Thursday, July 6, 2017
Turbo EverDrive 2.x and the PC Engine - The Affordable NEC Experience
Over two years ago, a friend of mine kindly let me borrow a Turbo Duo and a Turbo EverDrive. I wrote about the experience here : http://nerdlypleasures.blogspot.com/2015/04/turbo-duo-issues-and-solutions.html I had to give it back (and the Framemeister which came with it), not without a good deal of sadness. I vowed that I would find a way to play NEC Turbo games again on real hardware/ Now, I have acquired an affordable, upgradeable solution. Let me talk about it and about plans for future upgrades.
I owned a Turbo Grafx 16 around 1990. It came with the Pack-In game, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones. My parents bought me Bonk's Adventure and Splatterhouse and I eventually was sent R-Type through a mail-in offer NEC was doing at the time (even though it took months to get to my house). Eventually I obtained more SNES games and my interest in the TG16 fell away. I never forgot about the three great games I played. Even Keith Courage was not a terrible game.
Now in 2017, I see that my local retro game store has a TG16 for $149.00. TG16s were not the most popular system of the 4th generation and have a nostalgia value that can command real money. While I could afford it, I know that the TG16 has its drawbacks. The main drawback is that lack any output better than RF video. The official Turbo Booster adds composite video via the rear expansion port, but they go for at least $50 on their own. So to get a system with passable video quality would set me back $200.
The PC Engine was much more popular in Japan than the TG16 was in the US. The history of the top Japanese video game consoles looks like this : Famicom, PCE. Super Famicom, Playstation 1, Playstation 2, Wii, Playstation 4. The PCE was released in 1987 when the Famicom was over four years old and the SFC was still more than two years on the horizon. The PCE's reign at the top of the charts was brief, but there was a good deal of memorable software released for it.
The original PCE, the white console, outputs to Japanese RF only (like the Famicom) and its controller does not have turbo switches. The original console is also prone to yellowing (also like the Famicom). The system was revised as the PC Engine CoreGrafx I and later the PC Engine CoreGrafx II. The CoreGrafx units are very similar to the original but use gray colored plastic and add a 5-pin DIN connector for composite video and stereo audio. The only obvious difference between the I and the II is the color (Blue for I, Orange for II) of the lettering on the system. The Core Grafx has the expansion port on the back, so it can use the PC Engine CD-ROM attachment by connecting both to the PC Engine Interface Unit. The Core Grafx also has a special Super CD-ROM upgrade unit that has holes for the AV and power jacks.
I ended up buying a CoreGrafx I. I bought mine from a Japanese seller for $74.99, including shipping. Shipping from Japan is typically done through Japan Post. Japan Post provides four services, EMS, Airmail, Economy Airmail(SAL) and Surface Mail. EMS is the fastest option but usually the most expensive. Sometimes it is cheaper than Airmail (for larger packages) and insurance is available. SAL is an option that is cheaper than regular airmail, but packages are sent based on available space on airplanes. Surface Mail is the scenic ocean route and the package may take months to get to the U.S. I chose SAL and it took just over a month to reach me from Japan. I ordered my Turbo EverDrive at the same time and it took less than two weeks to reach me from Ukraine.
I decided to buy a Japanese console for two reasons other than price. First, I wanted to be able to use an Arcade Card someday with a CD-ROM unit. While you can use an Arcade Card with a TG16, you will need some type of region mod or product to do that. Second, I want to use a six-button controller for games like Street Fighter II' - Champion Edition. While you can do that with a TG16, you will need an adapter from the 8-pin DIN used by the TG16 to the 8-pin mini-DIN used by the PC Engines and Turbo Duo. My CoreGrafx controller has a cable with a rather generous (for Japanese consoles) length of 4.5'.
My unit did not come with an AV cable, so I ordered one from console5 : https://console5.com/store/stereo-av-cable-for-nec-turboduo-pc-engine-supergrafx.html Sega Master System and Genesis Model 1 AV cables will work, but they only support mono audio. I believe the CoreGrafx systems may also came with a mono cable. The Sega Master System and Genesis 1 power adapters will work just fine, the NEC consoles use negative tip barrel connectors. In fact, using a power supply intended for the US may be preferable to a Japanese supply because our AC runs at 110-120v while theirs runs at 110-100v. Famicom and Super Famicom adapters also work, but never insert a NES adapter.
For improved video quality, I eventually plan on obtaining a dbGrafx Booster TTP
https://db-electronics.ca/product/dbgrafx-booster-ttp/. This is a device that plugs into the expansion port on the back of the PCE, TG16 and the CoreGrafx units. Because the US TurboGrafx has a D-shell around its expansion port, official Japanese add-ons won't fit it unless you cut away some metal. Like the Turbo Booster it provides composite AV and stereo audio, but it also supplies RGB and S-Video output. Unfortunately, it can't be used with a CD-ROM. Stoneagegamer sells these in a box as the Engine Block AV : http://www.stoneagegamer.com/engine-block-av-turbobooster.html
When I had the Turbo Duo two years ago, it had been RGB modded by doujindance. doujindance's RGB modded consoles used to be held to the gold standard by the PCE/TG16 enthusiast community. But his RGB mod was flawed, as I found out. There was banding in certain solid colors, such as the green in background in level 1-1 of Bonk's Adventure. This banding was not present with the composite signal. It appears his more recent modded consoles may have addressed issues like these.
I have no particular attachment to the original TG16. It is rather an ugly looking console and the CD unit does it no favors, making it look like a large inverted T. Similarly, I have no desire to spend myself into the poor house by purchasing expensive HuCards and TurboChips. So I have purchased a Turbo EverDrive. The last one I had was a v1.x flash-based unit. This one I bought is a v2.5 unit, which is S-RAM based. It can support micro-SD cards up to 32GB in size, formatted with FAT32.
The Turbo EverDrive can play any PC Engine or Turbo Grafx 16 card game. The v2.x units offer instant loading compared to the v1.x units, which had to flash each game to the memory. Loading times on the v1.x units could be up to 45 seconds, whereas the v2.x units boot nearly instantly. Street Fighter 2 Championship Edition loads in approximately 3 seconds, and that game is 2.5MB. The only other time you may actually see a Game Loading screen is for the 1MB games : Bonk III, Parodius, Lady Sword and Strip Fighter II.
The v2.x units can function as a CD System or Super CD System card by loading the appropriate U.S. or Japanese ROM. They cannot function as an Arcade Card. The EverDrives support the largest game, Street Fighter II' - Champion Edition (2.5MB). They also have a switch for US and Japanese consoles. This switch will also allow U.S. protected games to play in Japanese systems. My v2.5 unit also has a small reset button, the consoles themselves do not have reset buttons. The reset button will return you to the menu, which is extremely convenient.
All 94 US and 277 of the 278 Japanese games should work with the Turbo EverDrive v2.x. The only game I have had issues with is Populous, which is the only game that contains additional RAM (but not a battery) inside the HuCard. Both the official No-Intro ROMs for Populous glitch quickly upon starting a Conquest game. The screen may appear normal at first, but try scrolling it a bit or raising and lowering land and soon you will see glitchy graphics and the game will end very, very quickly. The game may work correctly in a Duo console or with a Super CD-ROM attachment.
The Turbo EverDrive v2.x supports OS updates, but there has been only one OS released. Earlier v2.x tended to be very picky about which consoles it would work with, and were rather hostile to most region-modded consoles. I believe that these issues have been resolved as of v2.4. Also, while the Turbo EverDrive v2.x does work with the 7 Japanese SuperGrafx games when played in a SuperGrafx systems, (the two Darius games are compatible with non-SuperGrafx systems), some users had issues with v2.4 which have been resolved in v2.5 due to the use of a newer revision of RAM chips. Unlike the Turbo EverDrive v1.x, the Turbo EverDrive v2.x uses proper level translators instead of resistor networks to convert 5v to 3.3v logic and vice versa. This should allow for a more reliable and longer lasting EverDrive.
One minor annoyance is that in the Turbo EverDrive menu Button I is used to confirm and Button II is used to cancel, which is opposite of the button mapping on other systems. Button I corresponds to Button B and Button II corresponds with Button A on NES Controllers and Game Boys. Unlike the EverDrive N8 and GB, there is no option to swap buttons on the Turbo EverDrive.
Saving on the PC Engine hardware is a very unusual issue. The HuCards are rather small for extra RAM and batteries. Some games support saving to a backup unit like the Turbo Booster Plus, Backup Booster or Tennokoe 2. These games also support saving to RAM inside a CD-ROM unit or a CD-ROM console like the Turbo Duo. However, most of these devices only support 2000 blocks (2KB) and a game can take anywhere from 10 blocks up to nearly 1,000 blocks. Most of these devices held the contents of the save RAM via a large capacitor or a pair of AA batteries, so they were not the most reliable or long-term of solutions. There was also the Tennokoe HuCard which could archive and transfer the saves from a CD console or a Booster device and had 8KB of RAM. Populous does not have a battery in its HuCard, only RAM, so it can only save with one of these devices or consoles. A more detailed list of devices and games that support saving to them can be found here : http://www.pcenginefx.com/forums/index.php?topic=12247.msg237956#msg237956 but you need to join the forum to read anything on it.
Unfortunately the Turbo EverDrive v2.x does not support a Tennokoe device or an Arcade Card, either the 2MB Duo version or the 2,25MB Pro version. All the consoles without Super CD-ROM capabilities require the Pro Card, while the Super CD-ROM consoles, the Duos mainly, require the Duo version. You can run Super CD-ROM BIOS images off the v2.x, but you should use the modified BIOS files available here, especially if your CD-ROM device has a built-in Super CD-ROM BIOS : http://krikzz.com/forum/index.php?topic=3640.msg38353#msg38353