As our journey through the ‘What If’s‘ of the gaming world reaches the 16-bit generation, we are now faced with the question – What if the TurboGrafx-16 succeeded? The system was the first major 16-bit console on the market preceding both the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System to store shelves by years but never managed to catch on with the mass market outside of Japan with most modern players only being familiar with the name due in part to the Wii Virtual Console or Kanye West’s 8th album. But what if the system was a hit? What kind of gaming world would we be living in? Let the speculation begin!
But before we get into that, let’s take a second to reflect on what went wrong for the TurboGrafx-16. The system, released in Japan in 1987 under the name PC Engine was actually quite the hit in its home country selling 3.9 million consoles there of its 5.8 million global total. The system earned this popularity thanks to its eye-catching design, affordability and graphical prowess that far exceeded its 8-bit rivals. In fact the system actually outsold the NES in 1987 and decimated the Sega Master System in sales. The groundwork was laid for NEC to storm the North American market but, despite some promises the system never made a serious impact on this side of the world.
Call it bad timing but the North American launch in August of 1989 was practically at the exact same time as the launch of the Sega Genesis, a console that boasted a stronger game lineup and more powerful 16-bit hardware than NEC’s system. This paired with an almost total lack of brand recognition in North America doomed the TurboGrafx-16 to immediate underdog status. The system also suffered from a pretty terrible marketing campaign that failed to highlight any of the system’s advantages and focused more on how it was technically superior to the 8-bit NES, completely ignoring the fact that there was another 16-bit console on the market. The TG16 managed to keep its hat in the ring until 1991, but the dual release of Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog and Nintendo’s own 16-bit console meant the console wars were now a two-horse race and NEC effectively exited the North American market though they would support their rivals with games in the Bonk series appearing on the Super NES and Game Boy.
But let’s say all of that didn’t happen. What could the TurboGrafx-16 have leaned on to support it in the North American market and make it a viable platform. Third parties. Namely Japanese ones burned by Nintendo’s onerous policies at the time. For a console now considered an ‘also-ran’ the TurboGrafx-16 actually had an incredibly solid lineup of games from major Japanese firms like Hudson Soft, Konami, Natsume, Capcom and Falcom. Some of gaming’s most important series were at home on the system with games like Ys I and II, Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, Neutopia and about half a dozen Bomberman games all being TurboGrafx-16 exclusives until they were made available on the Wii Virtual Console or other digital storefronts.
This gave the system a surprisingly robust lineup of games that it could call its own and was a big part of why the PC Engine was a force in Japan until the mid-90’s and if properly leverage and marketed could have given the system an advantage in North America, especially considering the SNES was still two years away when it was released there. The TurboGrafx-16 was also an extremely adaptable and expandable system, with several formats of games released on the system (with the accompanying peripheral). This gave gamers flexibility and let more budget conscious players stick with the core console and others upgrade to the CD or Super CD formats if they wanted to. Though to be honest, NEC would have had to get in on the CD craze quickly as we all know how too many add-ons can confuse consumers.
One of the more unique ideas NEC had in the early 90’s was how to approach the emerging handheld gaming market. Their system, the PocketExpress was a technical marvel at the time as it was essentially a portable TurboGrafx-16 and accepted the console’s HUCard format. This was the first time ever that handheld players could get console games on the go as both the Game Boy and Game Gear systems played their own, 8-bit games. If NEC had successfully capitalized on this aspect we might have gotten a Nintendo Switch style situation, with the same games being playable outside and inside the home. Of course the PocketExpress was a terribly flawed system in its own right (it guzzled batteries faster than a Game Gear) but with a few tweaks and the right marketing it could have helped the TurboGrafx-16 turn its fortunes around.
In recent years, and especially since many of the TurboGrafx-16’s best games became more available to be played, gamers have been getting a new appreciation for that ‘other’ 16-bit console. In fact, since Hudson Soft went bankrupt Konami stepped up and purchased their back-catalogue of games and has actively been releasing them on the Wii U Virtual Console, so there’s still ways to experience the best that the system had to offer. It’s a curious little system, with a lot of potential that was sadly never properly explained so if you’re feeling nostalgic or just want a ‘new’ 16-bit game to play, you should definitely check out the TurboGrafx-16’s library.