The TurboGrafx-16 Mini will be out soon, so what better time to republish our list of the best games for one of our favorite consoles of all time? This originally ran in August 2014, on the 25th anniversary of its American launch.
The first 16-bit videogame system hit American shores 25 years ago this Friday. Although not the most successful machine in its day, the TurboGrafx-16 pushed gaming technology forward, with the first CD-ROM attachment for a gaming console. For those who were sick of Nintendo but didn’t like the pandering edge of the Sega Genesis, the TurboGrafx-16 was a welcome alternative. Unlike the Genesis, whose stab at attitude felt like a kid throwing a tantrum, the TG-16 seemed genuinely transgressive to the middle schoolers of 1990, with the satanic imagery of Devil’s Crush and horror movie gore of Splatterhouse unlike anything on the NES or Genesis. And the CD-ROM only solidified the TG-16’s rep as the most “grown-up” gaming option at the outset of the 16-bit era, opening up new vistas for animation, full-motion video and soundtracks unrestrained by computer chips. Although the TurboGrafx-16 was massively popular in its native Japan, where it was known as the PC Engine, most of those games never made it to America due third parties not wanting to upset their relationships with Nintendo. Still, enough great games made it across the ocean, and here are the sixteen best.
This side-scrolling run’n’gun arcade hit was the TurboGrafx’s answer to Ikari Warriors or Contra, with your bandanna-sporting army man stalking his way through a war zone and blasting away enemies in multiple directions. That was a vital role to play in any console’s catalogue in the late 80s. The TurboGrafx version was actually better than the arcade original, with larger levels and a more fleshed-out story.
R-Type was one of those games that eventually existed on almost every system ever created. Another top-notch shooter for a system just absolutely lousy with them, R-Type was as addictive as it was difficult.
The TurboGrafx-16 was home to some of the best video pinball games ever made. Time Cruisewasn’t as well-known as the peerless Crush series, but its novel spin on pinball convention is worth seeking out. Time Cruise is less of a pinball table than a series of conjoined single-screen tables with a common aesthetic. Like the original Zelda game your ball can travel to new screens in all four directions, each with its own pair of flippers at the bottom. Bonus levels are complex balancing puzzles that resemble Marble Madness more than pinball. It’s a pleasantly rambling (but no less stressful) take on classic pinball.
Taito’s sword-and-sandals arcade hit eventually landed on the Genesis, but the TurboGrafx-16 version was first and best. It mixed hack’n’slash platformer action with light RPG elements, like class skills, magic and character stats, resulting in a challenging game fit for anybody who wished Dungeons & Dragons rip-offs required quick reflexes. With the TurboGrafx’s advanced tech it was one of the most colorful and beautiful games of its type at the time.
The gorgeous sequel to Gate of Thunder one-upped everything about that game, with more vibrant graphics, tenser shoot-’em-up action and an even more amazing heavy metal score, blasting out with crystal clear accuracy through the Turbo CD. And with four different armor styles to pick before each game, it had a bit more strategy to it than most shooters.
So this is another shooter. Seriously, there were a ton of these on the TurboGrafx. If the NES was all about platformers, than the TG-16 was even more about shooters. What set Super Star Soldier apart from the pack was its fantastic graphics and blistering speed. Although the sequel to Star Soldier, it actually had so much in common with another game on our list, Blazing Lazers, that NEC considered releasing this in the States as Blazing Lazers II.
Dragon’s Curse has a confusing history—it’s the same game as the Sega Master System’s Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, but with art changes and a different story. Following up on Metroid’s signature design hallmarks, Dragon’s Curse is a smartly designed but relatively simple non-linear platformer with a cute cartoon art style.
Neutopia was one of the most shameless Legend of Zelda clones you’ll ever see. Many games hewed closely to the original Zelda—Chrysalis, A Link to the Past—but few were as faithful as Neutopia. Still, it forged its own identity within Nintendo’s template, with its own distinct mythology and vivid artwork.
The TurboGrafx has a rep as a system for shoot-’em-up fans. It is well deserved. Almost half the system’s catalogue seems to be shooters. One of the first and best was Blazing Lazers, which came out a few months after the system launched in 1989. It’s a beautifully hyperactive vertical shooter with deeply customizable firepower. Its speed, music and colorful, intricate graphics were early proof of how the TG-16 outclassed the NES.
The game of its year for beloved old magazine VideoGames & Computer Entertainment, Legendary Axe would’ve been a standard side-scrolling hack’n’slasher in 1989 if it weren’t for two things: It was surprisingly tough and incredibly good looking. This launch title was a graphical trump card for the TG-16, far surpassing similar games on the NES and showing up the early games for the Genesis, which launched the same month. Legendary Axe remains one of the best games to target the Conan demographic.
Ninja Gaiden taught us that ninja games were for masochists, but thankfully Ninja Spirit came around to deprogram us. There were two of the spirits in question, spectral doppelgangers that followed behind your character and responded in kind to your button presses, and that triple-team ability aligned with two distinct difficulty modes to make Ninja Spirit as appropriately challenging as you desired. This was another early TG-16 game to blow the NES away visually, with multilayered backgrounds and bosses that took up an entire screen.
There have been many Bombermen on many different devices, but the TurboGrafx will always be his home and Bomberman ‘93 his finest hour. It was a Bomberman, perfect in its own way, with the confidence to embrace all that being a Bomberman means. IE, you blew up blocks and cute monsters while searching for extra bombs and power-ups and a door to the next stressful stage. It’s a timeless concept that never felt as timely as it did on the TurboGrafx.
Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, the original pack-in game, was a huge misfire. The TurboGrafx found its mascot and its signature game with Bonk’s Adventure, a fun platformer with an adorable caveman headbutting dinosaurs on way to rescue his pleisiosaur girlfriend. With a charming art style, unique setting and lovable lead, Bonk’s Adventure would’ve been memorable even if it wasn’t one of the best designed platformers this side of Mario.
Before Advance Wars or Fire Emblem ever hit the States, TurboGrafx fans were strategizing up a storm with Military Madness. The war game put you in control of a futuristic space army fighting its way through turn-based battles on the moon. It was one of the first such strategy games for an American console, and for a certain class of war-minded player in the late 80s and early 90s, one of the chief selling points for the system.
This was the main reason to get the TurboGrafx’s CD-ROM attachment in 1990. The fully animated cut-scenes, voice acting and CD soundtrack were breathtaking at the time, an early glimpse at features that didn’t become standard for another five or six years. As an RPG it didn’t necessarily have the gameplay depth of such contemporaries as Phantasy Star II or the Final Fantasy series, but the CD technology opened up storytelling opportunities that games simply hadn’t known before.
Devil’s Crush combines the two styles of video pinball better than any other game. It’s a single table spread across three screens, each with its own pair of flippers, and a variety of optional bonus screens that can be unlocked in various ways. Even if you stripped away the few elements that would be impossible in a real pinball machine, such as the circle of chanting monks in the top screen, or the swarm of demons that erupt out of a bumper after it’s hit enough times, Devil’s Crush would make for a fantastic old-school pinball table, with numerous opportunities per screen to score or raise your bonus. Those physically impossible moments are crucial to making this the best video pinball table ever, though, and the goofy satanic heavy-metal aesthetic is the perfect capstone.