Chris Covell's

Power Console

Prototype Page!

A huge box arrived at my house yesterday. And I mean HUGE! It had made its way through the postal system (well, courier) over the last few tension-filled days as I waited for my prize, which I had obtained in a private sale. Its contents? Well, that is the stuff of legends, the stuff that bankrupts companies (Konix, for example), the stuff that might have changed the course of gaming history, if it had ever been released. I'm talking about...

NEC's Power Console! This was the massive attachment meant to go on sale in Spring 1990 following the Winter release of the SuperGrafx system. It was planned to usher in a new dimension of gameplay, similar to Capcom's much later Steel Battalion mecha command centre, by fitting over the entire body of the SuperGrafx console and taking over all controls. In the meantime, the SuperGrafx was a huge flop, and, tragically, plans for the Power Console and games that used it were shelved.

So, what do I have here? It's a prototype of the Power Console, sporting features that even the Japanese gaming press hadn't caught a glimpse of when a later (stripped-down) demo model of the Power Console was shown to them at NEC's unveiling party. Not only that, but my console came with 3 EPROM cards containing completely unreleased and unheard-of games/programs that were meant to showcase the power of the SuperGrafx and Power Console. But more about that later.

First, what features does the Console have? For starters, it has the basic direction buttons of the usual PC-Engine, configured as a round, arcade-style joystick, Select and Run in the centre, and 1,2,3, and 4 action buttons (that means 2 additional buttons over usual PCE pads) with rapid-fire switches for buttons 1 and 2. There is a large steering wheel / flight yoke in the centre that has triggers on the handles. The triggers are the same as the 1 and 2 buttons. The wheel has analogue movement both left and right, and up and down, augmented with an analogue throttle on the left side of the console for full 3-D movement in flight simulators or driving games.

Getting weirder, there is a jog dial as seen on VCR controls (top-left of the Console) and a 16-button numerical keypad (more of a calculator keypad) that is used for setting time & date on an LCD display as well as operating recording/playback of button presses, just as programmable joysticks on other systems are capable of. Did I say LCD? Yep, in the upper centre of the unit there is an LCD display that shows time (AM/PM/Date) as well as the settings for the button programming function. Next to that there is an LED array arranged like an airplane's radar that lights up dots to show the horizon, or approaching enemies in games like Battle Ace. Is this Hubris? Megalomania on the part of NEC? I say no: NEC knew what gamers wanted in a peripheral and were willing to pass on the cost to the buyer if it meant adding all the features anyone could ever want -- and some that few would ever want -- into the ultimate accessory. Because there's even more:

A few other features I haven't yet mentioned are a power switch (for the whole system) and reset button, and as can be seen, a full 5-player multitap built into the right side of the Console! (Player 1 uses the built-in joystick, of course.) Other ports down the left side are an additional video output from the Console, and a coin slot and bill feeder too! NEC's engineers thought of everything!! How come there's no cup holder, though, eh?

Power Console Software

Before you ask, no, the sample cards above don't contain SGX Strider or Galaxy Force. But they do contain three pieces of software I'm sure you've never, ever seen before! They were bundled with my prototype Power Console and used (obviously) to showcase and test out the superior features of the SuperGrafx and Power Console. Two cards have black protective covers on them and the third has no cover, presumably since it was always having its chips updated (being a hardware test card and all). So, let's have a look at the games!

The Super Kung-Fu

This one will be familiar to everyone already, since The Kung-Fu was the very first game Hudson ever developed for the PC-Engine in 1987. The original game was used to showcase the PCE and the vast gulf in graphics capability between it and the then-reigning Famicom. Well, obviously Hudson wanted to show the same vast gulf again with its new SuperGrafx console since our fighter's character in-game is MASSIVE! He takes up literally the full height of the screen, with his feet almost disappearing off the bottom of the screen and his head obscuring the life meter above. This really is a SUPER sequel, since the enemies are just as large, obstacles such as rocks are twice the size as before, and there is now true parallax scrolling of mountains, trees, etc. in the background thanks to the SGX's dual playfields.

Criticism of the first game's sloppy controls and rough animation has been addressed since our hero now animates much more smoothly and punches and kicks faster, too. The only downside to the game is now that everything is much larger, enemy bosses and the hero can't both easily fit on the same screen, so it's difficult to anticipate their moves when half of their bodies are off the right edge of the screen. At any rate, even if it may still be a shallow showcase of the system's technical capabilities, this awesome game should have been released!!!


Taisen Pro Mah-Jongg

The second card, marked "SG 03"(?) is the most unique one of the lot. True, while it's a mah-jongg game (which means few of us reading this could even play a game like this) it borrows in a unique way a page from Sega's mah-jongg game for the SG-1000, which had a plastic blinder that players could fit over the TV so that one player (sitting to the left of the TV, eg.) couldn't peek at the other player's mah-jongg tiles on the other side of the blinder.

Well. Anyway, when I first put in this game and turned on the power to the Power Console, I saw only the left-hand screen that you can see below. Obviously something was missing from the picture. I then noticed that the 2-player game has 2 types of options: one for single-screen play, and another for DOUBLE-screen play! How they do it technically, I don't know. But anyway, what you had to do was hook up the SGX's usual video out cable to the 1P TV, which goes on the left, and hook up another TV to the special video out port of the Power Console. Put that TV on the right side, and you have not only the 2P screen but the world's first double-screen console game! The special widescreen feeling you get from the title screen is cool, but it doesn't last too long, as in-game you're supposed to separate the TVs so that one player cannot see the other's screen. 2 players can thus play head-to-head -- literally!

Okay, so I can't say much more about this game, and I don't think I'll try to learn the rules of mah-jongg just for this title, but it goes to show just how much Hudson Soft and NEC were on the leading edge of innovation!


Power Tool

The third and final card we have is more or less what the title screen says: a tool for testing out the many hardware functions of the Power Console itself. Thus, I don't think it was intended to get a consumer release anyway. I'm sure it was used more for diagnostics and perhaps as a low-level interface that other Power Console-aware games might have incorporated. The options after the title screen are pretty limited but include a memory viewer, a testing screen for the programmable joystick function of the Console, and an input / output test as seen below. All the buttons and analogue inputs can be easily checked, and the LCD and LED displays on the Power Console can be tested for correct operation.

As I'd mentioned before, this prototype Power Console comes equipped with a working 100-yen coin slot and yen bill feeder(!), just as arcade games and vending, token and change machines do. One can only wonder for what purpose NEC were planning such a feature in a home system. Maybe to bring more of that arcade feel home? Or perhaps to enable SGX games and hardware to be incorporated themselves into an arcade unit? Sort of a reversal of the original SGX philosophy: "With the SuperGrafx, we've made home videogames into an arcade-like experience again, so why not take original SGX games to the arcade?" Who knows?

Anyway, I guess any gamer who was willing to pay the cost of the Power Console was more than happy to keep feeding it more money even after purchase...

In conclusion, all I have to say is what an amazing list of features in a single peripheral!! NEC tried to demonstrate just how ambitious and original they were back in the early days of the PC-Engine and SuperGrafx. It's just too bad the market wasn't ready for such innovation. The 3 pieces of software shown here that got shelved also show Hudon's and NEC's competitiveness in the late '80s and early '90s: The Super Kung-Fu is a clear shot across Sega's bow with their new 16-bit Mega Drive and games like Super Thunder Blade and The Super Shinobi. The message is, "You're not the only one who can make 'Super' enhanced games on new hardware." Taisen Pro Mah-Jongg could be a reaction to Nintendo's Game Boy, with its link-up capability and 2-player, 2-screen (one on each GB) mah-jongg game Yakuman. And finally, the Power Tool makes complete use of all the Power Console's features. Although this test software didn't get released itself, it's clear that the on-screen interface of Battle Ace is an evolution (or devolution?) of the off-screen Power Console interface, with its radar scanner, on-screen crosshairs similar to the flight yoke indicator, and so on. It would have been great if the SuperGrafx had been released with additional games like these, games that totally show off the sheer power, or, er, at least difference, of the SGX system compared to all other consoles.

I hope you've enjoyed this view I've given you into the dark and exciting world of Japanese rarities!

send comments to Chris Covell!