Consoles Sold 5 million
The PC Engine is a video game console first released in Japan by NEC on October 30, 1987. The system was released in late August, 1989 as TurboGrafx-16 for the North American market. A PAL version of the system also saw a very limited release in the UK and continental Europe in 1990 as "Turbografx" (not including the "16" in the title, and uncapitalized "g" in "grafx").
The TurboGrafx-16 was an eight-bit system with a 16-bit graphics chip, capable of displaying 482 colors at once.
The PC Engine was a collaborative effort between Japanese software maker Hudson Soft (which maintains a chip-making division) and NEC. Hudson was looking for financial backing for a game console they had designed, and NEC was looking to get into the lucrative game market. The PC Engine was and is a very small video game console, due primarily to a very efficient three-chip architecture and its use of HuCards, credit-card sized data cartridges. "HuCard" (Hudson Card; also referred to as "TurboChip" in North America) was derived from Hudson Soft. The cards were the size of a credit card (but slightly thicker) and thus were somewhat similar to the card format used by the Sega Master System for budget games. Unlike the Sega Master System (which also supported cartridges), however, the TurboGrafx-16 used HuCards exclusively. TG-16 featured an enhanced MOS Technology 65C02 processor and a custom 16-bit graphics processor, as well as a custom video encoder chip, all designed by Hudson. The HES logo found on the manual of every Japanese game stood for "Hudson Entertainment System".
It was the first console to have an optional CD module, allowing the standard benefits of the CD medium: 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 was extremely popular in Japan, beating Nintendo's Famicom in sales soon after its release, with no fewer than twelve systems released from 1987 to 1993. It was capable of up to 482 colors at once in several resolutions, and featured very robust sprite handling abilities. The Hudson-designed chroma encoder delivered a video signal more vibrant and colourful than both the Famicom and the Sega Mega Drive/Sega Genesis and is largely regarded as the equal to Nintendo's Super Famicom, although that system was not released until 1990.
As graphics technology improved, gamers continued to stick to the PC Engine despite its shortcomings. Erotic games were a key factor in making the PC Engine popular, and this popularity was maintained far past the lifespan of a regular video game console. New games were released for the PC Engine up until 1999.
Despite the system's 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; many Arcade Card games were conversions of popular Neo-Geo titles. The additional memory even allowed the system to display pre-rendered 3D polygon graphics well beyond what the competing Super Famicom and Megadrive/Mega-CD could offer. By this time, however, it was too late -- only a relative handful of Arcade Card games were ever produced, and the expansion was never released in the U.S.
The TurboGrafx-16 was the first video game console in North America to have a CD-ROM peripheral (following the pioneering spirit of the PC-Engine CD-ROM add-on in Japan, although the FM Towns Marty was the first console to have a built-in CD-ROM). The TurboGrafx CD debuted at a prohibitive $399.99 (and did not include a pack-in game). Monster Lair (a.k.a. Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair) and Fighting Street (a.k.a. Street Fighter) were the initial TurboGrafx-CD titles. Ys Book I & II soon followed and was instantly recognized as the "must-have" TurboGrafx-CD game (and continues to be highly regarded today). The TurboGrafx-CD catalog grew at a snail's pace compared to the library of TurboChip (HuCard) titles.
The TurboGrafx-CD came packaged in a very large box, 85% of which was filled with protective styrofoam inserts. By some accounts, no other video game console (or peripheral) has been packaged in such an overkill manner. To be fair, though, the TurboGrafx-CD did come with a large plastic "carrying case" that could comfortably hold the TurboGrafx-16 base system, TurboGrafx-CD, all AC adapters, 2–3 controllers, and a few games.
Although the TurboGrafx-CD library was relatively small, North Americans could draw from a wide range of Japanese software since there was no region protection on TG-CD / PC Engine CD-ROM software. Many mail order (and some brick-and-mortar) import stores advertised Japanese PCE CD and HuCard titles in the video game publications of the era.
NOTE: 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. 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 Cards (for playing Arcade CD titles) were never released in North America.
Rivalry with Nintendo and Sega
In North America, the TurboGrafx-16 was first released in late August of 1989, in New York and Los Angeles. Initially, the TurboGrafx was marketed as a direct competitor to the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) and early television ads touted TG-16's superior graphics and sound. These early television ads featured a brief montage of TG-16's launch titles: Blazing Lazers, China Warrior, Vigilante, Alien Crush, etc. Of course, 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 (Note: the launch dates can be confusing. Part of the confusion, perhaps, lies in the fact that both TG-16 and the Genesis were first test-marketed in New York and Los Angeles, then given national launches. However, it is known that the Genesis' initial test-launch occurred two weeks prior to TG-16's). 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 limited hardware. The Genesis only came with 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, in addition to the necessary extra controllers, the Turbo Tap (an accessory which permitted five controllers to be plugged into the system). Another problem in the battle against the Genesis were the pack-in games (game included with purchase): The Genesis originally came with the impressive arcade translation of Altered Beast (1989), which included big, bold sprites and colors as well as impressive digital sound effects. 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 later did for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System [SNES]).
The Genesis' Japanese counterpart, the Sega Mega Drive, was less popular than the NEC console, the PC Engine. In North America, however, the situation was reversed, and the Genesis is mainly remembered there for its rivalry with the Super Nintendo, not with the TurboGrafx-16.
Both Sega and NEC released CD peripherals (Mega-CD versus Turbo CD), color handhelds (Sega Game Gear versus TurboExpress), and even "TV Tuners" for their respective handheld systems. While Sega outperformed NEC in North America, both companies' peripherals and handhelds were not terribly popular overall.
In 1994, comic book-like ads featuring Johnny Turbo were published by TTi. The ads mocked Sega, in particular the Mega-CD. By this point it was too little too late, 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.
Ironically, many TurboGrafx-16 games are currently planned to be available with the "Virtual Console" option for Nintendo's upcoming console: Wii.
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. Nintendo at the time had engaged in anti-competitive practices that were later ruled illegal, such as enforcing exclusive contracts and punishing developers who developed for more than one system with "chip shortages" around the holiday seasons. As a result of this practice, 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 were more popular, and yet it could not become more popular because only a handful of North American publishers would support it. Accordingly, most of the games published for the TG-16 were produced by NEC and Hudson Soft.
The TurboGrafx-16 was originally marketed by NEC Home Electronics based in Wood Dale, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. As the system's popularity tanked, the platform was handed over to a new company called Turbo Technologies Incorporated (TTI), based in Los Angeles. This company was comprised 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.
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 and more diverse 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 failed miserably.
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). 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.
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 steep 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 innovative and 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 Japanese games, such as Demon Castle Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys, Far East of Eden 2 and Snatcher, never made it to North American shelves.
In the handheld market, the TurboExpress further suffered from short battery life, a hefty price tag, and a large number of units that were missing pixels in their displays (due mainly to the fact that TFT LCD manufacturing technology was still in its infancy at the time).
Today, the TurboGrafx-16 is mainly known for its much-vaunted shoot 'em ups, its competition with the Sega Genesis, advertising flop Johnny Turbo, and the Bonk games. After the system died, NEC decided to concentrate on the Japanese market, where it had 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 Sega 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/Sega Mega Drive 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, Gate of Thunder, Soldier Blade, Super Star Soldier, Star Parodia (Japan). The most famous North American shooter is probably Blazing Lazers (Gunhead in Japan) and was featured in all of the early television ads.
After the demise of TTi, Turbo Zone Direct (TZD), mail-order company, became the de facto source for new TG-16 / Duo hardware, accessories and software.
The brief "Johnny Turbo" series of advertisements have become part of gaming's pop culture. Many folks without direct experience with TG-16 consoles or its games have heard of the infamous "Johnny Turbo".
Many PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 games will be available for download on Wii's Virtual Console download service, according to Nintendo's president Satoru Iwata. Not all games will be available; only some titles (mostly a "best hits" approach) will be selected. The number of games selected is still unknown.