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.
Here’s the second part of “I Was A Turbo-Grafx 16 Kid,” my review of the PC Engine Mini/Turbo-Grafx 16 Mini, where I talk about a couple of the games of my youth.
Like I said, I loved my six (wait, seven, I bought Tricky Kick one day) Turbo-Grafx 16 games. So I’m gonna lead off with the one everyone hated and isn’t even on the Mini.
Keith Courage in Alpha Zones
This game isn’t on the Mini — probably due to the fact that it’s based on Mashin Hero Wataru, an old kids’ anime that’s having a revival right now — but as a TurboGrafx 16 kid, it’s too important not to talk about.
I somehow had three, or maybe four, copies of Keith Courage. I only knew one other kid with a TG-16, so there’s no way I could have that many copies of the game… but there they were. Someone believed in this game enough to pack it with every system. That person was wrong.
The game is a plodding action platformer split between two segments: an overworld where you gather cash and buy supplies (kind of Wonder Boy) and an underworld, where your super robot has to stop every two steps to hit a robot shaped like a gun five times in a row before progressing.
I beat Keith Courage one time, using a cheat I saw on an episode of Video Power five minutes before I ran out of the house for school. My grim satisfaction at defeating a nemesis by any means was cut off immediately as the game promised another Keith Courage adventure to come.
JJ and Jeff
I can admit that I’m emotionally attached to this game *specifically because* I played it when I was a kid. The JJ and Jeff title screen jingle is my phone’s ring tone right now, and I haven’t gotten tired of it. Sometimes I hear it in my dreams.
JJ and Jeff is a simple, silly platform game that nailed my post-Bart-Simpson comic sensibility. You pick one of two goofballs with giant, expressive heads and slip-slide through stages full of birds that poop on your head. Your only weapon is the stubby-leg kick you see above. The character you didn’t choose will appear throughout the game, pissing in the woods, dispensing advice, or trying to murder you by dropping giant tea kettles on your head.
This was the height of comedy to me at six, of course. This game was originally a vehicle for a pair of puerile Japanese celebrity comedians, Kato-chan Ken-chan. (RIP Ken Shimura.) The US version was probably chosen for the Mini as a way to get around having to license the images of Kato and Ken.
This is definitely an Adventure Island-like from Hudson Soft, though the merciless difficulty of those games gets dialed back quite a bit. As a kid I loved returning to the the familiar rhythm of Super Mario Brothers— overworld, then underworld, then maybe the sky— so this was a good game to relax with too. I never beat it, though: it gets rough about halfway in.
Ninja Spirit is my dad’s favorite video game of all time. I played video games in front of my dad my whole childhood, and this and F-Zero were the only ones he ever took any notice of. To this day, he says “They should make more like that Ninja Spirit.” He always talks about “the pit”. It blew his mind.
The set piece of this game is a blind fall down a pit, moments before the final boss. For twenty terrifying seconds, you fall and ninjas appear randomly around you, with blades outstretched. There’s no trick to it. You just have to shoot and dodge them for the duration. The boss itself is nothing compared to this ordeal, and like my dad, you’ll remember it forever.
Even putting aside the unforgettable set piece and the weight of my nostalgia (is that possible?), Ninja Spirit truly is a hidden masterpiece. A little bit platform and a little bit shooter, with a tiny ghost ninja, gravity-defying leaps, and a wide range of weapons to play with (even if one of them is a little broken.) The level design is extremely strong, with zero filler: the game puts you on your toes in a different way every stage.
Today, this game has been rediscovered and is a sought-after treasure in any format. The original arcade board will run you $1000, and the TG16 version goes for $250 boxed. (TG16 collecting is insane. Don’t even try it. Get yourself a nice Duo and a flash card. Trust me.) Right before TRY Tower arcade in Akihabara (again, RIP) sold off its retro floor a few years ago, I managed to find the arcade game there. I made sure to send a photo to my dad.
Bonk’s Adventure and Bonk’s Revenge
Given the sheer cultural impact of Mario, it was understood in these days that video game consoles had to have a mascot. TurboGrafx 16 kids had Bonk the caveman (PC Genjin in Japan — y’see “genjin” means “caveman”). He’s underrated, too.
It’s easy to see why Bonk would be chosen as the US mascot: his games have some of the best art direction on the platform. (Note that they came from RED (Sakura Wars, Gungrave), whose life mission was to make anime you could play.) Bonk’s worlds are noticeably brighter and more colorful than other games on the system, pulling everything out of the system’s color palette. The tone is gently comical, the characters silly and expressive. There’s a slight arcade influence, with tricks, secrets, and bonus games throughout. But unlike a lot of the arcade fare on this system, the game is a breeze to beat.
As a kid, I would play through Bonk’s Adventure in its entirety when I wanted to relax. It was right next to Super Mario World and Smart Ball in my “easy stuff” pile.
I never got to play much of Bonk’s Revenge — even in emulation — until the Mini, actually. You know how Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is like the first, but refined and tightened, resulting in an utterly superior product? Bonk’s Revenge is like that.
I could have rediscovered this part of my childhood at any time, and this is hardly the first time I’ve looked at it since I was a kid. I still have my Turbo-Grafx 16, my PC-Engine Duo-R, my modest collection, emulators, and piracy. A couple of the games of my childhood (Final Lap Twin!!) aren’t even on the Mini.
But you know, I didn’t regret this purchase one bit. I’m thrilled to have a little PC Engine on my desktop and a Turbo Pad within reach. At any time in my work (from home) day, I can press a button and play Bonk’s Adventure.
You can never go back, but to have that is enough. A Mini for every Turbo-Grafx kid, I say, and one for everyone else, too, for the sake of the culture.
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 that link. If you just feel like donating to me personally (hooray), my Ko-fi is here.