PC Engine Starter Guide
Start your engines.
Welcome to Awesome Games’ weekly feature, Nihon Zone! Our resident import expert Kerry ‘Kimimi’ Brunskill brings you an exciting look at the wonderful world of Japanese video games. This week’s entry provides a detailed guide of how to start your very own PC Engine collection.
The PC Engine is the “other” console in the 16-bit wars (or the other other console if you also want to include the Neo Geo). It wasn’t particularly popular in its US TurboGrafx-16 or TurboDuo forms, and the EU release may as well have never happened (there was no further support other than the original console bundle), but over in its homeland it did well for a long time and had a wide variety of titles to its name, both arcade ports and original games.
Unfortunately, the PC Engine also had so many hardware variations and revisions that it makes Sega’s similar Mega Drive/Mega CD/32X issues pale into insignificance. The purpose of this article isn’t to go over everything NEC ever released with a fine tooth comb but to get people started off on the right foot with this fine console.
PC Engine games come on two formats – HuCard (known as “TurboChip”s in the US) and CD. CDs are then broken down into CD-ROM (green spine), Super CD-ROM (pink spine) and Arcade CD-ROM (orange spine) types. If this sounds confusing don’t worry it’s not that bad; have you heard of the import Saturn games that only work with 1MB or 4MB RAM carts? Super and Arcade CD-ROM games are just like that, they require extra RAM that isn’t present in a basic PC Engine+CD attachment unit and much like the Saturn this extra RAM is found on special HuCards that slot into the PC Engine’s HuCard slot. Most CD games come on the Super CD-ROM format, with only a few being Arcade CD-ROM only. Standard CD-ROM games will play on any PC Engine with a working CD drive and system card.
Just for easy reference:
CD-ROM games: These need a system card of some description in the PC Engine’s HuCard slot, but aren’t fussy (so long as you’re not playing Altered Beast).
Super CD-ROM games: These need either a Super System Card for the PC Engine+CD drive configurations or one of the “Duo” all-in-one consoles (any variation is fine).
Arcade CD-ROM games: Some of these, such as Princess Maker 2, are simply “Arcade Card enhanced” and will work on a Super CD-ROM compatible system but benefit for things like improved animation if an Arcade Card is present. These games always show both the Super CD-ROM and Arcade CD-ROM logos on the box. Arcade CD-ROM only games require an Arcade Card PRO if used on a PC Engine+CD drive setup or an Arcade Card Duo if used on one of the all-in-one “Duo” consoles.
So with all this in mind I’ve come up with three potential setups for new PC Engine gamers:
1. The “Help, I’m scared and confused!” method –
So you want to play Ys IV but don’t want to splash out on hardware and all these different revisions seem a bit much? Then emulate! Magic Engine does a great job with pretty much any CD game you throw at it – just pop the CD in your PC’s drive and off you go! Nothing beats the real thing, but this is a good way to try it out and it means you’ll have a real game already sitting on the shelves if you do decide to buy hardware in the future.
2. The “Ooh sounds nice but I’m not sure about all this” method –
If you really do want to get a PC Engine but don’t want or can’t afford to buy a full kit all at once, then why not start out HuCard only? The CoreGrafx and the CoreGrafx II are perfect for this; affordable and both can accept a CD drive if you want to expand your gaming further down the line. The white HuCard-only PC Engine should be avoided as, unless it’s been modified, it only supports RF out. The Shuttle should be avoided as it can’t be connected to a CD drive.
3. The “I want the full works!” method –
For this you’ll want a Duo, Duo-R or Duo-RX. The original Duo has the added benefit of a headphone socket but is apparently more prone to failure than the Duo-R or Duo-RX, although I must say that when I owned an original model Duo I had no problems with it. The Duo-R is a (lovely) redesign with identical functionality bar the absence of the headphone jack and the Duo-RX is identical to the Duo-R apart from the fact that it came bundled with a six button controller as standard. With one of these systems you can play everything bar Arcade Card only games right out the box.
Just two things really – as all PC Engines only have a single joypad port a multi-tap of some sort is pretty much required, you may as well go for the full five player one as they’re neither rare nor expensive. The other thing is once you start buying a lot of games you’ll find the internal memory on the CD interface/Duo consoles runs out fast! A Ten no Koe Bank allows you to store any saves you aren’t using on a HuCard-like device and copy them back to the internal memory when you need them again. Other save devices are available but this is the simplest and has served me well for years.
Confusing things to avoid:
The SuperGrafx: it’s the follow-up console to the PC Engine… but it only had seven games released for it. It is backwards compatible with all previous PC Engine HuCards but there’s absolutely no need to own one unless the thought of paying over $1000USD for Darius Alpha excites you.
The PC-FX: the other follow-up console, only this one isn’t compatible with any PC Engine… anything! The PC-FX will only play PC-FX games, nothing else.
As I briefly mentioned earlier, the PC Engine and the CD drive were released in the US under the “Turbo” moniker. If you’re in the US it might be easier to pick up a Turbo Duo unit rather than import a Japanese one. The nice thing about this (apart from the potential money you’ll save) is that all CD games are region free and require no modification to work on Japanese or US hardware (providing your system meets the required System Card requirements). HuCards/TurboChips are region locked, although converters exist that can overcome this.
I do hope this guide has been of use to someone; the PC Engine isn’t the easiest system to get into but once you’ve got past the initial hardware hurdle you’re in for a wonderful ride full of shmups, RPGs and beautiful redbook audio, making it more than worth the effort!