I’ve covered a lot of vintage game systems on this blog. Usually to showcase the graphical marvels accomplished on them by assembly coding sorcerers of the day. But out of those systems, which is the rarest treasure I myself most wish to own?
Feast your eyes on the PC Engine LT. The PC Engine was the Japanese name for what, in the US, was called the Turbo GrafX 16. There were many variants on the PC engine hardware, including two portable versions: The PC Engine GT (Turbo Express in the US) and the PC Engine LT.
As you can see above, the GT was basically just a PC Engine in a Game Boy style form factor. Still, this was revolutionary at the time. Every other handheld was cut down, power wise (except the Sega Nomad, but that’s a different story.) The GT was a full blown current gen home console from that period…as a handheld.
Compare that to the 8 bit Game Gear which played cut down, less advanced games because it was based on Master System hardware. Or the monochrome Gameboy, which reigned supreme even during the SNES era, even though when it was released it was already substantially weaker than the NES.
The equivalent today wouldn’t be the Nintendo Switch, because it’s deliberately underpowered to achieve good battery life as a portable. It would be more like if Sony released a full blown handheld PS4 with no compromises. So you can imagine how tantalizing the PC Engine GT/Turbo Express was on release.
The PC Engine LT went one better by being playable as a handheld (like an oversized, unwieldy Gameboy Advance SP) but also allowing you to set it down on a flat surface, connect an external control pad and play it as a console. Sort of like the Switch’s tabletop mode, but way back in the early 1990s.
The LT was the evolved version of NEC’s prior experiment in making the PC Engine portable, its LCD Color Monitor, seen above. A tentative toe in the water which elicited enough interest, they said “why not just build it into the unit?” Uniquely feasible for a machine as compact as the PC Engine, compared to the bulkier SNES and Genesis.
Now, color LCD screens weren’t great in the 90s. They had bad issues with ghosting for instance since the refresh rate was so poor. They also didn’t come cheap, hence why early 1990s VR headsets cost tens of thousands of dollars because of the LCD microdisplays inside.
This means the quality suffered and if you can find a PC Engine GT or LT today, odds are good it has at least one stuck or dead pixel. However there’s a cottage industry which has sprung up, devoted to replacing the 1990s LCDs in these old portables with modern TFT displays of the same resolution.
You can get a Game Gear, Atari Lynx, PC Engine GT, etc. with a fully modern TFT with richer colors, vastly better per-pixel refresh rate and less power consumption, but it will cost you a pretty penny. Often they also mod in lithium batteries so you don’t have to supply 4 to 6 AAs that it burns through in 2 hours, like the old days.
I already love the PC Engine platform, but my old consoles are in storage and I can’t justify digging them out. I have nowhere to put them, no TV to hook them up to and it’s easier to just emulate them these days. I made an exception when I bought the Switch because it’s tiny, self contained and includes an integrated display.
The PC Engine LT has the same strengths. It could just live in its own little corner of my desk waiting for a break in my writing, or when I have to wait for a video to render. Then I could fit in a round of Super Star Soldier or something on authentic, original hardware.
These portable self contained consoles are few and far between. Often short lived experiments that are damn near impossible to get ahold of now. The Sega Treamcast, a mini Dreamcast with a built in laptop style flip-up LCD monitor is another example, but I’ll save that for a future article.
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