A Tribute To The PC Engine
I love this console. How successful will its Mini version be?
Nintendo started it all. In November 2016, they took their 30-years-old Entertainment System, turned it on its head, and released the Classic: a working miniature of the original console with 30 built-in games from the vast original library, and a modern software interface which felt right at home in the 21st century. And it flew off the shelves.
A year later, they tried it again with the Super NES. Same formula (driven by the same hardware internals), same great results, especially as far as Nintendo’s finance department is concerned. The systems sold a combined 10 million units by the end of Q2 2018 ¹.
Following this success story, a bunch of other players jumped onto this retro-nostalgic bandwagon hoping for a piece of the pie and with varying degrees of success. How can we forget Sony’s king of the bargain bin PlayStation Classic? A much loved system back in the day which performed very badly in its nostalgic reissue mostly due to a dubious game selection and emulation issues. The latest release in this category is actually from Nintendo’s archenemy from back in the day, Sega, who is trying their hand at a mini Genesis/Mega Drive. However, much has already been written about the Genesis, both in its original form and in its miniaturized version, in the lead-up to its release in mid-September 2019.
Here, I want to take you on a journey of discovery for a far more obscure system, the PC Engine/TurboGrafx, in preparation for its return (in mini-form) in March 2020.
A bit of history
The original PC Engine was released in Japan in 1987 by NEC and Hudson to great success. It was the first console of the 16-bit era in a world dominated by Nintendo and their 8-bit Famicom/NES, which was outselling their closest competitors at a ratio of 3 units to 1 ².
Calling the system “the grandfather of the 16-bit era” is a bit of a misnomer, though, as the hardware was actually driven by an 8-bit CPU as we will see in more detail further on. Regardless, in 1987 its specs looked fantastic, and so did its graphics. By the time it was released in the States in 1989, however, other companies had not only caught up but also surpassed its hardware capabilities. The most prominent of these competitors was Sega, who had released the hardware beast that was the Genesis/Mega Drive just a couple of months before. This made the TurboGrafx — as the PC Engine came to be known stateside — a bit of a niche system outside its native land. The hardware was just not good enough to compete with the Genesis or Nintendo’s Super NES, and the market quickly moved on to these two latter systems.
The 16-bit era console war was fought throughout the ‘90s by the two giants, Nintendo and Sega, with massive marketing budgets and a slew of games to back up their respective claims, leaving the poor PC Engine behind. Nevertheless, the broader success at home ensured high quality games were still made for the system, including fairly accurate and enjoyable ports of arcade blockbusters such as Street Fighter II and Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts.
Before we get on the games, however, let’s talk about the PC Engine’s hardware and physical design especially in the context of weaknesses against its contemporary competitors which undermined the system’s success in the market.
The main hardware drawback of the PC Engine was its CPU, an 8-bit MOS 6502 derivative; it was close in design to Nintendo’s much older NES, although clocked at almost 4x the speed. This shortcoming was somewhat redeemed by flanking the main processor with reasonably powerful 16-bit custom graphic chips capable of displaying up to 482 colors on screen (out of a palette of 512). On the sound front, chirpy chip tunes were provided by a decent sound system integrated in the CPU itself ³, effectively producing sound and music which were on par with the console’s main competitors.
In contrast, both the Genesis and the Super NES employed real 16-bit architectures, each with their own way to ensure graceful aging: the Sega system offering an overpowered hardware from the get go, while Nintendo allowed hardware enhancements to be built right into the cartridges.
The other major drawback of the system is less to do with hardware power and more to do with UX. The console came with a single gamepad port, where all of its competitors offered two out of the box. In order to play games with your friends, you had to get a multitap accessory which — although allowing support for up to 5 players — was just an annoying extra expense for anybody looking for a quick Street Fighter II duel. The number of face buttons on the controllers themselves was also quite scarce: at launch, the PC Engine had a meagre two, whereas the Genesis had three and the SNES four (and an extra two shoulder buttons).
A six button pad was only released much later on in the system’s life, to coincide with the release of Street Fighter II and around the time when Sega also upgraded their controller design to a six button layout.
Despite all these flaws — and thanks to the popularity of the system in Japan — several revisions and enhancements were released throughout the years until the console’s ultimate demise in 1994. Some of these enhancements were revolutionary in their own right, such as the CD-ROM player that was released in late 1988, offering the first instance in history of the gaming experience which would become familiar in the second half of the 1990s and throughout the 2000s.
Although the chassis of the American version was somewhat conservative and in line with the common industrial design of its time, the Japanese original was more innovative and quite daring in its form factor.
Sporting a broadly white and minimalist color scheme, the base console was roughly the size of a stack of four CD jewel cases, making for a very compact system unlike anything else on the market; this was years before Nintendo tried something vaguely similar with their GameCube, and later again with the Wii.
This diminutive size was in part enabled by the physical form factor of the game cartridges. Whereas Nintendo and Sega distributed their games on boxy, chunky hunks of plastic, the folks at NEC/Hudson opted for a slimmer design that was vaguely reminiscent of a standard credit card, if somewhat thicker.
This all contributed to create the look of a futuristic console which would have felt right at home on the piloting deck of a Mech Robot, but still somewhat held back by a less inspired control pad design.
Lacking an exclusive franchise along the lines of Sonic or Mario, the strength of the PC Engine lied mainly in its arcade ports, complemented by a collection of JRPGs which included Ys and Far East of Eden. In fact, the selection of games for the PC Engine Mini is a good representation of what was available for the system, save a couple of glaring omissions (where is Street Fighter II?!).
Here are a few titles taken from the TurboGrafx Mini list, which provide a fair insight in the library of 600-odd titles available for the system.
PC Genjin/Bonk’s Adventure
A fun platformer starring a bald caveman which was slated to become the console’s mascot. It did not happen. This game was eventually ported to other systems of the era, with the protagonist’s name being adapted to its new hosts (PC Genjin being a pun of PC Engine).
Somewhat reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda, this is a top-down action RPG with beautiful graphics that show the capabilities of the system. However, you must really be into dungeon exploration to enjoy this game, as it’s quite repetitive. If that’s not your thing but you still want a solid RPG experience, Ys I/II might be a better choice.
A great example of the great arcade conversions available for this console. Salamander is a classic shoot-em-up that includes both horizontal and vertical scrolling stages. The PC Engine version remains faithful to the original by sporting awesome graphics and captivating sound. It’s damn hard though.
Warning: this game is only available in the European and US versions of the Mini console. The Japanese version includes Far East of Eden instead.
A port of the famous multiplayer battle game. Good graphics and hours of fun guaranteed, especially if playing in groups. Note that a multi-tap is required for group play on the original PC Engine, while the Mini version supports 2 simultaneous players directly (an adapter is still sold separately to allow additional players).
Super Momotarō Dentetsu II
For something out of left field, try this game. It’s a dice-based board game where the main objective is to accumulate wealth in a similar style to Monopoly. An understanding of Japanese is necessary to get anywhere, and up to 5 players are supported.
My own take on the system
It’s no secret that I love the PC Engine. I love its compact design, its simplicity, and its mini game cartridges that are even more compact than the classic GameBoy ones.
Although I never owned the original back in the days, it is a system I always admired throughout the years, mainly because of its imperfections and limitations, straddling the line between 8-bit and 16-bit consoles, as a somewhat poetic instance of wabi-sabi ⁴ in electronics.
My only disappointment in the Mini release is the lack of my favorite game for the system: Doraemon: Meikyū Daisakusen, released in the US under the name of Crater Maze, with different graphics.
The Japanese version sports the popular blue cat from the famous manga / anime franchise going around a maze and collecting his favorite pancakes while setting up booby traps to avoid all sorts of ridiculous enemies. This game is a variation of the popular Kid no Hore Hore Daisakusen for the arcade, also ported to the NES and the Game Boy. The main attraction of this port is of course Doraemon being the hero here.
Will the Mini succeed?
There are many factors coming into play to determine the commercial success of this machine, especially outside Japan as the system was not that popular worldwide.
My expectation is that public reception will mainly be based around the following factors.
It’s easy to emulate the PC Engine, and it’s also easy to find most of its best games on other systems. The console will only be successful if it has a good build quality while faithfully reproducing the original. I have a Nintendo Super Famicom Classic that I bought in Japan and it is excellent in that respect. I don’t play it much, but it’s good to look at.
One of the strengths of the SNES and NES Classic is the system software which presents the game catalog and deals with game saves. This can make or break the system, and I hope Konami’s implementation will follow closely in Nintendo’s footsteps, although I admit the SNES/NES Classic UI has a distinctive Nintendo feel to it.
I don’t expect the system to have the same slowdown/stuttering problems as the PlayStation Classic as the hardware requirements to emulate the PC Engine are much lower. A good execution of the gameplay experience is essential to the success of the console. I don’t foresee any problems in this area.
The games announced for the system are, as I said earlier, a good representation of what was available for the system. However, in the end you only get around 30 unique titles to choose from. Is that enough? Not sure, maybe not.
A unique point about the game library is that all three versions of the console (US, Europe and Japan) will come preloaded with a selection of games that covers all worldwide regions. This means that some Japanese games will be available officially for the first time outside Japan, and vice-versa. Again, this might be a selling point for collectors, though I am not sure about the relevance for a casual player.
In conclusion, yes the PC Engine is a niche system and its broader appeal is somewhat limited, especially outside of Japan. Its MSRP is also quite high at the moment at US$99/GB£99/JP¥11,550, further reducing its potential for mass adoption. Perhaps a drop to a more realistic US$59 would entice more non-Japanese gamers to part with their cash and give it a go.
Having said that, its unique position in history and characteristic physical design might be enough to win over a new generation of fans, or entice a purchase from those who, like me, missed out on the original system back in the days.
Will I buy it? Yes, in a heartbeat. I am going to order the PC Engine version from Amazon Japan, and probably start with the English version of Ys as soon as it arrives, followed by a few rounds of R-Type.
I still wish they included Street Fighter II though.
[ 1 ] — Six Months Financial Results Briefing for Fiscal Year Ending March 2019 — Nintendo [ PDF ]
[ 2 ] — Based on sales figures from Video Game Sales Wiki [ Website ]
[ 3 ] — Specs from NECRetro.ORG — PC Engine [ Website ]
[ 4 ] — Wikipedia — Wabi-Sabi [ Website ]