Many remember the great SNES vs Mega Drive/Genesis wars as the greatest console battle of our time. Names were taken, lies were told. There were heroes on both sides. Bubsy was everywhere.
But that’s not how it played out in Japan. Sega took third place behind a tiny white box.
The PC Engine was a collaboration between software developer Hudson Soft and computer manufacturer NEC. Released in 1987, the timing of the PC Engine’s release fit perfectly in a lull in the market, between the dominant but ageing Famicom, and the long awaited release of the Super Famicom. I believe was the highest selling console in either 1988 or 1989.
Keen Japanese gamers jumped at the opportunity to own a more powerful gaming box, and partly due to a smart hardware design that could draw lots of sprites with no hiccups, right from the start the PC Engine thrived on ‘hardcore’ arcade genres like shooters and other action games.
Partly because of this arcade focus, the PC Engine was also able to maintain a market position even after the release and eventual domination of the Super Famicom. As co-creator, Hudson produced many of the key titles, including mascot titles like PC Genjin, and shooters like the Star Soldier series. But the console had relatively wide third party support, and many of the defining titles were high quality arcade ports from third parties.
A notable feature of the PC Engine is how tiny the pre-CD console is. The original release is dwarfed in size by the contemporary consoles. It’s a really nice piece of engineering. One of the reasons the console can be so small is that the games came on credit-card sized ‘Hu-Cards’ and fit in a front-loading slot.
The PC Engine was also the first ever system to have a CD attachment released, which attracted PC developers and ambitious multi-media projects from console developers.
This was yet another point of differentiation from Nintendo’s machine. CD players were expensive at the time, and so the price required to join the CD party locked the platform into its already established hardcore niche.
Why is it called PC Engine?
Why is the Japanese NES called the Nintendo Family Computer?
The semi-confusing name makes a bit more sense in Japan. At that time, Consoles were seen as the basically same thing as computers. In the pre-Famicom era, 8-bit home computing platforms were semi-interchangeable with consoles, and you could convert your consoles to PCs with the addition of keyboards and other peripherals. The MSX had basically the exact same hardware as the Sega SG1000 and played cartridge games.
NEC had the leading Japanese personal computing platform the PC-88/PC-98 line. They kept the PC Branding for their new console, it had the ‘engine’ (CPU) of a modern(ish) PC, and they thought it would sound cool.
NEC wanted in on that sweet US market, and their local team thought it needed a redesign because Americans would only accept SUPER SIZE.
The console was redesigned to be larger for no good reason, and made into a formless grey box mostly full of air.
It was also renamed to sound ‘extreme’ to emphasise the better graphics it could produce, and there was a smaller fanboy war about the fact it really had an 8-bit CPU.
They of course also ruined all the box art.
It failed hard in the US because Sega got in first with their redesigned Mega Drive and even extremer ads. There was a small to the point of irrelevant european release, and some pockets of grey market imports of US/JP consoles, but ultimately all but the Japanese release are territorial footnotes for a primarily Japanese-market machine.
Console models and peripherals
This is where PCE gets complicated. There were several versions of the original console released (one each from NEC and Hudson adding native composite output). A couple of different CD interface units to add a CD drive to these consoles, along with several generations of ‘system cards’ which contained software and RAM upgrades for the CD system’s use. There was also a weird semi-upgrade called the SuperGrafix, and finally several units combining the PCE, CD unit, and system cards. Oh and the portable versions, the LT and GT.
There’s a good breakdown of all models here:
Really, all you’ll be needing is a Duo/Duo R/Duo RX, or GT. Like Game Gears, these consoles were all made in Taiwan and other dodgy places that used crappy capacitors and most consoles have died and need major service to work nowdays.
One short controller
PC Engine, being an 80s Japanese console, also has very short controller cords. But luckily the controller used a standard 8-pin mini-din plug (commonly used to connect Apple Macintosh computers in the 80s and 90s) so you can grab an extension cable much more easily and cheaply than for other consoles. It did however only have one controller port, meaning a multi-tap is required even for two player games.
Some of my collection: