TurboGrafx-16, The Little Retro Console That (Sadly) Couldn’t

Before the console business became a three-horse race (or two-horse, depending on who you talk to), many of the big consumer electronics companies had a crack at the lucrative gaming market by releasing their own hardware. Panasonic has the 3DO, Philips the Odyssey and of course, NEC with its TurboGrafx-16. Unfortunately, none of these resulted in profitable dynasties, with the TurboGrafx-16 having to butt heads with Nintendo and Sega (in its prime).

If you’re in the mood for a long Sunday read, there’s an excellent piece by Christian Nutt over at Gamasutra covering the rise and fall of the aforementioned console, which turned 25 this month. It’s a story of a device that proved popular in Japan, but due to a number of less-than-strategic decisions and assumptions, failed to kick goals when it hit the Western market.

It also didn’t help that despite having “16” in its name, suggesting a 16-bit architecture, this referred to the GPU only — the main processor was only 8-bit. At a time when gamers were perhaps a little too obsessed with the width of data buses, it was a “weakness” that NEC had to live with:

In truth, while the system’s 16-bit GPU was speedy and offered excellent color depth, the TurboGrafx-16’s main processor was 8-bit, and an evolution of the one in the NES. It was underpowered for the era.

Doug Snook, who worked at TurboGrafx-16 developer ICOM Simulations, talks of struggling with the TurboGrafx hardware: When developing Beyond Shadowgate, he says, “We ran into trouble with sprite drop-outs when the sword was extended, and more significantly we were forced by memory limitations to flip the character graphics horizontally for walking left and right.”

In the end, NEC’s lack of experience in games and a loss of faith in overseas markets saw the TurboGrafx-16 fall quickly by the wayside:

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.

The article is a great history lesson in retro consoles — not just the TurboGrafx — and an good read overall. Hit up Gamasutra below for the full story.

Stalled engine: The TurboGrafx-16 turns 25 [Gamasutra]

Image: Evan-Amos, Wikimedia

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