(Foreword: I decided to write this article because of the recent announcement of the TurboGrafx-16 Mini. Many people have dismissed this and even compared it to the Vectrex, a "GameBoy Micro Mini" and other derisive comparisons - so I thought I would make a post about this often-overlooked system that reigned champion in its own ways!)
The TurboGrafx-16 (known as PC Engine in Japan and Europe) was the forgotten console that kicked off the 4th generation of consoles. It was developed by the company Hudson Soft, a Japanese company founded in 1973, in an attempt to break into the market by offering something different. Hudson Soft - named after Hudson trains, of which the founders were big fans - began selling and developing software for early computers in its early years, and in fact, they were the first third-party developer for the Famicom (NES) and throughout the NES's lifetime, they developed multiple hit titles for the system, including Bomberman, Bonk's Adventure and of course, the first third-party game on any Nintendo console - Nuts & Milk. Interestingly, Hudson Soft continued to publish games for the NES and SNES despite the fact their very own TurboGrafx-16 was directly competing with those systems!
So, what of the TurboGrafx-16? The TurboGrafx-16 was released in Japan in 1987 (as "PC Engine"), the USA and France in 1989 (as "PC Engine") and a limited release in the UK and Spain in 1990 (simply under "TurboGrafx").
Though it was meant to compete with the NES at inception, the TurboGrafx-16 ended up as a competitor to the Genesis and SNES. It was discontinued between 1993 and 1994 depending on the country, giving it between 4 years (France) and 7 years (Japan) as its lifespan - not including derivative models such as the TurboDuo, which lasted until 1995. On the note of regional differences, the PC Engine and TurboGrafx look very different from each other and could be confused for being totally different systems - the Japanese PC Engine still holding the title of "smallest home console in history". Interestingly, the PC Engine was actually very successful in Japan, as its earlier release time allowed it to outsell the Famicom and become the Super Famicom's main rival. At one point, it was the top-selling console in Japan.
So why did it fail outside of Japan? A big factor was Nintendo - and not because the NES and SNES were overwhelmingly successful, but because Nintendo punished third-party developers for developing for other systems. This meant early releases were dominated by Hudson and Namco titles, as both companies were too important to punish. While some original developers shone on the TurboGrafx-16, many companies that were successful on the Famicom and NES couldn't take the risk. Hudson Soft fought Nintendo about this in court and won, but it was too little, too late. Nintendo were not the only factor - Hudson Soft handled the localisation of the TurboGrafx-16 very unusually - but there is no doubt Nintendo used their stranglehold on the US market to pressure developers into not developing for the TurboGrafx-16, a monopolistic and greedy move that cost the TG-16 greatly.
Under the hood, the TurboGrafx-16 itself is a contradiction. Despite the title of TurboGrafx-16, the system used an 8-bit processor! Some criticised this as a misleading marketing trick - one Atari was quick to repeat - but the reality was it was a fast enough 8-bit processor, and it had a 16-bit graphics processor, so it got away with this trick. The CPU is based on the same architecture as the NES and even the SNES CPU, the 6502 architecture. It was a straightforward 7.16MHz 6502, which gives it a substantial clock-for-clock CPU advantage compared to the NES, which had a 1.8MHz 6502 CPU, and even the SNES in some situations - which was based on a 65C816, effectively a 16-bit 6502 CPU, at 3.55MHz. So with the exception of register width, the TurboGrafx-16 is practically the same CPU as the SNES at its core. On top of this, many Sega conversions from Genesis to TurboGrafx-16 are agreed to be better on the TG-16. So is it that misleading? You decide...
At its core, the TurboGrafx-16 hardware was incredibly straightforward. It only has three main chips in it: The CPU, GPU, and video encoder. Compare this to the Genesis or Super Nintendo, both of which had a plethora of different odd chips. It has 8KB of work RAM and 64 KB of VRAM, with a theoretical maximum resolution of 565x484 - though the highest resolution used in any commercial game was 512x224. Being the first "16-bit" console (it has a 16-bit GPU, I'll let it count in the context of graphics), the TG-16 lacked some features in hardware that its later competitors had, such as the ability to have a second background layer. This could be circumvented by the programmers by implementing their own software solution, but the fact remains it lacked the capability in hardware.
What is interesting is the advantages the TurboGrafx-16 had over the SNES and Genesis. While the SNES could only have 256 on-screen colours at once, and the Genesis just 64, the TG-16 could have up to 482 - almost double that of the SNES and Genesis. The SNES had more total colours (32,768), which is why it looks better than the Genesis and PCE (512 total colours) in most cases. This is also aided by the fact that all consoles have tricks such as dithering to increase the effective amount of colours. In any case, the fact it is a supercharged 6502 means that there are situations where it will do better than the SNES - though the fact that the SNES had extra hardware to handle many tasks means its CPU has more time than Genesis or the TG-16, where the CPU does more heavy lifting. Despite this, the TG-16 had very balanced and fair hardware; the main CPU could do the miscellaneous handiwork around the system with plenty of cycles to spare and while it wasn't quite as feature-complete as its competitors, the GPU was strong enough to compete right until the end.
So, case in point; why should we remember the TurboGrafx-16 in 2019? Well, it did a lot of things right; as the first 4th generation console, using an 8-bit CPU despite its moniker, it did incredibly well to keep pace with the Genesis and SNES which had 2+ years more to develop. It was also the first console to support CD-ROMs, something that eventually became one of the (if not the) biggest selling points for the PlayStation 1. Interestingly, the TG-16 wasn't able to handle FMVs; this meant it dodged the terrible FMV games the Sega CD got, while the storage space of the CD-ROM allowed for truly beautiful cinematics to be stored without fear of compression or storage - and many games use this brilliantly. It is also still home to a strong back catalog of 2D shoot-em-ups, one that is still impressive to this day, in both Japan and the USA. It also has some classic games, such as Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, that are worth your time today.
Personally, I admire the TG-16 as a system and I feel I never delved into its library deep enough, so I am really looking forward to the TurboGrafx-16 mini. Hopefully I've told someone something new by writing this article - if I did, tell me below. Otherwise, if you've reached this point, why don't you just give me the like anyway? Go on, it's one click away and it's literally right below you, I didn't do all this writing for nothing!
Thanks for reading, in any case.
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