I Was a TurboGrafx 16 Kid: Reviewing the TG16/PC Engine Mini (1/3)
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.
The major selling point of the recent wave of “mini” consoles — representing everything from the original Nintendo Entertainment System to a miniature Neo-Geo arcade cabinet — is tangible nostalgia, the kind you can hold in your hand.
It’s obviously more convenient to just play these games on your Switch, but the minis’ nostalgia is also for the hardware itself. Part of the fun is the simple joy of playing with those single-purpose toy computers and their unique controllers, like, perhaps, you did when you were younger.
So here in the States, the NES/SNES Mini and the Genesis Mini are pretty obvious sells: there are millions of people who grew up with that hardware. But what about the TurboGrafx 16? You know, from NEC? The one that failed against the NES, the Genesis, and the Super Nintendo?
Who else grew up with that one? Just me? Well, alright.
I bought a Turbo-Grafx 16 because Toys R’ Us was sold out of Sonic the Hedgehog
The weekend after my birthday we would always head off to Toys R’ Us — the promised land of the 80s/90s child— with whatever money I’d gotten from family and friends. This and Christmas were my only chances in a year to buy video games as opposed to renting them, and I knew I had to make it good.
And in 1991, there was but one thing on my mind: getting a brand-new Sega Genesis packed with Sonic the Hedgehog for the new, affordable price of just one hundred and fifty dollars.
The nice college-age guy who lived in our basement had Sonic, and he had a monster sound system. Every night when I went to bed that summer, I heard, ever so faint, the music and the jingling of rings through the floorboards. It was torture. By the time my birthday came, I was foaming at the mouth for a Sonic of my own. I went straight to the counter and said “I want a Sega Genesis with Sonic the Hedgehog, please!”
So you can imagine the moment of deep disappointment I had when the cashier told us, sorry, they’re all sold out. But I was a little guy in Toys R Us with a bankroll of *in excess of two hundred dollars*, and I simply didn’t have the restraint to go home empty-handed. Perhaps Sonic could wait another year. I could pick up some new Super NES games, or maybe…
I was one of the few kids ever to be won over by the TurboGrafx 16 aisle at the toy store. This promotional video looped on a TV over and over again, and hey… these games looked pretty good too. How much was one of these — oh wow.
You see, the TurboGrafx 16 had failed in the US from pretty much the moment it came out, and it had already been two years. The system was heavily marked down, and the games in the video were on clearance for 20 bucks a pop. My young self couldn’t imagine it. Video games cost fifty dollars, maybe sixty. Forty if you were *lucky*. The TurboGrafx 16 was now an instant hit with me. It was probably an even bigger hit with my mom, who had been hearing for weeks now from her son that he wanted to spend two hundred dollars just to play one video game.
Sonic dashed out of mind. I plucked those $20 exchange tickets from the display like a boy possessed. Bonk’s Adventure, Ninja Spirit, JJ and Jeff, Pac-Land, Final Lap Twin. I’ll never forget my first bender: I was six years old.
And despite the commercial above clearly telling me that having Super Mario World made me a stupid child and getting Sonic would make me cool, at that age I didn’t really care that my system wasn’t popular. What I knew was I had six great video games. Okay, maybe five. Every TurboGrafx kid knows Keith Courage isn’t very good.
Though I didn’t buy many more games for my TG-16 — and price-wise, the whole CD thing was as unimaginable as hitting the lottery — I kept the system plugged in, and cherished those games for years to come. It taught me that “unpopular” didn’t mean “bad”. I know very well how the kid from Hi Score Girl felt.
So yes, there’s a TurboGrafx 16 mini, but also, that’s not the version I bought. (Before stuff went down, when this piece was a pitch at a big website, then maybe I would’ve spent another hundred bucks for photo authenticity.) The PC Engine, the Japanese original, is one of the great console designs: strikingly minimalist, even cute. That’s the version I bought as a grown-up.
Minimalist and cute were two things that didn’t fly in the US kids’ toy market, though, and so the Turbo-Grafx 16 shell is about four times the size of the PC Engine. In the name of accuracy, so is the Mini.
Even for the era, the minimalist controller is a bit of a shock: basically a two-button NES pad with the sharp edges rounded off. Coming from the six buttons on the Super Nintendo, it was a little hard to believe that two buttons would ever be acceptable again.
But the design is a hint as to the specialty of this niche console: simple, straightforward arcade games. The stiff buttons are not so great, though, uncomfortable for extended holding (racing) or mashing (shooters).
The TurboGrafx 16 name used in the US came from the PC Engine controller’s unique “turbo” switches, designed specifically with rapid-fire for shooting games in mind. (A few old-school shooters on the Mini, like Super Darius, are borderline unplayable without the turbo switches.) In Bonk’s Adventure, I marveled as rapid-fire headbutts made the little caveman somersault in the air so fast that he could almost fly.
And then there were the games, or as they were called, the HuCards. If you ever look inside an old video game cartridge, it’s mostly hollow plastic with a little circuit board inside that houses the actual game software. The HuCard is a tiny board inside of a much tighter casing the size of a credit card. As a kid who didn’t understand anything about the innards of my beloved video games, my mind was blown by the fact that a whole world could fit into something like this.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the Minis do not have a working Hucard slot. The shell is overall a bit of a drop down from Sega’s obsessively modeled Mega Drive Mini, for which Sega even made miniature, non-functioning game cartridges (along with an attachable Sega CD and 32X) available.
The power switch, on the other hand, makes that very same loud “CLICK” sound I remember from my childhood TG-16, as a plastic bit pops in to hold in the (not actually present) HuCard. As anyone who’s ever used a cartridge-based system — or dealt with the original “toaster” model of NES — can tell you, that CLICK hits a powerful zone of nostalgia in the brain. Even the unremarkable Nintendo minis get this part right. They know how important the feel is.
It’s so important that when you start up a game in the Mini, it plays a little animated sequence of your chosen HuCard clicking into an on-screen cartridge slot, complete with authentic system noises. If you play a CD game, you’ll see that sequence followed by a pixel animation of the system’s CD drive (an add-on) starting up, coupled with a recording of actual CD drive noise as the game starts up. The developers at M2 understand exactly how I felt about that CLICK when I was six years old.
The appeal of these devices is not just playing the games, it’s playing the hardware. It’s about lighting up that specific, buried spot in your memory. Next we’re going to talk about the games.
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.