With the upcoming release of the TurboGrafx-16 mini, which by the way has been delayed because of the coronavirus, I felt this was a great time for a brief revisit of the console's history.
The TurboGrafx-16 Entertainment SuperSystem (whew, what a name) was a video game console jointly developed by Hudson Soft and NEC Home Electronics. It was first released in Japan on October 30, 1987 where it was known as the PC Engine and then in the United States on August 29, 1989. It was the second “16-bit” console to market as Sega just beat them out with their Genesis 15 days prior on August 14th, 1989.
8-Bit ... 16-Bit - Which Is It?
Initially, the TurboGrafx-16 was marketed as a direct competitor to the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Master System, where early marketing promoted the TurboGrafx-16’s superior graphics and sound compared to the other 8-bit systems. I see your confused look when I grouped this in with the other 8-bit systems so let me explain.
The TurboGrafx-16 had an 8-bit CPU but a 16-bit video color encoder, and a 16-bit video display controller. Marketing was creative as this most definitely is an 8-bit system with some juiced up visuals. Because of this most TurboGrafx-16 games did look next gen with the larger sprites, more colors on screen and a smoother animation. When compared to the Sega Genesis though, the TurboGrafx-16 definitely couldn’t hang.
Unlike other systems at the time the games did not come in bulky plastic cartridges but rather on thin cartridges called TurboChips (or HuCards for the PC Engine ). These plastic game cards were about the size of credit cards, but slightly thicker, and with connectors clearly visible on the end. They actually resemble Nintendo Switch cartridges, albeit much larger. Each TurboChip could only hold 2.5MB so NEC was in need of a beefier storage option.
CDs Are Not Just For Music!
The TurboGrafx-16 was the first video game console capable of playing CD-ROM games with an optional add-on. NEC released the CD-ROM² in Japan on December 4, 1988, and released the TurboGrafx-CD in the United States on August 1, 1990 with a launch price of $399.99, and that did not include any bundled games. Fighting Street and Monster Lair were the TurboGrafx-CD launch titles with Ys Book I & II soon followed. Stand out games were definitely the Thunder shooters Lords of Thunder and Gates of Thunder but the one must have CD-ROM game is of course Dracula X: Rondo of Blood for all the Castlevania fans! The technology was cool but they combined unit was no as attractive as Sega's attempt.
Along with being the first system with a CD-ROM NEC also created the first handheld that played the actual console games, the Turbo Express. It contained identical hardware to the home console and played the same game library thanks to the small size of the TurboChips. Because of this it was big, bulky and pretty ugly. It never could compete with Nintendo's modestly specced GameBoy and didn't have a very long life.
Marketing & Sales!
NEC/Turbo Technologies later released the TurboDuo, which combined the CD-ROM and TurboGrafx-16 into one awesome machine that I had always wished I could have purchased. The unit came into competition with the Sega CD, which was released almost immediately after. Turbo Technologies ran comic book ads featuring Johnny Turbo. These ads poked fun at Sega, emphasizing that though the TurboDuo and Sega CD had the same retail price, the TurboDuo was a standalone platform and included five pack-in games! With Sega you had to purchase both the Genesis and the Sega CD and no games were included with the player.
NEC claimed that it had sold 750,000 TurboGrafx-16 consoles in the United States, and 500,000 CD-ROM units worldwide by March of 1991. However, the North American console gaming market continued to be dominated by the Super NES and Genesis rather than the new CD-based consoles. In May 1994 Turbo Technologies announced that it was dropping support for the TurboDuo.
Much Love For The Turbo!
The main reason the TurboGrafx-16 remains of interest is its games catalog. Unlike other consoles that “failed” (ahem, Atari Jaguar) the TurboGrafx library is actually quite amazing. From Bonk to Neutopia there are some amazing titles covering all genres and to this day is a fantastic system to have in your collection. The TurboGrafx-16 might have been third place in the 8-bit generation but will always hold a top spot in my heart!