TurboGrafx-16 101: The Beginner’s Guide
The RetroGaming 101 series is aimed at gamers who are just starting out in the classic gaming scene or are curious about an older console that they don’t know much about yet. Those of you that are especially knowledgeable about the featured console, I encourage you to add any information that you think would be beneficial into the comments section. If you are new to the featured console, and still have questions, you can also use the comments section and I will do my best to help you out.
When I recently asked around in the forums about which console everyone would like to learn more about, the TurboGrafx-16 was by far the most common answer. Personally, I wanted to learn more about the console, so our resident TG-16 expert, marurun offered to help me out. He did an awesome job writing just about every word in here. I just rearranged a few things and added some comments. I hope you enjoy learning about this somewhat forgotten gaming machine.
Also see: Games That Defined The Turbo-Grafx 16
- The TurboGrafx-16 (known as the PC-Engine in Japan) was the first console created by NEC or Hudson Soft (the two companies responsible for the hardware design).
- Hudson Soft was the first 3rd party game developer for Nintendo’s Famicom (NES) and as a result, so they were in an excellent position to gauge the condition of the market. Their hardware division was cooking up a console chip triumvirate; a CPU, video processor, and video output combo that they were no doubt sure could take on Nintendo’s Famicom and win. When it came time to enter the market they took their ideas to NEC and a partnership was born.
- While Hudson is often credited with the initial hardware design, including the HuCard, credit card sized game cartridges, form factor and the high quality video output chip, NEC is likely to have played a big role in the later CD-ROM attachment.
- Strong in Japan: The PC Engine took the number one sales spot from the Famicom (the Japanese version of the NES) not long after its release and stayed there until finally unseated by the Super Famicom (SNES). Its popularity in Japan was analogous to the success of the Sega Genesis in the US.
- Struggling in the US: Thanks to poor marketing, bad localization selections, and the illegal stranglehold Nintendo placed on US game releases, the TurboGrafx-16 failed to take off in the US, rapidly losing market ground to Sega’s Genesis.
- 8-Bit or 16-Bit?: The GPU in the TurboGrafx-16 was a 16-bit chip, but the CPU was only 8-bit. The TG-16 and PCE billed themselves as 16-bit systems because of the GPU, while detractors claimed that the 8-bit CPU meant the TG-16 could not truly be considered part of the 16-bit generation. In the US the system’s market performance was decidedly 8-bit, in that the Genesis and the Super NES, in full 16-bit glory, left it choking on their dust. In Japan the system clearly performed square in the middle of the 16-bit generation, trouncing the Sega Mega Drive and managing a few fading pot shots against the Super Famicom before slowly fading away. Many of the early games really did seem to be nothing but a minor graphical update from NES games, but later titles, especially some of the Super CD and Arcade CD games, did things only a competent 16-bitter could handle. In that sense the TG-16 was really a transitional system. It not only bridged the 8 and 16-bit generations, but also the cartridge and CD generation.
- Punished By Nintendo’s Third Party Rule: Nintendo required loyalty from third party developers in the US and punished those who developed or released titles for competing consoles. In response, NEC America licensed games from Capcom and others and localized them themselves. NEC America also relied heavily on companies like NaxatSoft and Icom Simulations who did not have a strong US presence on any other consoles. So while the Japanese market flourished with great releases, the US market declined. By the time Nintendo was rebuffed in US courts the damage had already been done.
- First CD-ROM Console: The TurboGrafx-16′s CD ROM² attachment was a first for a home console. It was an external add-on and it was a little low on memory, only 64kb initially in which to load levels, not to mention expensive, but the capabilities made an impact on the market. Games like Ys I & II, Ys III, and the Valis series all featured voice acting and CD soundtracks, not to mention early full-screen stills and cinematics.
- Built-In Turbo Button: All 1st party TG-16 controllers had turbo functions on them for buttons I and II. The basic pad, to date the most comfortable 8 or 16-bit generation pad made, had 2 simple toggles with off, slow, and fast. The Turbo Stick, a joystick looking much like a lighter-weight, rounded-edged, black NES Advantage, featured two analog-style sliders for variable turbo and buttons to turn turbo on and off.
- First Controller Multi-tap: The Turbo Tap (see System Accessories & Upgrades) allowed up to 5 controllers to be attached to the TG-16. The TG-16 also had a number of 5 player games, including all the TV Sports games. Multi-player Bomberman got an early start, as well. This eventually set the stage for games like Saturn Bomberman which took console multiplayer to the next level.
- Portable TG16: The Turbo Express, known in Japan as the PC Engine GT, was a hand-held version of the TG-16. It came out only a year after the Game Gear but was no hamstrung, weakling portable like the Game Gear or the Game Boy. The LCD was one of the best at the time. The high price ($299) kept it out of reach of most US gamers, but it was still quite a showpiece. A link cable allowed head-to-head gaming on a few, select titles and there was even an optional TV tuner add-on (like with the GameGear). Sadly, drastically short battery life and no save memory meant your game playing and TV watching had to be had in short bouts and at the cost of mountains of AA batteries. Not until the Sega Nomad would anybody attempt to put a full-powered console into a portable case. Notably, the Nomad, too, was a market failure.
Console Variations & Terminology (US)
- TurboGrafx-16: This was the main console. For its US release it was doubled in size over its Japanese counterpart, supposedly in the theory that in the US bigger is better, and perhaps due, at least in part, to a little extra RF shielding. The TG-16 featured RF out only, a single controller port that used a much larger controller connector than the Japanese PC-Engine, and lacked any kind of save memory. It also had an enormous expansion port that jutted from the back of the unit and shipped with a plastic cover that attached over this and made the shape of the system more uniform. The Expansion port is identical to the PC Engine’s expansion port and the TG-16 can use all Japanese add-ons, and vice versa.
- TurboCD Expansion: This monstrous peripheral attached to the expansion port and featured a platform on which the TG-16 rested. It was effectively the Japanese CD ROM² add-on with a different name. The TurboCD contained a removable CD drive slightly larger than later CD Walkman models. The AC adapter that came with the CD attachment powered both the CD and the game system. The AC adapter that originally shipped with the TG-16 could then be used to power the removable CD unit when detached and allow it to serve as a semi-portable CD player. Shipped with the CD ROM² System 2.0 card. The CD ROM² System expansion did have AV stereo output and save memory for CD and TurboChip games, however.
- TurboDuo: The TurboDuo was the last hurrah in the US. Designed in Japan and barely modified for the US, this system combined the TG-16, CD ROM² drive, CD ROM² BIOS, and Super System expanded memory into a single, compact console. It stilhad only one controller port, though. It debuted in the US at $299 and featured an impressive set of pack-in games. The system came with Ys I & II, Ninja Spirit on TurboChip, and a Super CD with Gates of Thunder, Bonk’s Adventure, Bonk’s Revenge, and a hidden copy of Bomberman that was unlockable with a code. There were some packages that featured a different TurboChip game.
- Super System 3.0 Card: When the TurboDuo was released the remaining inventory of the TurboCD expansion had its price slashed, and as an effort to let others in on the game TTI also released a US version of the Super System 3.0 Card, allowing the TG-16 with TurboCD to play Super CD ROM² games. The Super System 3.0 Card shipped with the 4-in-1 SuperCD that shipped with the Duo, meaning you were never without at least 4 great games to play. The 4-in-1 SuperCD was the best deaon the gaming market. Two great platformers, a fun puzzle/party game and one of the best shooters ever. What more could you want?
- Japanese Hardware Disambiguation: check out Wikipedia’s outline of the Japanese naming conventions and additional console variations.
- HuCard : Known as a TurboChip in the US, this game cartridge form factor was only slightly larger, and about twice as thick in most cases, as a credit card. The cases they came in were the same size and shape as a CD case and even opened similarly. The HuCards were housed in rubbery plastic sleeves and held in place by a plastic clip. This odd storage decision meant HuCard/TurboChip games could be stored in their cases in the same CD racks with their CD-ROM brethren.
- System Card: The System Cards were HuCards that provided the CD-ROM BIOS code so that the PC Engine or TG-16 could controthe CD ROM² System add-on. It was required to be in the card slot in order for CD ROM² games to play.
- CD ROM²: CD ROM² is reported to stand for and be pronounced CD ROM ROM. It is simply the name NEC and Hudson gave their particular CD game format.
- CD ROM² System: CD ROM² System refers to the first generation of CD games and the hardware designed to play them. The CD ROM² System consists of a PC Engine or TurboGrafx-16, a CD-ROM add-on, and a CD ROM² System 2.0 Card. A System Card 1.0 exists and shipped with the original PC Engine CD ROM² System expansion but only had a couple games developed for it before the CD ROM² System 2.0 Card was released.
- Super CD ROM² System: This is the second generation of CD games and the required hardware. Anything that can play a Super CD ROM² game can play an older CD ROM² game. The Super CD ROM² games were designed to take advantage of the extra memory on the Super System 3.0 Card and therefore had improved graphics, animation and sound over older CD ROM² games.
- Arcade CD ROM² System: The 3rd and final generation of CD ROM² games and hardware, Arcade CD ROM² games took advantage of the massive supply of memory on the Arcade Card and Arcade Card Pro making relatively accurate Neo Geo ports possible.
System Accessories & Upgrades
- Turbo Tap: The world’s first multi-tap. It was a block with 5 controller ports and a cable out the other end that connected to the single controller port on the front of the TG-16. Unfortunately, this device was required to have even 2 players, but many TG-16 games supported 2 or 5 player play so it was often a worthwhile investment.
- TurboPad: Basic system controller. Comfortable gamepad with a responsive rocker pad and 2 action buttons with built-in turbo capabilities.
- TurboStick: Joystick release for the TG-16 with variable turbo and a nice, large base. The thing was tough, too. I put years on one of these and it never even flinched. They don’t make joysticks like that any longer. Who needs clicky joysticks, anyway?
- Turbo Booster: This overpriced add-on plugged into the expansion port and mimicked, in appearance, the plastic cover, keeping the TG-16′s uniform shape. All it did was add AV Stereo out. It was originally price as something like $30 or $40 if I remember correctly.
- Turbo Booster Plus: Nearly identicato the Turbo Booster, only with some save memory included as well so you could save your high scores or, in a few cases, your progress without having to input annoying passwords.
- Super System Card: The limited 64kb memory of the originaCD-ROM accessory become problematic in that chip games started to surpass, graphically, some of the CD games, so NEC and Hudson Soft went back to the drawing board and returned with the Super System Card. Like the original System Card 2.0 that shipped with the CD-ROM, this card was to be inserted into the HuCard slot and provide basic CD-ROM support. What the Super System Card did differently, however, was provide an additiona192kb of memory, for a total of 256kb, thus allowing levels to be much longer and much more graphically intense.
- Arcade Card & Arcade Card Pro: After the Super Famicom was released in Japan and demonstrated its market controlling powers, NEC and Hudson made one last ditch effort to keep their market alive. They released the Arcade Card and Arcade Card Pro. Basically a Super System Card with an enormous memory increase, bringing the memory total to 2048kb, the Arcade Card made possible some of the best Neo Geo ports available until the 32-bit era. The Arcade Card was meant for systems like the PC Engine Duo which already had Super System capabilities built-in. The Arcade Card Pro was a little more expensive and meant for older systems that required earlier System Cards in order to operate. There were only 6 or so exclusive Arcade Card games released and most of them were Neo Geo fighting game ports, but they were all very competent and well-animated. There were, additionally, a couple Super System games that could use the extra Arcade Card memory for fewer loading breaks and the like. One of the 3×3 Eyes digital comic type games was one of these.
- Game Save Memory: You also had to get a special add-on to get save memory for HuCard games, The CD-ROM² attachment, however, included CD and HuCard compatible save memory.
- Compact & Simple Power: The PC Engine relied on only 3 chips to do the heavy lifting, and it demonstrated that, while it only had an 8-bit CPU, it could be the equaof its theoretically more powerful competition. Games like Street Fighter 2 and Gates and Lords of Thunder prove the point. The elegance of the 3 chip design helped keep the Japanese consoles compact and made the Turbo Express possible.
- 2D Shooter Library: The PC Engine, even in the US as the TurboGrafx-16, was the place to be for shooter action. It wouldn’t be until the Sega Saturn was released that players had so many impressive shooter options to fulfill their itchy trigger finger.
- Excellent Video Output Quality: A high-grade chroma encoder powered the video output of the PC Engine and the color and video quality outshone all until the Super Famicom stepped up to the plate, and even then it was a close call.
- Multimedia Power: The CD-ROM² attachment dragged games, kicking and screaming, into the optical age. Voice acting, animated cut scenes, and CD soundtracks were all effectively pioneered, at least in the console sphere, on the PC Engine.
- No Copy Protection on CD Games: For the few, the proud who had either a TurboDuo or TG-16 with CD ROM² attachment importing CD games was a breeze. Now, many years after its death, there have been many homebrew projects for the PC Engine. You can just burn a CD and stick it in the system and it will run any compatible code present.
- The Japanese Market: The PCE was an outstanding success in Japan, all around, and surely made Hudson and NEC a great deal of money. A huge library of games spanning HuCards and CDs and sales numbers to envy surely frustrated Sega as they failed to leverage the Mega Drive in the Japanese market.
- NEC America & Lack of US 3rd Party Support: NEC America really mishandled the American debut of the TurboGrafx-16. Marketing was weak, game selection was poor, and the original pack-in, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, was a joke. Add that to Nintendo’s illegal stonewalling of many developers and you have a recipe for failure. 3rd parties were reluctant to support the system in the US initially because of pressure from Nintendo, but even after Nintendo’s threats subsided they remained leery. Working Designs was one of the only licensees to continue localizing games in the US after the demise of the TG-16.
- High Price: The TurboGrafx-16 was initially too expensive in the US, and the CD ROM² attachment and Turbo Express even more so. NEC America was slow to drop the price on the TG-16 even after it was getting soundly trounced by Sega. The CD ROM² accessory debuted at $399. Ouch! When the TurboDuo was finally released the opening price of $299 was high but reasonable for what you got, but people were already price shy at that point and the Duo couldn’t save the PC Engine in the US.
- Chip Audio: While the PC Engine’s sound chip was pretty flexible it was, ultimately, limited. Unlike the Nintendo NES/Famicom it had stereo and 6 channels of audio. Furthermore, the NES had programmed channels, in the sense that this channel is a square wave and this other channel is a saw wave, and so on. On the PC-Engine you could determine what you wanted out of each channel, but assigning three channels to do different sine waves was only so much of an improvement. Trying to get digital sounds like recorded voice samples tended to yield very poor results. It wasn’t until CD games arrived that the PCE was truly able to shine in the audio department.
- Game Genre Limitations: While the Japanese library was huge, the US library had some gaping holes. There were very few RPGs translated to the US, so RPG lovers were left out in the cold. Even in Japan there weren’t many RPGs until the CD ROM² attachment was released, due to the core system and HuCards usually lacking save memory.
- The US Market: How could a system that did so well in Japan fail so spectacularly here? We can throw blame around to try and find out who’s responsible, but it’s the results that are telling. The US game library was small and quite limited, the CD ROM² attachment was priced out of reach and too many peripherals were needed to have a “working” system, and 3rd parties avoided getting involved with the system. Many of the later CD ROM² games were excellent but nobody has the CD attachment so it didn’t really matter. The Sega Genesis, almost in retribution for the role reversal in Japan, trounced the TG-16 and the Super NES later pounded the nails into the coffin while kicking the Genesis around and chewing bubblegum at the same time.
- Large Amount of Hardware Upgrades & Variations: With all the different types of hardware and game formats mentioned above, the TG-16 makes Sega and their Genesis/Sega CD/32X combination look tame. Oddly, the US had far fewer model variations than Japan and yet suffered possibly as a result.
- Virtually Required Add-ons: In the US, you had to buy an upgrade to do just about anything with your TG-16. The system shipped with 1 controller port and only RF out, and most TurboChip games had no save batteries in them. You had to buy a Turbo Tap to play even a 2 player game and if you wanted stereo AV out you had to pony up for, at the very least, a Turbo Booster. Not many TurboChip games really needed save capabilities, but if you wanted to save your cheapest option was the $50 or $60 Turbo Booster Plus. Thankfully, the TurboCD included AV out and CD and HuCard compatible save memory in addition to allowing you to play CD ROM² games.
- Emulation Status: There are several emulators available and most handle HuCard games quite fine, but very few do a good job with CD games. However, AlPC emulators have trouble presenting the full screen resolution from edge to edge.
- Best PC Emulator: The best emulator is a commercial one that costs $20. Magic Engine, developed in France, can run all chip games, including SuperGrafx, and all variants of CD games.
- Wii Virtual Console: The Nintendo Wii’s Virtual Console supports a limited number of TG-16 games with it’s specialized emulator. Games are available for purchase on an individual basis.
- Japanese HuCard games have a different cartridge pin out from US TurboChip games. In order to use Japanese HuCards in a US system you need an adapter like Dave Shadoff’s Kisado.
- Japanese HuCards can be used in US TurboGrafx-16 with an adapter, but US TurboChips cannot be used in a Japanese PC Engine without making modifications to the PC Engine. Why? Japanese HuCard games don’t do any kind of region check, but US TurboChip games do. If you have a PC Engine and want to play TurboChip games you have to open the system and cut a particular pin on one of the chips.
- Standard CD games had no region protection and will work on US and Japanese systems.
- The CD ROM² System Cards are all region-specific and have the same constraints as HuCard and TurboChip games. There are no US region Arcade Cards, only Super System 3.0 and System 2.0 cards.
- Japanese controllers use a smaller connector than US controllers. For some reason the US TG-16 used a controller port that was different, up until the TurboDuo was released, when they went back to using the Japanese port style. This means that earlier controller peripherals were not compatible with the later TurboDuo or Japanese units without a converter. TTI tried to remedy this by selling Turbo Taps (see System Accessories & Upgrades, above) that were modified to connect to the TurboDuo with the smaller connector but featured 5 old-style ports so you could use old-style controllers. The inverse was available from a few tinkering fans and later, I believe, from Turbo Zone Direct, the company that took over sales of the remaining inventory from TTI when TTI decided to fold.
- At around $60 for the base model, the TG-16 one of the more expensive “mainstream retro” systems to get into.
- The complete system get more expensive once you add the CD-ROM² attachment, which is quite pricey at a couple hundred dollars.
- Pricier still is a working Duo variant (around $400), and to a greater degree, the PC Engine GT/Turbo Express or the PCE LT (will set you back several hundred as well as being nearly impossible to find)
- The CD games are “cheap”. You can burn them from ISOs without problems on both US and Japanese systems, after you’ve emptied your bank account for a system.
- As mentioned above, the Wii’s VirtuaConsole is the most affordable solution for playing the TG-16 games available through the service. Lacking from the Virtual Console are CD games.