There was no official PAL version of the system, but imported PC Engine consoles were largely available in France and Benelux major retailers thanks to the grey importer Sodipeng (Société de Distribution de la PC Engine, a subsidiary of Guillemot International). In the UK, Telegames imported a very limited batch of the US model as the TurboGrafx around 1990.
The TurboGrafx-16 has an 8-bit CPU and a dual 16-bit GPU capable of displaying 32 sets of 15 colors at once out of 512.
The TurboGrafx-16 was the first console to have an optional CD module, allowing the standard benefits of the CD medium such as more storage, cheaper media costs, and redbook audio. The efficient design, backing of many of Japan's major software producers, and the additional CD ROM capabilities gave the PC Engine a very wide variety of software, with several hundred games for both the HuCard and CD formats.
The PC Engine was extremely popular in Japan, beating Nintendo's Famicom in sales soon after its release, with no fewer than twelve console models released from 1987 to 1993. It was capable of up to 482 colors at once in several resolutions, and featured very robust sprite handling abilities. The Hudson-designed chroma encoder delivered a video signal more vibrant and colorful than both the Famicom and the Sega Mega Drive and is largely regarded as the equal to Nintendo's Super Famicom, although that system was not released in Japan until 1990.
As graphics technology improved, gamers continued to stick to the PC Engine despite its shortcomings. Erotic games were a key factor in making the PC Engine popular, and this popularity was maintained far beyond the lifespan of a regular video game console. New games were released for the PC-Engine up until 1999.
Despite the system's success, it started to lose ground to the Super Famicom. NEC made one final effort to resuscitate the system with the release of the Arcade Card expansion, bringing the total amount of RAM up to a then-massive 2048K; a few Arcade Card games were conversions of popular Neo Geo titles. The additional memory even allowed the system to display rendered graphics like those used in the Donkey Kong Country series. The expansion was never released in North America.
The TurboGrafx-CD came packaged in a very large box, 85% of which was filled with protective styrofoam inserts. By some accounts, no other video game console (or peripheral) has been packaged in such an overkill manner. The TurboGrafx-CD did however come with a large plastic "carrying case" that could comfortably hold the TurboGrafx-16 base system, TurboGrafx-CD, all AC adapters, 2 – 3 controllers, and a few games.
Although the TurboGrafx-CD library was relatively small, American gamers could draw from a wide range of Japanese software since there was no region protection on TG-CD / PC Engine CD-ROM software. Many mail order (and some brick-and-mortar) import stores advertised Japanese PCE CD and HuCard titles in the video game publications of the era.
With HuCards, a limited form of region protection was introduced between markets which for the most part was nothing more than running the HuCard's pinout connections in a different arrangement. There were two major after-market converters sold to address this problem, and both were sold predominantly for use in converting Japanese titles for play on a TG-16. In the Asian market, NEC went an extra step of adding a hardware level detection function to all PC-Engine systems that detected if a game was a U.S. release. It would then refuse to play it. The only known exception to this is the U.S. release of Klax which did not contain this flag.
This region system was explained at one time by Dean to Turbo Mailing-List members as such:
The explanation commonly given for this by NEC officials is that most U.S. conversions had been skill level reduced, and in some cases censored for what was considered inappropriate content. Because of that, they did not want the U.S. conversion to re-enter the Asian market and negatively impact the perception of a game. The poster child for censorship in this fashion was Kato-chan and Ken-chan released as JJ and Jeff in the U.S. With some minor soldering skills, a change could be made to PC-Engines to disable this check. Joan Touzet is credited with discovering the pin 29 mod and announcing it to the Turbo Mailing-List in 1996.
The only Japanese games that could not be played on a U.S. system using one of these converters were the SuperGrafx titles which also required additional system hardware to run.
The first converter to market was an Asian developed module labeled the Game Converter and marked with a model number of WH-301. English speaking fans historically have dubbed this device the "Purple Converter", or "Barney Converter" due to its purple color that is reminiscent of Barney the Dinosaur. While this device was most commonly sold in a purple color, there has been discussion of them being seen in other colors.
The second converter, named the "Kisado", was created and sold by David Shadoff initially to members of the Turbo Mailing-List in pre-ordered batches. Then later, some were sold through on-line retailers.
The main difference between these two converters is their design. The WH-301 extended out of the system and HuCards were inserted into a widened riser platform that contained the HuCard slot (almost one inch above the board). Because of this wide top area to the board, WH-301 adapters were incompatible with the Turbo-Duo as they would not fit into the card slot.
The Kisado was a straight board where the HuCard was inserted into a slot on the opposite end of the board that faced back towards the system. For TurboDuo owners the Kisado design is the only one that works with the system.
For CD games, it was an entirely different situation. While there was no region-protection on CD games, there were several different CD formats: CD, Super CD (SCD) and, later, Arcade CD (ACD). TurboGrafx-CD, equipped with the original System Card (version 2.01), could play all Japanese and North American CD games. A TurboGrafx-CD, equipped with the updated Super System Card (version 3.01), could play all Japanese and North American SCD and CD format games. The Arcade System Card (for playing Arcade CD titles) had two versions and was never released in North America.
The Arcade System Card was sold in two versions, labeled Pro and Duo. The Arcade Card Pro was specifically for pre-Duo systems although it was compatible with all PC-Engine systems (including the SuperGrafx), it included both the SuperCD operating system and the extra memory found in the Duo systems. The Arcade Card Duo worked with Duo based systems exclusively as it featured only the Arcade enhancments. This allowed the Duo card to be sold at a lower price. All Japanese released system cards worked in U.S. systems with the use of a HuCard converter.
Another problem for the TG-16 was its relatively limited hardware. The Genesis came with only one controller, but it provided a port for a second; the TG-16 only had one controller port. Players who wanted to take advantage of the simultaneous multiplayer modes in their games were required to buy the Turbo Tap (a multitap accessory which permitted five controllers to be plugged into the system), in addition to the necessary extra controllers. Another problem in the battle against the Genesis was the pack-in games (game included with purchase): The Genesis originally came with the then-impressive arcade translation of Altered Beast (1989), which included big, bold sprites and colors as well as impressive digital sound effects. the TG-16's initial pack-in game was Keith Courage in Alpha Zones (1989), a modest action platform game that did not show off the capabilities of the TG-16 in nearly the same way Altered Beast did for the Genesis (or Super Mario World later did for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System [SNES]).
The Genesis' Japanese counterpart, the Sega Mega Drive, was less popular than the NEC console, the PC Engine. In North America and Europe, however, the situation was reversed, and both the North American Genesis and European Mega Drive are mainly remembered there for its rivalry with the Super Nintendo, not with the TurboGrafx-16.
Both Sega and NEC released CD peripherals (Sega CD versus Turbo CD), color handhelds (Sega Game Gear versus TurboExpress -- TurboExpress came out earlier than Game Gear and played the same cards as the console TG16, whereas Game Gear was a separate platform), and even "TV tuners" for their respective handheld systems. While Sega outperformed NEC in North America and Europe in both hardwares, the companies' peripherals and handhelds were not very popular overall.
In 1992, comic book-like ads featuring Johnny Turbo were published by TTi. The ads mocked Sega, in particular the Sega CD. However, by this point it was too late, the TG-16 had been defeated by the Genesis in the marketplace, which was by then dominated by the battle between the Genesis and the Super Nintendo.
In order to reach a low price point in the market, the original TurboGrafx-16 and PC Engine systems only supported RF modulation for audio/video (the competition had built-in support for stereo audio, and composite video. Most 16-bit systems also supported s-video and RGB output (with the purchase of specialized cables), although an expansion module was released to support these basic features, and later models integrated the functionality. Another limitation was the single controller port which required the purchase of a multi-player expansion adapter for an additional player (the expansion's ability to support up to five controllers was unusual for the time).
Another reason for the TG-16's lack of success in North America was the system's marketing. NEC of Japan's marketing campaign for the PC Engine was mainly targeted to the largest metropolitan areas in the country. This proved to be quite successful there, but when the same kind of marketing was used in the much larger North American market, it resulted in a lack of public awareness outside of the big cities. The TG-16 ended up being far more competitive and popular in certain local markets such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, while in smaller and more spread-out areas, it failed miserably.
The TurboGrafx-16 was originally marketed in North America by NEC Home Electronics based in Wood Dale, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. As the system's popularity fell, the platform was handed over to a new company called Turbo Technologies Incorporated (TTI), based in Los Angeles, California. This company was comprised mainly of former NEC Home Electronics and Hudson Soft employees, and it essentially took over all marketing and first-party software development for the struggling system.
By 1991, the Sega Genesis had clearly surpassed the TurboGrafx-16, putting NEC's console in a distant fourth place in the video game market (Nintendo held the #2 and 3 places with the brand new SNES and the aging but still potent NES). NEC, who was relatively new to the market, had an increasingly difficult time convincing consumers who already owned a Sega or Nintendo system to give the TG-16 a try.
Compounding the problem was that the vast majority of the titles that made the system so successful in Japan were produced for the CD-ROM add-on. In the American market, this add-on was difficult to find outside of large cities, and it was widely considered to be overpriced (debuting at nearly $400). TTI tried to address this issue by releasing a combination system called the TurboDuo, as well as dropping the price of the CD add-on to around $150. Unfortunately, at $300, the cost of the TurboDuo was still too high for most American consumers, even when NEC took the bold step of including seven pack-in titles and a coupon book with the system. Despite all these efforts, the company failed to attract much of a mainstream audience.
Many of the CD games for the Turbo platform were innovative and well-received, but the cost of the add-on system was a strong deterrent to buyers, especially when the competition sold for considerably less. Some of the most popular Japanese releases, such as Demon Castle Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys, Tengai Makyo II: Manjimaru and Snatcher, never made it to North American shelves (though the PC Engine version of Snatcher was converted over to the Sega Mega-CD in the US & Europe, but never was released in Japan).
In the handheld market, the TurboExpress further suffered from short battery life, a hefty price tag, and a large number of units that were missing pixels in their displays (due mainly to the fact that TFT LCD manufacturing technology was still in its infancy at the time).
Larry Flynt Publications (L.F.P.) published 14 bi-monthly issues of TurboPlay Magazine (June/July 1990 – August/September 1992) dedicated to covering TG-16 and TG-CD hardware and software. It was a spin-off publication of Video Games & Computer Entertainment (VG&CE), a popular multi-platform gaming magazine of the late 1980s / early 1990s. Every issue of TurboPlay was 32 pages in length and a yearly subscription cost $9.95. An advertisement for TurboPlay was included with every TG-16 console.
Sendai published four quarterly issues of TURBOFORCE magazine (September 1992 – Spring 1993). TTi had editorial control over TURBOFORCE and used it to promote the launch of the new TurboDuo console. Unlike TurboPlay and DuoWorld, TURBOFORCE was devoid of critical game reviews.
L.F.P. published three bi-monthly issues of DUOWORLD magazine (July/August 1993 – November/December 1993) before it was cancelled. DuoWorld was very similar in format to TurboPlay, but with a focus on the newly released TurboDuo console (i.e. TurboMail and TurboNews became DuoMail and DuoNews, respectively).
NEC also published a handful of newsletters (TurboEdge) and sent them to customers that sent in their TG-16 warranty cards or subscribed to TurboPlay. These newsletters were black and white, mostly text, and four to eight pages in length.
In addition to the advertising in 1990, TG-16, TG-CD, and TurboExpress were briefly covered on PBS' Computer Chronicles (two episodes, including "Battle of the Consoles"). Later, when the TurboDuo was launched, it was featured in an episode on "CD-ROM and multimedia software".
Also, Video Power, a video game show (live action gameshow with The Power Team cartoon) syndicated throughout the country in the early 1990s, featured footage from video games at the end of many episodes. Blazing Lazers, Legendary Axe (and perhaps other titles) made it into two episodes. Video Power rarely featured TG-16 games (focusing on NES and Genesis, instead). In addition, the Nickelodeon game show Nick Arcade featured several TG-16 games in the Video Challenge portion of the show.
In 1994, NEC released a new console, the Japan-only PC-FX, a 32-bit system with a tower-like design; it enjoyed a small but steady stream of games until 1998, when NEC finally abandoned the video games industry. NEC would then partner with former rival Sega, providing a version of its PowerVR 2 Chipset for the Sega Dreamcast.
There is a niche collector's market for TurboGrafx games and Japanese imports, mainly centered around the system's many arcade ports of shooters. Spurring this interest is the fact that Turbo ports from the arcade tended to be closer to the original than Sega Mega Drive, SNES, or NES versions, in terms of graphics and sound. Hudson Soft also released some shooters which were exclusive to the Turbo, such as Super Air Zonk, Gate of Thunder, Soldier Blade, Super Star Soldier, Star Parodia (Japan). The most famous North American shooter is probably Blazing Lazers (Gunhed in Japan) and was featured in all of the early television ads.
After the demise of TTi, Turbo Zone Direct (TZD), a mail-order company, became the de facto source for new TG-16 / Duo hardware, accessories and software.
The brief "Johnny Turbo" series of advertisements have become part of gaming's pop culture. Many folks without direct experience with TG-16 consoles or its games have heard of the infamous "Johnny Turbo".
Several PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 games are available for download on Nintendo's Virtual Console download service. More games among the "best hits" of the system are planned to be released at as-of-yet undetermined times; the exact number or titles of games selected for future release is still unknown. There has now been at least one game released on the Virtual Console that was originally never released in America for the system.
In 1992 TTi (Turbo Technologies Inc.) released the TurboDuo, the North American version of the Japanese Duo. The system combined the TurboGrafx-16 and an enhanced version of the CD-ROM drive (the "Super CD-ROM²") into a single unit. The system could play audio CDs, CD+Gs, CD-ROM2 and Super CD games as well as standard HuCards. The Super System Card required for some games when using the original CD add-on as well as some of the Japanese variants of the TurboGrafx was built in to the Duo rather than requiring the card to be inserted at all times when playing CD games. The original pack-in for the Turbo Duo included the system, one control pad, an AC adapter, RCA cables, Ys Book I & II a CD-ROM2 title, and a Super CD disc including Bonk's Adventure, Bonk's Revenge, Gate of Thunder and a secret version of Bomberman accessible via an easter egg. The system was also packaged with one random HuCard game which varied from system to system (Dungeon Explorer was the original HuCard pack-in for TurboDuo, although many titles were eventually used, such as IREM's Ninja Spirit and NAMCO's Final Lap Twin, and then eventually a random pick).
The TurboExpress was a portable version of the TurboGrafx, released in 1990 for $249.99 (the price was briefly raised to $299.99, soon dropped back to $249.99, and by 1992 it was $199.99). It was the most advanced handheld of its time and could play all the TG-16's HuCard games five years before the Sega Nomad could do the same for Sega Genesis games. Its Japanese equivalent was the PC Engine GT'. It had a 2.6-inch screen, the same as the original Game Boy. It shared the capabilities of the TurboGrafx, giving it 512 available colors (9-bit RGB), stereo sound, and the same custom CPU at 7.16 MHz. The optional "TurboVision" TV tuner included RCA audio/video input, allowing the user to use TurboExpress as a video monitor. The "TurboLink" allowed two-player play. Falcon, a flight simulator, included a "head-to-head" dogfight mode that could only be accessed via TurboLink. However, very few TG-16 games offered co-op play modes especially designed with the TurboExpress in mind.
A TurboExpress appeared in the movie Enemy of the State which it was partly centered on, despite the system's demise several years earlier.
The TurboGrafx and Vistar units use a different controller port than the PC Engines, but adaptors are available and the protocol is the same. The TurboGrafx offers the same expansion connector pinout as the PC Engine, but has a slightly different shape so peripherals must be modified to fit.
The Super System Card provides 192 KB of RAM, supplementing the built in 64K of DRAM found in the CD interface tray. The PC-Engine Duo/R/RX consoles have the Super System Card’s 192 KB of RAM plus the 64K of standard RAM and v3.00 BIOS software built in, and can play both CD-ROM² and Super CD-ROM² games without using any additional cards.
The Arcade Card Pro is designed for the original PC-Engine CD-ROM² and Super CD-ROM² peripherals, adding the 2304 KB of RAM required by Arcade CD-ROM² games. It could, of course, also play standard CD-ROM² and Super CD-ROM² games.
The Arcade Card Duo is for the PC-Engine Duo/R/RX consoles and adds 2048 KB RAM. Because the PC-Engine Duo series of systems have 256K of RAM built-in, this does not need to be provided and is why the Arcade Card Duo contained less RAM and was less expensive than the Pro version.
Note: Because the aforementioned consoles use the same BIOS revision as the Arcade Card Pro, it is not known (as a cost-saving measure) if the Arcade Card Duo includes the BIOS software itself, or if the existing built-in BIOS is used.
The various CD-ROM game types are:
While the standard CD-ROM² and Super CD-ROM² had RAM for data storage which was accessed directly, the Arcade CD-ROM² cards accessed the RAM in a slightly different way.
Both the Pro and Duo versions of the Arcade Card worked in the same way. Just as with the Super CD-ROM², up to 256 KB of the RAM was able to be accessed directly by the CPU. The other 2048 KB was accessed indirectly by transferring data to the other 256 KB of RAM on the fly. This was done rather seamlessly, so that even though the CPU could only use up to 256 KB of RAM at once, data could be swapped to and from the other 2048 KB of RAM at any time. This technique of swapping data from RAM to RAM was much faster than loading the data directly from the CD into RAM, and offered developers a significant advantage over the previous System Card formats, as is evidenced by the many conversions of well-animated Neo Geo fighting games to the Arcade CD-ROM².
One technique that was used by games pre-dating the Arcade Card upgrade was to store graphics data in the 64K audio RAM (used for ADPCM samples) that was present. This RAM could be directly populated by the CD-ROM hardware (it had a direct DMA channel from the CD controller) without CPU intervention, and the memory could be accessed in an indirect fashion, similar to the Arcade Card, allowing data stored in it to appear as a 64 KB stream of linear data that could be easily transferred to the system RAM.
NEC also manufactured a very large line of personal computers, one of which featured a single-speed CD ROM drive identical to the PC Engine version. They were designed to be interchangeable, which is why the PC Engine's IFU-30 CD ROM interface could be purchased without a CD ROM drive.
NEC developed a prototype adaptor that connected a PC through the HuCard slot, allowing the PC to control the PC Engine's CD ROM as it would any normal SCSI drive. Due to falling CD drive prices and the increasing undesirability of a single-speed SCSI drive, it was never released. It was however previewed in NEC's official US TurboDuo magazine.