Useful Notes: Turbo-Grafx 16

"The higher energy videogame system."

The TurboGrafx-16, known as PC Engine in Japan, was a 16-bit console developed by Hudson Soft and sold by NEC that was released first in Japan in 1987 and in North America in 1989. Far more successful in Japan than it ever was elsewhere. Its mascot character was Bonk, or PC Genjin in Japan where the name was a clear pun on the system's name.

The most unique characteristic of the system was that the games did not come on bulky plastic cartridges but rather on thin TurboChips (HuCards in Japan), plastic game cards with connectors clearly visible on the end.

Discontinued? Yes indeed, the system did not sell very well in North America, competing as it did with massively successful Nintendo and Sega contemporaries. However its game library's inclusion on the Wii Virtual Console has lit the fires of nostalgia in the hearts of the few gamers who played and loved the thing, as well as introducing these old gems to a newer audience. The system was, however, extremely popular in Japan, outselling the original Famicom for a while (which is what forced Nintendo to jumpstart development of the Super Famicom in the first place). It was particularly favored for shoot 'em ups, and many of the Vertical Scrolling Shooters produced for the system offered a narrow-screen "arcade mode" that distorted the aspect ratio to make the graphics seem even more arcade-like.

Like all the venerable systems, this one had a few add-ons of its own. One, the Turbo Tap, was a connector for up to five controllers; since the TurboGrafx, unlike its competitors, only had one built-in controller port, this was necessary to enable multi-player in the (admittedly few) games that supported them. Another was the TurboGrafx-CD (PC Engine CD-ROM2 System) expansion, which opened more possibilities for the game library, especially with the Super System Card. The CD attachment was very successful in Japan, where it helped prolonged the lifespan of the system, but not so much elsewhere, to the point that only a handful of games were ever exported. NEC later released the Turbo Duo, which was a TurboGrafx with a little extra RAM and the CD drive and Super System Card built-in. The American release is infamous for its advertising campaign, Johnny Turbo. You can read the comics in their entirety here, as well as more info here.

One of the extensions of the PC Engine that was only released in Japan was the SuperGrafx, which added an extra video chip and more RAM to the core hardware. The hardware revision was a complete failure, only having five games exclusively released for it. Slightly more successful was the Arcade Card, released in 1994 in a late attempt to upgrade the capacities of the system; it was mostly noted for ports of Neo Geo games.

Finally, in the portable market, TurboGrafx had a clear advantage thanks to its slim game cards. The Turbo Express handheld console (PC Engine GT in Japan) was able to use exactly the same cards as the main console, so that it was essentially a small, portable TG16 with a screen attached. Yes it was heavy, and yes it was a battery-guzzler, but it still was nice to have a lot of those games on the go.


Specs:

Processors:
  • CPU runs at a maximum 7.16Mhz, although games could switch it down to 3.58Mhz or 1.79Mhz; most Hu Card games run at 3.58Mhz to avoid overheating the system (as the Japanese PC Engine was quite small), though it runs at full speed for CD games. It's also an 8-bit processor, which led some to doubt it was really a 16-bit system.
  • The actual graphics are generated by a GPU, which is 16-bit. It actually has two of them, but they are practically identical, and just split color and display between them.

Memory:
  • 8 KB of main Random Access Memory, 64 KB of Video RAM, additional 192 KB of RAM (Turbo Duo only)
  • The CD-ROM2 Systen Card adds another 64KB.
  • The Super System Card beefs up the 64KB to 256KB.
  • The Arcade Card was released in two versions:
    • The Arcade Card Pro, for the original CD-ROM2 System, beefs it up more to 2.2MB.
    • The Arcade Card Duo, for the Super CD-ROM2 and Duo consoles, add only 2MB, due to those models already having the 256KB extra RAM from the Super System Card.
  • SuperGrafx has 32 KB of main, and 128 KB of Video.
  • Games on Hu-Cards could be up to 2.5 MB.

Sprites:
  • 64 sprites on screen (128 for the SuperGrafx), with 16 single-width sprites per scanline.
  • Sprite size is a minimum of 16x16 and a maximum of 32x64.

Display:
  • Resolution is variable, but most games ran at 256x240.
  • One background layer (two on the SuperGrafx) composed of 8x8 tiles.
  • 512 total colors, but the sprite layer and the background layer each could have up to 241 at once (the two background layers on the SuperGrafx shared those).
  • The SuperGrafx was able to run 2 screens; (SATIRE) however, it was never used in any retail software due to the system's bombing.


Games released on HuCard and/or TurboChip:

Games released on CD-ROM:


Tropes:

  • Awesome, but Impractical: The Turbo Express. It was a handheld version of the TurboGrafx-16 in full color, capable of playin virtually all the HuCards, and it even supported multiplayer. Unfortunately, its ambitious novelty was quickly negated by very obvious hardware problems; the early LCD screens were highly prone to pixel failure, and sound failure was very common due to cheap capacitors. The tiny screen made it very hard to read game text (a deal breaker for RPG fans), and it needed a whopping six AA batteries for three hours of play time. And the aforementioned multiplayer was usually restricted to one screen, with very few games designed to take advantage of the co-op possibilities allowed by the Turbo Link cable.
  • Product Facelift: The TurboDuo, essentially a TurboGrafx-16 with built-in CD player and RAM upgrade required to run Super CD-ROM2 discs, was a last ditch attempt to revitalize interest in the system in North America with little success. The PC Engine had even more hardware variations and configurations in addition to the Duo models, such as the Shuttle, the LT and the ill-fated SuperGrafx, rivaling the Mega Drive in terms of redesigns.
  • Region Coding: The TG16 achieved this in a rather unusual manner. Rather than changing the shape and pin size of the cartridges like Nintendo and Sega did with their consoles, the TG16 read the pins of its HuCards differently from the PCE, requiring the need to actually convert a foreign HuCard to work on a domestic console. In a strange design choice, the controllers were also region-locked, due to the TG16 using DIN ports instead of mini-DIN ports like the PCE (the Duo would revert back to mini-DIN, resulting in the need of an adapter in order for TG16 controllers and peripherals to work on the Duo). CD-ROM2 games were region free though.
  • No Export for You: Most of the system's later titles (as well as the Arcade Card upgrade) were not released outside Japan due to the TG16's failure to penetrate the North America market. A few games, such as Bomberman '94 and Snatcher, ended up being ported to the Genesis/Sega CD for export releases.

Alternative Title(s):

Turbo Grafx 16