9.5

The TurboGrafx-16 Mini Beautifully Revives an Overlooked Classic

Games Reviews TurboGrafx-16 Mini
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The TurboGrafx-16 Mini Beautifully Revives an Overlooked Classic

Given its low profile in the United States, the TurboGrafx-16 might seem like a weird choice for a microconsole. If you’re at all familiar with NEC and Hudson Soft’s proto-16-bit system, though, you probably have one preordered already. That would have been the smart call, at least: this is easily the best of the nostalgic mini machines from the last few years, even if it is basically devoid of nostalgia for the vast majority of people who play videogames. It might lack familiarity, but in terms of filling in the historical record, this is as crucial as these things get, as most of these games haven’t seen the light of day in a long time.

I’ve never tried to hide my fascination with the TurboGrafx-16. If you’ve read my work at Paste over the last decade, or ever looked at my especially pointless Twitter feed, there’s a good chance you’ve seen me raving about this now-obscure console from 1989, which had a brief blip of prominence in America before slowly fading away over the first half of the ‘90s. I bought one when I was 12 with the money I made from selling my Game Boy (never regretted that) and NES (regretted it slightly about 20 years later before just buying another one), and have had it plugged into a TV pretty much consistently since then. I can’t say I play it regularly, but when I want to it’s ready to go. Yard sales and flea markets were semi-reliable sources of games throughout the ‘90s, until eBay took over as the marketplace of note around the turn of the century, and together they let me continue to grow my collection well after the TurboGrafx was discontinued. I’m far from complete—and I’m not really trying to pull that off, anyway—but I do have several dozens of these games sitting on a shelf in my office, and will almost definitely be adding more whenever the price is right.

I say this all to prove to you that I am into it—“it” being the TurboGrafx. This failed machine, which was a legitimate hit in Japan under the name PC Engine, came out at the right time to hook me for life, and to appeal to a middle school kid tentatively stepping into pursuits that, to my sheltered and impressionable mind, felt less childish than what I had known. This probably sounds ridiculous, and I am in no way comparing these things in terms of content or artistry, but I bought a TurboGrafx-16 the same year I started listening to college radio, reading Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman comics, and watching Twin Peaks during its initial run on ABC. In other words, the TurboGrafx hit the same year I became pretentious as hell—or, more accurately, started to realize even “low-brow” media like comics, nighttime soaps, and rock’n’roll could be a little more stimulating than what I was used to. Coverage of the TurboGrafx in magazines like Video Games & Computer Entertainment made it seem riskier and edgier than what Nintendo was releasing, with the demonic and horror movie imagery of games like Splatterhouse and Devil’s Crush selling me on the system. Pawning my Nintendo stuff to buy a TurboGrafx was a kind of teenage rebellion for a dumb kid who didn’t know anything about rebelling or being a teenager.

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I dredged up that banal biography just to make sure you realize the score here. Yeah, I’m biased. I love this machine and many of its games. I am thrilled that it’s made an unlikely return over 30 years later. If you’re the kind to dismiss a review because the critic might be partial to the thing they’re reviewing, or the people who made it, then be forewarned. Ready those shouts of “bias” as you see fit.

Even if I wasn’t a sucker for this exact thing, I’m pretty sure I’d still find the TurboGrafx-16 Mini to be the best in its class. It is historically the most significant of these machines, if only because of the gaps in knowledge it helps fill in, and its menu design, display options and form factor make it the most aesthetically pleasing. I don’t know if there are any other companies that could potentially produce a thing like this anymore, but if they do exist, they should look to this for inspiration.

It has a large selection of games, including 25 from the TurboGrafx-16 and 32 that were only released in Japan for the PC Engine. Those Japanese games aren’t localized at all, so the text-heavy ones (including the early Hideo Kojima rarity Snatcher) are a bit of a mystery if you don’t read and speak Japanese. Most of them are easy to understand, though, and the result is the largest microconsole so far, and one with a fair amount of stylistic variation.

The TurboGrafx has a well-earned reputation as one of the best consoles ever made for 2D scrolling shoot ‘em ups. If you’re a fan of games like Gradius or R-Type, you’ll find a lot to love on here—including versions of both of those games. One of the more well-known games for the system is Blazing Lazers, which was known as Gunhed in Japan; it remains a gorgeous and almost perfectly crafted shooter, with multilayered backgrounds, a palpable sense of speed, and an elegant weapons upgrade system that allows you to customize your own approach to the game. Super Star Soldier is another classic that any fan of the genre should try out, and Air Zonk is an odd cartoony side-scroller that inexplicably stars a futuristic version of the console’s caveman mascot Bonk, with surprisingly great results. There are almost 20 shoot ‘em ups on the Mini, and together they reveal the wide range of diversity found in this often overlooked genre.

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It’s not all just spaceships blowing stuff up, though. Ys Book I & II remains one of the best RPGs of the era, with a beautiful score that was originally made possible by the TurboGrafx’s groundbreaking CD-ROM player. Neutopia is the best of the original Zelda clones, and a game that has become increasingly expensive on the second-hand market over the last several years. Its fine sequel is also here, in both American and Japanese editions. Platformer fans are well-served by two of Bonk’s adventures, the original in its Japanese variation, and the sequel wearing its American skin. And Bomberfans can exult in three different Bomberman games—’93, ’94 and the Tetris-aping Panic Bomber. The TurboGrafx side has a few questionable inclusions, and is missing some of the best games on the system (including Legendary Axe and Devil’s Crush), but it’s hard to argue with the quality of this lineup.

These are all games released anywhere from 25 to 32 years ago, so if you are a thoroughly modern player who struggles with the display and design of older games, this obviously wouldn’t be for you. If you remember those early days of videogames with fondness, though, or find yourself enjoying more prominent classics from the ‘80s and ‘90s despite not living through them firsthand, you’ll have no problem getting your head around the TurboGrafx-16 Mini. And if you’ve never actually played a TurboGrafx or any of its games, you’re the best possible target for this device: you’ll discover not just a few dozen games that are new to you, but will be adding a crucial bit of context to your larger understanding of games. If you’re able to find one, you should take the chance—even if you don’t have that well of nostalgia within.

As for me, there are two main draws to the Mini. First off is the convenience of easily plugging this directly into my TV with an HDMI cable, and not having to figure out how to attach a coaxial cable to a 4K TV. Most importantly, though, is that collection of Japanese games. I’ve never played a Spriggan, or the original Cho Aniki shooter, because I’ve never had a PC Engine. I first saw screenshots of Star Parodier in a magazine in 1991 or 1992, but had never actually played it until the Mini showed up on my doorstep. I’ve even tried to crack open Snatcher and the RPG Jaseiken Necromancer using online translation guides. It’s like an album I’ve known by heart has finally been rereleased with copious outtakes and bonus tracks. Even somebody who’s never let their TurboGrafx-16 go can learn from the Mini.

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Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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