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The PC Engine was a collaborative effort between the relatively young Hudson Soft (founded in 1973) and NEC. NEC’s interest in entering the lucrative video game market coincided with Hudson’s failed attempt to sell designs for then-advanced graphics chips to Nintendo, similar to Nintendo’s later rejection of Sony’s designs for a Super Famicom CD attachment which evolved into the PlayStation.
The PC Engine is a very small video game console, due primarily to a very efficient three-chip architecture and its use of “HuCards” (Hudson Card; also referred to as “TurboChip” in North America and based on the BeeCard technology Hudson piloted on the MSX). The cards were about the size of a credit card (though slightly thicker), similar to the card format used by the Sega Master System for budget games. However, unlike the Sega Master System (which also supported cartridges), the TurboGrafx-16 used HuCards exclusively. TG-16 featured an enhanced MOS Technology 65SC02 processor (dubbed the HuC6280 by Hudson) and a custom 16-bit graphics processor, as well as a custom video color encoder chip, all designed by Hudson. The ‘HE System’ logo found on the manual of every Japanese game stood for “Hudson Entertainment System”.
The TurboGrafx-16 was the first console to have an optional CD module, allowing the standard benefits of the CD medium such as more storage, cheaper media costs, and redbook audio. The efficient design, backing of many of Japan’s major software producers, and the additional CD ROM capabilities gave the PC Engine a very wide variety of software, with several hundred games for both the HuCard and CD formats.
The PC Engine initially performed well in Japan, beating Nintendo’s Famicom in sales soon after its release, with no fewer than twelve console models released from 1987 to 1993. Despite the system’s early success, it started to lose ground to the Super Famicom. NEC made one final effort to resuscitate the system with the release of the Arcade Card expansion, bringing the total amount of RAM up to a then-massive 2048K. Some Arcade Card games were conversions of popular Neo Geo titles. The expansion was never released in North America.
New games were released for the PC Engine up until 1999.
With HuCards, a limited form of region protection was introduced between markets which for the most part was nothing more than running the HuCard’s pinout connections in a different arrangement. There were two major after-market converters sold to address this problem, and both were sold predominantly for use in converting Japanese titles for play on a TG-16. In the Asian market, NEC went an extra step of adding a hardware level detection function to all PC-Engine systems that detected if a game was a U.S. release, and would then refuse to play it. The only known exception to this is the U.S. release of Klax which did not contain this flag.
The explanation commonly given for this by NEC officials is that most U.S. conversions had been skill level reduced, and in some cases censored for what was considered inappropriate content. Because of that, they did not want the U.S. conversion to re-enter the Asian market and negatively impact the perception of a game. The poster child for censorship in this fashion was Kato-chan and Ken-chan released as J.J. & Jeff in the U.S. With some minor soldering skills, a change could be made to PC-Engines to disable this check.
The only Japanese games that could not be played on a U.S. system using one of these converters were the SuperGrafx titles which also required additional system hardware to run.
The first converter to market was an Asian-developed module labeled the Game Converter and marked with a model number of WH-301. The second converter, named the “Kisado”, was created and initially sold by David Shadoff to members of the Turbo Mailing-List in pre-ordered batches before later being offered through on-line retailers.
For CD games, it was an entirely different situation. While there was no region-protection on CD games, there were several different CD formats: CD, Super CD (SCD) and, later, Arcade CD (ACD). TurboGrafx-CD, equipped with the original System Card (version 2.01), could play all Japanese and North American CD games. A TurboGrafx-CD, equipped with the updated Super System Card (version 3.01), could play all Japanese and North American SCD and CD format games. The Arcade System Card (for playing Arcade CD titles) had two versions, Pro and Duo.
The Arcade Card Pro was specifically for pre-Duo systems although it was compatible with all PC-Engine systems (including the SuperGrafx), it included both the SuperCD operating system and the extra memory found in the Duo systems. The Arcade Card Duo worked with Duo based systems exclusively as it featured only the Arcade enhancments. This allowed the Duo card to be sold at a lower price. All Japanese released system cards worked in U.S. systems with the use of a HuCard converter.
Rivalry with Nintendo and Sega
In North America, the TurboGrafx-16 was first released in late August 1989, in New York and Los Angeles. Initially, the TurboGrafx-16 was marketed as a direct competitor to the NES and early television ads touted the TG-16’s superior graphics and sound. These early television ads featured a brief montage of the TG-16’s launch titles: Blazing Lazers, China Warrior, Vigilante, Alien Crush, etc. The TG-16 was also in direct competition with the Sega Genesis, which had had its own New York/Los Angeles test-market launch two weeks prior, on August 14. The Genesis launch was accompanied by an ad campaign mocking NEC’s claim that the TurboGrafx-16 was the first 16-bit console.
Another problem for the TG-16 was its relatively limited hardware. The Genesis came with only one controller, but it provided a port for a second; the TG-16 only had one controller port. Players who wanted to take advantage of the simultaneous multiplayer modes in their games were required to buy the Turbo Tap (a multitap accessory which permitted five controllers to be plugged into the system), in addition to the necessary extra controllers. The Genesis also benefited from a pack-in game bundle that included an impressive translation of the arcade game Altered Beast (1989), which included big, bold sprites and colors as well as digital sound effects. In contrast, the TG-16’s initial pack-in game was Keith Courage in Alpha Zones (1989), a modest action platform game that did not show off the capabilities of the TG-16 in nearly the same way Altered Beast did for the Genesis (or Super Mario World for the later SNES).
In Japan the PC Engine outsold Sega’s console. In North America and Europe the situation was reversed, with both Sega and Nintendo dominating the console market at the expense of NEC. Both Sega and NEC released CD peripherals (Sega CD versus Turbo CD), color handhelds (Sega Game Gear versus TurboExpress), and even “TV tuners” for their respective handheld systems.
In 1992, comic book-like ads featuring Johnny Turbo were published by TTi. The ads mocked Sega, in particular the Sega CD. However, by this point the TG-16 had been defeated by the Genesis in the marketplace, which was by then dominated by the battle between the Genesis and the Super Nintendo.
Despite this former rivalry, many TurboGrafx-16 games are currently available via Nintendo’s Virtual Console service.
Limitations in the 16-bit era
Although touted and marketed at the time as a next generation “16-bit” console, the TurboGrafx-16 was, in fact, built around an 8-bit microprocessor as its CPU. While its CPU was of the previous 8-bit generation, the overall speed of the hardware was somewhat comparable to contemporary 16-bit machines. Sometimes criticized as an inaccurate gauge of overall speed, NEC touted the TurboGrafx-16 as having a higher MIPS rating than both the Genesis and Super NES. While true, drawing direct comparisons between the TurboGrafx-16, Genesis, and Super NES CPUs is difficult due to differences in architecture, bit bandwidth, speed measurements in MHz/MIPS, and the way those measurements are related to overall speed due to said architectural differences. Any attempt to make direct comparisons should generally be considered highly dubious. The reality was that there were many things the Genesis and Super NES CPUs did better from a programming standpoint than the TurboGrafx-16 CPU and vice versa. NEC’s marketing department played on the fact that the TurboGrafx-16 was designed with a dual 16-bit graphics chipset, and chose to view it as a hybrid system. This proved to be a bit of a marketing gaffe, and backfired on NEC in the North American market somewhat as more and more people learned the TurboGrafx-16 was, in reality, an 8-bit system.
The TurboGrafx-16 featured a 16-bit custom video color encoder chip, 16-bit video display controller, and an 8-bit CPU with an integrated custom programmable sound generator. This three chip architecture allowed for larger and more numerous sprites, an expanded color palette, more onscreen colors, and improved sound capabilities compared to other systems available in the 8-bit console market when it launched. In many ways this made it comparable to other systems in the 16-bit market. Yet still, it was hindered in that it lacked hardware support for more than a single layer of background scrolling, whereas its 16-bit competition at the time heavily featured multiple plane parallax scrolling. This forced developers to code routines to simulate multiple background layers in software, or in some cases, make due with the single plane. NEC attempted to remedy this problem in the SuperGrafx by including an additional video display controller that allowed it to not only draw multiple plane backgrounds in hardware, but multiple sprite planes as well. Another area the TurboGrafx-16 had a notable disadvantage was in the amount of work RAM the system had. While the Genesis and Super NES featured 64KB and 128KB of work RAM respectively, the TurboGrafx-16 had only 8KB available for HuCard games. This meant that there was less RAM available for temporary storage of variables and decompressed graphic data. As a result, self modifying code and/or code featuring storage of a numerous amount of variables was largely ruled out, and almost all decompression of graphic data needed to be done in real time, rather than stored in RAM. The SuperGrafx was given additional work RAM for a total of 32KB. TurboGrafx CD-ROM games used the greatly expanded RAM capacity that was inherent to the hardware, and largely avoided most problems with RAM limitations.
In order to reach a low price point in the market, the original TurboGrafx-16 and PC-Engine systems only supported RF modulation for (monaural) audio/video and required an optional expansion add-on for anything more (the competition by comparison had built-in support for stereo audio, with composite video as well as s-video and RGB output). Later models of the TurboGrafx-16 did eventually provide built-in support for better audio/video capabilities without additional hardware.
Struggles in North America
Initially, the TurboGrafx-16 sold well in North America, but it generally suffered from a lack of support from third-party software developers and publishers. One reason for this was that many larger software companies such as Konami supported the PC Engine in Japan, but also produced games for Nintendo. Due to their exclusivity practises, many developers were compelled to pick the immensely popular NES over the upstart NEC console, resulting in a catch-22 for the TurboGrafx-16: most developers would only consider taking a risk on the TG-16 if it became more popular, and yet it could not accomplish this because only a handful of North American publishers would support it. As a result, most of the games published for the TG-16 were produced by NEC and Hudson Soft.
Another reason for the TG-16’s lack of success in North America was the system’s marketing. NEC of Japan’s marketing campaign for the PC Engine was mainly targeted to the largest metropolitan areas in the country. This proved to be quite successful there, but when the same kind of marketing was used in the much larger North American market, it resulted in a lack of public awareness outside of the big cities. The TG-16 ended up being far more competitive and popular in certain local markets such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, while in smaller and more spread-out areas, it garnered less success.
The TurboGrafx-16 was originally marketed in North America by NEC Home Electronics based in Wood Dale, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. As the system’s popularity fell, the platform was handed over to a new company called Turbo Technologies Incorporated (TTI), based in Los Angeles, California. This company was composed mainly of former NEC Home Electronics and Hudson Soft employees, and it essentially took over all marketing and first-party software development for the struggling system.
By 1991, the Sega Genesis had clearly surpassed the TurboGrafx-16, putting NEC’s console in a distant fourth place in the video game market (Nintendo held the #2 and #3 places with the brand new SNES and the aging but still potent NES respectively). NEC, who was relatively new to the market, had an increasingly difficult time convincing consumers who already owned a Sega or Nintendo system to give the TG-16 a try. This may have been in part to the somewhat fractured brand identity of the various systems: in a mascot-heavy era of gaming, the TurboGrafx-16 was represented by Bonk, while the TurboDuo carried on its box a graphic of Air Zonk. Meanwhile, advertising comic books were inserted into copies of various gaming magazines, featuring characters such as the alter-ego of game developer Jonathan C. Brandstetter: Johnny Turbo.
Compounding the problem was that the vast majority of the titles that made the system so successful in Japan were produced for the CD-ROM add-on. In the American market, this add-on was difficult to find outside of large cities, and it was widely considered to be overpriced (debuting at nearly $400). TTI tried to address this issue by releasing a combination system called the TurboDuo, as well as dropping the price of the CD add-on to around $150. Unfortunately, at $300, the cost of the TurboDuo was still too high for most American consumers, even when NEC took the bold step of including seven pack-in titles and a coupon book with the system. Despite all these efforts, the company failed to attract much of a mainstream audience.
Many of the CD games for the Turbo platform were well-received, but the cost of the add-on system was a strong deterrent to buyers, especially when the competition sold for considerably less. Some of the most popular Japanese releases, such as Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys, Tengai Makyo II: Manjimaru and Snatcher, never made it to North American shelves (though the PC Engine version of Snatcher was converted over to the Sega CD in North America, Europe & Australia, but never was released in Japan. Castlevania: Rondo of Blood was later released in North America and Europe as Castlevania Dracula X for the Super Nintendo, but the game suffered alterations. The game was also released years later on the Wii Virtual Console and fully translated as part of the Dracula X Chronicles on PSP).
TG-16 on TV
During TG-16’s 1989 launch, short TV ads appeared across North America. This advertising campaign would expand and become more extensive in 1990, with NEC promoting Bonk as the next big thing in video games.
In addition to the advertising in 1990, TG-16, TG-CD, and TurboExpress were briefly covered on PBS’ Computer Chronicles (two episodes, including “Battle of the Consoles”). Later, when the TurboDuo was launched, it was featured in an episode on “CD-ROM and multimedia software”.
Also, Video Power, a video game show (live action gameshow with The Power Team cartoon) syndicated throughout the USA in the early 1990s, featured footage from video games at the end of many episodes. Blazing Lazers, Legendary Axe (and perhaps other titles) made it into two episodes. Video Power rarely featured TG-16 games (focusing on NES and Genesis, instead). In addition, the Nickelodeon game show Nick Arcade featured several TG-16 games in the Video Challenge portion of the show.
Today, the TurboGrafx-16 is mainly known for its much-vaunted shoot ‘em ups and the Ys & Bonk games. After the system died, NEC decided to concentrate on the Japanese market, where it has had much more success.
In 1994, NEC released a new console, the Japan-only PC-FX, a 32-bit system with a tower-like design; it enjoyed a small but steady stream of games until 1998, when NEC finally abandoned the video games industry. NEC would then partner with former rival Sega, providing a version of its PowerVR 2 Chipset for the Dreamcast.
There is a niche collector’s market for TurboGrafx games and Japanese imports, mainly centered around the system’s many arcade ports of shooters. Spurring this interest is the fact that Turbo ports from the arcade tended to be closer to the original than Sega Genesis, Super NES, or NES versions, in terms of graphics and sound. Hudson Soft also released some shooters which were exclusive to the Turbo, such as Super Air Zonk: Rockabilly-Paradise, Gate of Thunder, Soldier Blade, Super Star Soldier, and Star Parodia (Japan). The most famous North American shooter is probably Blazing Lazers (Gunhed in Japan) and was featured in all of the early television ads.
Several PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 games are available for download on Nintendo’s Virtual Console download service. More games among the “greatest hits” of the system are planned to be released at as-of-yet undetermined times; the exact number or titles of games selected for future release is still unknown. Since then several TG-16 games became available on the Virtual Console that were originally never released in America for the system.
On October 15, 2007, the game Gate of Thunder was released on the Virtual Console in North America, marking the first TurboGrafx-CD game to be released on the North American Virtual Console.
As of July 15, 2009 four PC-Engine games have been released on the Japanese PlayStation Network for play on the PlayStation 3 and PSP. The four games are Bomberman ’94, New Adventure Island, Sengoku Mahjong, and Devil’s Crush. The price for all four has been set at 600 Yen. Since then more games have been released on PSN.
At the 2011 GDC, Nintendo announced that TurboGrafx 16 and Game Gear games would be available for the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console.
- PC Engine Duo (1991)
- Combination PC Engine + CD ROM system + System 3.0 card, dark grey, has a CD door lock and headphone port
- PC Engine Duo R (1993)
- Same as the Duo, but white/beige with a more streamlined case style, and lacks the lock and headphone port.
- PC Engine Duo RX (1994)
- Same as the Duo R, slightly blue in colour. The only PCE packaged with a six-button pad.
- X1 Twin
- Combination of Sharp X1 computer and PC Engine. Only played HuCards. An add-on card was available to provide PC-FX compatibility.
- Pioneer LaserActive
- Pioneer + NEC released a Laserdisc player with video game modules. One module allowed the use of PC Engine games (HuCard, CD-ROM2 and Super CD) as well as “LD-ROM2” titles released on laserdisc that only worked on this setup.
- A computer (RGB) monitor with PCE hardware pre-installed internally.
- A modem was developed but never released (some working prototypes are in circulation, though).
- A SCSI interface for the Duo CD-ROM drive to be used by a PC existed in prototype form only. (it was featured in a TTi-published TurboGrafx-16 oriented magazine in the US and Computer Chronicles #1043)
All PC Engine systems support the same controller peripherals, including pads, joysticks and multitaps. Except for the Vistar, Shuttle, GT, and systems with built-in CD-ROM drives, all PC Engine units shared the same expansion connector, which allowed for the use of devices such as the CD-ROM unit, game saves and AV output. See the External Links (bottom) for details on this connector.
The TurboGrafx and Vistar units use a different controller port than the PC Engines, but adaptors are available and the protocol is the same. The TurboGrafx offers the same expansion connector pinout as the PC Engine, but has a slightly different shape so peripherals must be modified to fit.
The Super System Card provides 192 kB of RAM, supplementing the built in 64K of DRAM found in the CD interface tray. The PC-Engine Duo/R/RX consoles have the Super System Card’s 192 KB of RAM plus the 64K of standard RAM and v3.00 BIOS software built in, and can play both CD-ROM² and Super CD-ROM² games without using any additional cards.
The Arcade Card Pro is designed for the original PC-Engine CD-ROM² and Super CD-ROM² peripherals, adding the 2304 KB of RAM required by Arcade CD-ROM² games. It could, of course, also play standard CD-ROM² and Super CD-ROM² games.
The Arcade Card Duo is for the PC-Engine Duo/R/RX consoles and adds 2048 KB RAM. Because the PC-Engine Duo series of systems have 256K of RAM built-in, this does not need to be provided and is why the Arcade Card Duo contained less RAM and was less expensive than the Pro version.
Note: Because the aforementioned consoles use the same BIOS revision as the Arcade Card Pro, it is not known (as a cost-saving measure) if the Arcade Card Duo includes the BIOS software itself, or if the existing built-in BIOS is used.
The various CD-ROM game types are:
- CD-ROM² (pronounced CD-ROM-ROM) : Standard CD-ROM game.
- Super CD-ROM² : Requires a compatible system or upgrade card.
- Arcade CD-ROM² : Requires an upgrade card.
While the standard CD-ROM² and Super CD-ROM² had RAM for data storage which was accessed directly, the Arcade CD-ROM² cards accessed the RAM in a slightly different way.
Both the Pro and Duo versions of the Arcade Card worked in the same way. Just as with the Super CD-ROM², up to 256 KB of the RAM was able to be accessed directly by the CPU. The other 2048 KB was accessed indirectly by four indirect self incrementing/decrementing address registers. These registers were mapped into memory hardware bank and also mapped into 4 special memory banks. Reading and writing sequential data was speed up and reduced cycle cost due to these new registers. This meant *far* data could be accessed with these four registers without having to map banks of memory into the CPU’s logical address range, and could be transferred to VRAM ports faster and easier, as is evidenced by the many conversions of well-animated Neo Geo fighting games to the Arcade CD-ROM². The Arcade card was known to have existed in working prototype form as early as mid ’92 from looking at (non public) source code files to Art of Fighting ACD port.
One technique that was used by games pre-dating the Arcade Card upgrade was to store graphics data in the 64K audio RAM (used for ADPCM samples) that was present. This RAM could be directly populated by the CD-ROM hardware (it had a direct DMA channel from the CD controller) without CPU intervention, and the memory could be accessed in an indirect fashion, similar to the Arcade Card but at a much-much slower interface, allowing data stored in it to appear as a 64 KB stream of linear data that could be easily transferred to the system RAM.
NEC also manufactured a very large line of personal computers, one of which featured a single-speed CD ROM drive identical to the PC Engine version. They were designed to be interchangeable, which is why the PC Engine’s IFU-30 CD ROM interface could be purchased without a CD ROM drive.
NEC developed a prototype adaptor that connected a PC through the HuCard slot, allowing the PC to control the PC Engine’s CD ROM as it would any normal SCSI drive. Due to falling CD drive prices and the increasing undesirability of a single-speed SCSI drive, it was never released. It was however previewed in NEC’s official US TurboDuo magazine.
The Pioneer LaserActive was a laserdisc player with an expansion bay. One of the expansion modules released allowed it to play PC Engine titles (HuCards, CD-ROM2 and Super CD) as well as games released on laserdisc (LD-ROM2) that only worked on this setup. Eleven LD-ROM2 titles were released in Japan, though only three of them were released in North America.
All PC Engine hardware is natively NTSC, including the European version which creates PAL-compatible video with the use of a chroma encoder chip not found in any other system in the series.