The History of the PC Engine
These two interviews recall the history and development of NEC and Hudson’s seminal home console, the PC Engine. The 1987 interview with Hudson veteran Shinichi Nakamoto comes from BEEP Magazine, while the 2003 interview is from the GSLA. The fact of Hudson’s close association with Nintendo and the market dominance of the Famicom make for some interesting comments on a “console war” of a different, more amicable kind from the better-known Sega vs. Nintendo feud.
Satoshi Mikami – Hudson Development Group #1 Vice President. Joined Hudson in 1985. Worked on the Momotaro Densetsu and Tengai Makyo series.
Toshinori Oyama – Hudson Executive Manager. Programmer for Adventure Island, Hector 87, and others. Joined Hudson in 1983. Also managed recruitment of subcontractor developers.
Oyama: Hudson originally began as a company developing computer software. But we all loved new things, and when the Famicom came out, I remember on that day everyone sitting around the table, talking excitedly about it: “Wow, look at this system! It’s so affordable, and it can play such great games!” We had done BASIC programming work for Sharp, and that connection led to us being hired by Nintendo to help work on their Family Basic system. At the same time, it offered us the chance to work on Famicom game development. In July of 1984, then, we released our first Famicom games: Lode Runner and Nuts & Milk. They sold like hotcakes. At that point, we decidedly shifted our focus to Famicom development.
However, about 3 years later, there was a big leap in semiconductor technology. We felt like we knew the Famicom hardware very well by that point, and had exhausted a lot of its possibilities… but with newer hardware, we’d be able to develop exciting new games. The developers were leading the charge in those talks. And we also had some systems and hardware guys back then who would use some of our game profits to develop new, experimental chips. I think that if our company had been less receptive to our ambitions of wanting to create an entire console, all that talk would have ended there. But NEC Home Electronics really got excited by the idea of developing a new console.
I was still busy with Famicom game development then, so I wasn’t directly involved in the whirlwind of discussions taking place, but I heard that President Hiroshi Yamauchi of Nintendo gave the idea his blessing too. “Sure, if Hudson wants to make a new console, they should give it a shot.” Nintendo and Hudson didn’t see each other as rivals. The market seemed big enough for everyone. And in point of fact, we continued to develop games for the Famicom.
The PC Engine was released on October 30th, 1987. The year before we released Adventure Island for the Famicom—and I think that year was the peak for the Famicom. The PC Engine was mainly developed by our staff. The IC chips were made by Epson, but the core hardware was all derived from NEC’s input. Our goal was, simply put, to make a better Famicom than the current Famicom. Something that could handle bigger sprites and such.
Mikami: For our department, too, the impetus for the PC Engine development came from our sense that Famicom game development was reaching its limits. The developers at Hudson started to ask, “Why must we continue to make games on this hardware, with its million and one restrictions?” They felt if they had more freedom, they’d be able to make games that players would enjoy even more.
Oyama: For the launch titles, our concept was to show off all the PC Engine could do. Look at these big sprites in The Kung Fu (China Warrior in the US)… and they’re animated! And look how realistic the celebrities look in Kato-chan and Ken Chan! Then there was R-Type. With that we wanted to show how faithfully we could reproduce an arcade game. Shanghai was a computer game port, and Victory Run allowed us to show off the hardware with a racing game.
Back then, ports of arcade games were a surefire way to sell home consoles, so we really wanted to make a good port of R-Type, which was so popular in the arcades. It took a team of five people a whole four months to develop it. At the end, they started to realize it might not all fit on one HuCard without downgrading the visuals… that was an option, but they refused it. Keeping the arcade quality visuals was of the utmost importance, and non-negotiable. So someone suggested, “hey, what if we split it into two volumes…?” It was just a casual suggestion, but it ended up carrying the day. (laughs)
But I remember how difficult the development of R-Type was. One of the programmers had to sacrifice his New Year’s vacation, and take all the development software/hardware home with him to work over the holiday.
Speaking of the HuCards, our hardware engineers actually had previously worked on IC Cards for Power Plants. From that experience, they said that cartridges were too big, and suggested we use cards instead for the PC Engine. But ultimately, there ended up being cost-related limits with the PC Engine, and we had to cut back on VRAM. The HuCards themselves were also costly, and they decided to limit their capacity to 2Mbit. Later it turned out to be totally insufficient. (bitter laugh) That was a mistake—a total misread of the market and the future of video games.
Mikami: I’m not sure we ever had good business sense, when it came to the PC Engine and its various iterations. If I had to describe our attitude, it was like we were always excited for the next big thing. If it seemed cool, we wanted to try it! The PC Engine was a real big gamble for us. (laughs)
Oyama: This is just my personal opinion, but yeah, other than the Famicom, I wasn’t very excited by the other consoles on the market, at least from their hardware specs. When I bought one and plugged it in for the first time, it was kind of disappointing. I just wanted to put it back in the box. (laughs) They were lacking something, I don’t know. I never got the same rush as I had when the Famicom first came out.
Mikami: Our first volley on the PC Engine CD was No.Ri.Ko and Fighting Street (Street Fighter). The year before (1987), we had an end-of-year announcement showing off a demo of Tengai Makyou. The visuals were all totally mocked-up and fake though. (laughs) We didn’t understand at the time, but the further we got into development of Tengai Makyou the more problems came up related to the hardware.
Oyama: Due to cost problems, the buffer RAM in the original CD-ROM² system only had 1/4 (64kb) of a HuCard… so there was no way we could have nice big, animated sprites like in The Kung Fu. The CD-ROM media gave us a ton of memory, but with the tiny hardware buffer RAM, it was like using a styrofoam cup to empty a swimming pool. It was a gap that we didn’t really perceive until we started software development, unfortunately.
Mikami: I remember at the time, wholesale sets of ROM were in the 80000 yen (approx US $800.00) range? But in the development rooms, we were determined to show everyone what we could do, despite these limits! And Tengai Makyou was the result.
Oyama: That’s true, but I still remember when the Super Famicom came out in 1990, I couldn’t help thinking, “man, I really want to work with that hardware…” (laughs) All that cool sprite rotation and scaling.
Mikami: The PC-Engine had to use some of it’s power for the CD-ROM functioning, while power-wise, the Super Famicom wasn’t divided like that. Then in 1994, with the PC-FX, by that time we stopped working on the PC Engine.
Oyama: You know, with the amazing rise of the Super Famicom, Nintendo really was king of the console market then, but personally, I remember that time more for the advances in arcade game technology. That was when games like Virtua Fighter were coming out. At Hudson we were all very excited—”yeah! polygons are here!!!”—but still, for cost reasons, we didn’t include any special polygon-rendering chips with the PC-FX. Instead, to distinguish ourselves from other consoles, we focused on movie playback. Today, in 2003, the hardware wars are over, and we can focus on the pure art of game design. In that sense, those old days were really challenging, but they were also very fun.
Mikami: We apologize for ushering in the era of the CD-ROM at the expense of the cartridge. (laughs)
Shinichi Nakamoto – Hudson General Manager of Technology
—Today, I thought we would get the game developers’ perspective on the new PC Engine, and how it differs from other consoles on the market today. It really is an amazing piece of hardware.
Nakamoto: There have been huge advances in integrated circuit technology recently, which have allowed us to design a very powerful video game machine in a more compact form than ever before.
—What is game development like for the PC Engine? How does it compare to developing for other consoles?
Nakamoto: The best thing is that there’s very few hardware limitations, so we’re free to do what we want. At the same time, all that power and freedom means that flaws and poorly developed games stick out like a sore thumb, so it implies greater care and attention to detail.
—Today, there are people saying that the Famicom games have hit a wall, in terms of the different kind of games that are possible with that technology. What do you think?
Nakamoto: There’s definitely a sense that we’ve exhausted a lot of the possibilities of that hardware. But if you compare the Kung Fu game on the Famicom with our “The Kung Fu” (China Warrior), I noticed that even though the story and the controls are basically the same, there’s a completely different enjoyment to be had in each. Their presentation is on such different levels, that even though they’re the same genre, you get something totally different from it.
With video games, there’s been many different types and genres, but when you look at the fundamentals, they’re all largely the same. It’s the different backstories, dialogue, and other flavoring that distinguishes them. With the PC Engine, its increased hardware capabilities will make it that much easier for us to discover new ways to enjoy video games. Even with existing genres, I think we’ll be able to go deeper and further with them, and correspondingly find more enjoyable gameplay.
—With “The Kung Fu” (China Warrior) and its big animated sprites, it feels like we’ve come really close to arcade games…
Nakamoto: I don’t think the essence of games lies in how big their sprites are or how many colors they can display. But it’s always better to have nicer, clearer graphics if you can.
—In addition to its great graphics, the PC Engine looks to have a huge amount of memory. How much memory does each HuCard have?
Nakamoto: They were designed to take up to 8 megabits. In PC terms, that’s about 1 megabyte, so you can see they have more memory than a typical PC-98 game. And of course they can handle nearly all arcade games, too. The Kung Fu and Victory Run, by the way, are 256 kb and use 2 megabit cards.
—Wow, if you’re making games now with that much extra space, will it be long before we see 4 megabit cards?
Nakamoto: Yes, we’re planning to release 4 megabit games right at the start of next year. We want to keep making progressively bigger games, with more and more memory.
—When you say that, it sounds like you might be considering CDs as a future medium…?
Nakamoto: Actually, right now we’re devoting a great deal of effort into the development of software tools for creating CD software. With these tools, it should be possible to use CDs in the same way we’ve been using ROM cards.
—With CDs, you’ll have yet more space available to work with.
Nakamoto: If a HuCard can handle 1 megabyte max—a CD can take 540 megabytes. You could, in other words, fit 540 HuCards on one CD. Every Famicom game that has ever been created could fit on a single CD, and you’d still have extra space!
Using CDs would give us the ability to have real music and voice acting, too. Graphics would be better, with more depth and even bigger sprites. So yes, right now we’re in the middle of planning it all. When we do release it, our plan will be to launch it with about 3 titles.
—When do you think this new system will come out…?
Nakamoto: NEC is creating the CD-ROM drive, so I don’t know all the details, but probably sometime next year. We’ve finished a hardware prototype, and what remains is to see is how cheap we can build it, how much volume we can make, and of course, the software. We want to release games that only could be done on a CD system; however, we’re not quite sure we’ve found those games yet. We won’t release the system until we’ve got games that can live up to the promises of the CD media, and which we can sell affordably.
In any event, as long as you’ve got a PC Engine, the CD System will work with it as an expansion via an interface unit.
—I think that’s another big advantage of the PC Engine, compared with consoles up to now—its expandability.
Nakamoto: I think you can see this clearly just by looking at the back of the PC Engine, but it’s got a crazy amount of connectors there, for hooking up all different manner of peripherals. Previous game consoles have required you to buy expansion units, but the PC Engine comes fully equipped to enjoy peripherals like word processors, printers, keyboards, modems and the like from the get-go.
—Were these extra functions added at the request of Hudson?
Nakamoto: Yes, we told NEC that, from our perspective as software developers who have worked on a variety of games, it would be great to have such-and-such capabilities. NEC was very understanding, and we collaborate with them a great deal. The expandability of the PC Engine was actually something NEC themselves were aiming for independently, before we ever said anything.
—I imagine that Hudson will focus their efforts mainly on PC Engine game and software development, but can you speak more about your plans for the future?
Nakamoto: We plan to keep putting out games from all different genres: sports, simulation, etc. And we plan to aggressively acquire licensing rights to port more games. Also, we’re planning to make original iterations of games we previously made exclusively for the Famicom, such as Momotaro Densetsu.
—Does this mean you won’t be able to devote as much energy to Famicom development, going forward?
Nakamoto: Well, no—the Famicom certainly isn’t going anywhere, right? (laughs) In this matter, too, we’ve got to listen to the market. The Famicom and PC Engine development groups at Hudson are, for the most part, separate, so we’re able to have them both working in tandem. Hudson is a software maker, and we want to make games that delight players, regardless of the system. Right now we have 6 teams on the PC Engine, and 3 teams on the Famicom. We also have people working on CD-related development, too.
Personally, the CD development is the most interesting to me right now, so I had our teams make two demo CD games which we’ll be showing at an upcoming trade show on October 1st. One is called Odori Koen Satsujin Jiken (“The Murder at Odori Park”). You investigate different locations and try to solve this crime, talking to people and gathering evidence. Since it’s a CD, they respond with actual voices. The voices, the increased variety of graphics, and the background data are all possible only with this CD media.
The other demo is called “CD Zoo.” It’s a virtual zoo you can wander around, adventure game-style, and it’s packed full of pictures of different zoo animals, and includes real audio samples of those animals.
We’re also considering working with published writers and authors, having them record their stories onto CD.
—Do you feel that the PC Engine is in competition with the Famicom, in terms of the console market?
Nakamoto: The Famicom already has such a built-in market, with so many consoles sold, that there will probably continue to be games made for it for some time to come. The PC Engine has the possibility for expansion with add-ons like the CD drive, and those uses are different from what the Famicom can offer. Of course, there are places where we overlap with the Famicom, but we aren’t trying to compete directly with them.
The best situation for the consumer would be to own both consoles! (laughs) With a Famicom and a PC Engine, you could enjoy most major titles that developers have to offer. So yeah, we don’t see it as competition, but rather co-existence.
—Are you aiming at a slightly older age demographic then, compared with the Famicom?
Nakamoto: Well, if it seems that way, it’s only because the first launch titles were made by us at Hudson, and those games aren’t really aimed at children. But once different developers start making titles, I think you’ll see games aimed at a wider variety of users.
This goes for hardware and software developers alike, but the more new games and hardware come out, the more it stimulates the general market and industry as a whole. So for players, we think it’s good for consoles other than the Famicom to be released.
—For my final question, I wanted to ask about HuCards. They’re currently priced at 4500 yen (approx 45 USD), which is a bit more expensive compared with other systems. Will the price ever come down?
Nakamoto: Yeah, that’s due to the high price of the integrated circuits. (bitter laugh) The cards use a lot of memory too. At their current prices, I don’t think they can get much cheaper. It may get better by next year, or the year after, but the price may not go down if we instead choose to use that opportunity to expand on the capacity of the cards themselves. Naturally, we’ll just have to look at where the market is at.
—Thank you for your time today!
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