Posted on April 29th, 2011 5 comments
Release Date: 8/8/89
Price: 2600 yen
The Guinness Book of World Records claims that the NES release of The Legend of Zelda was “the first home console title to include an internal battery for saving data.” This is not actually true. Zelda came out August 1987 in the US, but in April 1987, Seta released Morita Shōgi, a Japanese chess sim that allowed you to save the status of the board and pick up a game in progress anytime you liked. (The cartridge version of Hydlide II on the MSX had battery backup even earlier in late 1986, and considering most Japanese people treated the MSX as a game console, that oughta count as well.)
The tech may not have been common until 1987, but it gained prevalence pretty quickly on the Famicom and NES, just in time for the role-playing game boom that hit around the same time. Lucky thing, too, because the alternative to battery backup on a console RPG is junk like the 52-character passwords used in the Japanese version of Dragon Quest II. The first two FC Dragon Quests had a password system that Enix called fukkatsu no jumon (復活の呪文, the “incantation of resurrection”) which made children nationwide cry because the strings of kana it spat out were almost impossible to write down and type in correctly unless you had a lot of practice. (American gamers of a similar age might remember how the font on Hudson’s Faxanadu also led to frequent incorrect passwords.)
The original PC Engine, as designed and released in 1987, had no provision for saving games without a password. It wasn’t part of the HuCard’s design spec because there just wasn’t any space for it on the card (although this changed later on). PCE games up to now all either had no save system or made you write down long, tricky passwords — Susa-no-Oh Densetsu actually had you type in your characters’ current HP, gold and other parameters alongside the password checksum. NEC Home Electronics and Hudson didn’t see this as a big deal at first, partly because they figured CD-ROM technology would advance more quickly than it ultimately did — Shinichi Nakamoto suggested in a couple game-mag interviews at the time that technology to write data onto CD-ROMs would be implemented on consoles in the near future. Thus, the PCE was without backup functionality until the CD-ROM² System came out in late 1988, and gamers unwilling to shell out for that had to wait until August 1989 for a solution that didn’t involve trying to decipher their own messily-written passwords.
For whatever reason, Hudson and NEC both developed their own HuCard backup devices — Hudson had the Tennokoe 2, and NEC had the Backup Booster, released in November 1989. Why this happened, and why NEC’s peripheral came out so long after Hudson’s, is unknown. It should also be noted that HuCards had to to have backup support specially written into the code in order to be compatible with these devices, something that largely didn’t happen until late 1989, although a few Hudson titles had Tennokoe support built in before the hardware was released.
Where did the name Tennokoe 2 (which literally means “The Voice of Heaven 2”) come from? The term is actually borrowed from Momotarō Densetsu, a 1987 Famicom RPG from Hudson set in the world of the Japanese folktale. Tennokoe was what the password system was called in the game, a similar bit of atmospheric decoration to Dragon Quest’s “incantations” but with a bit more of a Far East flair to it. As for the “2” at the end of the accessory’s name? That, according to Hudson, is because the unit contains two kilobytes of battery-backed SRAM. This is a very weird thing to name an accessory like this, but I suppose it helped the thing stand out in the shops.
As you can see here, the Tennokoe 2 connects to the expansion port at the rear of the original PCE system. Perhaps “latches on to” is a better way of putting it, though. The thing’s huge, and heavy. The size is partly because it doesn’t run off the PCE’s power supply — you have to load it up with two AA batteries, essentially supplying the “battery” of the battery backup yourself. A red LED on the plastic case turns on whenever the batteries are almost exhausted, and as long as you’re quick about switching in a new set, you won’t lose any data. Because the Tennokoe doesn’t have any composite video output on its rear, and because it occupies the only expansion port on the console, you can’t use it and an AV Booster simultaneously, which means you’re stuck with RF video if you wanted to save any games. (The only solution for this was to purchase a CoreGrafx or CoreGrafx II, which had separate composite outputs.)
Still, the Tennokoe has the same amount of backup SRAM as NEC-HE’s Backup Booster and cost about half the price in shops, making it by far the most popular choice among PCE gamers. Thus, for whatever reason, Hudson’s third-party accessory beat out NEC’s first-party version in userbase, a trend that was set in stone by the time the Tennokoe Bank (a far more convenient storage device in HuCard form) shipped in 1991.
2K doesn’t go very far if you have a large HuCard collection, and more than a few gamers purchased multiple Tennokoe’s around this time to avoid having to delete anything. The accessory’s portability and separation from the games themselves also give it an advantage of convenience, letting you take your in-progress data to a friend’s house or trade it with others. In a rather perverse way, then, the Tennokoe 2 was the game biz’s first memory card. I told you the PCE doesn’t get enough credit as an industry pioneer.