After successfully penetrating the Japanese market with the PC Engine in 1987, NEC Technologies, Inc. sought to deliver a portable gaming system that could rival Nintendo's Game Boy. On November 16, 1990 the PC Engine GT was released in Japan, setting a new benchmark for handhelds in the process. While the PC Engine GT wasn't the first color portable available (that honor goes to Atari's Lynx), it was clearly the most advanced for its time.
Instead of integrating a passive matrix screen (as done with the Lynx and later for the Game Gear), the developers used a high-resolution active matrix screen, allowing the handheld to be played under any condition with the same level of clarity. More importantly for fans of the PC Engine, it became the first color handheld to support the same media used on a home console. Gamers who owned the PC Engine GT could immediately use the HuCARDs (wafer-thin storage devices) originally purchased for their PC Engine, which meant a lineup of software was readily available the moment the handheld was released.
So what did this system look like? The PC Engine GT measured approximately seven inches in length, a little over four inches in width and featured a black casing with a 2.6 inch color LCD screen at the top. This layout was designed so that the system could be held upright like the Game Boy. Also featured were two rapid-fire switches near the buttons, patterned after the PC Engine's controller, as well as a port on the bottom to link the system with another PC Engine GT (using a link cable available separately).
A black wrist strap located in the upper right corner spared owners the horror of dropping their system on the floor, and turning the unit over on its left side revealed a stereo headphone jack, volume dial, brightness dial and an input jack for an optional AC adapter. The $29.99 adapter certainly warranted purchase, as the system could last only three hours on six AA batteries. Alas, such was the price for having a backlit, active matrix screen.
Of course, there were some benefits besides the clarity. The right side of the system had an eight-pin port that could interface with a TV tuner, a device that let gamers watch television right on the portable system's screen. While the accessory featured a built-in antenna, those still unhappy with the reception could use the external antenna jack on the right side of the tuner. Also adding to the tuner's appeal was an A/V jack that let gamers plug in a camcorder or VCR. This meant the PC Engine GT doubled as a color viewfinder for camcorder owners as well as a means to watch videotapes.
The biggest drawback to the PC Engine GT was its estimated price tag of 49,000 Yen ($400 U.S. dollars). Of course, considering the wide popularity of the PC Engine (it outsold both the Famicom [NES] and Mega Drive [Genesis] from the time of its release) and the culture's affinity toward compact technology, it made perfect sense. The significant number of titles in the Japanese software library helped make it the clear choice for the individual who wanted the best portable system money could buy.
While the PC Engine enjoyed success in Japan, selling an estimated 1.5 million units before Sega's 16-bit Mega Drive made its debut in the country, the United States was an entirely different market. Sega was the number one 16-bit system during 1989-91, and with the imminent release of the Super NES console, the TurboGrafx-16 was in dire straits. Nevertheless, the PC Engine GT was released in the U.S. as the TurboGrafx-16 TurboExpress in 1991.
Although the system was technologically superior to both the Atari Lynx and Game Gear, the two competing color handheld systems at the time, its $299.95 price tag put it out of the range of all but the gaming elite. Those looking for a color system could pay nearly $300 for the TurboExpress, $179 for the Lynx Deluxe Package, $149.99 for the Game Gear or $89.99 for the Game Boy. Also adding to the potential expense was the TV tuner (released as the TurboVision TV Tuner) that originally sold for $99.99.
As if things weren't bad enough, Sega was offering Sonic the Hedgehog for free during a special promotion for the Game Gear, and the Game Boy already included the mega-hit Tetris as part of its package. Even the Lynx, a system that had problems of its own to deal with, offered California Games to entice gamers. The TurboExpress did not include a pack-in game. And then there was this little problem of software selection...
While Sega enjoyed a huge list of third-party developers in 1991, including Electronic Arts, the TurboGrafx-16 was entirely the opposite, quickly facing a catch-22 situation. The system needed third-party software to boost sales, yet third-party vendors wouldn't support it unless it achieved greater market penetration. A quick glance at the nearest retailer's shelves clearly showed Sega as having the software advantage. So why would gamers invest in an expensive portable when the system it depended on for games was being outsold by Sega? The answer is simple: they didn't.
The TurboExpress wasn't available at as many stores as either the Game Boy or Game Gear. Those who wanted the system had basically six places to turn to: Toys "R" Us, Babbages, Electronics Boutique, The Good Guys, Software Etc. and through the Sears Catalog. The system was also available at select Walden Software retailers, but only the major chains had more than a handful for purchase. As years went by, the number of stores dwindled along with sales of the TurboGrafx-16.
By June of 1992, Turbo Technologies, Inc. reduced the price of the TurboExpress to $199.99 and offered gamers their choice of four of the following six games for free: Victory Run, Pac-Land, Alien Crush, Fantasy Zone, Vigilante and Power Golf. It may have been too little, too late. Americans made the Game Boy their choice for portable gaming since 1989, and the Game Gear was a distant second as the favored color handheld.
The fourth-quarter release of 1992's TurboDuo was the proverbial nail in the coffin for the TurboExpress, as the focus was on delivering CD games to compete with Sega and their Sega CD. While NEC's third system was supposed to be a charm in the U.S., in this case, it was the third strike. By 1994, American games ceased production (though games for the PC Engine continued to appear until 1997).
In the end, the TurboExpress proved two things: (1) gamers were not willing to spend over $200 on a portable system, no matter how advanced the technology; and (2) third-party support is crucial if any headway is to be made in gaining the public's trust and support. Even then, the system may still not have been able to derail Nintendo's "little engine that could" in the Game Boy.
Ironically, the TurboExpress remains a highly sought after system by collectors, and prices for the handheld can fetch anywhere from $150 to $250, depending on its condition. It is important to note that neither the TurboExpress nor the Japanese PC Engine GT can play games from the other system (Japanese HuCARD and TurboChip software, respectively) without a converter.
Known problems with the system include the occasional pixel burnout (a problem facing most color handhelds) and AC adapters wearing out with some systems after repeated use. Battery life was a concern on the road, although an optional car adapter let gamers play using the car's cigarette lighter as a power source. Even despite the few drawbacks, the system was a technological marvel that may have been too advanced for its time. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide