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Stalled engine: The TurboGrafx-16 turns 25


September 12, 2014 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 6 Next
 

The redesign of the hardware dragged on. O'Keefe says that the company wasted months trying to create a rubber-textured cover for the console's rear expansion port -- work which was abandoned when a usable solution could not be created. "It would have been nicer to have the same form factor as the Japanese. It would have cured a lot of problems, issues," O'Keefe says.

Hudson Soft wasn't thrilled with the look NEC selected, either. "They wanted to make it look like something you'd find on your stereo rack, where we prefered the small intimacy of the PC Engine," says Greiner. But NEC, he says, had its eyes on pushing its way into American living rooms, and wanted a different aesthetic. "They were marketing experts in The States, and they chose the look and the feel that they wanted."

Another former NEC staffer, who came on much later in the system's lifespan, has a different take: "Their idea was a dumb American stereotype: Bigger is better. That's all it is," says John Brandstetter, who joined NEC in 1991. O'Keefe (who worked for Atari in Japan prior to NEC) chalks the redesign up to "Atari mind-think," comparing it to the disastrous Atari 5200, which the company's marketers felt needed to be physically larger than its hit 2600 console to be successful (which it wasn't.)

"They wanted this to be big. They wanted to get into the living room, and this was a great opportunity to do so. They had already done so in Japan," says Greiner. The PC Engine's success made NEC complacent; the size of the opportunity masked its dangers.

The U.S. version of the PC Engine: The TurboGrafx-16.
Photo credit: Evan Amos

The Software Conundrum

While NEC was handling the hardware side, Hudson worked on software. Having designed the console, the company produced a huge number of games for it, which it began to localize. In fact, Hudson titles dominated the system's lineup in the U.S., even more so than in Japan. 

The PC Engine had plenty of Japanese support; with a U.S. launch imminent, it was time to get Western publishers and developers on board with the TurboGrafx-16. Hudson, naturally, created the development tools for the platform -- which were ported from NEC's Japan-only PC-98 format to the Western standard, MS-DOS, under O'Keefe's watch. 

Hudson staff flew from Sapporo to Monterey, California, to throw a two-day developers conference that covered everything from the financials of producing games for the system to how to develop for the TurboGrafx-16, and its upcoming CD-ROM add-on, which had launched in Japan in 1988.

"We invited, I'd like to say, 25 to 30 of the top publishers at the time. And spent, I think it was about a two-day event. So we hosted them and just had a coming-of-mind of how we were going to roll the system out, what kind of games we were looking for, how we run the business," says Greiner. Hudson controlled game production, thanks to its deal with NEC.

At the conference, Hudson didn't generate much publisher interest in the TurboGrafx. But it did succeed in alienating Electronic Arts.

"Basically, there was a kind of weeding-out of developers who could actually participate in development of the first round of CD-ROM games," Greiner says. "We wanted the kind of emphatic push that we would get from somebody who really knew how to use that kind of space -- in other words, really great game developers."

In a meeting, Hudson staffers asked EA's team if it was up to the task of developing great CD-ROM games -- "we didn't think EA was that at the time, obviously, or otherwise we wouldn't have to ask them so deeply," says Greiner. "EA took offense to that -- they kind of walked out of the meeting and said, 'How dare you question us?'"

Neither Hudson nor NEC was able to convince third-party publishers to work with them in the West prior to launch. In Japan, it was a different story -- Namco was an early supporter of the system, and many smaller companies hopped from NEC's dominant PC-98 over to the console space. Yet NEC published their games in the West. "NEC decided to create a brand new business in the United States and do it all -- to distribute the hardware and the software," says Balkcom.

The delay in introducing the PC Engine to the U.S. wasn't just thanks to the hardware redesign or software localization. NEC was unsure about the viability of the PC Engine in the U.S., and began the expansion project late. "By the time I think they got into the game business, I think they were a little bit nervous, and I think they wanted to see how well they did in Japan," says O'Keefe.

Preparing for Battle 

If Japan had cold feet, it wasn't apparent at NEC in the U.S. The team had built up a head of steam with the project, and at that point, external reactions to the TurboGrafx-16 were promising, too: "the press reaction to it and the retailer reaction to it were very good. They thought we had good marketing, they thought the product was good, we had a big enough lineup of games," Wirt says.

Wirt told me that retailers were impressed by this commercial. Really. 

Retailers were happy to have an alternative to Nintendo, which had a stranglehold on the video game market. Sega's 8-bit Master System had completely failed, and the company was an underdog rolling into the next generation; meanwhile, NEC had a reputation as a reliable consumer electronics company. "We got all the major retailers to carry the product," Wirt says.

If anything, NEC in Chicago was overconfident. "There was this hype they had built over the war that made everybody think this was going to be a slam dunk from the beginning," says Greiner. The PC Engine had been a proven success, and early signs for the TurboGrafx-16 were promising. NEC had big expectations.

Ironically, however, NEC Japan's caution about entering the U.S. market created only problems for the TurboGrafx-16. In truth, the delay in introducing the hardware in the West simply erased whatever advantage NEC had over its chief rival, Sega.

Sega's 16-bit system, the Mega Drive, launched in Japan in October 1988, a year after the PC Engine, but the U.S. version, called the Sega Genesis, arrived on shelves two weeks before the TurboGrafx-16, in August 1989 -- disastrous timing for NEC. Sega of America hadn't wasted time redesigning its console -- only minor cosmetic changes were made.

Keith Courage in Alpha Zones 

Sega's pack-in game was a conversion of proven arcade hit Altered Beast; NEC's pack-in was Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, a completely unknown Hudson home title. The hero, called Wataru in Japan, was renamed "Keith" in an attempt to butter up NEC boss Keith Schaefer.

"The pack-in should have been R-Type. If it was R-Type, it would have made a bigger splash," says Brandstetter. In fact, NEC could have had Irem's hit arcade shooter; Hudson's port was a launch title for the TurboGrafx-16. However, rather than catering to an arcade-playing core, NEC wanted a game that scored with both girls and boys in focus tests.

It made some sense -- but not to early adopters of expensive new consoles. The TurboGrafx-16 launched at $189. Adjusted for inflation to 2014 dollars, that's roughly $365.

Kato & Ken 

The company's original choice had been a vaguely Super Mario-like platformer called Kato & Ken, but concerns over its scatological humor meant that it would miss the system's launch while Hudson re-developed the title.

After a lot of headaches, it was eventually bowdlerized and released as J.J. & Jeff well after launch. "We messed that game up by changing it so drastically," says Greiner. "I think they [parents] would have seen the humor in it. They worried about the wrong things, I think," says O'Keefe -- speaking not just about J.J & Jeff, but more generally about NEC's attitude.


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