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  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] PC Engine (White)

    Posted on May 9th, 2009 keving 7 comments

    PC Engine (PCエンジン)

    Maker: NEC Home Electronics (NEC-HE)
    Release Date: 10/30/87
    Price: 24,800 yen

    090509-pcengine1I’ve been meaning to fully explore NEC’s PC Engine for years now. It, and the Amiga, are the only major game platforms I’ve never honestly researched. I’ll be fixing that through weblog posts that I’ll eventually string together into an honest website. Hope you enjoy them.

    To begin with, I want to talk about the very first PC Engine, the so-called “white” PCE that kicked off the whole line in the first place. This is the only product that ever had the exact name “PC Engine” applied to it, though if I’m going to talk about the white PCE, I suppose I’m going to be talking about the history of the entire console, whether I want to or not. Hmm.

    Where should I begin, then? The console was released October 30, 1987 in Japan, following a development period that apparently lasted at least two years. In an interview with Japan’s GameSide magazine (March ’07), Hudson marketing guy Toshiyuki “Master” Takahashi stated that “initial development on the custom PC Engine chipset began somewhere around 1985,” which would place the project’s origins right at the point Nintendo’s Famicom was becoming an explosive hit and monpolizing the entire game marketplace. Hudson, themselves the first third-party licensee that ever worked with Nintendo, had already released a bunch of FC games by this point, some of which (such as 1986′s Ninja Hattori-kun) were selling deep into the millions. At the same time, though, they were developing a new console to surpass the Famicom.

    Hudson is largely known as a game house, but historically it’s been involved with a lot of other high-tech stuff. They created the Family BASIC beginner language for the Famicom, the operating systems for the Sharp X1 and X68000 computers, and the BeeCard, a ROM format for the MSX computer that was the foundation for HuCards. With that sort of know-how (which was pretty advanced for 1980s consumer technology), it’s perhaps little wonder they were up to the task of designing game hardware. The games themselves were its primary business, though, and so the system was designed not to be the very best technologically, but “to be as easy as possible for programmers to create games on,” as Takahashi put it. The PC Engine has always enjoyed a rep among Japanese game devs as being easy to develop for, and this conventional wisdom is no doubt something the designers aimed for from the very beginning, given how many colors and sprites the thing can output compared to its competition.

    The PC Engine is driven by what’s known as the HuC62 System chipset, designed by Hudson and manufactured by Seiko Epson. Hu stands for Hudson, of course, and C62 comes from the Japanese locomotive of the same name. (The foudner of Hudson is an enormous railroad dork, and the name was no doubt his idea.) The CPU is a HuC6280, a 6502-compatible 8-bit chip (not unlike the one the Famicom uses) that runs at 7.16MHz and includes built-in sound generation hardware that’s sort of like, but a fair bit better than, the PSG tech that runs the AY-3-8910 and other old sound chips. The chipset, which includes the HuC6270 video display controller (VDC) and the HuC6260 video color encoder, was first displayed to the public in July of 1987.

    090509-pcengine2At the same time, NEC Home Electronics (the division of NEC that made TVs, air conditioners, and so on) was in search of a consumer amusement device. It already had two computer lines — the business-oriented PC-9800 series and the hobbyist-centric PC-8801 — but the company wanted something to serve as a consumer replacement for the Z80-based and dated PC-8801, especially something that came equipped with a CD-ROM drive. Hearing that Hudson and Epson were developing a home console chipset and was looking for hardware to install it in, NEC realized it had the perfect partner for what came to be called the PC Engine.

    So the console had two parents: Hudson, who designed the system’s core capabilities, and NEC-HE, which turned it into a saleable product and released a wealth of accessories as part of the “Core Concept.” Outside companies making chipsets for game systems is nothing new these days, but the PC Engine was actually the first console to be made this way.

    Hardware

    What makes the white PC Engine special? Its size — or lack thereof. Seen from above, it’s almost a perfect 14cmx14cm square, making it much more compact than the Famicom despite its power advantage. It’s far heavier than it looks, though, lending the impression that it’s really packed with…stuff inside. Hi-tech stuff. I don’t know. Not that being large is important, but there’s no doubt that at least some Japanese consumers doubted whether such a small, nondescript box could outperform the Famicom at anything.

    There are two reasons for this compactness. First off, this thing was designed from the start to be suitable for the CD-ROM attachment — to say nothing of the whole “Core Concept,” conceived to include everything from printers to modem peripherals. This meant that having the main unit be as tiny as possible was seen as an advantage. The fact that Japanese households stereotypically prefer smaller things to go into their smaller houses was doubtlessly also a factor; the conventional wisdom that nothing can sell in America unless it’s large also doubtlessly led to the TurboGrafx-16 being quite a bit bigger in size for no technological reason.

    This compact form factor continued into the HuCARD, the software format. Perhaps this was also chosen to keep the overall size of the system small, but there are other very good reasons for it — its ease of carrying and storage (perhaps they were considering the idea of a portable system from the beginning), not to mention the clear delineation from the Famicom and its colorful toy-like cartridges. It was the perfect format for defining the PCE as a “new machine” in the marketplace.

    090509-pcengine3The console may not have looked like anything special with its tiny hardware and tiny game cards, but performance-wise it by far outclasses the Famicom. The CPU has the same 6502 base as the FC, but runs at a clock speed that’s four times faster. Up to 64 16×16-pixel sprites can be displayed on top of the background graphics, and the console allows for a palette of 512 colors, nearly all of them displayable onscreen at once. This allowed the PCE to display graphics and animation far beyond what the FC could do, both in terms of detail and in size. The system could therefore play host to a number of faithful arcade ports (particularly the shooters of the day) that the FC couldn’t hope to replicate.

    These specs seem a tad inferior to what the Mega Drive and Super Famicom offered only a few scant years later, but since the PC Engine ran so quickly, and since its architecture was simple enough that it avoided many of the bugs and arbitrary limits imposed on programmers with other consoles, the system’s software was able to compete evenly with its 16-bit competition remarkably well. Indeed, the mere fact that it was still handling straight-on arcade ports (like Street Fighter II Dash) in 1992-93, five years after it was designed, is a testament to the latent power held inside. (Hiromasa Iwasaki, ex-game-mag editor and programmer on games like Ys Books I & II and Linda Cubed, brings up how easy the PCE was to code for in pretty much every interview he does.)

    Satoshi Mikami, a game developer who worked for Hudson on the PCE project from the beginning, brought up the uniqueness of the system’s internals in a 2003 interview with Dorimaga magazine (now called Gemaga). In it, he brings up an important point: “The PC Engine’s hardware wasn’t meant to be its selling point. Every piece of the completed design was based off the opinions of the software department.” That’s the way Hudson worked at the time — everything in hardware development came down to the coders, and the freedom they were granted to challenge the console designers’ skill was obviously a palpable thing around the office. (Making a CD-ROM game machine in 1987, for example. That took guts.) The software development tools were also created by Hudson programmers, of course, and as Mikami put it, they were speedy, advanced, and extremely easy to use, the graphical tools in particular. “If you didn’t have them, you were seen as some kind of charlatan,” as Iwasaki put it.

    To sum up, the PC Engine was a machine designed and built from the ground up to help game creators make their ideas reality as quickly and easily as possible. With the project led by creative types, the console proved to be both highly advanced and radically different from anything else — but most of the things it tried, it succeeded at. This hardware success was reflected in the games, and the result was a package that seemed capable of almost anything.

    Looking Around the Console

    090509-pcengine4Let’s take a closer look at the white PCE itself.

    From the front, you can see a card slot at the dead center of the console. Slide a HuCARD inside and push the power switch to the right, and the guard closes in with a clack. A small depression at the bottom makes card insertion and removal easier. This basic switch and slot design was seen in every future PC Engine console iteration.

    On the right side of the front face is a single gamepad connector. This immediately differentiates the PCE from its predecessors. The Famicom had two controllers hard-wired into the console, allowing for two-player games from the beginning, but the PCE came with only one (removable) gamepad. This might make you think the system’s for one player only, but the system was actually designed from the start to allow for five players at once via the Multitap. That accessory went on sale day-and-date with the white PCE and helped make the system seem like it offered a whole new way to play — although its potential wasn’t truly unleashed until three years later, when Bomberman was released.

    090509-pcengine5The connector itself resembles the ones that NEC used for keyboards in most of its personal computers at that time. This helped the console seem more like a computer than a toy, perhaps, but it had a killer flaw — it’s too easy to yank the controller cord out of the system by accident. Get too excited while playing some action game and jerk the controller upward a bit, and it’ll come right out. Also, after repeatedly inserting and removing controllers, the solder on the connector tends to come loose after a while, making gameplay unreliable over time — a problem that became especially heinous with the Duo series. It was an issue that a rather large percentage of the userbase had to deal with, because if you used the Multitap for Bomberman parties and the Memory Base 128 (or other accessories) to back up your internal memory, you were swapping things in and out of that single port a lot. Undoubtedly, it’s the PCE’s equivalent to the Red Ring of Death. (NEC revised controller ports a bit for the PC-FX, which fixed the problem but still didn’t make owning a PC-FX any less regrettable.)

    090509-pcengine6

    The left side of the console is where the AC adapter port lies. If you attach the PCE to the CD-ROM system, this port becomes unreachable and you have to plug the AC jack into the CD-ROM’s socket instead.

    Over on the right side is the RF output and a little switch that selects between (Japanese) VHF channel 1 or 2. It’s easily forgotten by most gamers nowadays, but even the basic composite video/audio connectors were rare things on TV sets in the mid-1980s, so consoles connected themselves to your set via the antenna inputs instead, outputting to whichever TV channel wasn’t occupied by a station broadcasting in your area. Composite connectors were just beginning to find their way into lower-end TVs in Japan by this point, though, and so NEC-HE (being an audio appliance manufacturer, after all) offered the AV Booster accessory separately at launch.

    090509-pcengine7

    Now for the rear of the system, where we see an orange plastic cover hiding a rather large connector. This is arguably the most prominent feature on the console, the port through which the PCE exercises its “Core Concept” muscles and connects to all sorts of optional peripherals, from the aforementioned AV Booster to backup devices (Backup Booster, Ten no Koe 2), the CD-ROM System, the infamous Print Booster, the tested-but-unreleased Communications Booster, and other things.

    This rear connector is also found on the CoreGrafx, SuperGrafx, CoreGrafx II and the PC Engine LT, but the “Core Concept” itself was essentially a flop and the port was hardly used for anything by most users apart from CD-ROM gaming. Starting with the Duo (which included the CD-ROM drive built-in), the connector was gone. (The “budget” PC Engine Shuttle and portable GT also lack the expansion port.)

    Although the port was used by AV Booster to provide composite visuals, the system actually outputs pure RGB video internally. Dempa Shinbunsha had plans to release a connector that would let you connect your PCE to a computer monitor, but it was never formally released. Given that NEC-HE released an RGB monitor with a PC Engine built-in, it seems a given that the company designed the system for RGB from the start.

    The system is simple and largely square in external design, entirely white in color except for the green power switch. Not even the red PC Engine logo on the top of the console stands out very much, making it far less flashy than the red-and-white Famicom. Instead of flash, NEC (being a computer manufacturer) aimed for an elegant, PC-like design to emphasize the PCE’s next-generation position — a real-life “PC” connection that became all the more obvious with the PC-FX’s externals later on. White systems are a pain to keep looking clean, though…

    The Beginning of a Long, Strange Journey

    The PC Engine debuted in stores October 30, 1987, alongside launch titles Bikkuriman World (an arcade port of Wonder Boy in Monster Land with licensed characters shoehorned in) and Shanghai (a computer-game port, and an oddly reserved choice of one at that). It was not exactly a blockbuster lineup. Things picked up a bit the following month, when The Kung Fu’s enormous characters showed off the PCE’s strengths and NEC scored a major TV program tie-in with Kato-chan Ken-chan. The system’s big break, though, didn’t really come until the following March with the release of R-Type I — five months after launch. It’s rare to see a system succeed so well after such a slow start.

    With R-Type, the PC Engine’s main selling point became arcade ports, with Hudson, Namco, and NEC Avenue (a separate division of NEC) faithfully reproducing titles that the Famicom couldn’t hope to touch. The CD-ROM system, released in 1988, hit it big starting around the ’89 holiday season and came to define the PCE for years afterward.

    In December 1989, two years after the console’s debut, NEC released the PC Engine CoreGrafx and SuperGrafx, ending the white PCE’s role in the marketplace. The white system lived on in millions of living rooms, though, since the CoreGrafx was no different from it (the only addition being built-in composite output) and the SuperGrafx disappeared with nearly no support. 1991 saw the release of the PC Engine Duo (equipped with the Super CD-ROM) and the PC Engine CoreGrafx II (another minor upgrade), but as long as you had the right system card, you could still play all the newest games with the white PCE and old CD-ROM drive. Even the later Arcade Card was compatible with the original system, and it’s likely that many fans played on with their 1987-era white PCEs all the way to the final game release in 1999. I can’t think of any better evidence to prove how advanced the original PCE’s design was.

    How many white PCEs were sold in Japan? I don’t have any concrete data, but I would guess somewhere around three million units. A September 1992 edition of Famicom Tsushin states that 3.72 million non-CD-ROM PC Engines had been sold by that point (including the CoreGrafx and CoreGrafx II), and that figure was up to 3.92 million by the time Famitsu mentioned the statistic again in 1994. Most of these were sold between 1989 and mid-1990, the era just before the Super Famicom’s release.

    While it successfully competed with the Famicom, the PC Engine failed to break Nintendo’s dominance over the market. It managed to beat out the Mega Drive for market share in Japan (though apparently by just a hair’s breadth by the time both systems reached the end of their shelf lives), but was a total failure elsewhere and found its fortunes quickly plummet after the SFC hit the scene. It managed to survive for a long time thanks to the Duo’s release and the rise of Super CD-ROM as the “base system” for the PCE, but before long the console had a (not entirely undeserved) reputation for anime-themed and girl-laden titles. Even now, when Japanese bookshops are laden with nostalgia-twinged tomes covering the Famicom and other old game systems, the PC Engine is given surprisingly little coverage considering its market share and longevity as a viable platform. It’s sort of understandable, I suppose — never quite first-run like the SFC, never quite as hardcore as the Mega Drive in Japan, the PCE doesn’t have a readily identifiable niche in history.

    But think about all the “firsts” the PCE scored in console history — the first (semi-)massively multiplayer console, the first one that used CD media, the first one to be released in both home and portable formats, the first one that allowed save data to be stored externally, the first Japanese console to offer backward compatibility in later models. Keep all that in mind, and the PCE’s legacy is remarkably substantial. (If you really wanted to push it, you could say that all the girl-games released for it triggered the moe boom that took otaku-dom by storm a decade later. But let’s keep things civil here.)

    They say history is written by the victors, but the PC really does deserve a little more praise…or, at least, your Wii Points in Virtual Console.

     

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