Posted on July 17th, 2009 35 comments
Maker: NEC Home Electronics
Release Date: 12/4/88
Price: 57,800 yen
The greatest contribution the PC Engine made to video-game history is undoubtedly the CD-ROM media it successfully introduced. Maybe there wasn’t an install base that goes into the multi-millions like you see with later systems, but the PCE CD-ROM was successful enough for NEC — and it was also the first success story for the format, something that irrevocably changed console hardware and software design ever since.
Musical CDs first went on sale in 1982, gradually growing in popularity toward the end of the decade and replacing LP records as the primary medium for the music industry. While originally developed as a musical format, CDs (as we all know today) can store any kind of digital information you can think of. Dozens of companies introduced concepts and systems that took advantage of CD-based storage throughout the ’80s, but in the very beginning, the disc was seen purely for “serious” use — digital encyclopedias, library databases, that sort of thing.
It was Hudson Soft’s hardware staff that first came up with the idea to use CDs as the medium for a video-game system, an idea that was seen as more than a little crazy for its time. The push was chiefly spearheaded by Shinichi Nakamoto, an old-guard software guy who began working for Hudson in 1978 while studying in college and now serves as its executive vice president. Hiromasa Iwasaki, a game journalist and programmer who worked on Ys Book I & II, wrote in a 1996 issue of Dengeki PC Engine that Nakamoto, “a fun guy who, for better or for worse, loves going on adventures and trying new things, was the one who pushed the [CD-ROM²] project — or, really, stuffed it down everyone’s throats.” Iwasaki was one of the programmers of the system’s BIOS (i.e. the System Card 1.0), and he was involved with developing the hardware architecture from the start. (He was originally headhunted by Hudson for his experience working on the Green Book CD standard, co-developed by Sony and Philips in 1986.)
Why was Nakamoto so interested in the CD-ROM format for games? Judging by assorted interviews he’s done over the years, the original inspiration was the ability to use real-life voice in game productions. It was Teruhisa “Ohji” Hiroi who expanded that concept to full-on visual animation, the anime cutscenes that would highlight a vast amount of PCE CD games to come. Hiroi, a freelance designer whose experience at the time was mostly in the trenches of anime development, heard about Nakamoto’s project and brought a game concept to him before the PCE was even released — a concept that eventually became Tengai Makyō: Ziria (1989), the first “killer app” CD game. “I wanted to make a game that really used CD-ROM,” Hiroi later wrote, “and after that, it was almost like NEC was making the machine for me.”
It was, indeed, NEC’s computer division that created the CD-ROM hardware — or, to be exact, repurposed it for game console purposes. Former NEC-HE hardware designer Nobuhiro Takagaki mentioned in a 2003 interview with Dorimaga magazine that, starting in 1986, NEC was working on a next-generation computer, a CD-ROM-equipped “multimedia machine” meant to replace the PC-8801 in the consumer market. The concept isn’t unlike what Fujitsu came up with for the FM Towns in 1989, but Hudson ultimately convinced NEC to take the CD functionality of this new computer and work it into the PC Engine instead. (NEC themselves wouldn’t release a CD-ROM computer until the PC-9821 in 1992.)
The CD-ROM² System wasn’t released until a year after the PC Engine itself, but from the size of the HuCards to the jewel case-like packaging they were sold in, it’s plain to see that the system was designed around the CD-ROM unit, not the other way around. Still, it was released as an optional accessory because NEC didn’t seriously think it’d eventually become the system’s primary media. It’s obvious why they had their doubts. After all, this was the first consumer-level device ever to use CD-ROMs after the Yellow Book standard was finalized in 1985. CD-ROM drives were eye-poppingly expensive until the early ’90s — the PCE’s system ain’t exactly cheap at nearly 60,000 yen, but consider that a PC CD-ROM drive cost over 200,000 yen in the Japanese marketplace back then, and it’s easy to see the pains NEC must’ve gone through to keep the price as low as it was.
The revolutionary nature of this system is particularly impressive when you remember that it came out in 1988, when the Famicom was still king and even the largest of games for it were two or three megabits (and even that was thanks to fancy bankswitching techniques that Nintendo didn’t anticipate). By comparison, a PC Engine CD-ROM can hold up to 540 megabytes, 4320 megabits, per disc. As PC Engine FAN put it in one 1988 headline, “you could put all the Famicom games that exist on one CD-ROM!” — and a lot of gamers back then had trouble even imagining what could be done with that much space. (You can easy fit every single HuCard release on a single CD-ROM too, by the way, and hackers have put lots of HuCards on SCD-compatible discs in the past.)
Developing for this pioneering system was not straightforward. Hard drives didn’t come in 540-megabyte models back then (the one I got with my first PC in 1992 was only 120MB), so — as veteran game developer Satoshi Mikami described to Dorimaga in 2003 — Hudson’s developers had to string several drives together to create a “CD-ROM² emulator” to work with. The equipment cost alone went into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for each individual dev workstation. CD-Rs didn’t exist yet, either (the standard for them wasn’t defined until 1988), so if you wanted to test a game out on a real PCE, you had to copy all the CD-ROM data to tape storage and send it off to the factory for pressing, which cost the equivalent of a cool $10,000 or so per cycle.
Realizing all this gives you an idea of exactly how crazy it was to introduce CD-ROM to game systems as early as NEC and Hudson dared to. It’s also a window into the massive “game bubble” the Famicom had created in Japan — even in the mid-1980s, there was so much money to be made off of video games that incredible risks like these were taken on a regular basis.