Hard game criticism
Ian Bogost imagines a world in which the Turbo-Express flourished
While it’s tough to pick from among the reasons the TurboGrafx-16 is the best videogame console ever made, here’s my favorite: its associated TurboExpress handheld system.
If you’ve never heard of the NEC TurboGrafx, it’s either because you’re too young (it was first released in Japan in 1987 and in North America in 1989), or you live in Europe (the system’s 1990 release on the continent was limited), or you fell prey to the false but widely held belief that the SNES or Sega Genesis (Mega Drive) were the ‘better’ 16bit consoles. It’s OK, I forgive you.
In fact, I forgive us all, because no one has yet come to terms with the promises first set by the TurboGrafx: tininess and ubiquity. The Japanese version, which bore the confusing title PC Engine, was a tiny thing (less than six inches square), whose games came on thin ROM cartridges known as HuCards. Thanks to the modest size of the internal electronics and the game cartridges, NEC was able to create a handheld system that was technically identical to the home console. The very same games you played in front of the television could be pocketed and played some more on the bus or at the park.
It was expensive (as much as US$300 or so), and it didn’t sell very well. But the value proposition was clear: instead of investing in a monochrome GameBoy, whose simpler games you’d have to purchase separately, the TurboExpress offered the ability to play one set of games anywhere. Sure, it burned through AA batteries in doing so, but the same opportunity wouldn’t arise again until the Sega Nomad, a portable device that played Genesis cartridges.
Twenty-five years later, we still can’t play the same games across our TVs, PCs and handhelds. True, occasionally a PC release makes it later to console, or a console release makes it to mobile. Some games do release simultaneously on all platforms, a feat that requires designing carefully for different input methods, screens and attention spans.
But even so, you’ll have to repurchase the game on every platform you want to play it on. And thanks to the firewalls set up between devices, any progress you make in one place won’t be reflected elsewhere. Today, multiplatform games are published to reach the largest possible audience, distributed across every possible platform. The market for games was much smaller in 1990, true, but the idea that the same game – the copy you already own, not just the same title – might be portable between systems remains a dream that probably sounds too crazy to ever be implemented.
It’s not so crazy if you think about how other media formats work, or at least how they used to work. A video cassette or DVD could be taken with you, moved from your house to your friend’s, for example. A cassette or a CD could be moved from kitchen counter to car. And a book – well, a book could be taken anywhere, or sold or lent or borrowed.
In this respect, other media has actually caught up with the digital Balkanisation of games. Movies and music and even books are no longer owned, but rented from various providers: your cable company, Netflix, Amazon, Apple and so forth. Transferring licences between devices is complex and time consuming, and often limited to a specific number of total machines anyway.
But perhaps there’s still a chance that games could escape the sequestered fate they have partially helped create. Substantial differences still exist between game platforms, and indeed one of the ways console and handheld manufacturers market is by means of that differentiation. But game systems have also become a lot more homogeneous in recent years. PS4’s design is simpler and more like a PC, and even Nintendo’s Wii U has more or less shed the necessity of Wii Remotes. Meanwhile, crossplatform development and distribution has become easier thanks to environments such as Unity, which build to many different platforms with relative ease.
The missing bit is a business case for buy-once, play-anywhere games, and a technical mechanism by which to do it. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine such a thing any time soon, if at all. Even developers themselves couldn’t create a means that would overcome the sandboxes of various platforms. And so we return to the TurboExpress, this time to lament it as a dead branch of a hypothetical lineage, a Neanderthal of past gaming’s future.
Twenty-five years later, we still can’t play the same games across our TVs, PCs and handhelds