NEC didn’t start out in the video game hardware business, Nippon Electric Limited partnership had been established in 1898 by Kunihiko Iwadare and Takesho Maeda to produce and sell telephone equipment as a joint venture with the American company Western Electric through its representative in Japan Walter Tenney Carleton, it was agreed that the partnership would be reorganised when treaty would allow and on July 17th 1899 the revised treaty between the United States and Japan went into effect and on the same day Nippon Electric Limited and Western Electric Company were reorganised to become Nippon Electric Company (NEC), the very first Japanese joint venture with foreign capitol.
In 1903 as telecommunication was in its infancy Japan adopted the common battery switchboard, supplied by NEC who initially imported them before deciding to manufacture them out of their newly built Mita Plant at Mita Shikokumachi that had been completed in December of 1902, in 1908 they entered the Chinese market and set up an office in Seoul Korea the same year.
When the Japanese ministry of Communications delayed the expansion of the phone service, sales at NEC fell by 60% to make up for the fall Iwadare started importing appliances into Japan, including electric fans which had never before been seen in the country, in 1916 when the ministry of Communication resumed the phone service expansion adding 75,000 new subscribers and 326,000 feet of toll cable, NEC expanded to meet the increased demand.
In 1924 Japan’s first radio broadcaster Radio Tokyo was founded, NEC imported all the required equipment from Western Electric, NEC also established its Radio Research Unit the same year, in 1928 NEC photo-telegraphic equipment was used to transmit photo’s from the accession ceremony of Emperor Hirohito.
During World War II under the Enemy Property Control law, all NEC shares owned by Western Electric and International Standard Electric Corporation were seized, all relations between the companies was bought to an abrupt end and control of NEC’s production facilities were bought under military control, a bombing attack in June of 1945 completely destroyed NEC’s Okayama facility.
After the war ended NEC were quick to regroup, in 1950 they began research into transistors and began exporting radio broadcast equipment to Korea the following year, they were awarded the Deming Prize for Excellence and quality control in 1952, and started turning their sights on the new computer technology that was in its infancy, they established the Taiwan Telecommunications Company, the first post war overseas joint venture in 1958 and built the NEAC-1101 and NEAC-1102 computers the very same year.
By the time the 80’s rolled around NEC had created the worlds first digital signal processor, in 1981 they released their first 8-bit home computer, the PC-8800 they followed this up in 1982 with the 16-bit PC-9800, NEC quickly became the most dominant player in the Japanese home computer market, building up an impressive 80% market share, by 1984 they were making computers in the United States through their subsidiary NEC Information Systems Inc. and in 1987 they established NEC Technologies (UK) Ltd, to build VCRs, Printers and computer monitors in the United Kingdom.
1987 would turn out to be an important year, after watching Nintendo sweep the market with the NES console, NEC decided it might be worth investigating the home console market, they had meetings with most of the major arcade developers of the time, but nobody seemed enthusiastic, until they met with a company called Hudson Soft.
Hudson had been founded in 1973 by Yuji and Hiroshi Kudo, naming the company after their favourite steam train, initially selling radio telecommunication products and art photographs, before expanding into PC products in 1975 and eventually video games in 1978, Hudson seemed to have exactly what NEC needed to break into the home console market, namely the high powered LSI chipset that they had developed, NEC had exactly what Hudson needed as well, namely the finances to bring the project to fruition.
Based around an 8-bit HuC6280A CPU, an upgraded CMOS variant of the popular MOS6502 processor, backed by custom built dual 16-bit graphic processors (the HuC6260 and HuC6270A) the PC Engine could easily display arcade quality visuals, and was packed into a form factor so small that in the years since anybody in the UK wanting to convey the proportions of the machine would photograph it next to a packet of Skips. Ignoring cartridges, games for the PC Engine would be stored Hu-Cards, small credit card style cards that they had first experimented with on the MSX series of home computers, where they were knows as Bee Cards.
The PC Engine was launched in Japan on October 30th 1987 and was an immediate success, easily outselling not just Sega with its Master System but also dethroning Nintendo with their immensely popular Famicom console, in the first month of release over half a million consoles were sold making the PC Engine the biggest selling console in Japan for 1988, by April of 1989 NEC had 50% of new console sales and had sold 1.5 million units.
With its better technical specifications and less restrictive licensing practices the PC Engine quickly caught the eye of the Japanese game developers, particularly those who were less than happy with Nintendo’s iron grip on the home console market, NEC’s console benefitted greatly from a slew of games from some of Japan’s biggest developers, including games from rival Sega, which were licensed and converted by Hudson, sometimes ending up better than Sega’s versions for their own hardware, Namco, Capcom, Konami and Irem all had temendous success releasing their games for the console.
April of 1988 saw one of the more curious versions of PC Engine in the form of the PC-KD863G which was a CRT monitor with a built in PC Engine console, the benefit of which was that the RGB signal from the console went directly to the monitor giving it a better picture quality than the base console which only had an RF out, it was also a fully functioning PC monitor.
In December of 1988 NEC released the first of its add-ons to the PC Engine in the shape of the CD-ROM² a CD drive housed in a briefcase style casing, the unit was initially hampered by the lack of available RAM in the system, but a workaround was soon found in the form of the System card, a Hu-Card which gave the console more useable memory, although at the time CDs were very much an untested medium the add on was well received and sales were healthy.
Buoyed by their Japanese success NEC looked to expand into North America and instructed their US operations to come up with a new design for the console to appeal to the American consumer, The name PC Engine was quickly cast aside as being too confusing, and the diminutive size of the console was considered a drawback to Americans used to big flashy consumer electronics, eventually they settled on TurboGrafx-16, but unfortunately all the revisions led to the console launch being delayed until August of 1989 where the machine debuted two weeks after the release of the Sega Mega Drive.
NEC made a series of blunders with their American launch, the biggest of which was not understanding the American video game landscape, Sega bundled their Mega Drive with the exceedingly lacklustre Altered Beast which had at least been a hit in the arcades, NEC made the decision to bundle the TurboGrafx-16 with Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, a westernised port of Mashin Eiyūden Wataru, based on the Anime series of the same name, whilst the title had been popular enough in Japan where it was released a full year before, it was a game with literally zero recognition in America.
Sega quickly gained market share in America and the TurboGrafx-16 was sinking badly, adding to their woes the American arm of NEC had been so sure of the consoles success they had manufactured far more consoles than there was demand, sales were so bad that NEC decided not to release the machine in Europe, the overstocks of the American console were converted and sold to a distributor in Spain and Portugal.
April 1989 saw the Japanese release of the X1-Twin the first licensed third party hardware released by Sharp, the last in their range of X1 computers, it remains somewhat of an oddity as the X1 series had struggled against competition from NEC with it’s more popular PC8801, and the PC and PC Engine remained entirely separate from each other and due to the PC tower style casing it was incompatible with the PC Engine CD-ROM² drive.
In November of 1989 NEC released the PC Engine Shuttle a cheaper redesign of the base console sold with a redesigned Turbopad II controller, the machine was intended for a younger audience and was styled accordingly, this was followed by the release in December of the PC Engine CoreGrafx essentially the same as the original machine but replacing the RF connector for an AV out port and altering the colour scheme from white and red to grey and blue.
Keen to outpace the Mega Drive and with details being released of a new 16-bit Nintendo console on the horizon, NEC quickly cobbled together a PC Engine with an extra graphics chip and four times the amount of RAM, in an odd decision they decided to stay with the original 8-bit CPU found in the older machine, The newly dubbed SuperGrafx was launched on the same day as the CoreGrafx, it was an unmitigated disaster, over its lifespan only five dedicated games were released for the system and it sold only 75,000 units.
In 1990 NEC released the PC Engine GT, a handheld version of the CoreGrafx designed to compete with the Gameboy and Atari Lynx, unfortunately like the Lynx its high price and poor battery life prevented it from making any kind of dent in the marketplace either in Japan or America where it was released as the TurboExpress.
June of 1991 NEC released the CoreGrafx II, a cosmetic redesign of the base console, followed in September by the release the PC Engine Duo, which combined the CoreGrafx and CD-Rom drive in a new sleeker case, December saw the release of the PC Engine LT, essentially a CoreGrafx with an integrated LCD screen.
1992 saw the American release of the PC Engine Duo in the form of the Turbo Duo, unfortunately in a reversal of fortunes Sega had by this point become the dominant player in America despite being stuck in third place behind NEC and Nintendo in Japan, at a price of $299.99 it was considerably cheaper than buying a Sega Genesis with Sega-CD add on and came bundled with Bonk’s Adventure, Bonk’s revenge, Gate of Thunder, Ys book I & II, a coupon for a mail order copy of issue 3 of Turbo Force magazine and a $50 coupon for PC Engine software, despite this the Turbo Due did little to ignite interest.
1993 saw the release of the PC Engine Duo-R, as well as the Pioneer LaserActive CLD-A1000, a humongous beast of a Laserdisc player that was designed with four PAC modules that could be inserted, including one for the PC Engine and another for the Mega Drive, an NEC banded version of the machine the PCE-LD1 was released a couple of months after the Pioneer version, neither machine features regional lock out and eleven specific LD-Rom titles were released for the system.
1994 would see the last revision on the PC Engine hardware with the release of the PC Engine Duo-RX as NEC turned its attention to a 32bit successor, with Sega gearing up to release it’s Saturn console and Sony looking to step into the home console arena with its PlayStation hardware, NEC doubled down on a new machine dubbed the PC-FX, the new machine was able to process Jpegs at 30 images per second whilst streaming digital audio giving it vastly superior full motion video capabilities over its rivals, but sadly NEC failed to see where the future was heading and didn’t include a polygon graphics processor and when the machine was finally released on December 23rd 1994, 20 days after the PlayStation and a month after the Sega Saturn, it was clear that the future lay not in FMV, but in 3d gaming and the PC-FX was dead in the water, it would be the last console NEC would release.