Forgotten Consoles: PC-FX

by Terri Rose

Retro gaming tends to focus on the big guns -- the NES, the SNES, the Genesis/Mega Drive, and in Europe the microcomputers and Sega Master System. But what about the oddities, the weirdos, the systems that didn't break through? In Forgotten Consoles, I'll be exploring some of these machines. Second up to the plate, the Japan-only and oddly intruiging PC-FX.

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In the 16-bit console wars, things are usually framed with two major players: Nintendo's SNES and Sega's Genesis/Mega Drive. While that was the story in the US and Europe, for the most part, Japan actually had another strong contender: in second place, solidly, was NEC and Hudson Soft's PC Engine (known in the US as the TurboGrafx-16, where it wasn't a major hit but didn't embarrass itself).

The PC Engine is a great early 16-bit machine, well worthy of a dive into. But it's not as obscure as its follow up, the Japan-only PC-FX, a 32-bit machine released in Japan by NEC mere days after Sony's Playstation launch in 1994.

The PC-FX was an interesting machine, quintessentially Japanese in a lot of ways. The machine had no form of 3D acceleration, leaving it underpowered for polygonal 3D animated games unlike the Playstation or Sega Saturn. NEC's thinking, not entirely off-base, was that the system would be better served by the ability to pre-render large amounts of image information, similar to what PC games like Alone in the Dark and Myst has accomplished in earlier years. This focus on pre-rendering allowed for the PC-FX to have sparkling full-motion video when compared to other systems of the 32-bit generation.

The PC-FX was a specialized, and as I said Japanese, machine. NEC and Hudson Soft developed mostly games for popular anime series, with lots of adventure, visual novel, and RPG titles being developed for the system. Again, this had ups and downs: the pre-rendered anime-style games look wonderful on the system, but this also limited Hudson Soft's options for game development and led to a number of franchises being cancelled or just not seen on the PC-FX.

The console is also somewhat unique for its tower design, looking more like an IBM PC than a video game console. It's not an ugly machine: the controller is quite intuitive and the PC-like design allowed for peripherals like mice to be well integrated into the system, bringing genres like the point-and-click adventure to consoles in a way that had been less-than-ideal before.

But as is often the case, the lack of third party game development and its hardware limitations were the PC-FX's downfall. The library was just not varied enough, and the enormous success of the Playstation (as well as the Saturn's moderate, respectable Japanese run) with its huge game library proved fatal for the machine. The PC-FX was discontinued in 1998, selling less than half a million units in Japan, and it was NEC's final console seen in the home.