Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Happy 25th birthday, PC Engine!

On this day in 1987, my favourite video game console of all time was released in Japan.

The NEC PC Engine celebrates its 25th birthday today, and I in turn celebrate the many years of enjoyment the system has given me.

Released to compete against Nintendo's Famicom system (itself modified for the North American and European markets and released as the NES),  the PC Engine was Japan's top selling game console until finally losing ground to the Super Famicom some years later.  It was also the first home gaming console to have a CDROM attachment (albeit at a price - $400 CDN when it hit our shores!), which allowed for bigger, better, and more technically advanced games while also lowering production costs.

PC Engine games were released until 1999, when the last title, Dead of the Brain, was released.  The system retains a cult-like following (myself included) and remains one of the most sought-after platforms in the collector's market.

"Wait a second, CJ," you might be thinking, "I've been around since the NES days.  Why have I never heard of this system before?"

Well, my friend, it's probably because you're one of those people who only accepts what is waved in front of your nose and needs to be told what to buy, or you're totally ignorant of things outside your own particular culture.

Just kidding!

Truth is, if you've been around, as you claim, since the NES days (or further back, to the Atari/Intellivision/Colecovision/Vectrex/LeisureVision days), you probably have heard of the PC Engine.

In 1989, to compete with Sega's new Genesis console, NEC released the PC Engine in the North American and European market as the TurboGrafx-16.

Unfortunately, it wasn't much competition on these shores.  Despite largely being the dominant console in Japan until the early 90s (trouncing the Sega MegaDrive and Nintendo Famicom), poor marketing, horrible localization/censorship of Japanese games, and worse third party support relegated it to second-tier status to the domestic gaming public-at-large.



My own history with the console began in 1991.  We'd received a Sega Genesis for Christmas the previous year, and my friend Jason was in the market for a new console to replace his aging NES.  I'd shown him the Genesis, but he was leery of the Sega brand (unlike me, he hated the Sega Master System) and was curious about the new TurboGrafx-16 we'd seen advertised on TV.  I admitted to knowing nothing about the "Turbo", apart from what I'd read in the popular (and biased) gaming magazines of the time.

We went to the one place in Winnipeg where the machine was sold: Compucenter in St. Vital mall.  They had both a Genesis and Turbo on display - the Genesis was running Altered Beast, while the Turbo was running the appallingly-named Keith Courage in Alpha Zones.  After playing 'Beast and chatting with the salesman about upcoming games, and with the local video store now renting Genesis titles, Jason eventually decided on the Genesis.

Not long after, Radio Shack began selling the TurboGrafx-16.  Being my go-to place for computer stuff (I was a Coco 3 enthusiast), I was confronted with their Turbo display every time I walked in.  When the second wave of Turbo titles were released, I was subjected to games such as Bonk's Adventure and Devil's Crush.  They looked alright, but they still didn't touch the Genesis, and you couldn't rent Turbo games anywhere.

I remained curious, even played Bonk's Adventure a couple of times in-store.  The $200 price tag turned me off, and the $400 price tag for their vaunted-but-rare CDROM attachment didn't sweeten the deal.

One day, shortly after the release of the Super NES, the new Radio Shack flyer announced a price drop on the Turbo console:  $99, and you can pick TWO FREE GAMES from a limited assortment in-store.  Needless to say, I was sold.  Payday couldn't come quick enough!

Once I got the unit home and played a few rounds of Keith Courage, I was seriously underwhelmed.  "No wonder this thing is losing the Console War," I thought, "this game SUCKS!".  I took the game out of the system and vowed never to play it again.  I popped in one of the two free games I got with the machine, China Warrior, and played that for a while... "Good LORD, this game is worse!".  However, things changed when I got to the third game... Legendary Axe.

One of the few games ever to receive a perfect 10/10 rating from Electronic Gaming Monthly (one of the most biased and editorially corrupt magazines ever), Legendary Axe kept me occupied for weeks.  I picked up the aforementioned Bonk and Devil's Crush not long after, followed by a few dozen more games over the next couple of years.

In 1993, during my brief  "I need to grow up" phase, I sold off most of my video game collection... including the TurboGrafx-16.  NEC had handed their domestic console division to a new company called TTI, which tried and failed to keep the system relevant.  First-party support was gone, and the console as such had no future on these shores.  The only way to stay current was to join the truly hardcore Turbo fanbase, and devote myself to importing games from Japan.  I'd need to learn at least a little Japanese, and had to be willing to take a chance on unfamiliar games without knowing anything more than the title.  "More trouble than it's worth," I thought, and I soon gave up on the system and sold it.

In 1996, I discovered emulation.  A few years later, I was able to play all the old Turbografx-16 and Japanese PC Engine games on my computer via emulation.  By this time, I'd learned a bit of Japanese - enough to be functionally illiterate - and decided to give the system another look.

In 2002, flush with cash left over from buying my house, I finally bought a Japanese PC Engine.  I went whole-hog and bought a PC Engine Duo-R, which combined the PC Engine and the CDROM attachment in one console.


My PC Engine Duo-R, in need of a good cleaning


Ten years later, the system still sees near-daily use... from the occasional ten minute round of Galaga '88, to a few hours of Dungeon Explorer or Dracula X, to multi-week sessions of the system's many excellent RPGs.  With nearly two hundred games in my collection as I write this, and with more arriving every month, I suspect my PC Engine will be entertaining me for many years to come

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Akumajyou Dracula X: Rondo of Blood
An excellent game that is not rare by any stretch, but still really overpriced..


Yesterday, I briefly considered resurrecting the video game section of Conceited Jerk Dot Com or starting a new video game blog altogether, but I don't really have the time for such a huge project (enthusiasm notwithstanding).  Besides there are already hundreds of established video game blogs and related Youtube channels on the net... why do one more?