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Sony's PlayStation Portable and NEC's TurboExpress

The PSP and the History of Handheld Video Gaming, Part 6

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NEC's TurboExpress Handheld Videogame Console

NEC's TurboExpress Handheld Videogame Console

Brainiac/Wikimedia Commons

At first glance, it may seem like Sony's PSP has little in common with the TurboExpress (called the PC Engine GT in Japan) made by NEC. And in many ways, that first glance is accurate. But in other ways, the TurboExpress is very definitely one of the PSP's ancestors.

If you missed the earlier parts of this series, you might want to go back and read them now. Part One provides an outline of the series and an overview of PSP evolution. Part Two looks at Milton Bradley's Microvision, the first handheld with interchangeable cartridges. Part Three covers the underrated and rare Game Pocket Computer by Epoch of Japan, Part Fourlooks at Nintendo's iconic Game Boy, and Part Five is about the first color handheld, the Lynx, made by Atari. Part Seven is about Sega's Game Gear, Part 8 covers Watara's Supervision and the Mega Duck/Cougar Boy, while Part 9 is all about Sega's Nomad.

Turbo Express

NEC made the TurboExpress as a handheld companion to their full-size console, the TurboGrafx (or PC Engine, as it was called in Japan). It played the exact same games, using the same cards, as the larger console, but in a portable form factor. The screen was the same size as that of the original Game Boy--2.6 inches (or 66 mm)--but was full-color and brighter than Nintendo's handheld.

Top of the Line

In many ways, the TurboExpress was the best handheld game system of its time. Unlike Nintendo's Game Boy and Atari's Lynx, which played scaled-down games in comparison to full-size consoles that plugged into the TV, NEC's TurboExpress played full-sized TurboGrafx-16 games. This allowed players who already had a TurboGrafx system and games to take those same games on the go with a handheld system, and it meant the TurboExpress had a much bigger library of games than its competitors.

TV Tuner

One of the coolest features of the TurboExpress, and one that was perhaps ahead of its time, was the TV tuner add-on, something it has in common with the PSP. It also had an RCA audio/video input that allowed people to use the TurboExpress as a video monitor. Neither of these features really made enough of a difference for the TurboExpress against its competition. A TV tuner hasn't really done much for the PSP, either, especially since it was only released in Japan (I know a few people in North America who would buy one if it was released in this region).

Like other handhelds of its time, the TurboExpress had a cable that allowed two consoles to be connected for head-to-head play, a feature that has evolved into the wireless ad hoc multiplayer connection used by the PSP.

But Still a Failure

Ultimately, the TurboExpress couldn't compete with the other handhelds on the market. Although the TurboExpress, along with Atari's Lynx and Sega's Game Gear, had a better, brighter screen than the Game Boy (and later Game Boy Color), the far better battery life of Nintendo's handheld gave it the edge.

Even the huge library of games that the Turbo Express could play didn't save it in the end. It was the most expensive handheld--costing even more that it's own big brother the TurboGrafx--and primarily appealed to gamers who already had the games for it. And if they owned a TurboGrafx, there wasn't much incentive to buy a second, more expensive system, to play all the same games. Portability wasn't enough to sell the TurboExpress.

Sadly, a similar fate seems to be manifesting for Sony's more expensive PSP model, the PSPgo, which costs considerably more than other models (including the other current model, the PSP-3000) but which can only play downloaded games, not UMDs.

References

"Comparison of handheld game consoles." Online at Wikipedia.

Demarla, Rusel and Johnny L. Wilson. High Score: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games. 2nd Ed. McGraw-Hill, 2003.

"Handheld game console." Online at Wikipedia.

Kent, Steve L. The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon and Beyond. Prima, 2001.

"TurboExpress." Online at Wikipedia.

Next: The PSP and the Sega Game Gear.

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