The year 1989 is a historical time in gaming history. After all, it is the year when Sega released the Sega Genesis, Nintendo came out with the Game Boy and Mother (Earthbound Zero), Mattel spawned the Power Glove (it’s so bad) and Mega Man 2 was brought over to the United States. However, there is one hero whose legend goes untold outside of the inner retro gamer circles. A console whose release was perhaps ahead of its time… the TurboGrafx-16.
Originally released in 1987 as the PC Engine by NEC Home Electronics (NEC), the console was a major contender in the East. But while it had been a major success in its home country, the console wasn’t quite as successful in the West. Alas, the system bombed horribly in North America as gamers were hesitant to believe NEC would properly compete with the titans of gaming, Nintendo and Sega along with their future releases (couple with multiple other factors). However, those who know the story of the TurboGrafx-16 will tell you that this failed console helped shape gaming history forever…
Indeed, the impact felt by the release of the PC Engine can still be felt today as any gamer who looks fondly at their Super Nintendo game collection can thank it for its release. It was the year 1987 and Hudson Soft (HS) wanted to release their own console. NEC Home Electronics feeling jealous of the success Nintendo and Sega were enjoying felt the same way. These two companies would eventually find each other, and marry in order to birth the TurboGrafx-16. Utilizing the latest in gaming technology (nearly on par with then current arcade games) and prepping the launch with a sleuth of solid titles the PCE was a born winner. By Securing support from other major software developers, and utilizing a sleek/modern aesthetic for their console meant the PC Engine became a major player in the console market in Japan right off the bat.
From there it was nothing, but the stars for the system in its home country of Japan, where the companies started eyeing the United States market as its next target. Yet, if the PCE had all of this going for it, how was it that the system launch botched so horribly in the United States? Additionally, how can a system enjoy this monumental success in Japan and still be the last proper console by NEC (it had a rushed successor in the form of the SuperGrafx)? For starters, the marketing for the TG16 campaign in the U.S. was mishandled from the start. The Sega Genesis had just been released a few weeks prior to August 28, and 1989 was also one of the years in which the console wars were at their worst. Sega and Nintendo willingly ran smear campaigns against one another and a rather nasty one was being held against the TG16. Furthermore, the advertisements by NEC America for the TurboGrafx-16 were aiming directly at competing with the Nintendo Entertainment System and not the Sega Genesis which left the field open for fire from them.
Sega wasted no time in securing the market and by bundling the Genesis with Altered Beast (a well established arcade title) dominated the field; thereby destroying any hopes of a successful American launch for the TG16. The disastrous launch in the U.S. meant a European release would nearly be halted as NEC decided against it. Thankfully, the system was launched by a secondary company called Telegames. But still the damage was done and what could NEC do in the face of this adversity? Obviously, the answer was to create a secondary add-on which gave the TG16 the capability of reading CD games. In came the CD-ROM² System, an add-on that allows the PC Engine to read gaming discs similar to the Sega CD. By creating this system it made the PCE the first system capable of utilizing discs for games (which eventually became a staple in gaming). Incidentally, the CD-ROM² System add-on was released in the U.S. as the TurboGrafx-CD, but did not change the opinion of gamers in the West about the system. Yet, CDs weren’t the only way in which the TG16 shaped gaming history as Nintendo actually owes a great deal to the creation of the PC Engine.
Few gamers will argue the impact Nintendo continues to have in the world of videogames. Fewer still, will argue about the success of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System during the ’90s. The SNES is still held in high regard by many gamers and is one of the crown jewels in Nintendo history thanks to its massive library of games and groundbreaking graphics (for the era). But, did you know that the development of the SNES started around the time the PC Engine was at its peak? In-fact, some videogame historians claim the development of the SNES was actually jump started by the 16-bit Graphics Processing Unit capabilities of the PC Engine. Nintendo lost serious dominance in their home country thanks to the PC Engine and they had to act quickly, it was thanks to NEC and Hudson Soft, Japan welcomed the SNES in the ’90s. But was the PC Engine as powerful as it claimed to be? Was it truly the 16-bit console that it claimed it was, or was it perhaps something different?
The TurboGrafx-16 was actually not a true 16-bit console, but at the same time the aforementioned statement isn’t true. While the console did have two 16-bit GPU chips, the Core Processing Unit was actually an 8-bit one. The HuC6280 CPU could clock at nearly twice the rate as the SNES CPU with 7.16Mhz. Meanwhile, the two GPUs were conjoined, and while not as capable of displaying multiple backgrounds, it did have the capability to pack numerous sprites within each screen without significant overloads of the processors. This meant that games could have multiple enemies and moving parts at the same time, and still not suffer from drops in the frame rate.
But all of these positives wouldn’t help the TurboGrafx-16 survive the scrutiny from the western markets. As NEC continued to put money toward trying to salvage their console it only managed to put itself at a continuous disadvantage. Eventually the console all but disappeared from the market and was only spoken about by those who were knowledgeable in retro gaming. But Nintendo did everyone a solid a started releasing titles for the TG-16 in the Virtual Console for the Wii. Suddenly, a batch of curious retrogamers (myself included) were exposed to the little console that didn’t in the U.S. and discovered what we missed out on back in 1989. It’s true that the console failed to win any battles back when it released 28 years ago… however, that doesn’t demean the impact it had the history of gaming. It might have flopped horribly back then, but these days it’s seen in a much different lights. The PC Engine was the home of Bomberman and Bonk, which gamers recognize as that big headed caveman from the SNES game. If NEC had not released the PC Engine then perhaps Nintendo wouldn’t have made the SNES when it did and who knows where we would be today.