25 years of the PC Engine

ImageIn the late 80s and 90s, when the term ‘arcade perfect’ was used with abandon, the PC Engine quickly acquired an almost mythical status. In both magazines and in the corners of playgrounds, there were whispers that this Japanese wonder console (purportedly the first 16-bit system on the market) was capable of running a pixel-for-pixel port of the legendary shooter R-Type.

That the PC Engine wasn’t even officially available in the UK merely added to its enigma. Full-page adverts appeared in videogame magazines such as Ace, which showed the PC Engine’s tiny, seductive case – a 140mm square slab of plastic that, to this day, remains the smallest home console yet devised – and screenshots of R-Type. From those images, it really did look like it might be that rarest of things: an arcade-perfect conversion.

Looking back, it’s easier to cut through the hype. The PC Engine wasn’t 16-bit at all (its processor was 8-bit), and while the port of R-Type was excellent, you had to buy it on two separate cartridges, and the sprites flickered when too many appeared on the screen.

In spite of this, there’s still something truly magical about the PC Engine. Part of this is probably down to nostalgia; back then, grey imports of Japanese consoles and games was extraordinarily expensive, so owning one would have been out of the question for all but the most dedicated or wealthy of UK gamers.

Even now, though, there remains  something intimate and neat about the PC Engine’s design. The wafer-thin cartridges, which come enshrouded in little plastic sleeves and sold in CD jewel cases. The rounded joypad, which is slightly larger and more pleasant to handle than its contemporaries, such as the NES or Sega Master System.

Then there were the games, which were an arcade fanatic’s dream. There were system-exclusive shooters, such as Gunhed and Soldier Blade. There was BC Kid and its sequels, which rank among some of the best platformers of the era. There were some fantastic coin-op conversions, such as Galaga 88, Gradius, Operation Wolf and Image Fight. Purchase the relevant multi-tap dongle, and you could enjoy four-player Bomberman.

A joint venture between the hardware manufacturer NEC and Hudson Soft, the PC Engine was a great success when it launched in Japan on the 30th October 1987. Released a year before Sega’s rival Mega Drive, and three years before the Super Nintendo, the PC Engine made rival hardware look dated indeed.

Unfortunately, NEC was slow to capitalise on the console’s support at home, and didn’t launch the PC Engine until the summer of 1989 in North America. By then, Sega’s aggressive Mega Drive (or Genesis) campaign was already clicking into gear, and the Super Nintendo’s release was just around the corner.

Although NEC released several iterations of the PC Engine to keep pace, including a CD-Rom drive and even two handheld versions, a lack of third-party support from developers saw the console’s fortunes gradually dwindle until its production finally ceased in the mid-90s.

For a while there, though, the PC Engine shone brightly, selling 10 million units worldwide and amassing a library of around 287 games.

Even today, the PC Engine is still collected, prized and talked about in reverential tones. There are fantastic sites such as this the PC Engine Software Bible, and its games are keenly collected, largely by people like me, who remember those full-page magazine ads with misty-eyed affection.

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