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Turbografx-16 Mini

Platform(s): Turbografx-16 Mini
Genre: Hardware
Publisher: Konami
Release Date: March 19, 2020


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Hardware Review - 'TurboGrafx-16 Mini'

by Adam Pavlacka on May 25, 2020 @ 2:00 a.m. PDT

TurboGrafx-16 mini is a compact version of the classic 1980s console, pre-loaded with dozens of retro games.

Buy Konami TurboGrafx-16 Mini

The recent trend of mini consoles has been something of a mixed bag, with Nintendo's NES Classic and SNES Classic selling well (and well over retail on the secondary market), while Sony's PlayStation Classic fumbled the ball pretty hard. SEGA's Genesis Mini reviewed well but quickly saw discounting after release. Konami's TurboGrafx-16 Mini suffered from a delayed release due to the Coronavirus, but now that it has officially shipped, it's safe to say that it may be the best mini console released to date.

Whereas the other mini consoles had the benefit of name recognition, the majority of today's gamers have never actually played a real TurboGrafx-16 console. Released in the fall of 1989, the TurboGrafx-16 faced competition from the NES and the Genesis in North America. The TurboGrafx-16 was the North American version of the Japanese PC Engine, just in a bigger (and bulkier) case because marketing executives at the time thought American players wanted "big" consoles. While the Japanese PC Engine was exceedingly popular (it gave the Super Famicom a run for its money in Japan), the American TurboGrafx-16 suffered from a later hardware launch and limited game releases. Some of the best games on the PC Engine never got officially released in North America.

The net result was a system that suffered commercially but fostered a very dedicated group of fans. If you wanted to experience the best the TurboGrafx-16 had to offer, you were importing games from Japan. Given the primitive nature of the Internet at the time, this usually meant ordering from a mail-order catalog and then learning a few basic words of Japanese to get through the menus. Thankfully, most games were easy to understand, at least until you ran into something text-heavy like Snatcher. At that point, it was a combination of busting out the Japanese-English dictionary and downloading fan translation FAQs from Usenet. Being able to point a smartphone at the TV screen and use Google Translate wasn't an option.

As time moved on, this ultimately meant that many TurboGrafx-16 games were some of the first to hit the collector's market. As more and more players discovered the system (and its games) after the console's death, both the hardware and software quickly shot up in price. A perfect example is Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, commonly known as Dracula-X. An authentic copy can easily sell for nearly $200, even though the game isn't a rarity. The original hardware to run the game will run you over $1,000. In short, unless you are independently wealthy, your options were generally limited to re-releases of specific titles, like on the Wii virtual console.

Just because something is expensive doesn't automatically mean it is good. It would have been easy for Konami to slap a bunch of titles onto the TurboGrafx-16 Mini and call it a value. Thankfully, it didn't do that. What's here is a specifically curated selection of games, both English and Japanese, that provide a look back at this era of gaming and generally hold up today. There are a few stinkers, but they are the exception. The fact that this list includes some of the most wanted (and pricey) collector titles doesn't hurt.

When you turn on the TurboGrafx-16, you are presented with the English selection of games. A menu option changes the screen to the PC Engine and the Japanese titles.

The English (TurboGrafx-16) games are:

  1. Air Zonk
  2. Alien Crush
  3. Blazing Lazers
  4. Bomberman '93
  5. Bonk's Revenge
  6. Cadash
  7. Chew-Man-Fu
  8. Dungeon Explorer
  9. J.J. & Jeff
  10. Lords of Thunder
  11. Military Madness
  12. Moto Roader
  13. Neutopia
  14. Neutopia II
  15. New Adventure Island
  16. Ninja Spirit
  17. Parasol Stars
  18. Power Golf
  19. Psychosis
  20. R-Type
  21. Soldier Blade
  22. Space Harrier
  23. Splatterhouse
  24. Victory Run
  25. Ys Book I & II

The Japanese games include:

  1. Akumajō Dracula X Chi no Rondo (Castlevania: Rondo of Blood)
  2. Aldynes
  3. Appare! Gateball
  4. Bomberman '94
  5. Bomberman Panic Bomber
  6. Chō Aniki
  7. Daimakaimura (Ghouls 'n Ghosts)
  8. Dragon Spirit
  9. Dungeon Explorer
  10. Fantasy Zone
  11. Galaga '88
  12. The Genji and the Heike Clans
  13. Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire
  14. Gradius
  15. Gradius II: Gofer no Yabō
  16. Jaseiken Necromancer
  17. The Kung Fu (China Warrior)
  18. The Legend of Valkyrie
  19. Nectaris (Military Madness)
  20. Neutopia
  21. Neutopia II
  22. Ninja Ryūkenden (Ninja Gaiden)
  23. PC Genjin (Bonk's Adventure)
  24. Salamander
  25. Seirei Senshi Spriggan
  26. Snatcher
  27. Spriggan Mark 2
  28. Star Parodier
  29. Super Darius
  30. Super Momotarō Dentetsu II
  31. Super Star Soldier
  32. Ys I・II

That comes to a total of 57 games, with 25 of those being English (TurboGrafx-16) releases and 32 being Japanese (PC Engine) releases. Five games (Dungeon Explorer, Military Madness, Neutopia, Neutopia II, and Ys Book I & II) are duplicated, which means you have 52 unique titles by default. I say "by default" because there are also a handful of hidden games, but we'll get to those later.

Of the duplicated titles, Military Madness and Ys Book I & II are the most notable.

Military Madness is a classic, hex-based, turn-based strategy game. It is easy to learn, difficult to master, and is credited with inspiring many later titles in the genre. Even today, the game holds up well. It's easy to lose an afternoon as you optimize your troops for the battlefield.

Ys Book I & II is an enhanced remake (what developers might call a "Definitive Edition" today) of the first two games in the Ys series. As an early CD-ROM title, it added animated cut scenes, red book audio, and nearly 25 minutes of voice acting. That may not seem like much today, but in 1990, it was a big step up from what was available on cartridges.

While it wasn't as popular as The Legend of Zelda, Neutopia was widely compared to it by critics and players. A top-down adventure, Neutopia offers gameplay that is very similar to Nintendo's iconic franchise.

Castlevania: Rondo of Blood is probably the most famous title in the collection, and easily one of the best games in the lineup. Although it wasn't the last of the traditional Castlevania games, it set a high-water mark for the franchise, introducing new ways to use sub-weapons, a new playable character, multiple ways through each stage, an orchestrated soundtrack, and voiced cut scenes. Oh, and the gameplay is top-notch. For the purists out there, this is also the only way (aside from buying an original copy on eBay) to get a copy of the game as originally released. Both the PSP and Wii releases had minor censorship.

Lords of Thunder is another game that pushed its genre forward upon release. This shmup allows you to pick your starting level, as well as one of four different combat suits. Each suit behaves differently, so it's a matter of matching the suit to your play style and the level. Topping it all off is an excellent metal soundtrack that is worthy of being an album in its own right.

Both Bonk's Adventure and Bonk's Revenge are here, with the first game being in Japanese and the second in English. Although Bonk wasn't the original pack-in game, he did end up as the system's mascot, so having these two here is a plus. Bonk was essentially NEC's answer to Mario. This caveman with an attitude (and a hard head) is worth checking out, especially if you missed him the first time around.

Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire is a high point for the system, and like Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, a Japanese exclusive that will cost you a pretty penny to acquire if you're looking for an original disc. Sapphire is an impressive title for its gameplay and how it pushes the hardware. Some of it is visual trickery, some of it is programming genius, but this is one shmup that looks like it comes from much more powerful hardware than the TurboGrafx-16 could offer. When it was released at the end of 1995, both the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation had already launched. If Castlevania: Rondo of Blood is the most famous title in the collection, Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire is the one that is most wanted by hardcore collectors. Even pirated/bootleg copies often sell for more than the MSRP of the TurboGrafx-16 Mini.

Star Parodier is another Japan-only shmup included in the system. This one is worth a call out for its comedic take on the genre. Player characters include a spaceship, Bomberman, or an anthropomorphic PC Engine system. Graphics are bright and colorful, with plenty of on-screen action. The early stages ease you into the game, but difficulty ramps up in the latter stages. Just because it's cute and cuddly doesn't mean it is easy.

One exclusive to the North American TurboGrafx-16 Mini is the North American version of Splatterhouse. The game is rather straightforward, especially once you learn the enemy patterns, but it is notable for its place in history as a bloody game. It was considered incredibly violent at the time of its release in 1989, and despite the ESRB not existing at the time, Splatterhouse still came with a parental advisory note on the front. Inspired by horror films of the day, it's an homages to a number of notable franchises. The Japanese PC Engine Mini contains the Japanese release of Splatterhouse.

Another exclusive on the North American TurboGrafx-16 Mini is the Japanese version of Salamander. Known as Life Force in the North America, this version of the game is an impressive port. Given the popularity of shmups on the system, it seems only fitting to have Salamander on here, along with Gradius and Gradius II. It's a good way for Konami to show off its shmup heritage, and all three play quite nicely with the included controller.

Cho Aniki has to be mentioned, if only for the sheer absurdity of the game. It's not a parody in the traditional sense; Cho Aniki is just a weird shmup that treats its weirdness as if it were normal. The plot, as it were, has your character sent down from heaven to defend the world against a bodybuilding alien invader who conquers worlds in order to manufacture more protein. It makes absolutely no sense, but it works. If MST3K did games instead of movies, they would have had an episode on Cho Aniki.

Daimakaimura (Ghouls 'n Ghosts) isn't a game that many would associate with the TurboGrafx-16, and that's because this is the SuperGrafx release. The SuperGrafx was a short-lived Japanese console that was an upgraded version of the TurboGrafx-16. A grand total of seven games (six retail, one a limited contest prize) were released for the SuperGrafx. Two of them (Aldynes and Daimakaimura) are included with the TurboGrafx-16 Mini.

The last game I wanted to call out is Snatcher. While the majority of the Japanese games can be played with little to no knowledge of the language, Snatcher is a text-heavy graphic adventure that is inspired by cyberpunk films such as "Akira," "Blade Runner," and "The Terminator." It was one of Hideo Kojima's early games and set the stage for his Metal Gear series. The game did get a single, censored, English release on the Sega CD but has otherwise been a Japanese-only title. It takes some effort to play if you're not fluent in Japanese (using a phone translation app is a lot easier than using a Japanese/English dictionary), but it is worth the effort.

As you might have guessed from the highlights, the TurboGrafx-16 Mini library has a number of shmups and platformers. Still, there is plenty of variety with a croquet game, a golf game, a pinball game, a puzzle game, racing games, and some more RPG games. No matter what your preference, chances are good that you'll find something to like here.

With all those games, how is the quality of the emulation? More or less spot-on. After playing with the system and the games across two to three weeks, I didn't run into any notable issues. Any emulation input lag is minor and not noticeable during gameplay. Whenever I sat down to play, it was all about the games.

The included controller is a near-1:1 replica of an original TurboGrafx-16 controller. I say near because when held side by side, the new controller is just a bit smaller than the original. If you don't hold them up side by side, you wouldn't be able to tell. The d-pad and the buttons on the controller are all quite responsive. The d-pad was a tad stiff when I first started playing, but after breaking it in, I have no complaints.

The best part of the controller is the cord. The TurboGrafx-16 Mini controller features a super-long USB cord that can reach across virtually any room. Seriously, I don't know why other manufacturers don't make long cords like this. It's a blessing.

Video is output at 720p, and you have the option of displaying the games in the original 4:3 mode, a scaled 4:3 mode, square pixel mode, stretched 16x9 mode, and TurboExpress mode. The original 4:3 mode is the best choice for the games, as it replicates the original experience. Eagle-eyed viewers may notice some slight pixel distortion due to the scaling used, but it didn't bother or distract during gameplay. There is a CRT scanline filter, though it didn't seem very effective, at least not on my Samsung QLED screen. It did apply fake scanlines, which seemed to make the image darker. Unfortunately, you cannot swap display modes on the fly. You must exit the game you are playing and go back to the main menu.

Audio coming out of the system is a clean stereo signal with crisp reproduction. I've played countless hours of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, and it sounds exactly as I remember it. Different games will have different default volume output levels, but that is due to the games themselves.

The menu system on the TurboGrafx-16 mini displays games by their cover art and allows you to sort them by release date or by name. It's basic but functional. I was disappointed to find that there was no option to view the original game manuals on the system. Most games are easy enough to figure out, but a handful took a little trial and error. Given the care that went into the packaging and emulation of the games, this seems like an oversight. Being able to view the classic game manuals would have been both helpful and another window into the past.

Each game has four save states that can be used, but the system also emulates the CD backup memory. For games that normally save to the CD backup memory, that means you don't need to use a save state when playing as normal. Another nice touch with the CD games is the ability to boot Super CD-ROM^2 games with the older system 2.0 card. This can be done by holding down the Select button while starting the game. For most titles, you just get an error message, but Castlevania: Rondo of Blood actually boots a short minigame to tell you that you're using the wrong card.

Holding Select while choosing a game can also be used to unlock a few hidden titles on the TurboGrafx-16 Mini.

  1. "Arcade" Fantasy Zone - Hold Select while starting Fantasy Zone
  2. "Arcade" Gradius - Hold Select while starting Gradius
  3. "Arcade" Salamander - Hold Select while starting Salamander
  4. Caravan Soldier Blade - Hold Select while starting Soldier Blade
  5. Force Gear - Highlight Salamander, press Select two times, listen for a chime, and press start
  6. TwinBee - Highlight Salamander, press Select three times, listen for a chime, and press start

When all is said and done, the TurboGrafx-16 Mini is easily one of the best retro consoles to hit the market. The majority of included games are excellent and provide a solid cross-section of the console's library. Konami's choice to include the Japanese titles with the American release was excellent, both for the titles chosen and because it accurately represents the experience of TurbGrafx-16 owners back in the day. You can nitpick the game selection, but in the end, this is a fantastic value for the money. It's also a blast to play.

It doesn't matter if you owned an original TurboGrafx-16, were a late blooming fan, or never even heard of this particular console, if you're a fan of classic gaming, the TurboGrafx-16 is a must own piece of hardware.

Score: 9.0/10

Editor's Note: The TurboGrafx-16 Mini was originally supposed to release in March, but it was delayed until late May due to COVID-19. Amazon is now shipping the console, the multiplayer adapter and additional controllers.

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