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Slim Pickings: A Brief History of Gaming Card Carts

Slim Pickings: A Brief History of Gaming Card Carts

There’s something about the HuCARD that few other physical gaming formats can deliver. It’s a feeling, rather than anything technically muscular or wildly practical. Held in the hand, HuCARDs are one of the coolest game ‘cartridges’ out there; beguiling and sleek in equal measure.

In fact, HuCARDs weren’t the first card-based gaming system out there, nor the last. Indeed, they front a remarkable range of undersized, pancake-flat retro formats.

If you’ve not been lucky enough to hold a HuCARD in your hand, the slick, glossy credit-card-sized slabs were a defining format for NEC’s influential PC Engine. Like the undersized machine they nestled in, the ROM cards brought something different from their rivals, combining the late-80s and early-90s fads for retrofuturism and miniaturisation. At the time it seemed magical – even impossible – that a whole game could be packed onto such a modest plastic sliver. By comparison, traditional carts can feel a little cheap and clunky.

Credit-card-sized PC Engine HuCARDs came packaged within a CD case

As told in Bitmap’s upcoming book PC Engine: The Box Art Collection – which follows up on Game Boy: The Box Art Collection and Super Famicom: The Box Art Collection – the brilliant little console’s eye-catching physicality, vibrant software library, and bold cover art captured a particular moment in time for popular culture, defined by an energetic new design aesthetic emerging from Japan, and a technologically optimistic view of the future. The PC Engine was created through the collaboration of electronics heavyweight NEC and then-prolific software house Hudson. Together, they also envisioned the HuCARD.

Hudson brought much to the table, having already been working on the EEPROM-based Bee Card system for the MSX line of Japanese computers. That gave the studio an opportunity to explore the potential of small, slim-line cards for other devices. Only nine games globally came out on Bee Card, with users required to use a special removable adapter placed into the MSX cartridge slot – the Hudson Soft BeePack. However, the prelude to the HuCARD system was also used for Japanese telephone cards, some Korg synthesisers, and even Atari’s 1989 Portfolio palmtop PC. Not that meant you could play an MSX game on a Portfolio, as the cards weren’t all identical in format. Bee Cards were far from wildly successful, but they lined things up for a later triumph.

To a degree, it all came down to choice of plastic – and an elegant approach to designing the PC Engine’s cart slot. The polymer make-up of the HuCARDs (also known as TurboChips) didn’t just bring heaps of glossy retro-futuristic energy when held in the hand. It also dispersed heat with handsome efficiency. PC Engine models equally left much of the card exposed when in the machine, further aiding the escape of heat. That meant there was no need to produce the more sizable, spacious traditional game cartridges that used a more open internal structure to let air circulate to keep things cool.

The open HuCARD slot on the PC Engine neatly displays the artwork

Hudson and NEC were also very open to adapting the HuCARD’s design. While most simply held a ROM and pinout at the top with the rest being solid plastic, some were a shade thicker, apparently housing additional electronics or save batteries. Examples there include Street Fighter II and Populous. When the ill-fated PC Engine follow up the SuperGrafx arrived, it introduced an enhanced Super HuCARD format, though only seven titles were released (and that total depends on how you define ‘released’). In 1991, Hudson would go public with the ‘Tennokoe Bank’ HuCARD. Essentially a memory card, it offered more reliable save functionality than seen in the PC Engine variants’ hardware themselves.

Some HuCARDS were visibly thicker to allow for additional electronics

Ultimately, thanks to affordable production costs, reliable performance, and that undeniable cool, the HuCARD format thrived, with around 300 games seeing commercial release on the white slabs. And that’s not counting some of the unofficial PC Engine releases on third-party cards, or for clone consoles like those seemingly made by a firm called Jamiko.

But the HuCARD wasn’t the only card-based cart system. From 1983 onwards the SG-1000, SEGA Mark III, and SEGA Master System were all supported by the HuCARD-esque SEGA My Card. The MSX was also compatible with a format known as Soft-Cards, that appear to be manufactured by different outfits in different regions. From 1989 Atari’s Lynx presented something of a card-like format – albeit with a curved lip to make removing the ROM from the portable a little easier. And while they were arguably a slimline cartridge rather than a true game card, who can forget the 1984 French computer the Exelvision EXL 100, which saw games like 2D shooter Wizord come on relative plastic slivers? OK, it’s not that memorable, but does deserve a nod for being ahead of the trend.

A handful of early Master System games came on the 'Sega My Card' format

Over in the world of arcades, all manner of save systems used something even more physically comparable to a credit card to let players take progress (and competitive performance stats) from cabinet to cabinet. Some, such as those for SEGA drift racing series Initial D, would even reprint elements of each card’s front as you progressed, letting your card become more personal and unique over time. Meanwhile, in 2003, Konami debuted its e-amusement system, letting players of various connected arcade releases access all manner of online services. There were even arcade systems that offered operators a motherboard that took game ROMs on card-like carts. Taito’s 1998 G-NET system, for example, used a main board based on a PlayStation 1, with games coming on PCMIA II; more commonly used for laptop expansions. Not quite a plastic slab with a neat ROM, but debuting games like Ray Crisis and Super Puzzle Bobble on slim carts certainly echos the PC Engine approach.

What’s really special about all these cards – and particularly the HuCARD – is that they capture a very particular time. Notions of readily available, fast, affordable download of gaming software to own digital felt a little far off and unfamiliar in the 80s and well into the 1990s. Technological miniaturisation, meanwhile, offered a vision of the future that felt a little less concerning, where everything would be familiar and powerful – and conveniently tiny. As late as 1999, the ‘bootable business card’ emerged, offering credit card-sized rectangular CD-ROMs, seemingly targeting the busy professional who simply had to have their software (or a launch ROM for large systems) to hand in their wallet.

Maybe Hudson and NEC did imagine we might all keep our game libraries in our pocket. It was a time, aftersall, when Sony’s iconic Walkman was thriving. But most PC Engines – TurboExpress aside – were anchored to a plug socket and far from portable.

Whatever the motivation for conceiving the HuCARD, it emerged as one of the coolests, toughest, most memorable gaming formats there has ever been. And so often they came nestled in packaging showcasing some remarkable and memorable clover art – plenty of which you can get hold of in Bitmap’s very much not credit-card-sized PC Engine: The Box Art Collection. Pre-orders start in May. Can’t wait that long? Check out the rest of Bitmap’s retro gaming releases!

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