Prologue

It all began with a challenge. In the mid 1980s, NEC was a semiconductor corporation that manufactured and supplied silicon chips to electronics companies throughout the globe, including the ever popular Nintendo. Nintendo was selling millions of their Famicom system in Japan, as well as in the United States with the American Famicom counterpart, the Nintendo Entertainment System. NEC sat there scratching their heads wondering why Nintendo was making such a huge gain when it was NEC developing the semiconductor technology that made these game systems possible to begin with. In 1987, NEC met with a software developer named Hudson Soft who was well known for such classics as Bomberman, (a title that was massively successful on the NES/Famicom system) and together the two companies developed a working alliance that would last nearly fifteen years, with a mission to dethrone the seemingly invincible Nintendo.

The Dawn of the PC Engine

The defeat of Nintendo was to be an almost impossible task as Nintendo had captured nearly 90% of the gaming market share. The resulting factor of the NEC/Hudson partnership was the 1987 introduction of the PC Engine game system in Japan, a revolutionary 16-Bit war machine that was capable of more sprites, better resolution, and nearly ten times the colors on screen than Nintendo could handle. The PC Engine was an extremely small system with a footprint not too much larger than that of a CD jewel case, and featured an innovative new way of accessing media that NEC and Hudson called “HuCard,” a credit card-style form of media that would take the place of a video game cartridge. By Christmas of 1987 the Japanese market was hot for the PC Engine, and NEC and Hudson Soft were making the waves that they had set out to make hardly even a year before. Nintendo was given a run for its money as the PC Engine quickly grew to rival Nintendo, both technologically and financially. Introduced two years prior to the Sega Genesis (MegaDrive) and nearly five years prior to the introduction of the Super Nintendo (Super Famicom) NEC and Hudson were sitting pretty with a solid lead time on the competition.

Redefining the PC Engine for America

With the PC Engine an undeniable success in Japan, it was time to take Nintendo on in a new arena; the United States. However this is where the one critical mistake was made on part of NEC and Hudson. Instead of introducing the PC Engine the following spring of 1988 as many Japanese companies would have, NEC decided to test the Japanese market a little bit longer and redevelop the PC Engine into a unit the company felt would prove to be more successful in the United States. With the PC Engine the size it was, NEC had qualms that the American consumers would view the machine as dainty and toy-like. After a slight reconfiguration of the PC Engine hardware, NEC and Hudson Soft felt ready to do battle in the Americas. In May of 1989, NEC announced they would be bringing the PC Engine to America. The American consumer gaming market was never to be quite the same again.

"The Higher Energy Video Game System"

On September 1st, 1989 the PC Engine was introduced to the United States as the TurboGrafx-16. The TurboGrafx-16 reflected many of the unique features that had been integrated into the original PC Engine’s design such as the PC Engine HuCard technology and the ability to expand into a CD-Rom system. Dubbed “The Higher Energy Video Game System” the American PC Engine simply ran rings around everything Nintendo had to offer. By Christmas of 1989, the NES, despite what has been said, had overstayed its welcome, and NEC was out to make sure that Nintendo was promptly "escorted out of the party." With little marketing experience in the United States, NEC was determined to prove once and for all that Nintendo was not invincible. The September 1, 1989 launch of the system was met with great anticipation from the gaming public, much due to an overwhelming advertising campaign on channels such as Nickelodeon and MTV. With the PC Engine's breakthrough technology backing the TurboGrafx-16 effort, NEC was about to add a truly viable option to gamers who expected more out of a game system and as a result the TurboGrafx-16 flew off store shelves during its introduction at retail venues including Toys R Us, (which NEC had cut a special deal with, allowing Toys ‘R’ Us to be one of the largest backers in this game system), Babbage’s, and many large videogame retail stores as the public ate up the dawn of the 16-Bit revolution. The success of the TurboGrafx-16 seemed to be all but in the bag as 1990 promised an uncanny future for the Turbo product line.

The Slight Miscalculation of American Introduction

NEC however had made a few miscalculations in the introduction of the TurboGrafx. For one, the TurboGrafx-16 (through the PC Engine) had been developed as a war machine to fight the Nintendo Famicom/NES systems and was initially released in 1987 to the Japanese market. However NEC and Hudson Soft had allowed over two years to pass before bringing the PC Engine to America, allowing Sega to eat up much of NEC’s lead time. By the time the PC Engine had made it to American shores as the TurboGrafx-16, it wasn’t just fighting against Nintendo, it had to go head-to-head with Sega and the Genesis. The PC Engine / TurboGrafx architecture was based around two custom built 8-Bit co-processors (8+8=16) working in conjunction with a 16-Bit graphics engine, while the Genesis was based around the Atari ST computer architecture utilizing a single 16-Bit microprocessor. That being said, critics of the Turbo raised questions about the legitimacy of their system being a “true” 16-Bit console. Interestingly enough, no one seemed to question Sega’s blatant rip-off of Atari’s European market technology to build the Genesis / MegaDrive. (Atari sued Sega in U.S. Court and won an unconditional victory, proving Sega couldn’t come up with anything successful on their own.) In Japan the PC Engine had a two year lead over the Genesis / MegaDrive allowing the PC Engine to fight the good fight against Nintendo and build up a solid user-base and develop a stellar line of game titles, years before the Genesis system was even an issue. When the Genesis / MegaDrive came into play in Japan, it hardly made a dent on the market. Believe it or not, the Sega MegaDrive was a huge marketing and financial disaster in Japan, as was all of Sega’s efforts in the country. This was because the PC Engine had come in and set up camp well in advance of the MegaDrive’s release. This was not the case in the United States. The delay in releasing the TurboGrafx-16 in America coupled with the lack of the same stellar game titles that made the PC Engine so popular in Japan, lead to Sega pulling ahead in the gaming market during 1990 and 1991. NEC was fumbling the ball.

Gaming Software & Lack Thereof

While there were several excellent titles released on the TurboGrafx-16 (Bonk’s Adventure, TV Sports Football and Dungeon Explorer to name a few) there simply were not enough game titles being translated from their Japanese counterparts to keep up with the competition. By this time the PC Engine had many hundreds of titles released in Japan, however NEC was lucky to release ten to fifteen titles a month in the United States. The TurboGrafx-16 also ran into an advertising shortage by 1991. During the initial 1989 launch the TurboGrafx-16 commercials were catchy, innovative and modern, comparing the Turbo to the NES and demonstrating how it simply blew it out of the water. However by 1991, good TurboGrafx advertising was beginning to run dry, meanwhile Sega was launching their “welcometothenextlevel” advertising campaign featuring the infamous “Sega scream” at the end of each commercial. Sega was becoming the solid sales leader in the 16-Bit war, and with the release of Nintendo’s 16-Bit console looming over NEC’s head, it was going to be an up hill fight from here on out, at least in the United States.

The Most Attractive Advancements in Gaming History

However, it was this fierce competition that spawned some of the most attractive advancements in NEC TurboGrafx technology. To begin with, NEC had taken a unique approach in software interfacing with the original 1987 PC Engine, bypassing the traditional game cartridge for a unique style of media similar in design to a credit card commonly referred to as "HuCards" and introduced in the United States "Turbo Chips". This HuCard technology garnished a great deal of attention and intrigue for the system in its early days, setting the consumer mentality of the TurboGrafx as a unique game system utilizing innovative state-of-the-art methodology for media interfacing. Even with Sega having produced a similar technology for their inexpensive 8-Bit titles, it was NEC who was seen as the leader with regards to innovative media management, not Sega. NEC moved to capitalize on this image by pushing the TurboGrafx-16 / PC Engine to the next level with the development of the TurboGrafx-CD, the first commercialized CD-Rom game peripheral marketed to the home consumer that proved to be just a little ahead of its time. The TurboGrafx-CD component sat in sync behind the TurboGrafx-16 base unit, adding a massive amount of potential to the already powerful system. A CD-Rom could hold hundreds of times the data that could be stored on a silicon-based cartridge, allowing the quality of gaming to increase dramatically over a standard game cartridge based on the huge potential for storage capacity. Ahead of their time, NEC forced the gaming industry to accept and embrace the concept of CD-Rom based videogames for the home, setting the stage for the CD/DVD standard of today.

Turbo Express

For 1990 NEC also introduced a technological wonder to compete against the Nintendo GameBoy and Atari Lynx, while redefining the image of the entire TurboGrafx product line as “the serious video game line” comparing “the others” to toys. And comparatively, they were. The Turbo Express was undeniably remarkable for its time, and yet to this day it still one of the most powerful handheld systems ever crafted. The Turbo Express was not an independent system developed to play a new line of portable but underpowered software as had been done by the competition. Instead NEC opted to rest the Turbo Express' laurels on its already existing line of TurboGrafx-16 software and technology. Proving to be an innovative concept, the Turbo Express was designed to take advantage of the slim design of the TurboGrafx-16 HuCard to the greatest extent, cloning the TurboGrafx-16 into its own portable version of its self, crafting a portable console unit that would on its own play any TurboGrafx-16 HuCard game on the market. With a price tag in upwards of three-hundred dollars, the Turbo Express was certainly viewed as the portable entertainment system for the serious gamer.

Turbo Duo

By 1992 the TurboGrafx-16 line was becoming a niche market product, catering to “serious” gamers as well as gamers who enjoyed a distinctively Japanese feel to their video games. NEC was breathing in more life into the TurboGrafx line first with the Turbo Express and in October 1992, with the release of the Turbo Duo, the big sister to the standard TurboGrafx-16 base unit. With the advent of NEC's CD games for the Turbo Grafx 16, NEC was not about to give up. They still had a champ on their hands and intended on riding this sucker on out to the end of the line.

We Were the First

However it’s important to remember, nothing felt like “doom and gloom” if you were a TurboGrafx-16 player up until the very end. TurboGrafx games were exciting to play. There were many great titles that have been overlooked throughout the years. The advancements made by NEC with the TurboGrafx line was incomparable to the others on the market. TurboGrafx was the first to introduce CD gaming. The first to introduce a handheld entertainment system that was a portable version of its primary console. The first to introduce a game system that was a multiple access merged game system that combined the best of both worlds. NEC was willing to take a lot of risks with their systems, and that’s a whole lot more than what most of their competition could ever say. NEC should be commended for this and as TurboGrafx enthusiasts, we should all remember what they did and hold our heads up in respect of that.

1993 Onward

In the end, 1993 was the definitive year. It started out with high-hopes for the Turbo Express and Turbo Duo systems. However poor marketing techniques featuring programmer John Brandstetter as “Johnny Turbo” coupled with the massive success of the Sega and Nintendo systems, along with the 3DO and Atari Jaguar 32 & 64-Bit systems on the horizon, the “questionably” 16-Bit TurboGrafx-16 was all but a warrior who had fought its last fight. At least on this battle ground.

The TurboGrafx took a rough ride through Christmas of 1994 where by that time NEC and Hudson (through Turbo Technologies) had begun to pull the Turbo line out of the American market, abandoning the system and the huge line of dedicated gamers it left in its wake. It was possible to find TurboGrafx-16 systems and software through portions of 1995 in some major retail markets in America if you were fortunate enough to locate some inventory. Ownership of the TurboGrafx responsibility along with the majority of remaining TurboGrafx-16 stock was transferred to a mail order house called Turbo Zone Direct who, like us, is dedicated to keeping the TurboGrafx-16 system and spirit alive, even to this day.

Epilogue

The TurboGrafx-16 continued to live on through the end of the 1990’s in Japan through its PC Engine counterpart which continued to reap success in the foreign market. The Turbo Duo went on to evolve into two more editions, the Duo-R and the Duo-RX. A SuperGrafx system was developed around a 16-Bit central processor which produced even better graphics, and a 32-Bit “Project Ironman” was developed to the point of completion and released in Japan as the NEC PC-FX game system in 1994.

In the end, NEC and Hudson had been successful. They made their case that Nintendo was not invincible. Nobody was. And TurboGrafx showed to us that in the world of gaming, anything is possible. The TurboGrafx-16 gave us all hope for the future, and what was to come. With futuristic graphics, intense gameplay, HuCards, and CDs that made us feel as if we were playing with “the game system of tomorrow”, the TurboGrafx 16 gave all of us a small taste of the world of gaming to come.