Stalled engine: The TurboGrafx-16 turns 25
September 12, 2014 Page 4 of 6
NEC didn't want to rely on Japanese games alone to sell the TurboGrafx-16. It contracted with ICOM Simulations, developers of the Shadowgate games, to create titles for both HuCARD and CD. It also hired Cinemaware, a darling of the 1980s PC scene, to convert its games to the TurboGrafx CD, as it was one of the only studios in the West that had cinematic ambitions for game development at the time.
NEC paid the two companies to convert their PC games -- such as Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, and It Came from the Desert -- to the TurboGrafx CD. The problem was that the subject matter of the games was aimed at a PC audience that largely comprised adults. They were ignored by the console gamers of the time.
For his part, O'Keefe -- who oversaw developer support for NEC -- had trepidations about the U.S. developers that were selected, particularly in terms of their ability to use the CD-ROM system effectively: "I kept on trying to get them to start with something simpler so that they could get up to speed on the hardware to see if it was even doable. Because we had a lot of doubts on it. But they went ahead and did it anyway!"
NEC continued to contract with Cinemaware and ICOM for ports and original titles; Cinemaware developed the system's TV Sports series of games -- which didn't have any player or league licenses. "NEC did not believe in licensing," Wirt says.
Cinemaware's TV Sports Football
Faced with John Madden and Joe Montana's football games for the Genesis, sports fans didn't even have to a real choice to make. Says Wirt, "For $25,000 we could have licensed Pete Sampras and used him in a tennis game. And NEC said, 'No, we can't. We can't spend that $25,000 licensing Pete Sampras.'" Sampras went on to win the US Open in 1990 -- after NEC was forced to walk away from the deal.
The Cinemaware and ICOM deals were bad for NEC, but the team's lack of console expertise was to blame: "Six Japanese games would have done the TurboGrafx more good than two U.S. games, and the cost would have been about the same. It was just a completely losing strategy on NEC's part picking and marketing games," Ireland says. "NEC spent a lot of money from a development point, but some of the games are just not that interesting," says Brandstetter.
"Looking For a Way Out"
As 1990 wore on, there weren't many bright spots for NEC. Bonk's Adventure was an unqualified hit; and Hudson's port of Falcom's Ys Book I & II garnered major critical acclaim, including one 10 out of 10 score in EGM -- and it sold as well as a TurboGrafx CD-ROM game could be expected to, given the add-on's tiny install base.
NEC also introduced the TurboExpress in 1990 -- a handheld that both looked and acted like a Game Boy on steroids. It had a bright, beautiful color screen, and could play the same games as the TurboGrafx, thanks to the compactness of HuCARDS. Its drawbacks were significant, however: It cost $249, and gulped down AA batteries six at a time for just three hours of play. It was impressive technology, but not a hit. "That should have been a winner from day one. They just never marketed it right, I think," says O'Keefe.
NEC's warehouses were still bursting with TurboGrafx-16 systems, and with few unqualified hits, they weren't moving. Without marketing, without more hit games, and in the face of Sega's increasing success, they weren't going to. "There's not much you can do with a stockroom of hardware, but there's a lot you can do with marketing," says Greiner.
But NEC Japan wasn't interested in funding extensive new marketing efforts for the TurboGrafx-16, and nixed anything but business as usual. Balkcom says that the U.S. team, looking for a way to counter Sega's arcade advantage, even flirted with idea of creating a TurboGrafx-based arcade unit to showcase its games. It didn't happen.
"I think that by sometime in 1990, it was pretty clear that we weren't going to beat Sega. But we did think that we had an opportunity to be kind of a 'Porsche of video games.' It'd be more expensive, but better quality, and had the CD-ROM, the TurboExpress, and we could maybe live in a niche that would be a higher-end niche," says Wirt. O'Keefe agrees: "If they had just marketed it through Sharper Image or something like that -- decided to create a status symbol of it or something, market it in that way -- it might have hared a chance."
A clip from one of Ys Book I & II's CD-ROM powered cinema sequences, circa 1990.
But by then, NEC wasn't interested in spending more money on the TurboGrafx. "There was a shining moment right around the time Bonk came out that it seemed like we might have an opportunity to occupy this higher-end niche, but then we just couldn't get the investment to make that happen. And as a result of that, I think by around the end of 1990, NEC was looking for a way out," Wirt says.
By then, Carol Balkcom had realized that things were unrecoverable. "It became fairly clear in the second year that we were not having the kind of success that NEC had hoped for," she says. "They thought that the business would be much larger than it was."
I asked O'Keefe if there was ever any post-launch optimism at NEC. His answer was simpler: "No." In fact, NEC was officially spooked, and for a good reason: "things that were going well in Japan started to go not-so-well in Japan," Wirt says.
The Japanese economy, which had been a miracle of the '80s, began to tank in 1990. Nintendo's Super Famicom was due at the end of that year, but "even before it came out, the PC Engine sales had started to go down in Japan because people were waiting," says Wirt.
NEC's resolve to compete began to waver. The company "was very enthusiastic about the games business in the beginning, because they'd done so well in Japan -- now, okay, weren't doing that well in in the U.S. and weren't doing that well in Japan," Wirt says.
A planned European launch turned into "too little, too late," says Wirt; you can still easily buy (borderline useless) new-in-box UK TurboGrafx units on eBay, even in 2014. No other European countries saw an official release of the system from NEC.
"We were a distant third and we tried very hard to make up that difference between Sega being the second and TurboGrafx being the third, and we just couldn't. We couldn't do it," Balkcom says.
It wasn't long before NEC wanted out of the U.S. console business.
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