In North America, the 16-bit console wars had two clear competitors: The Super Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Genesis. On the playground, we bickered about which system had better games or were more powerful. Or, I guess some did, I don’t recall doing that. I was playing Super Mario World on my SNES and Sonic the Hedgehog on my cousin’s Genesis. Those were halcyon days.
Anyway, it was a different story in Japan, as it was a three-way race between the Super Famicom (the Japanese equivalent to the SNES), the Sega Mega Drive (equivalent to the Genesis), and the NEC PC-Engine. Even stranger, the PC-Engine largely outsold the Mega Drive, year-over-year. Making it the favoured choice for the late 80’s.
This isn’t about the PC-Engine, though, it’s about its North American cousin. Spurred by its success in Japan, NEC was eying up the West as its next conquest. Their American arm went to work testing the market to figure out how best to approach the continent, and came up with what they thought would be a success: the Turbografx-16.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of it.
DO THE MATH
Let’s step back for a moment to take a closer look at the PC-Engine. The console came to fruition after two interested parties, microcomputer manufacturer, Nippon Electric Company (NEC), and Bomberman creator, Hudson Soft, combined forces to try and tackle Nintendo’s Famicom, which was dominating the market at the time with little competition. NEC provided much of the funding, while Hudson Soft was largely in charge of the design and the chips that went into it.
It was an interesting little system for the time. Released in October 1987, it actually managed to supplant the Famicom as the top-selling console for a few years. It was an extremely compact, simple console that took cartridges called Hu-Cards, that were roughly the same size as a credit card, but maybe twice as thick. It ran on an 8-bit CPU but included a 16-bit GPU. What does that mean in the context of the bit war? Well, it means it’s considered an 8-bit console, in contrast to the SNES and the Genesis, which were both 16-bit. This also means that the name Turbografx-16 was a tad dishonest.
When they brought the system stateside, they opted to completely redesign its exterior. The mindset at the time was that Americans like bigger products so they would feel like they’re getting more for their money. This is the same reasoning for why the NES is so much bigger than the Famicom, and, similarly, the Turbografx-16 was more than twice the size of a PC-Engine. They also changed the name, as you might have noticed, because the name PC-Engine still causes confusion to westerners today.
THE CONSOLE WARS
The Turbografx-16 landed in August 1989, nearly two weeks after the release of the Sega Genesis. This would prove to be disastrous. In Japan, the PC-Engine had a full year to gain a foothold in the market before Sega’s console would butt in for a slice of the pie. In the US, it landed near simultaneously as a console that was more powerful, by a company that was better known, and was up against a marketing department that was legendary at the time.
The thud that the system landed with was so severe that it’s difficult to deconstruct the series of events leading to its demise. It was, to boil it down, simply a non-starter. NEC, a bit too optimistic about the console’s hopes, over-produced the system. Sales records are a bit spotty, but it’s stated that it perhaps sold through its stock of 750,000 units by 1991, which is when the Super Nintendo dropped into the market.
Its price dropped precipitously to move stock. By 1991, it was reduced to $99.99, and again in 1992 to $69.99 with the announcement of the TurboDuo, which was a combination unit of the TG-16 and its CD attachment.
Yeah, CD attachment. When the Turbografx-16 launched, it already had a bunch of accessories that you needed to get the most out of it. The most notable is that it only had one controller port, and if you wanted any more players than that, you had to buy an adapter that allowed for five players (yes, five). More vexing for modern gamers like myself, the system only allowed for RF out, and you had to buy yet another adapter for component.
Then in 1990, a scant few months after the release of the TG-16, the TurboGrafx-CD came along, making it the first console to support optical media, as well as one of the first times that CD’s were used to carry video game data. It was ahead of its time, perhaps to the console’s detriment. Not many games were released to take advantage of it, and it was hard for a consumer to justify buying an attachment of questionable value for a system they just bought.
In 1992, NEC and Hudson spun off their North American operations into Turbo Technologies Incorporated to handle the faltering Turbografx. They released the TurboDuo, which as previously mentioned, combined the TG-16 and TG-CD into one unit. It was a desirable little unit, removing the need for some of the accessories, but it was seemingly too little too late. The system was already aging fast, and hadn’t exactly gained much goodwill from consumers.
The TurboDuo also upgraded the CD feature to the Super CD system, which featured more onboard RAM and allowed for more complex games. That was pretty bogus for owners of the previous version of the TG-CD, but they could upgrade their system to Super CD using the Super System 3.0 Card. It was mail order only, so it’s unknown if many users were even aware of the option. On the plus side, it came packaged with 4 games, but what a hassle.
So are you confused yet?
One of the cooler pieces of hardware in the Turbo family was the TurboExpress. It was a handheld system that could fully play any Turbografx-16 game, completely portably with the aid of 6 AA batteries for, like, three hours. If you owned a Sega Nomad or Atari Lynx handheld, this won’t be too shocking, since it was pretty par for the backlit systems of the day. It was sort of expensive, but when it was released 1990, it was absolutely cutting edge.
The sun set on the Turbografx-16 in 1994. Throughout the console’s lifespan, it accumulated a mere 138 games, only 94 were cartridge games, the others were on optical media. To be fair, there are some good games in the collection; some excellent arcade ports, a number of well-regarded scrolling shoot-’em-ups, and some entertaining entries into the Bonk series. I’m particularly fond of Air Zonk.
Regardless, its North American release could only be viewed as a failure. NEC’s PC-Engine, on the other hand, retained its popularity through the release of the PC-Engine Duo. The line was finally discontinued there in 1995, and was replaced by the PC-FX. With the PC-FX, NEC unwisely bet that the future of video games would be FMV games and visual novels. It only sold around 400k units, and that was the last time that NEC ever developed a console.
As for the Turbografx legacy, it was most thought of during the early days of the Wii when its games were being ported to its virtual console service. There were some rumblings of a return of the Bonk series, but that project ended up cancelled. Aside from that, Hudson sadly went bust in 2012, and its licenses were scooped up by Konami.
The Turbografx-16 wasn’t the biggest failure the console market would see, but it was a crushing defeat for NEC and Hudson that had previously seen so much success with the PC-Engine. Collecting for it these days is a hassle. The games for it tend to be pretty pricey compared to more popular systems, like the NES and SNES. If you want to play everything on the console, you may want to get your hands on a TurboDuo, which is also prohibitively expensive. Be careful, though. I’ve bought three TG-16’s; one didn’t work at all, the second had no sound, but the third was fine, so I’m wary of their failure rate.
Even if you do manage to nab one of the consoles, you won’t have a very big pool of games to choose from. You might get better value from importing a PC-Engine from Japan, as they got nearly 5 times as many titles. The PC-Engine was a significant console, if only in Japan. The Turbografx is just another crater in the console landscape.