EVERYONE WANTS TO JOIN JOHNNY BLANCHARD'S PC-98 CLUB
In the early 1980s NEC realised they needed to move on from their popular 8-bit 8800 series of computers. This time they wouldn't use the Zilog
Z80 that had successfully powered so many of their previous machines and they would instead follow the rising home computer range and produce machines based on the x86 architecture.
This proved to be an excellent move and grew NEC's market share even more, attracting other companies and in much the same way as IBM's dominance encouraged clone machines, so did NEC's.Enter Seiko Epson. Thus far they hadn't achieved much success in the computer market and had, in the end, decided to make IBM clones to attain some market share, although mostly in countries outside of Japan.
This decision caused a schism in the company's management, with many feeling they were ignoring their home market. And so, in 1986, they started development of a computer that was compatible with the PC-98 specification. To begin with they concentrated on making machines that were both cheaper and more powerful than NEC's offering, but later they tried to make genuine advancements of their own.
Interestingly, the parallels between the PC-98 clones and the IBM clones go fairly deep — just like the early Compaq vs IBM legal troubles,
Epson also saw itself facing action from NEC concerning duplicating their BIOS. These tussles continued until 1994 when NEC finally stopped including special checks in their software that would block Epson computers from installing MS-DOS and BASIC releases.
And so in 1990, Seiko Epson released the PC-Club, an AMD 286 based PC-98 computer. But this did not follow the standard box and keyboard setup of other PCs. Instead it more resembled another computer that was making an impact, the Commodore Amiga. Indeed the Japanese press had started to dub it ‘The Amiga Killer'.
And whilst this was possibly a little overdoing it, the PC-Club was indeed no slouch when it came to games. The PC-98 already prioritised graphics and sound more than its IBM PC equivalents, but in its sleek wedge shape, Epson's machine really did look every inch a gaming computer.
Well, mostly. One issue was the lack of joystick ports coming, as it did, with just a mouse port. This could be rectified by adding a card to the PC-98 compatible C-Bus slot at the back, which could also host Soundblaster cards and even enhanced graphics cards, or more mundane things like SCSI adaptors or memory upgrades.
But there was only one slot, so this was a choice that had to be made. Whilst trading out a hard drive solution would make some stuff a
little trickier, the inclusion of two 1.2MB 3.5” disk drives would at least make multiple disk games more palatable.
It's 286 CPU could be switched between 10 and 6 MHz, allowing for speed and compatibility with earlier software. The graphics were an interesting middle-ground between EGA and VGA, featuring a palette of 4096 colours but only allowing 16 on screen at once. It came with 640k on-board memory, upgradable to 2.5MB and 3 channel FM sound with a built-in speaker (with volume control).
The output is via a DB15 RGB socket, popular with many Japanese computers. This can be converted to VGA fairly easily — although it is a female connector on the machine itself, this differs from some machines like the X68000 and as such, some pre-built adaptors will need to be converted before they will work.
Surprisingly, the PC-Club is a capable machine and compatible with a lot of the PC-98 software, including a large library of games.
Some of these, like Prince of Persia, allow direct comparison with other machines of the time — and Epson's computer does very well in every category.
Should you want one, it's a tough machine to find, but it tends to go for fairly reasonable prices. It is also quite reliable, but does have an on-board battery that sits right on the main board, so this has a high potential to cause real damage if not removed quickly. The floppy drives are also troublesome, whilst reliable they use a flat flex cable that means it can be tricky to find replacements, or even connect them to an alternative, like a Gotek. Solutions do exist, but aren't always easy to find.
But possibly the biggest issue is the sheer lack of documentation available. The PC-Club was released at the same time as several other more popular and traditional Epson computers, and as such it didn't sell in huge numbers. Finding a machine with a manual is rare, finding one in the box is very unlikely, as is finding the original software.
Despite this I do recommend the PC-Club. The PC-98 range is wonderful to begin with and Epson's unique machine just adds to that. It has a decent range of software with some fantastic titles, although, like many Japanese machines, be very careful if you expect to use it in a PG environment.
See more of Johnny’s incredible collection of retro systems at