Also, Games: Reviewing the TurboGrafx 16/PC Engine Mini (3/3)

Real Talk 2020: Things are rough for everyone right now. As a remote-working freelancer I’ve already started to lose work, so I’ve been keeping myself busy with personal projects like bringing dead freelance pitches back to life. If you enjoy this piece I’d greatly appreciate a tip on my ko-fi, if you can manage it.

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At the risk of becoming long-winded, I think this piece needs an appendix. I am a TG16, kid but I’d like to talk about the Mini in ways that have nothing to do with any kind of nostalgic look back at my childhood. I truly think it’s a great collection for anyone interested in retro games, not just those who grew up with this console.

An international game lineup

There is very little difference in the game list between PC Engine Mini and TG16 Mini. But for some perspective, you should know that while the TG16 was born on life support, the PC Engine did pretty well, holding its own as a solid second-place alternative to the Famicom and the Super Famicom. The PC Engine lived a long and healthy life in Japan: the party was over in 1994, but the last PCE game came out in 1999!

Naturally, many of the system’s biggest and best games never left its country of origin. A TG-16 Mini must include PC Engine games: at the very least, it would be criminal not to include Dracula X or Snatcher.

On the Japanese side, there are games that have some extra features on the US version (Moto Roader) or would otherwise be left off for rights reasons, like Kato-chan Ken-chan (real life celebrities) and Gunhed (branded after the Japanese sci-fi movie which it otherwise has nothing to do with). In these cases, the US versions are a clever way to slip these games in.

So no matter which version of the Mini you buy, it features both consoles. Click the logo, watch a cute animation of a CRT TV turning off, and you’re switched. PC Genjin (Bonk’s Adventure) is on the PC Engine side, and Bonk’s Revenge (PC Genjin 2) is on the Turbo-Grafx side. RPGs that came out in English are thankfully made available in both languages.

You don’t get the untranslated, text-heavy Tokimeki Memorial or Tengai Makyo II on the TG16 Mini, and you don’t get the PC Engine port of Salamander (Life Force) on the PC Engine Mini.

I have an interest in the history of the medium and a baby’s command of the Japanese language, so I was kind of fascinated to poke around in the first mainstream dating sim and an early blockbuster, cutscene-heavy JRPG (kind of like a pre-Final Fantasy 7). Though I love Salamander, I’d rather take historically important games that never get re-releases than a port of an arcade game that’s readily available. If you don’t think like I do, on the other hand, you probably won’t miss them.

As a caveat, the games in the PC Engine section are not translated, even adventures like Snatcher and RPGs like Necromancer. If it didn’t appear in English on the TG16, it won’t be in English here.

Arcade at home

At first it’s kind of a surprise to see so many arcade ports on the Mini. Shouldn’t there be more console originals if they want to show us what’s so special about the PCE?

But the arcade is in the blood of the PC Engine. For the first time, this was a console that could deliver ports of modern arcade games that approached pixel perfect. Considering arcade ports on the NES were drastically compromised, this was a big selling point.

The PC Engine port of R-Type was a major event for the console and a good example of what I’m talking about here. It’s not the *exact same game* as the arcade version, but the look and feel are so close that it’s not an issue.

Even the original games for the system have an arcade vibe. Behold The Kung-Fu (China Warrior), an ultra-simple beat-em-up, or Victory Run, a rally variation on Out Run with tire and engine wear. This is to say nothing of the plethora of shooting games on the platform, whether they originated in the arcade (Gradius) or not (Super Star Soldier). Namco got the message: their PC Engine catalog is entirely arcade ports!

If you love the arcade style of the late 80s — fast action and shooting from right before Street Fighter II took over — you’ll be quite at home with the PCE library. Aside from the aforementioned strong lineup of arcade ports, I highly recommend the “Soldier” series (Super Star Soldier, Soldier Blade), the Giger-ish pinball game Alien Crush (I’m a little sad sequel Devil’s Crush isn’t on the Mini), and if you can get some multiplayer going, the Gauntlet-like Dungeon Explorer.

The shock of CD

The PC Engine had a CD add-on (The Super CD-ROM², pronounced “rom-rom”) in 1989. The introduction video you see above (Ys Book I & II) is one of the first times console players ever heard a real human voice come out of a video game, to say nothing of the lush full-screen art and, my god, the music. This was mind-blowing stuff, the high end of consumer video games in its day.

Where the Sega CD struggled to put out hits, and the Turbo-Grafx CD was a non-starter, the well-supported Super CD-ROM² eventually supplanted the HUcard as the main platform for PCE games.

By its late life, the CD-ROM² is pretty firmly established as a console for hardcore anime otaku. Think about it: who’s going to be most interested in supporting a $400-$600 video game system with the selling point of full-screen, voiced animation?

CD-ROM² games actively aped anime, with lavish openings and lengthy cutscenes. Even arcade shooting games like Spriggan feature heavy animated story. Let the CD games on the Mini run without pressing Start, and you’ll see what I’m talking about here.

Hudson’s last hurrah on the system — and the last game on the Mini, chronologically — was Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire (Galaxy Policewoman Legend Sapphire), a flashy arcade shooting game that pushes the PCE’s limits with over-the-top special effects and shiny, big-haired characters straight out of a mid-90s TV anime. It’s not the best shooter on the system, but it really encapsulates what the PC Engine was at the very end of its life. It’s also one of those ultra-rare games you couldn’t play legally without paying a zillion dollars up until lately.

NEC would later bet the farm on anime with the PC-FX — specifically dropping 3D capability for high-quality video playback — and lose it all. A sad ending for the PC Engine, as well.

Judgment: You already know I love this thing, but…

I guess it’s kind of a given for anyone looking into buying a PC Engine/TG-16 mini, but are you interested in digging deep and playing games you’ve never heard of? This is different from the SNES Mini, which only has the most famous, all-star titles for the console (and thus is kind of a bore). It’s also different from the Mega Drive Mini, which digs deep to find a pile of original, rare, and lost games from every genre.

The PCE Mini has a library of over 40 games, but it mostly serves the action/arcade niche. There are a couple of good RPGs, a little sports, and even a strategy game, but I would go so far as to say that if arcade games aren’t your thing you won’t get a lot out of this. That being said, I think most people who play retro games today to begin with are in fact arcade fans, in which case I recommend the Mini emphatically.

I got the Japanese PC Engine Mini from Amazon Japan. Here is an Amazon US affiliate link for the TurboGrafx 16 Mini. If you decide to buy one, it will directly help me out if you buy one through here. If you just feel like donating to me personally (hooray), my Ko-fi is here.

Sooolar wind. Anime/games writer. Sometimes on @polygon? @Kawaiikochans is the sum of my efforts. Serious about stupid.