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Why the TurboGrafx-16 Failed

April 16th, 2007 by shawn · 15 Comments

It was 1990, and I had just read about a revolutionary video game system only available in Japan. The tantalizing article in GamePro was short and to the point, making me covet this amazing game system (with its yummy 16-bit graphics) all the more. Everything about it – from the weird name, to its diminutive size, to its plethora of exotic game titles – was the stuff of dreams for a 12-year old American video game geek. I obsessed: would it ever be released in the U.S.A.??

Not long after I heard about the PC Engine, a friend of mine actually got one! On a trip to Japan, his parents bought him a PC Engine, a Famicom, and a slew of games. (It was obvious to me that his parents really loved him.) We spent many weekends playing Dragon Spirit and PC Genjin and I knew that when the PC Engine was available in the US I had to have one.Now, if you know anything about video games and gaming consoles, you likely know the story of the US-version of this revolutionary game system. If you’re not familiar with this product, let me tell you a few of the cool aspects of the PC Engine:

#1 It was elegant. You could hold this tiny, sleek, white game console in the palm of your hand. The games were on small cards. It was everything that the big black clunky American game systems were not.

#2 The game box art was cool. As an anime fan (back when typical fare was a Japanese-language bootleg of Akira I bought at a comic-book convention), I loved the artwork on the PC Engine games. The pictures were immensely appealing and made me want to play the games.

#3 The games were top-notch. There were tons of cool games available for the PC Engine. And many of them were really weird – but really fun.

So the PC Engine had a lot going for it as a video game system. There were a lot of 13-year-olds like me, and you’d have to assume that NEC could translate the games and sell the exact same thing to American teens and make a ton of money. Right? Right. But that’s not what NEC of America did. They turned the ultra-kickass PC Engine into a totally different product. Here are the steps they took:

  1. They super-sized it. They figured a small game system wouldn’t make it in the land of Cadillac’s, Lincoln Continentals, and Ford F-150s – so they made the American version of the system three times as big. No longer was it a sleek-looking addition to the entertainment center; now it was an oddly-shaped space hog.
  2. They changed the name. Why they did this, I’ll never know for sure – but it was an imbecilic idea. I think I know how it went down: some executive at a board-room meeting elecited ideas from his staff. “You know,” someone piped up, “today’s kids want everything to be extreme and loud…I think we need to change the name to something more ‘totally awesome’.” It went downhill from there, until eventually they concocted a descriptive but totally & radically lame moniker.
  3. They used different artwork for the games. Different and more retarded-looking artwork, that is. Instead of big-eyed anime chicks and spiky-haired warriors with swords and ultra-cool robots there were strange and sometimes irrelevant pictures that were probably drawn by some NEC exec’s nephew. Who wasn’t a very good artist. I really mean it: almost all TurboGrafx-16 artwork absolutely sucked. Take at look at the following examples if you dare:

PC Engine Valis III - The Japanese releaseTurboGrafx-16 Valis III

PC Engine Drop Off TurboGrafx-16 Drop Off

PC Engine Final Zone II TurboGrafx-16 Final Zone II

Who in their right mind would replace cool artwork (i.e. the Japanese artwork) with crappy artwork (the TurboGrafx-16 art)? That’s right: the TurboGrafx-16 marketing department was insane.

I really believe that the biggest cause of the TG-16′s failure was bad marketing. From the bad decision regarding it’s new name, to its clunky new look, to it’s offensively horrid box art – the presentation of the product was an abysmal failure.

And I guess that tells us something else: even if a product functions and performs well, consumers will shy away from it if it doesn’t look like a good product. So the lesson here is to present yourself professionally, present your business as the best, present your product as a quality product, etc. because presentation can make all the difference in whether you are successful or not!

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[tags]pc engine, turbografx-16, tg-16, 16-bit, video game, bonk’s adventure, dragon spirit, nec, hudson, turbografix, famicom, gamefly, arcade, console, nintendo, wii[/tags]

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    Comment by costcochris
    2007-04-17 03:43:11

    I too was a 13 year old boy who dreamed of the arcade experience at home. Actually the “TG-16″ came to North America just before Christmas of 1989 (bought mine at Radio Shack here in Canada). I scooped one up immediately as I had drooled for months since that summer issue of GamePro. I sold my NES and got really good money for it and all the games I had including $50 for Zelda II.

    Some of the original games were smoking; Blazing Lazers and Dungeon Explorer to name a few; others were awful. Expensive too; $90 a pop for most games.

    But alas the box art and marketing were so bad you would have thought they were trying to make the product tank. I felt badly because for a year or two I had convinced tons of kids at school to buy it and everyone who came to my house wanted one. Especially the CD-ROM accessory, which had “full motion video” (terribly small, choppy, garbage).

    Oh well at least some of it still lives on in the Wii Virtual Console :)

    Thanks for the blog post!

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    Comment by n0wak
    2007-04-17 14:56:02

    While the marketing for it definitely didn’t help, the technology
    wasn’t exactly state of the art either. The system was obsolete by the
    time it came out. It was a mid-generation system. An 8-bit console
    with a 16-bit GPU at the dawn of the 16-bit era. The future was
    already available at the time and its name was Genesis.

    The Turbo Express was pretty awesome, though. Too bad it devoured
    batteries like a monster and cost an arm and a leg.

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    Comment by Nick
    2008-04-18 11:23:36

    Oh yeah, because the totally 8-bit portable Master System (Game Gear), didn’t chew through ‘em just as fast.

    2007-04-17 16:46:03

    [...] Original article found here [...]

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    2007-04-18 12:49:55

    [...] never came close to the success of the PC Engine in Japan. Here’s what NEC/Hudson did wrong.read more | digg [...]

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    Comment by shawn
    2007-04-23 17:00:14

    It was a fun system indeed. Don’t get me wrong – I bought one, bought a bunch of games, bought all the accessories…but the whole time, I wished it was just a a PC Engine with everything in Japanese translated into English. Was that too much to ask?? :)

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    Comment by Dan
    2007-05-02 02:37:46

    I managed to get a TG-16 “back in the day” when NEC was offering the free game mail-in offer (I got Ordyne as my free game). Fun system IF you could find the games. In my small burg of 48K people, no store sold TG-16 games.

    Another thing that killed the TG-16 was that it was primarily targeted at killing the NES, like the PC Engine was (and kinda did in Japan). In the eyes of many a gamer the games were just glossied up NES titles that no one really “got”. Sega hit the scene with a huge well known library of arcade hits. People go with what they know, and that was another nail in the TG-16′s coffin.

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    Comment by shawn
    2007-05-02 03:01:43

    Ordyne was a pretty killer game. It’s too bad that things went down like they did – but hey we still have the memories, as well as emulation (Magic Engine?). But I miss those still early days of gaming because (in my opinion) in many ways gaming was way more FUN. Thanks for the comment!

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    Comment by Joe
    2007-05-02 22:22:21

    I am fortunate enough to still have a working TB16. Alot of TB16 games have popped up on other systems like Bonk’s Adventure and (my favourite game of all time) Military Madness! The system and games were over priced, but the TB16 still provided some of the vest videogame experiences I’ve ever had.

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    2007-06-30 03:43:26

    [...] – it brought a lot of traffic and ranked me number 3 on Google (for a week) for the term “TurboGrafx-16“. Big deal right? Actually the best sites for me (long-term) have been StumbleUpon and [...]

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    2007-10-17 15:18:01

    [...] read more | digg story [...]

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    Comment by daniel
    2008-02-09 17:48:53

    They had a chance to turn it around by coming out with the first version of mortal kombat but the genius running the American market decided that there were already too many fighting games and passed. The execs of NEC just didn’t get it, that game would have breathed life back into the system. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. Just too many lame games.

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    Comment by Mike
    2008-03-04 02:51:27

    I loved the Turbografx-16 system back in the day! I remember reading the summer issue of Gamepro where it detailed the PC-Engine and the soon-to-be CD-Rom add-on.

    Big failures on NEC’S part:

    1) Bad box art (as mentioned in this blog)
    2) 1 joypad port (requiring a turbo tap for more)
    3) Coax output only (A/V Booster sold separately)
    4) Incredible games were overlooked and never released in the U.S. Street Fighter II: Champion Edition for PC Engine is arguably the best version of Street Fighter 2 ported to a home console, rivaling the SNES version.
    5) Decent CD-Rom games were far and few between; The Adams Family being the worst. The Valis series and Y’s were among the best.
    6) The CD-Rom drive add-on was so touchy just breathing on it would make it skip or lock up.

    Some of the best Hucard games for the system:

    Bonk’s Adventure (all sequels included)
    Legendary Axe (the 2nd one wasn’t that good)
    Blazing Lazers
    Devil’s Crush

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    Comment by Bean
    2008-12-19 03:22:03

    Reading this article and all these comments brings back TONS of memories. I too, was one who fell for this ridiculous game system. I purchased mine Christmas of 1989 and was soooooo excited, the main thing was, for the first time on a home system, being able to play with 5 people with Moto Roader, TV Sports Football, Hockey, Basketball, Battle Royale and Dungeon Explorer. I sold my Nintendo and all the games to buy TG-16 games. They just didn’t keep up with Sega Genesis and eventually I sold the TG-16 and bought a Genesis. NEC took a very good concept and product and destroyed it. Good times.

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    Comment by EddieDLS1973
    2009-05-27 15:22:02

    Thank you for writing this article, everything you said was absolute truth. I remember seeing the Japanese artwork and wondering why the hell did they change it?, but remember they weren’t the only ones to do that to their box art, many PS2 titles looked like garbage, the system could have done so well here in the states, there where tones of games like literally over a thousand titles where available in Japan ,some obviously would not have been the US markets liking and would have been boring, but it still would have left at least 500 titles to choose from that would have supported the system for years! But at least we can still import games and play them with an adapter or even a Japanese system (I bought several and have most of them stored away) as an old-school video game lover I can say that emulators are a good thing! Anyone ever tried the emulator front end called Hyper spin?

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