The Ryan Lambie Column: How I lost my heart – and my wallet – to a PC Engine

Ryan uncovers a console classic from the past...

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

It’s been a strange gaming week. My initial excitement at receiving yet another addition to my console collection was short lived; the system in question was an original Japanese PC Engine (with the now rather scarce first edition controller that was quickly superceded by an updated version with turbo buttons), NEC’s brilliant yet doomed technical marvel from the late eighties/early nineties.

Having unpacked the dinky thing from its bubble wrap (the PC Engine still holds the record for smallest ever console twenty years on, its footprint only the size of a CD jewel case), I connected the console to my television and booted up my first game – Irem’s marvellous and largely forgotten Image Fight.

To my surprise, I was confronted not by the glittering colours for which the Engine’s famous, but acres of grainy monochrome. Initially mystified, a little Googling revealed the true nature of my predicament; the first PC Engines were RF only, and Japanese RF doesn’t output correctly to European televisions; in some cases, a picture won’t appear at all.

As I understood it, there were two solutions to this problem: one, send the Engine away to one of the numerous electronics wizards advertised on the Internet, who, for around thirty to fifty pounds, would hack and solder my console until it could output an AV signal. Two, buy another PC Engine – preferably a later one like the Core Grafx II that already had AV connectors as standard. Since both options involved spending vast amounts of money (the Core Grafx II isn’t a cheap purchase, and I’d already risked the wrath of my better half by summoning another console into our overstuffed house already), I was left in something of a quandary.

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Fortunately, a bit more Googling revealed a handy but rare gadget called an AV Booster. As the name vaguely suggests, plugging this cumbersome block of plastic into the back of the Engine results in a friendly, usable AV signal which would solve my colour problems in an instant. While an AV Booster costs around thirty pounds on eBay, it’s a far less drastic option for those reluctant to butcher their diminutive consoles.

By now, I suppose most people would begin to wonder why anyone would go to such lengths to run a twenty-year-old system that never even made a dent in the UK market – not only is the Engine’s extensive lineage of systems, CD drive add-ons and peripherals baffling, it’s expensive to collect. You’ll struggle to find a boxed console for less than a hundred quid, while the collector’s status of the games themselves makes prices vary from around ten pounds for common titles to fifty or sixty pounds for a cherished classic like Parasol Stars

But like owning a classic Jaguar or a rare antique book, there’s something about the PC Engine that takes it beyond the realms of mere nostalgia. Designed from the ground up as a system to play shoot-em-ups by its co-creators NEC and Hudson, the console’s library of games is an arcade fanatic’s paradise. As well as the Engine’s first Killer App, an almost pixel-perfect port of R-Type, there are classic shooters like Gunhed, Star Soldier and Coryoon that simply aren’t the same on any other system.

And then there are the brilliantly eccentric, quintessentially Japanese games that we’ll never see the likes of again – witness the scatological anarchy of Chan & Chan and Toilet Kids, which I’ve raved about more than once in this column, or the unique versions of Bomberman, which allow for five player death matches.

There’s also an incredible intensity of sound and colour on the PC Engine that can’t be replicated on an emulator – run the cartridge original of something as simplistic as Galaga 88, and the vibrant colours and the depth of sound (which of all the eighties consoles replicates the booming sound of an arcade machine the best) is striking. Run the same game through an emulator, and this intensity has somehow been mislaid.

Even a game like Gradius – a ubiquitous shooter that’s appeared on just about every platform conceivable – is worth buying for the system for its music alone. Forget the hideous slowdown when there are too many sprites onscreen – just sit back and enjoy the tunes.

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So while the PC Engine may be the console equivalent of a petrol-guzzling old Jag or a thatched cottage that’s freezing in the winter, it boasts a wealth of unique and fantastic games – and for those I’d forgive it anything.

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.