Friday, 10 January 2020

Exploring the PC Engine CD

As most gamers in my neck of the woods will probably agree, the PC Engine was an instant legend from the moment it appeared - nothing had ever been more desirable, not even Counsellor Troi from Star Trek The Next Generation (possibly). But alas, it never saw a proper release in our humble territory. Worsening the despair felt by us considerably was the announcement and subsequent release of the CD-ROM unit for the same console a year-or-so later, which made NEC's box of tricks even more desirable. How could it not? It was a CD-ROM... for a games console!

The now-famous image that so tantalised us in C&VG...
Like the Engine itself, images of the CD-ROM unit began appearing in the mighty C&VG magazine during 1988, and more so upon its release late that year. Technology such as this was still very new at the time and thus had a rather futuristic air about it. What sort of wonders could be in store for lucky Engine gamers? Well, first they would have to pay the hefty sum to import one from Japan (unless they lived in Japan), and this sum was often significantly more than that of the Engine itself at first. Oof! Not many gamers in Europe could even afford to import the PCE itself, never mind its expensive 'other half', but there were a lucky few with sizeable bank balances (or parents with sizeable bank balances, at least) who instantly earned mythical status by owning this dream duo.

I was not one of the lucky ones - I managed to snag a classic white Engine a couple of years after it came out, as detailed here many moons ago, but as demonstrated by an image on that post, the CD-ROM unit was well beyond my reach. That never stopped me from gazing upon it with envious eyes though, and there were plenty of games I wanted to play on it. Inconveniently for me but splendidly for people rich enough to afford one, there was quickly quite a few titles to choose from too.

The ultra-handy (and desirable) PC Engine Duo...
Unlike some of the other early CD systems (*coughCD32cough*), the games for the Engine's CD-ROM were not mere ports of old HuCard games - most of them were totally new games and many were not available anywhere else. Probably as a result of this, it proved to be a success in its homeland and it wasn't long before upgrades started appearing, but while facilitating more and more advanced games, they also caused a bit of confusion. The basic CD-ROM unit, you see, requires a System Card which slots into the PCE's HuCard slot. That's all fine and understandable, but then in 1991, NEC unveiled the Super CD-ROM which upped the buffer RAM and came with a new card - the Super System Card - and games designed to run on that wouldn't work with the original System Card.

A couple of years later came another new card too - the Arcade Card, which came in Duo or Pro forms - and again, some games required it to run. In addition to this, there would also eventually be three 'Duo' consoles released which combined the PC Engine console and the CD-ROM in one unit. First came the PC Engine Duo, then the Duo-R, and lastly the Duo-RX. Jeepers! Maybe Japanese NEC fans were used to it though - the PC Engine itself was released in numerous forms too, after all.

Looks at it - it's almost as sexy as the Engine itself!
It's also possible, of course, that Japanese gamers were tolerant of all this simply because the games were so good once they figured out which card they needed. And also American gamers, I guess, but they didn't get nearly as many releases on the fancy new format, and I don't think they even got the mighty Arcade Card at all. Serves them right for stupidly (and horribly) redesigning the consoles I guess (chortle!). Anyway, as mentioned, many of the CD games were unavailable anywhere else and there are numerous corkers I've been very keen to play for donkey's years. Happily, these titles are now available for me to sample, and having recently done just that with one of them in what was my first (and long overdue) PC Engine CD experience, I thought it was high time I took a proper look at the console. Or accessory, as I suppose it technically is.

As usual, I've selected five titles to try out. The first two of these are the first two games to be released on the system which I figured would give me a good idea of how happy (or unhappy) new owners might've been. The next two titles I chose include probably the game I've most wanted to play all these years and the game most other people seem to want a PCE CD for, and lastly I figured I'd go for a game renowned as one that really demonstrates what the system is capable of technically. Here's how I got on with these five games on this still-desirable system:

Fighting Street (1988)

Pretty much the first CD title any of us saw in magazines of the day was this one which was nothing more than a conversion of the first Street Fighter game, albeit with an oddly-reversed name, which was released in arcades the previous year. Aside from spawning the legendary Street Fighter II and its many sequels/spinoffs, though, it was never particularly noteworthy, and it did little to excite gamers of the day. Check my review of the arcade version here for details of the actual game, but suffice to say, it's obviously very basic by today's standards. Less so in its day, perhaps, but I can't imagine too many excited new owners of the PCE-CD were ultra-enthusiastic about christening their new system with this. The standard PCE would go on to host an amazing conversion of SFII a few years later too, which put further into focus the substandard quality of this release. It remains a notable release though, simply because it was the first (or close to it), and it may have provided a bit of fun in its day in the absence of alternatives.

Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair (1989)

Another early release and another title we often saw screenshots of in magazines. It didn't get an enormously enthusiastic response (though still better than Fighting Street's), but having played it recently, I'm not sure why. After the awesome adventurey second game in the series (and imminent third game which was actually the fourth game), some might have viewed it as a backward step for the series as it was more a return to the format of the original game, namely running through auto-scroll stages with ever-dwindling energy supplies which must be topped up by collecting fruits and stuff. There's a lot more to this game though, including extra weapons, more creative stages with obstacles and moving sections, and even scrolling shmup stages. It also shows off the CD pretty well with its lovely colourful graphics and fantastic music, and it's a lot of fun to play too. I'm pretty sure I would've been very happy with this one if I'd had a PCE-CD in its day.

Gate of Thunder (1992)

I'm sure there were games we all coveted on the Engine CD, and this is the one that always made me want one. Well, it was one of them anyway. Part of the reason is that I always thought it was part of the mighty Thunder Force series. It wasn't as it turned out, but some Techno Soft staff did work on it, and you can tell - it's fantastic! It's also very similar to TFIII, both visually as well as with its design. Your ship has variable speed settings, for example, and the power-ups include a shield, support drones, and you can cycle through the weapons you collect. The stages are fairly similar in style too. Even the ship itself looks like Styx! These similarities are a very very good thing, however, simply because the game that they are based on is so good, but even if you've never played TFIII, Gate of Thunder is a superb horizontal-scroller in its own right. The CD format is put to pretty good use too. The normal Engine is home to some awesome shmups, many of which have ace graphics themselves - could it have handled this too? Possibly, but it's a great-looking, action-packed game anyway, and the guitar-based soundtrack, while rather drowned out by the loud effects, is fantastic. A must for the collection.

Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (1993)

This one is better known to many as Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, but since it didn't get a release outside of Japan, we'll go by the original title here. Whatever you call it though, it has gone on to be one of the biggest reasons to own an Engine CD in the eyes of many. Some still call it the best game on the system. Some even call it the best game in the whole series. I don't know about that, yet at least, but my first impressions of it are very positive indeed. It casts the player as Richter Belmont who is on a quest to save his girlfriend from the clutches of the terrible fanged oaf, Dracula, who presumably wants to bite her thigh or something. Unlike the more adventurey entries in the series, it has a reasonably linear stage structure, but some stages have more than one ending, providing several routes through the game. I haven't gotten that far yet of course, but it does seem pretty awesome so far. Unlike some Castlevania games, it's not immediately super-hard to play, and as a result it's very enjoyable, but more notably (as far as this feature is concerned, at least) the graphics and music are excellent, with the latter making particularly effective use of the new format. Unsurprisingly, all this combined not only makes a superb game, but is also a good advertisement for the hardware too.

Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire (1995)

As my last selection for this post, I went for a title that is renowned for its technical excellence in the hopes that it would really show off the system's capabilities. It was a late release too, and these are often among the most impressive titles any console receives. Due to said lateness, many gamers were more interested in the Saturn and PlayStation by the time it arrived, but it was quickly apparent upon playing it that it is more than a little splendid nonetheless. Often known simply as Sapphire, it's a vertical-scroller of the quality you would likely have come to expect from Hudson Soft by this point. It's a bit of a pain to get running, but there are several ships to play as, each with cool floopy weapons, and the graphics and music are great. It's actually more like examples found on the emerging 32-bit machines in some ways. Obtaining the original these days will cost you a pretty penny though, as also thanks to its late release, there aren't too many copies doing the rounds. It will be on the forthcoming PC Engine Mini though - sweet!


Well, the verdict this time around is about as straightforward as any I've written on an 'exploring' post - the PC Engine CD is every bit as splendid as I've long thought it to be! The reason for that isn't that it offers an entire new, otherwise-unmatched level of technical amazingness, or that the CD format offers obvious advantages over that of the HuCard; It's simply down to the games that it hosts.

As mentioned, many of the early CD-ROM expansions and some of the first CD-based consoles featured games that were simply ports of titles already available elsewhere (usually on the base system with games for expansions), and in a vast majority of cases these games were barely any different, if at all. Some had animated or FMV intros and the music was generally of a higher quality (at least technically), but there weren't often games exclusive to the systems that truly took advantage of the new format, or at least there weren't often good games of that type.

One of the most interesting things about the PCE CD is simply that it succeeded. In fact, you could argue that the PCE CD is the only CD-ROM add-on for an existing, established console that was successful. It sold well, in Japan anyway, and that means there are lots of releases for it - some 466 in total, apparently, and that library of games was crucial to the system's ongoing success.

It featured many exclusive titles, and happily, most of these were also of types already popular in Japan such as shmups and RPG's, just with slightly fancier, more colourful graphics and grander soundtracks, rather than attempts by developers to utilise the CD format by making interactive FMV games and all that nonsense (see the Mega CD). There are a lot of mahjong titles and digital comics, admittedly, but the sheer number of decent 'traditional' games easily makes up for them and confirms what I had long suspected - that the PCE CD was fantastic!

In fact, I don't think it's unreasonable to say that nowadays, for retro gamers and collectors, of all the pre-Saturn/PlayStation-era CD-based systems or ones that had a CD-ROM add-on, the PC Engine's example is the one that's most worth having. That's if you can afford it, of course, as the systems and many of the games still command a hefty sum, sometimes much more than their original retail cost, rather distressingly. If you have the desire and the cash, though, there are few better systems available for pure retro awesomeness if you ask me.


  1. I'm so happy I finally figured out PC-Engine emulation a couple of years ago (turns out there ARE alternatives to Magic Engine!). Some cracking games on that thing.

    Dracula X is an obvious favourite. Other joys I've found on that thing include:

    -Cycho Rider, a stupidly fast caravan shooter thing from Compile.

    -Nexz, a shoot-em-up that's NEARLY as good as Super Star Soldier.

    -Sylphia, a mythical-themed shoot-em-up, similar to Phelios.

    -Valis III, action-platformer thing as good as the Mega Drive version but with a load of extra levels.

    -Bonanza Bros, as good as any version but with a smooth jazz soundtrack.

    -GötZenDiener, isometric dungeon-crawling RPG thing in which the hero and villain are both killed at the start, so you play as the princess who decides to escape by herself instead.

    -Space Fantasy Zone, a 3D on-rails version of Fantasy Zone, odd but fun.

    1. Hey man, thanks for dropping by again :) There are indeed some awesome games on the PCE CD, I'm so glad I can sample them now. I've been slowly building a list over the years of games I want to try which includes some of those you mention. I actually reviewed Space Fantasy Zone a few weeks back :)

  2. Which emulator do you/TwoHeadedBoy use? I used to have a real PCE-CD, but could only afford a few games. I'm particularly interested in playing GötZenDiener

    1. I can't speak for Mr. THB but I used TurboEngine for the CD games here. I even showed you it when I visited ;)