Wednesday, September 4, 2013

PC Engine [1987] (NEC, Hudson Soft)

When talking about the old-school video gaming consoles, pretty often I mention an unknown (for the speaker) device called 'PC Engine'. But I never got it why was such a machine got unsuccessful and pitifully lost in the shadow of SNES and Genesis. Its library of games is not that large, surely, but the quality of the most is just stunning at times. So right now, when someone nostalgically sighs remembering the NES days, I usually sigh at no ability to get the PC Engine in my possession in the past, now or in the future. Sure it didn't have hardcore CRPGs, flight sims and turn-based strategy games (with some exceptions), but what a massive array of shmups, platform games, RPGs, arcade ports were released on it - there was even an FPS! Such focus on arcade-style games was already enough to beat up Genesis, but alas... So today, I present you - NEC PC Engine!

Developers: NEC Corporation, Hudson Soft
Generation: Fourth
'Bits': 8 (main CPU), 16 (graphical processing units)
Release Dates: Oct, 30, 1987 (Japan), Aug, 29, 1989 (US)
Media: HuCards, CD

      



I. BRIEF HISTORY

PCE was created by the NEC Corp. in the late eighties. In 1987 it was released in Japan, and in 1989 it came to USA and Europe (however, in the latter it was available only via import). Its sort of weird full name - PC Engine - may be a reference to the famous line of PC88/PC98 home computers created by the same company, a platform that gave birth to many now-famous video game franchises. However, in USA and Europe, the console was renamed to TurboGrafx-16. In a weird twist, its success worldwide was just as polar as the titles: PC Engine became a hit in Japan, subsequently outselling even the NES, but the numbers in the US weren't as hot, despite the aggressive marketing campaign, a mascot attempt named Johnny Turbo and constant picking on Sega Genesis. The whole bit war of 'NES vs Genesis', which later mutated to 'SNES vs Genesis', earned PCE the reputation of a niche product for hardcore gamers only.

II. TECHNICAL SPECS

The console was equipped with 8-bit CPU and 16-bit video system consisting of two chips, which led to average in complexity yet colorful graphical capabilities.

Here is the quick specifications comparison with NES and Genesis (the info is taken from Wikipedia):

ParameterNESPCEGenesis
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Processor8-bit Ricoh, based on 6502 core8-bit MOS Technology 65SC02 a.k.a HuC6280 by Hudson16-bit Motorola 68000 (or compatible) + 8-bit Zilog Z80 (or compatible)
CPU Speed1,79 MHz (NTSC), 1,66 MHz (PAL)1,79 or 7,16 MHz (software-dependent)7,67+3,58 MHz (NTSC), 7,61+3,55 MHz (PAL)
Video ProcessorPPU, Picture Processing UnitTwo 16-bit processors — HuC6270 and HuC6260VDP, Video Display Processor
Screen Resolution256 x 240256 x 216Up to 320 x 224 (NTSC), up to 320 x 240 (PAL)
Max Onscreen Sprites646480
Max Onscreen Colors48 and 5 shades of gray512512
Video Memory2 Kb, can be expanded by the cartridge memory64 Kb64 Kb
Sound Unit5 channels (frequency, triangle, white noise, Delta-DAC)8 bit PCM stereo / 6-channel stereo6 channels w/frequency modulation, additional 4-channel PSG chip
RAM2 Kb, can be expanded by the cartridge memory8 Kb (32 Kb for TurboDuo)64+8 Kb
Storage CapacityUp to 48 Kb, expandableFrom 256 Kbit up to 24 MbitUp to 4 MB (32 Mbit)

For the storage media, PCE used an interesting brand of cartridges called HuCards (or TurboChips in the US), although something similar was already familiar to the gamer audiences with Sega Master System cards. But the real, true innovations introduced by the console, existed just as well:

1. The first CD-ROM console add-on in history. Yes, PC Engine is actually the first platform ever that used CDs to store its games. To play those, an additional module had to be purchased, dubbed PC Engine CD-ROM2 (interestingly, the US manufacturers instead produced a combo unit with CD drive included, branded TurboDuo). Thankfully, instead of stuffing the discs with grainy videos like Sega CD did, the developers took way better advantage of its capabilities, resulting in a lot of excellent titles - again, unlike Sega's counterpart.

2. 99,9% compatible portable version. PC Engine GT (TurboExpress in the US) was marketed as a separate system, and unlike Game Boy or Game Gear, it utilized exactly the same carts as the 'big' console. From the technological point of view, PCE GT was also superior to both competitors - for example, it supported TV output, a feature that became industry standard only recently. Unfortunately, what strangled this system was its price - $299 for a handheld is too much even nowadays. Ironically Nomad, a similar effort from Sega, was also a flop among gamers.

III. THE GAMES

To this day, PCE holds a solid reputation of the number one console for shmup (shoot 'em up) fans, and it was gained for a reason. No other system may compete with it in this regard, having so many games of this genre in its library that are still fun, playable and considered great classics today. After all, it's the quality of proposed games that makes the customer decide to stick with one system or another, and PC Engine does not disappoint. Here's a brief list of my personal favorites:

- HuCard games:

Super Star Soldier - one of the more famous titles for the system. Amazing graphics, catchy music, hot dogfights with hordes of enemies and tricky bosses - awesome!

Soldier Blade - to be honest, it's my most favorite game on the system, also being my second favorite game in the shmup genre (next to Tyrian). Everything here is just perfect. Limit-pushing visuals, complicated segmented bosses, incredible soundtrack and perfectly balanced gameplay and difficulty curve - I'll never get tired of praising this game, it's that good.

Gradius, Salamander, Parodius - very good ports of the classic Konami shooters.

R-Type - another solid port of the legendary Irem shooter. By the way, this is likely the only cartridge-based video game in history that was released on more than one storage unit (two carts, in this case).

Turrican - let's mix up the lineup of classic Japanese shooters with a classic European shooter. Not exactly the best console port (that'd be the one for Genesis), but a great portable experience for the owners of PCE GT.

Download, Heavy Unit, Cyber Core - some more decent-to-good shooters. Download is especially remarkable for its hilarious obscene English on the Game Over screens.

Raiden, Image Fight, Chase HQ, Splatterhouse, Street Fighter II' - more good arcade ports, and not only shmups this time.

Bomberman series - that's right, here's where it all started.

Jackie Chan's Action Kung Fu - a great platforming game, with especially memorable musical score. There's also an equally solid NES port.

Silent Debuggers - this is the FPS I was referring to in the opening. OK, not strictly one, as it's more like a dungeon crawler, but still a decent game, complete with good graphics.

Adventure Island series - yeah, that's where this started, too!

Blazing Lazers - can't say that I'm a huge fan of this game, but I'm well aware that it is considered a classic. So worth a mention for sure!

Bonk's Adventure series - see Blazing Lazers.

- CD games:

Gate Of Thunder - believe it or not, the survival of the whole idea of having games on CD depended on this game's success. As evident from the games of today, it was a hit! This legendary shooter from Hudson looks worthwhile even today, with beautiful pixel graphics and the immortal soundtrack, recorded in crystal clear Redbook quality.

Lords Of Thunder - a spiritual sequel to the previous game, shifted towards so-called Euroshmups with their in-game shops, health bars and pretty tame difficulty. But there are highlights, including the fantasy setting and upbeat rock soundtrack. Was also released on Sega CD.

Akumajou Dracula X: Chi No Rondo - before the Dracula X Chronicles for PSP was released, this game was a forbidden fruit for gamers outside Japan. Of course, such fruits tend to be the sweetest, and it's very true here - by some (including myself) it's rightfully considered the best Castlevania game of pre-SOTN era.

Cho Aniki series - if you're not disgusted by such term as 'homoerotic space shooter with bodybuilders in speedos', you'll enjoy these pretty fun and campy games. They are actually well-made, there are some sequels on other platforms, and the music is, again, excellent.

Download 2 - a nice sequel to a nice HuCard game. Same good ol' cyberpunk and ridiculous (im)maturity - the main character smoking was actually a shocking sight back then.

Psychic Storm - yet another decently made shmup, a solid A-. Besides, it's the first shmup I ever 1CC'd, but that's not a big deal, since it's very easy - and it's not a bad thing, since in this case it's good for the beginners!

Ys Books I & II - sort of a port/remake of the first two games in Falcom's cult action RPG series, not the only one, but one of the more famous. This version is notable for having an official English localization, above-average voice acting and the ability to beat both games as one large adventure (which it is, practically).

Ys III: Wanderers From Ys - remake/port of the third Ys game. Again, considered to be one of the best.

Seirei Senshi Spriggan - a shmup from Compile, godfathers of the genre. Excellent graphics, interesting setting and, as usual for Compile games, a mind-blowing arsenal of weapons.

Valis series - very interesting lineup of platforming slashers a la Castlevania, more famous on the Sega Genesis. Unfortunately, unlike the Genesis entries, there were no official or fan translations for the PCE...

IV. CONCLUSION

As you may've read between the lines, I really love PC Engine. Excellent hardware (first of all, the video system and the CD drive), excellent games, and hours of fun spent playing them - this is what comes to my mind whenever I think of it. Don't hesitate to familiarize yourself with it and its one-of-a-kind library, and you'll see how many more awesome retro games are waiting for you to beat!


^_^