NEC’s PC Engine console, as it was known in Japan, or the TurboGrafx-16 (the US equivalent) were unfortunately never released in Australia. This is an enduring bummer; as someone deeply interested in the Australian retro gaming scene, there’s a define “what if” had NEC launched either iteration of the console on our shores. Despite arriving on the market years before Sega and Nintendo’s behemoth 16-bit consoles, in many ways it could technically keep up with the more modern machines. Launched in Japan in 1987, the little console that could was initially designed to take on the existing 8-bit consoles, but ultimately spanned the divide between both eras before being discontinued in 1994. All up, nearly 700 games were released for PC Engine / TurboGrafx series of consoles. The word series is used intentionally because there were almost twenty different variations of this console (including CD ROM and third-party versions). How these models all relate to the story of the evolution of what was initially the worlds’ smallest console is too challenging a task to address here. Check out the image below, it barely scratches the surface of that particular headache inducing task…!
Getting a hold of any of this series consoles in Australia has always been a bit of a crapshoot. The easiest and most economical way has always been to import a base model from Japan or the US, or pick one up when travelling overseas (RIP!). Having seen and abundance of PC Engine consoles whilst
cavorting working through Japan on numerous jaunts (RIP!), I often metaphorically kicked myself for not picking one up at a very reasonable price. Fortuitously, a PC Engine Duo (bottom left in the above image) fell into my hands a few years ago for a very, very easily digestible price; this will remain one of my favourites amongst numerous crazy cheap Japanese gaming acquisitions.
Other more practical purchasing options, ones where you don’t need to leave your couch, include directly importing via Japanese sellers or Yahoo JP Auctions, where prices can be reasonable but the process convoluted and challenging for the uninitiated, or tossing the coin on eBay, where you can expect to pay from slightly above what you might expect to how high do you want to go. For a more modern implementation with HDMI output, as of May this year, the TurboGrafx-16 mini has sporadically been available from Amazon, and the PC Engine mini from eBay for around $200 AUD, give or take some change. Although I’ve not played either yet as these mini consoles haven’t received an official wide release locally (who’d have thought!?), from all reports the Hori manufactured hardware and M2 developed emulation layer (the same group behind the excellent Mega Drive Mini software) are both rock solid.
Where to for those who want modern hardware with more accurate recreation of the PC Engine / TurboGrafx than emulation can provide? The best option up until ten days ago, and perhaps for some it still will be, would have been FPGA-based MiSTer project. This open source collaborative project is capable of running dozens of types of retro computers and consoles in a manner that resembles the original hardware in an incredibly close if not perfect way. Without going into the technicalities, FPGA implementations are essentially recreations of hardware using programmed ‘cores’ that match the original hardware. A basic explanation can be found here, but be aware that this is just the tip of the iceberg that could lead you down the rabbit hole that is understanding FPGAs. With the MiSTer there are numerous options that can expand its capabilities, and of course there’s configuration that needs to be done. Despite the power and flexibility of the MiSTer, this product won’t be for everyone; there are some who prefer off-the-shelf dedicated products that can run official cartridges and CDs out of the box. And that’s okay – different strokes for different folks right?
Enter Analogue, a company well known within the retro-gaming scene for designing and manufacturing high-quality recreations of classic consoles. They boldly state we make products to celebrate and explore the history of video games with the respect it deserves; this self-aggrandising absolutely has merit and Analogue has a history to warrant the claim. Their previous consoles include the Super NT (SNES and Super Famicom compatible), Mega Sg (Sega Mega Drive and Genesis), and the Analogue Nt / Nt mini (NES and Famicom). All received a plethora excellent reviews, not just for the high accuracy of console reproduction and display options courtesy of the Altera Cyclone V FPGA, but also the excellent build quality of the devices themselves. Beyond the out-of-box experience, unofficial updates allow some of these devices to load ROMs from SD card, and there’s even a jailbreak that recreates up to almost 20 consoles (depending on the console). Getting your hands on any of these devices is a pricey proposition, with many long since sold out or discontinued. More on that later.
On October 16 Analogue announced the Analogue Duo – an FPGA implementation of the PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 in a PC Engine Duo lookalike case, with the ability to load games from NEC’s proprietary HuCard format and CD. Analogue extols the virtues of the console thusly:
Duo is an all-in-one reimagining of perhaps the most underappreciated video game systems of all time. Analogue Duo is compatible with nearly every NEC system and game format ever made. TurboGrafx-16. PC Engine. SuperGrafx. TurboGrafx CD. PC Engine CD-ROM². Super Arcade CD-ROM². 1080p. Zero lag. Bluetooth. 2.4g. Because the last thing a video game system should be is predictable. Completely engineered in FPGA. No emulation.
The compatibility across the various iterations of NEC’s console family sounds excellent. Built in Bluetooth and WiFi for controllers is an evolutionary feature not included in previous Analogue consoles. Connectivity include HDMI video output, two USB ports, an SD card slot for firmware updates (and potentially unofficial jailbreaks that could allow for multiple consoles – even those that use the CD slot – are possibly on the cards down the track), a headphone jack (with volume dial), and original controller port round out a well-thought out product that blends the best of the old with modern conveniences. All of this will be available for a very reasonable $199 US. When factoring in the cost of the Cyclone V, let alone the slot-loading CD drive, the wired and wireless connectivity options, and the slick exterior, is exceptionally good value for money.
So, instabuy right? Maybe. I mentioned that a number of Analogue’s previous (excellent) consoles are no longer available. That’s understandable; some were released several years ago, some have seen re-releases and updates or redesigns. Every company moves along. Earlier this year Analogue opened up pre-sales for their upcoming Pocket, a gorgeous riff on the classic Nintendo Game Boy design that included the ability to play numerous handheld console game cartridges beyond the Game Boy (including Game Gear, Neo Geo Pocket Color, Atari Lynx, and PC Engine). Couple the brilliant industrial design and versatility with extras including MIDI/PC/Mac connectivity, built in Nanoloop music creation software, mutiplayer connectivity, and original display modes, this was looking to be the dream portable device with gorgeous minimal yet functional aesthetics that we’ve come to expect and appreciate from Analogue. Despite being quite keen to grab one of these, I somehow missed the online pre-order launch in August. No problem, except they were already sold out by the time I realised. As it turns out, pre-orders were done and dusted in eight minutes, with many people ‘losing’ their purchase even once the Pocket was in their cart. Wow. Even Frodo missed out on his.
Since the announcement of the Analogue Duo, there’s been notable negativity and resentment directed toward Analogue, the likes I’ve not seen to this previously highly appreciated company. Be it snarky comments on their social media channels (this in itself is unsurprising), retro gamer videos (also somewhat expected), and even in a few articles, I was taken somewhat by surprise. None of the negativity that I’ve seen was directed toward the quality of the products; of that there’s almost zero issue – quite the opposite in fact.
Unfortunately, currently many of their older products have sold out, a new and highly anticipated product was only available to pre-order for minutes, then another device was announced with prominent “limited quantities” plastered on the product page. It’s understandable that there’s some justifiable cynicism that has risen to the fore. Whilst I won’t link to any of the aforementioned comments/videos/articles, I think they raise a fair point that goes beyond stereotypical gamer-entitlement. Analogue have been around for several years, they have the design and implementation skills, their build quality is top-notch, and (one could assume) that many of their manufacturing and supply chains are locked in. Let’s hope that the Pocket pre-order blip was just that – a blip – and the “limited quantities” disclaimer for the Duo is just marketing hype, or the company being cautious due to 2020 being as it is.
With the ever increasing popularity of retro gaming (or at the very least, the pervasiveness of retro into the mainstream) its hard not to get frustrated with artificially limited quantities of retro releases by huge companies (NES Mini anyone?), limited releases or year-long delays with retro game special editions, and long-delayed or failed crowd funded releases. I’ve personally relegated many of these previous instabuys and impulse buys into the ‘wait and see’ column. Analogue make excellent products, and their two most recent announcements could be their best yet. Let’s hope Analogue stay in the ‘awesome’ column, and don’t get relegated to wait and see status; given the prices of their consoles, completely appropriate as they are, I don’t want to have to wait too long should I have second thoughts about my aching bank balance. Nor do I wish to ever have a product snatched out of my shopping cart in eight minutes.
…And while I’m ordering my Analogue Duo, I’d love to order an Analogue Pocket too…