In Japan, shortly after the introduction of Nintendo’s Famicom (Japan’s version of the NES), the electronics giant NEC entered into the videogame market with the introduction of their “next generation” system, known as the PC Engine (PCE). The PCE boasted a 16-bit graphics chip capable of displaying up to 256 colors on screen at once, at a number of resolutions. Although its CPU wasn’t much more powerful that of the NES, its spectacular graphics chip and six-channel sound bettered the Famicom in every way. It utilized a sleek new card format (PCE games are either HuCards or Turbochips) to hold its software, rather than bulky cartridges. It was also the first console to boast a CD-ROM drive, for full orchestral soundtracks and even (gasp!) full motion video. The PC Engine was immensely popular in Japan, outselling the Famicom by a significant margin.
In 1989, two years after its Japanese introduction, NEC announced plans to bring the PC Engine overseas, to the booming videogame market of the U.S. With a huge library of Japanese software, it seemed to many as though the system couldn’t possibly fail.
At the time, the NES was the #1 system in the US. Games were no longer being made for Atari’s 7800, and despite the popularity of the Sega Master System in Europe, it failed to capture the hearts of the U.S. gaming public. Arcade and computer games began to set new standards in visual and aural excellence, making the NES seem primitive in comparison. Although MMC (memory mapper) chips allowed the NES to do some pretty spectacular things, the game-buying public was hungry for a new system.
Shortly after NEC stated its intention to bring the PC Engine to the U.S., Sega announced that its Mega Drive system (released in Japan a year after the PC Engine) would also be coming to the U.S. as the Sega Genesis. The Mega Drive was slow to catch on in Japan, as the installed user base of PC Engine was so large. In fact, the Mega Drive was spectacularly unpopular with our Japanese friends. Although the Mega Drive boasted superior graphics and sound, the absence of a CD-ROM drive was a definite minus in most gamers’ minds. Once you’ve played a CD-ROM game, cartridge games just don’t seem as good. At the time, the Genesis didn’t seem like much of a threat to the assured success of the TurboGrafx-16 (NEC’s American name for the PC Engine). The TG-16 had more games, and it took advantage of the massive storage capacity of CD-ROM. The stage was set for the battle of the next generation systems, and in Christmas of 1989… the war began.
Sales of both machines were brisk, due to massive national ad campaigns by both Sega and NEC. Sega had its library of arcade hits to back up the Genesis, and the original release of the system boasted the mediocre, but arcade-popular Altered Beast as its pack-in game. Although Altered Beast is just slightly better than terrible, the TG-16’s pack-in game (Keith Courage in Alpha Zones), made Altered Beast look like a triumph of video game engineering.
To Sega’s credit, it released the excellent Phantasy Star 2 soon after the Genesis’ introduction, much to the delight of RPG fans. Conversely, it would be over a year before the TG-16 had its first true RPG. Word began to spread that the TG-16 was not a “true” 16-bit system, as its CPU was only 8-bit. Though the TurboGrafx had no trouble holding its own against the Genesis as far as graphics, as far as sound and speed are concerned, it was somehow inferior in the minds of many gamers.