To be a console gamer in 1987 was to be the owner of a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) or Sega Master System (we won't consider Atari's 7800 since you could get more or less the same amount of enjoyment out of hooking up a pack of sausages to your telly).
At least, you were if you lived in the UK. In Japan, however, there was an alternative: the PC Engine, a joint venture from Japanese consumer electronics giant NEC Corporation and Hudson Soft, the developer behind games such as Bomber Man.
Appetisingly cream in colour and powered by an 8-bit CPU in league with a 16-bit graphics chip, the PC Engine was about the same size as a packet of crisps, but it could do things more delicious than even the priciest plastic pouch of savoury comestibles. NEC had a venerable history of producing innovative silicon in small packages (it had released the world's first laptop PC, the NEC PC-98LT, in 1986), and, following Hudson's design brief, its new console proved powerful enough to crank out graphics and sound not far short of the standard delivered by popular coin-ops of the day - a killer benefit when you sat it side by side with its competitors, whose arcade conversions often struggled to deliver even the spirit of the original machines, let alone their looks.
The key failing in home gaming hardware of the era lay in sprite handling, the NES and Master System both struggling to place more than a handful of moving objects on screen at a time without the results flickering and spasming. The PC Engine was in a different league, and although sprinkles of sprite flicker sullied even its best games, its arrival represented the first time a marketing man could claim, with a straight face, that we had reached a point where it was possible to "bring the arcade into the living room".
Such was the PC Engine's appeal that, for a period following release, NEC's console outsold the Famicom (aka NES) in Japan, even without playing host to gaming's biggest licensed properties, since Nintendo's machine held the largest installed userbase worldwide, and was therefore leading software companies' preferred platform.
The PC Engine still drew attention from heavyweights, including the likes of Capcom and Konami, and it also proved popular with many fledgling game publishers in Japan. Focusing on original properties rather than the licences that weren't available, these companies set to work pumping out mostly action-heavy games, with many shooters and platformers rapidly filling the PC Engine's game catalogue, soon to be complemented by a raft of RPGs.
If many of its games lacked innovation, however, others aspects did not. There was its choice of media, for example: rather than using cartridges, as home consoles had since their inception in the late '70s, NEC opted to refine more efficient card technology. The results, HuCards, immediately gave the PC Engine an added layer of techno-futurist appeal.
In the process of designing a console to be as small as possible, however, NEC cut a corner: its machine offered only one joypad port. Indulging in multiplayer sessions, therefore, required splashing out on a multitap convertor. This didn't bring in just one other player, however, but four additions, setting a template for similar devices down the line for the SNES, PlayStation and other consoles.
Despite its success in Japan, the PC Engine was never to make it to the UK in an official capacity, but, two years after its public debut, the console was released in America, redubbed the TurboGrafx 16. The new name was rubbish enough, but of bigger consequence was the fact that Sega's Mega Drive, originally released in Japan in 1988, was by now straining at the leash in the United States, soon to be followed by Nintendo's Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). With bigger intellectual properties and, importantly, marketing budgets, it did not take long for Sega and Nintendo to establish their consoles as the more attractive options to consumers.
Back in Japan, the PC Engine hardware hadn't stood still, and NEC went on to release no less than 11 further iterations of its console between 1987 and 1993. The most significant advancement, however, was the introduction of a CD-ROM drive in 1989, allowing games to run FMV and audio spooled from silver disc, setting a precedent for storage that even Nintendo would (eventually) follow and establishing that shooting down alien spacecraft really is a pursuit better undertaken when real rock music is wailing in the background.
Ironically, though, it was NEC's desire to drive its hardware forward that would ultimately be the PC Engine's undoing. Or rather it was the method by which it attempted to do so - offering modular upgrades to its hardware, bit by bit, with each new configuration complicating the picture, rather than throwing weight behind truly reinventing the system. Had NEC ever introduced a proper PC Engine 2, just as Nintendo had replaced the NES with the SNES, perhaps it would've fared better.
As it is, we can at least salute its gaming hardware as the work of a company dedicated to innovation - and, of course, pay tribute to it on the Wii's Virtual Console service.
The headache of HuCards
If you've never heard of NEC's PC Engine, opening one of its game boxes would reveal a surprise: not a shiny CD inside but something called a HuCard, a proprietary type of media with a storage capacity of 512Kb. Designed by Hudson Soft, the HuCard was a progression of a format originally developed for the MSX range of home computers.
It wasn't just game cards that could be plugged into PC Engines, though: NEC produced several other iterations that actually added functionality to the console hardware in order for it to work with the CD-ROM drive. The so-called System Card was the basic requirement, followed by the Super System Card, which enhanced the hardware's graphics capabilities by throwing in additional memory.
The entire concept became messy when further cards and different hardware set-ups came into play: If you had a PC Engine connected to a CD-ROM drive and wanted to play an Arcade Card CD-ROM game, you needed an Arcade Card Pro, but if you wanted to play one on a PC Engine Duo, you needed an Arcade Card Duo. Get it? Hey, it wasn't much easier to follow back then, either.
The PC Engine GT and LT
With the worldwide success of Nintendo and Sony's handhelds so firmly established, it's sometimes difficult to imagine portable gaming ever being anything other than in full colour with lots of sprites or polygons bouncing around to the accompaniment of sound effects that didn't sound like a bee letting one off in a Pringles tube, but back in the late '80s and early '90s the most popular portable console was the original Game Boy, which could not deliver on any of these counts.
Sega's Game Gear and Atari's Lynx were markedly superior to Nintendo's machine, but the daddy was NEC's splendid PC Engine GT. It helped that NEC's engineers had designed such a small console in the first place: making a handheld was simply a matter of shrinking down the PC Engine's components further and, thanks to the diminutive nature of the HuCards, it could even use the same games.
But despite its undeniable charms, the GT was not to be the era's most desirable handheld - that label would be slapped upon the PC Engine LT, which appeared in 1991. With a larger, higher-quality screen, the LT wasn't nearly as portable as the GT (indeed, batteries weren't even an option), but to this day it remains the coolest piece of portable chic for collectors of vintage gaming hardware - and certainly the best-looking console we've ever seen with an aerial sticking out of it.