD drives will eventually burn out and become useless – devices like the Super SD System 3 represent a vital lifeline to gaming's history.
If you're interested in the PC Engine then you'll no doubt be reaching for your wallet as we speak, but there are few caveats to mention here. Shortly after launch, a fault with the Super SD System 3's RGB output was spotted, and production was halted while Terraonion addressed the issue. More recently, it has been discovered that the AC coupling cap for composite video is the wrong way around, which could have the potential to cause failure. It's unlikely that this problem would result in anything serious, and, as one electronics expert on Neo-Geo.com by the name of Voultar points out:
Now, is this going to burn down your house? Probably not. Is it going to catch fire? More than likely not. Will composite video performance suffer? Sure it will, and that's very measurable. You're going to have a steady voltage error in your coupling component (capacitor). How much will your picture quality suffer? That's hard to say. The clamping element of your Television [or] Scaler will be what determines how well the DC "drift" is handled. It may also impact how well TV's, BVM's and Scalers slice or "lock" onto the sync signal, if you're syncing on composite video. But it's not a huge god damned deal. Just reverse the thing, if you can. Or if you don't have any intention of using composite video, p*** on it. It will do you zero harm. It's not the end of the world, boiz. Absolutely definitely isn't a reason to do a unit recall. That would be f****** ridiculous.
It's worth stressing that this only impacts people using the AV port for composite video (or leads which use composite for sync), which is likely to be a small percentage of users. Most will opt for the superior RGB – we used a Retro Gaming Cables Mega Drive Mk2 RGB SCART lead and didn't encounter any problems. Terraonion is amending the spec moving forward but at the time of writing a recall for existing units is unlikely; however, if you have even the most limited soldering skills it's easy enough to remove the capacitor in question, turn it the right away around the re-solder. If you're thinking of making a purchase then you might want to make sure you're getting the revised version which fixes this issue.
Niggles aside, the Super SD System 3 is a remarkable piece of kit which grants complete access to the entire PC Engine library. Granted, the price of entry is high, but compared to what it would normally cost for you to amass the required hardware and software, it's a drop in the ocean. If you've always wanted to learn more about Nintendo's biggest rival in Japan during the Famicom era, then this system is the best place to start; loose white PC Engine consoles can be picked up online relatively cheaply, making the Super SD System 3 itself your only large investment on the route to HuCard and CD-ROM² heaven.