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The Little PC Engine CD-ROM² That Could

PC Engine with CD-ROM Here in North America, the TurboGrafx-16 was not strong enough to unseat Nintendo's gaming reign of the late 1980s and early 1990s, nor was it robust enough to take down Sega's rising Genesis star.  Back home in Japan though, the hardware had a more successful life as the PC Engine, particularly when it was paired with its CD-ROM² System companion.  Magweasel has taken a look at the life of the CD add-on and put together a detailed history of its birth, growth, and eventual metaphorical sailing into the sunset.

The CD-ROM² System wasn’t released until a year after the PC Engine itself, but from the size of the HuCards to the jewel case-like packaging they were sold in, it’s plain to see that the system was designed around the CD-ROM unit, not the other way around. Still, it was released as an optional accessory because NEC didn’t seriously think it’d eventually become the system’s primary media. It’s obvious why they had their doubts. After all, this was the first consumer-level device ever to use CD-ROMs after the Yellow Book standard was finalized in 1985. CD-ROM drives were eye-poppingly expensive until the early ’90s — the PCE’s system ain’t exactly cheap at nearly 60,000 yen, but consider that a PC CD-ROM drive cost over 200,000 yen in the Japanese marketplace back then, and it’s easy to see the pains NEC must’ve gone through to keep the price as low as it was.

The revolutionary nature of this system is particularly impressive when you remember that it came out in 1988, when the Famicom was still king and even the largest of games for it were two or three megabits (and even that was thanks to fancy bankswitching techniques that Nintendo didn’t anticipate). By comparison, a PC Engine CD-ROM can hold up to 540 megabytes, 4320 megabits, per disc. As PC Engine FAN put it in one 1988 headline, “you could put all the Famicom games that exist on one CD-ROM!” — and a lot of gamers back then had trouble even imagining what could be done with that much space.

Even as a kid, I thought that the TurboGrafx branding was trying too hard to be x-tremely awezum! and not enough time conveying core gaming strengths.  NEC did not need the bold and brash advertising on its home turf, something that I believed helped the platform grow and prosper to the extent that it did.  Everything fell apart for NEC in later console generations thanks to splintered upgrade paths (some of which began with the CD-ROM² and its many System Cards) and the lack of long-term support for the SuperGrafx console, but it cannot be denied that the PC Engine and its CD-ROM² System were a definite multimedia trailblazer (even if the trail sometimes went cold).

(Image via Wikipedia)