The TurboGrafx-16 videogame system was released in America on August 29, 1989. On its 25th anniversary games and tech culture writer Leigh Alexander remembers what made this largely forgotten machine special.
There’s this really easy lie I tell about my childhood in videogames: That I was a Sega Genesis girl. And it’s true that when the playground wars were about Mario and Sonic, I picked Sonic—it was the attitude, really. I wanted to be a totally-radical 1990s babe, and Raphael from the Ninja Turtles, if he was real, was basically my model of a man. People still don’t know what the Genesis’ “Blast Processing” really was, but I was one of those kids who didn’t really need to know. I just believed it utterly. I nodded along.
I was trying to be cool on the playground. The fact is, my heart belonged to NEC’s TurboGrafx-16, and it still does. When you ask someone what their most beloved machine of all time was, they usually say Dreamcast for cred, but mine is the TG-16, and if I still had my hands on one you’d probably never see me again.
Did you know it was actually the first 16-bit system? It was my first videogame console. I mean, my Dad says we had an Atari of some kind and that I played with a joystick, but I don’t remember it. What I remember is the very first videogame controller I ever got into my hands, months before we even got a Genesis into the house—a hard plastic rectangle, perfectly flat, like a big deck of playing cards. Two buttons, a gunmetal, radial D-pad, and tiny rubber tic-tacs for Select and Start (here called “Run”.)
There were switches too, on the controller face. Two tiny little toggles. They were “turbo switches.” I think they had to do with the machine’s speed, but to this day I can’t be sure. To my child’s memory they were sources of glorified superstition: If you can’t beat the boss, turn on TURBO and maybe you get more powerful. Click, click, click, swap them around a few times, see if it helps. Flick them idly back and forth during loading screens. Thumb their pinhead nubs in their plasticine grooves to alleviate anxiety.
The thing was absolute magic to me: Black as a beetle, sleek as an animal, elegantly compact. Even when I knew about other consoles, I preferred this one: It was the Hu-Cards, you see. TG-16 games came on small, flat rectangular cards just a little bit thicker than a credit card. Usually they were a bright, solid color with the game’s logo on it. They dwelled in slick, lucid plastic sleeves. Their business end was black licked in gold connectors. You slipped one into your machine like you were at a chip-and-pin machine.
When your first experience of ever installing a cartridge in a console is like this, how can you go back? Nobody can believe I never owned an NES, or a Master System. But it seemed pointless when their contemporary had outclassed them so badly, for a time.
The TG-16 was a distinctly Japanese machine. Here is what I know about it now: Software developer Hudson Soft used to make games for the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System, of course) in Japan. The company also led the development of the “Bee Card” technology for 1983’s MSX computer—that’s where the Metal Gear franchise was born.
I don’t know why Hudson Soft wanted to make its own gaming machine. Maybe the inevitable transition of “Bee Card” into “Hu-Card” was exciting to them as it still is to me (the Hudson Soft logo had a little bee cartoon leaving a looping pointelle trail in its wake.) I think Hudson Soft made fancy graphics chips that Nintendo didn’t want, just as Nintendo didn’t want the kind of CD attachments that would be successful for many other machines.
I think Hudson Soft just really wanted to be as cool as Nintendo, and kept feeling rejected. This is the only reason I can think of for why the company went on developing Famicom games even as it partnered with NEC to make a machine that would compete directly with Nintendo (and beat it, at least until the Super Nintendo launched).
But I loved my strange little machine, even if it had such a weak marketing push that it would enjoy only so much time in the sun before it was plowed under by an avalanche of console wars marketing, shouted down by the glossy-magazine marketing war between the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo that would begin not long after the TG-16 was born.
While they were having that fight, my TG-16 got a CD-ROM drive that clasped its hind end like some loving Voltron component. Many years later all of my videogames would be on CDs, but I heard the thud of a sled drive, the squicky-squeak of prismatic data spinning in a pod for the first time in my congress with the TG-16. I learned then to hold my breath to that sound, to wait for what was next.
The TG-16 had an inglorious launch title, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones. Its royal blue Hu-Card led me to an absurd, clumsy platformer—I can’t replay it today, but I often watch YouTube longplays. It was maddeningly surreal: In its overworld, you are a spunky sort of Astro Boy meets Ash Ketchum character with bright sneakers and a prominent cowlick, leaping over flickering lava while spinning lucky cats tumbled from the sky to a plunky soundtrack. Strange, muted gray “happy faces” tumbled down rocky stairs directly into the path of my blade. I could stand there slaying them forever, a discordant explosive noise greeting each “happy face” slain.
If I remember correctly, you could pause the game and that lava would continue to glow, pulsing like a beating heart.
At the end of each overworld level, Keith Courage would step into a twinkling rainbow, don a Nova Suit, become a robot with a glow sword. The underworld was full of illogical broken-pillar platforming, creepy enemies (a flying robot surgeon who threw syringes; an indescribable leaping death’s head called the Devil’s Foot). If you could reach the end, you’d tumble a long way into a lurid blue boss room where misshapen, corpselike figures with hollow eyes glowed from dark alcoves as you fought a Frankenstein with a hookshot.
This was my first introduction to the vivid and oddly-compelling dissonance between Japanese development and the west. The manual to Keith Courage in Alpha Zones portrayed not a bug-eyed anime boy, but a comic-style heroic man with flowing locks, brandishing a blade. Meanwhile, the text itself encouraged me to fight “Dudes” to reach the “B.A.D. Headquarters”. Sometimes I wonder if the people who wrote the manual played the games at all.
You can see how this didn’t stand a chance once Sega put Altered Beast out there. Or maybe you can’t; it’s all just historical nonsense from a distance, muffled computer voices urging you to defy death, collect spirit balls, become a wolf-man.
Fortunately, the clumsy, alien Keith Courage was no real indicator of the machine’s power. Luckily, the TG-16 also had Legendary Axe, a sidescroller that was objectively better than the Genesis’ Golden Axe—the Hu-Card for Legendary Axe was red, just like the fiery hair of its hero. His name was Gogan. I’ll never forget that, because I was slightly in love with him.
Gogan’s girlfriend, Flare, had been kidnapped by a cult. I’m not sure that I internalized all of this at the time, thinking of platformers as one logically ought—as a series of levels, sometimes with wooly-looking vine ropes that hung terrifyingly across open skies, sometimes with stony pits you could tumble into. Legendary Axe made my father call a hint line for the first time. A hint line for a platforming game seems like an absolutely ludicrous concept to me now, but these old platformers were a matter of learning the right patterns of movement. Stand here for this bit, then move there for that bit, then jump and swing.
It was the only phase of my life during which my Dad and I played videogames together. At the end of the very first jungle level, the boss music would begin with a dissonant, almost locomotive hooting, insistently, and two prehistoric bears would shamble ominously onto a screen from which there was suddenly no retreating. Dad called up the hint line about the bears. Although I learned to get good at Legendary Axe eventually over the years—and I persisted at it for years, even after the TG-16 had attained total obsolescence—I could not quite get as far as Dad got, to some temple-land of pit traps where monkeys would leap onto your back, chipping away at your life.
Legendary Axe’s medieval-themed sequel was almost unsettlingly polished by comparison, featuring a crowned prince with smooth, bulbous bare pectorals and uneasy, glittering slimes he would swing at impotently. It had elements of the horrific: A tiny, shrunken man dragging an enormous ball and chain, a harpy who would bare her chest and embarrass me.
Neither Gogan nor Keith Courage would be the TG-16’s mascot, though. That honor would go to Bonk, the tiny caveman with the giant cranium, an endless mad appetite, and flowers and dinosaurs for friends.
Bonk’s Adventure was one of the first videogames I ever beat. Maybe even the first: I can’t be sure. I would still know how to do it today. Bonk’s Adventure was blunt but friendly—its hero was like an oversized child, although with doses of Flintstones-style bone-in meat, he could develop a ruddy tone, a rude, swollen forehead, and eventually, the power of invincibility. Bonk could slam enemies with that heavy skull, somersault endlessly through midair, and gnaw his way up cliffs. Cartoonish dinos and carnivorous plants sprung willy-nilly all over the screen, and he could collide with them, bounce them in air, ride dancing palms across lava floes. It was a really good time. It holds up, I think. Better than the original Sonic, I dare to say.
The thing I most remember about my endless summer hours spent solving Bonk’s Adventure as a child was the sense of place. You could see your main enemy’s tower in the distance, a pixelated pencil-spire, and like the cratered moon that followed you across the screen, it often grew closer. Until you found yourself climbing the tower itself. The bosses were actually friends of yours that “King Drool” had driven mad. Defeating them brought them back to themselves, with their halting, badly-translated celebratory language.
Bonk’s girlfriend was a tiny, elegant purple dinosaur called Princess Za. Because the game thought she was beautiful, I did too.
Much about the TG-16 felt pleasingly alienating to me as a child; the games, the vivid graphics, had all the charm and texture of something that wasn’t quite connecting. Sometimes it was because of the cultural barrier: The compelling anime women, robot suits and flying lucky cats, yes, but also because of many games’ strangely-mature tone.
I had the classic pinball game Devil’s Crush, which actually frightened me a bit too much when I was small. To this day I don’t enjoy pinball, but I was devoted to this one, the act of aiming for the corner skull and its terrifying rictus mouth. Or the serene, helmeted woman’s face at the field’s center that would become snakelike, luminous, ever more unsettling the more you pinged your ball off of it. Devil’s Crush let you chip away at the facade of a relatively normal pinball field to give way to the heavy-metal fantastic: Crushed dragon’s eggs, open-mouthed serpent women, the sudden birth of neon green whirling pentacles surrounded by tiny ghosts you had to hit if your ball was to be allowed in the center of the ceremony.
As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, this kind of deliberately-offensive “dark” aesthetic would become de rigeur, but it felt rebellious at the time. It prickled in me a sort of curiosity that largely explains my entire acquaintance with videogames from then on. I had a sidescrolling ship-shooter called Psychosis that was about defeating mental demons. It frightened me deeply, and I was terrible at it. I’m told these surreal shooters were, in hindsight, the system’s one great card to play in the console wars that were to come.
Yet TG-16 also gave me sunny, sprightly Bomberman, my first action puzzler. We all know Bomberman now, I hope, thanks to later revisitations across various Nintendo platforms, but the behavior of trapping tiny animated goons in a maze was new to me in 1990. You had to be careful not to blow yourself up. Again, the adorable helmeted space man you were given to play as was rendered as a serious, comic-book-style adult on the manual cover—this enhanced, not lessened, the inherent absurdity of having to trap blue, chomping monsters named “Pontan” among stones and detonate them with four-way fire. Your bombs would heave dangerously in place, fat black sacs of death, once you planted them. You had to make certain not to destroy yourself.
Bomberman had eight levels with eight stages each, and then there was some kind of final boss. I know this and will never forget it, because Dad once had a save at level 8-8, which I accidentally saved over with one of my own mediocre efforts. I was about eight years old.
I waited anxiously all day for Dad to come home from work so that I could tell him: I lost your Bomberman 8-8 save. He was really angry.
But I set myself earnestly to the work of restoring that progress. I dedicated hours after school to the meticulous reconstruction of his progress. It took me over a year, but I finally reached level eight, stage eight. By the time I told him he had lost interest in the game altogether.
When we got our CD attachment to the TG-16, it stole my heart. Again, the TG-16’s CD drive was a contemporary to 16-bit consoles like the Genesis and the Super Nintendo, and felt exponentially richer, more vivid, wildly ahead. Owning one felt like knowing a secret no one else knew, even if the TG-16 brand itself had begun to take a drubbing on the American market.
I had long been buying paperback books about cheat codes in order to get through TG-16 games. To me, even the fiction that I was using along with my own wiles made me feel superior to my Nintendo friends with their Game Genies, or the chunky cartridges they had to puff air into before Mega Man would run without a profusion of screen static. While they were wiggling the little strips of motherboard that had become loose in their Sonic cartridges, I had a CD drive! I had the elegant Hu-Cards, and they never went numb or dusty or finicky.
It was from those paperbacks I learned an infinite lives code you could enter at the scoreboard for Monster Lair (also known as Wonder Boy III), and if not for that I’d have had no chance of getting through it. I loved the full CD music for the game, a little bit sidescrolling platformer followed by a little bit of 2D shooter, on the back of a pink dragon-friend with a giant floating boss at each level’s end. My little sister thought Monster Lair was called “Monster Later”—you know, you go through the level and there’s a monster, later.
I loved it so much that often, in the center of a mountain village full of waddling mushroom enemies, I would pause the game—the music would continue, and I could concentrate on this bell-like piano crescendo that awed me. It was then I learned that if you took the CD game and put it in a normal CD player, the first track would be the hiss and bleat of data static, but after that, it would play all the musical tracks that were present in the game, followed by a succession of all its sound effects.
But the TG-16 CD game that I spent the largest swaths of my young life, and then my adolescent life, was Falcom’s distinctive Japanese RPG, Ys Book I & II. It had the distinction of presenting the first vivid, animated cinematic intro I’d ever seen in a videogame. I’d invite friends over from school to watch and listen to this intro, whereby a great ship sailed toward destiny, a turquoise-haired girl had a close-up in prayer, and a red-headed hero, Adol Christin, brandished his sword in the dark.
Ys Book I & II was the beginning of one of my dearest lessons in deep investment in games, that sometimes they could take years of your life. That they could render a sense of place that could keep a girl up at night. Even when my precious TG-16 was on its very last legs I could still play Ys: You stuck in a plain, black placeholder Hu-Card, and then you put the desired CD in its carapace, and you listened to it chug and shriek and you prayed it would work. So you could finish.
I’ve mentioned my Dad a lot in this article; it’s because he was the reason we had obscure hardware at the house, without even asking. He was a technology journalist for The Boston Globe, and he sometimes wrote about videogames as technology products that could stand proudly alongside VCRs, as products with roles to play in the onward march of home computing, when “home computing” was still a novelty in and of itself.
I remember once when I was young I asked Dad when people might send us more TurboGrafx-16 games. I remember him telling me that there might not be any more TurboGrafx-16 games.
I asked about why. How could my favorite machine “lose” a console war, at a time when I barely understood what a console war was to begin with? Dad told me it was basically “marketing”—that the launch of rival 16-bit systems had buried the TurboGrafx in their noise. Sonic’s attitude problem, and all of Nintendo’s exclusivity deals. No one in my class had thought the TG-16 was cool. I remember seeing Bonk in a lot of videogame magazines, his child-like face attempting to affect one of those bad-ass scowls, raised eyebrows. It just didn’t suit him. My TG-16 and its mascot were not up for the fight.
There were other things: Hardware pricing wars, business deals gone bad, software developer wars.
But hey: My dear, sleek beetle, my outcast carapace, my tiny little card-deck controller. My bee-emblazoned Hu-Cards. I thought you were cool. I always will; I can’t forget you. Find me watching TG-16 longplays on YouTube well into the dark, by those persistent players who could sit through Keith Courage in Alpha Zones even when I could not, could never. I didn’t do enough, maybe. I was only a kid. That’s the last indignity, you know, that as much as I loved this machine I owe the preservation of its history to those who loved it even more.
I watch them trip on glowing lava, bombarded by lucky cats, preparing to die at the hands of the monster that comes later.
Leigh Alexander writes about the art, business and culture of games. She is editor at large of industry site Gamasutra, a columnist at Vice UK, and has contributed to major specialist press outlets like Kotaku, Edge and Polygon. Her work has also appeared at Boing Boing, Slate, The Atlantic, The New Statesman, the Guardian and the Columbia Journalism Review, and she is the author of two ebooks, Breathing Machine and Clipping Through, about technology and identity.