Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Look Back at the TurboGrafx-16 Launch Titles

Or, how one of the most criminally underappreciated consoles of all-time ended up having one of the greatest Day One release line-ups in the history of gaming…


I don’t think I’m really telling you anything you don’t already know when I say, bluntly, that modern video gaming sucks. Everything is either crappy iOS shovelware or multi-billion dollar rehashes of the same old, same old. Creativity in gaming at this point isn’t just stifled, it’s practically an embalmed corpse; with so much by-the-numbers drivel out there, I can safely say my interest in contemporary gaming is absolutely nil heading into 2014.

I’m not really sure where video gaming, as an art form, went astray, but it was probably somewhere around the last console cycle. With Sony and Microsoft shatting out the same franchises over and over (while Nintendo made a fortune off atrocious non-games and uneventful remakes of remakes that their delusional fan base never cried foul about), there was never really an incentive for publishers to, you know, try something new, and pioneering, and against-the-grain. Really, the Sega Dreamcast was the last commercial home console that even ATTEMPTED to grant gamers wholly unique properties in lieu of focusing on cash cow operations, and that sort of revolutionary industry thinking, I am afraid, just ain’t around anymore.

Amazing how the industry used to be ALL about the innovation, and the experimentation, and actually STRIVING to be cutting edge and ahead-of-the-curve instead of being complacent. The big difference between gaming circa 1994 and gaming circa 2014 is that the industry THEN was anchored around exploration and advancing the art form, while today, it’s just about staying financially sustainable as hardware manufacturers and software producers.

While the Playstation4 and Xbox One were released a couple months back to overwhelming hype (and virtually zero fanfare from gamers themselves), perhaps it is worth taking a trip back to 1989, to reflect on the launch of a DIFFERENT kind of gaming experience.

The NEC TurboGrafx-16 (known in Japan as the PC Engine), was the first true 16-bit home console to reach the U.S., besting the Sega Genesis by a couple of weeks. While the console remained a distant third to the Genny and the SNES in America, over the years, the machine has attracted a huge cult following, and for good reason. While the hardware may not have been extraordinarily popular at the time, looking back at the console’s software now reveals a truly innovative system, loaded with all sorts of kick-ass games that, even now, outshine some of the best and brightest on Sega and Nintendo’s much more popular 16-bit players.

Wondering what you missed out on the Day One release of the TG-16? Well, in short, what you missed out on was sheer awesomeness, through and through…

Alien Crush


There really aren’t that many beloved video pinball game franchises out there, but the “Crush” series is certainly one of the few. With a weirdo moniker that makes it sound like a bad 1980s teen sci-fi comedy, “Alien Crush,” at first glance anyway, appears about as intriguing as a loaf of white bread. But then, you boot this little baby up in your TG-16, an you realize you are dealing with anything BUT your standard virtual silver ball sim.

It’s pretty hard to make a spooky and atmospheric video game in general, so the fact that a GODDAMN PINBALL GAME exists that is as creepy as “Alien Crush” is in and of itself something of a miniature wonder. The gameplay is pretty standard, but that’s not really a bad thing at all; the visuals are really detailed, the controls are smooth as silk and all of the bonus rooms gives the game additional replay value.

Of course, it’s really hard to talk about the game without talking about its biggest pro, which is its addictiveness. Despite consisting of a fairly limited playing field, the simplistic joy of the experience will no doubt keep you glued to your controller; with such character and engrossing gameplay, there’s no denying that “Alien Crush” is one of the finer pinball games of the 16-bit era, and a game that easily smacks the shit out of ANY pinball sim you may have encountered on the NES.

My Score: 8 out of 10

China Warrior


“China Warrior” is something of a graphical showcase for the then-new hardware, whose extra-large characters would’ve been positively impossible to render on the Master System or NES. Fundamentally, the title is a “Kung Fu Master” variation, although with a few environmental tweaks tossed into the gameplay -- for example, every now and then, you’ve gotta’ stop kicking an unlimited number of ass to periodically hop over rolling boulders and dodge what appears to be flying shovels. Hey, I never said the game made any sense.

The retroactive hate heaped upon this game is utterly shocking to me. IGN gave the game a 1.5 out of 10 in a Wii re-release review, which in my eyes, is absolutely unfathomable. Sure, the graphics for the game haven’t aged all that well, and sure, the always-scrolling-right gameplay is a bit restrictive, but overall, I actually enjoyed “China Warrior” quite a bit.

For one thing, the gameplay is smooth and fun, and pretty challenging WITHOUT being cheap. You’re always having to make snap directional judgments -- do you duck here or leap? -- which can be figured out quite easily after just a few level runs. That, and the boss fights, which more or less are a primitive precursor to “Street Fighter,” are pretty involving and surprisingly technical for the timeframe. Sure, it’s not an all-time classic by any stretch, but at the same time? You’d have to be a real stick in the mud NOT to get a few hours of enjoyment out of this one.

My Score: 7 out of 10

Dungeon Explorer


"Dungeon Explorer" is really two different types of games. The main overworld looks and plays a lot like "The Legend of Zelda" and "Crystalis," only with WAY less emphasis on combat. That may put off some action enthusiasts, but I assure you: the makers of this game MORE than make up for it with the insane amount of action that goes in inside the game's numerous dungeon levels.

The game may structurally sound like "Zelda," but it plays more like "Gauntlet," with a million billion enemies on screen at once. The same way the gargantuan hordes of enemies in "Dead Rising" demonstrated the tech power of the 360, I suppose "Dungeon Explorer" demonstrates the 16-bit horsepower of NEC's console.

With that in mind, there are really two major problems with the game -- they're not exactly experience-breaking issues, but remain nuisances nonetheless. For one thing, the enemies spawn from these little portals int he floor, and they keep generating baddies until you effectively demolish the whirlpool. With literally dozens of adversaries onscreen at once, perhaps you can see why this may be troublesome. Even worse, however, is that when enemies drop power-ups, your little piddly arrow attack CAN'T penetrate past the objects and kill your foes! Ultimately, those dropped inventory pieces become blockades, and to say that it's just a wee bit annoying is kind of an understatement. While not an extraordinary game by any stretch, "Dungeon Explorer" is still a fairly enjoyable little experience, with satisfying -- albeit a tad simplistic -- gameplay. Fans of endlessly slaying monsters in pitch black caverns? You may want to take note of this one.

My Score: 6 out of 10

Keith Courage in Alpha Zones


“Keith Courage” was obviously NEC’s attempt to establish a Mario-esque company mascot, and the title is certainly one hell of a platformer, regardless of its obvious similarities to Nintendo’s much-beloved spokes-plumber.

When the game boots up, you take control of an "Alex Kidd"-ish avatar, who is armed with a rinky-dink little saber. Blobs fall out of the sky, and after you vanquish them, they drop coins. Collect enough coins, and you can visit the myriad shops that populate the landscape, and purchase health potions and other power-ups. This being a late 1980s platformer, there's also plenty of hopping and bopping, although nothing in the game is really all that difficult.

However, the game also throws you a curveball; halfway through each stage, your avatar transforms into a MECH WARRIOR, complete with a huge-ass cyber-sword, as you hack and slash your way through sundry underworlds, populated by all sorts of weird-ass enemies and tricky bosses. The constant stylistic and pace shifting feels a little clumsy at first, but after awhile, you'll find the atypical rhythm to be quite enjoyable. In a genre glutted with formulaic offerings, "Keith Courage" stands out as one of the more entertaining and inventive pre-"Sonic the Hedgehog" offerings. It's a seriously fun title, and if you're a fan of platforming, you owe it to yourself to play through it at least once.

My Score: 8 out of 10 

Power Golf


Of all the TG-16 launch games, this one is probably my least favorite. Despite its pastel graphics (which, for the time, we're actually quite impressive), there really isn't a whole lot here to make it stand out from the nine billion other golf games out there in the late 1980s -- it may be prettier than any of the NES links games, but it's not really much of an improvement, gameplay wise.

There's not really a whole lot to say about "Power Golf." You get to choose between three avatars and hit up a couple of different courses -- which, ultimately, don't seem to fluctuate that much in terms of aesthetics. Not surprisingly, the crux of the game revolves around meters and timing your shots just right; a fairly uncomplicated game, you'll probably figure out all of the game's nuances after just a round or two of play. If you're looking for a deep, "Tecmo Super Bowl" or "NHL'94" type of simulation experience, you're likely to be greatly disappointed by this one.

"Power Golf" isn't a terrible game, per se, it's just that it's so formulaic. The gameplay is by-the-numbers, and there's not a whole lot of challenge to the overall experience. Since everything is meter-based, the game gets a bit tiresome after awhile, and it's unarguably the least stimulating launch game for the system, in spite of its candy-colored visuals. Some more respectable sports games would eventually make their way to the TG-16, but unfortunately, the console's first genre foray is far from a stellar outing.

My Score: 5 out of 10

R-Type


Just about everybody out there with more than one brain cell agrees that the TG-16 was far and away the greatest home console EVER for 2D SHMUPS, besting even the illustrious line-up of space shooters on the Sega Genesis.

While “R-Type” on the TG-16 isn’t the best genre title of the like, it’s no doubt a tremendously fun little experience, with impressive visuals, super-awesome music and addictive -- and challenging as all hell -- space shooting action. As much as I loved the Master System version of the title, this is clearly the superior port, and a title that blows away a good 90 percent of the SHMUP titles ever released on the NES.

It’s both easy and hard to explain what makes this game so appealing. Granted, there’s not a whole lot to the gameplay, but the gameplay that is there is undeniably engrossing, and intricate, and incredibly fun, all the while providing a tough-as-nails gaming experience that even the most grizzled of “Galaga” enthusiasts would find challenging. All in all, this is just a great little genre title, and the type of instantly accessible gaming that’s almost impossible to put down.

My Score: 8 out of 10

The Legendary Axe


Somewhere between “Castlevania,” “Super Mario Bros.,” “Golden Axe” and “Altered Beast,” there exists “The Legendary Axe,” a really fun arcade-style action-platformer in which you commander a caveman that proceeds to indiscriminately kick the asses of all things in the universe.

The game is a bit on the short side, but there's no denying how awesome this all-too-brief experience is, either. As the game progresses, your attack bar increases, allowing you to mete out more damage as you go further in the title. Believe it or not, "leveling up" in action and platforming games way back then wasn't exactly the norm, so it definitely added a bit of uniqueness to the experience. The stages themselves look great, with plenty of tough enemies and hidden treasure troves, and some of the boss fights are just downright awesome: my favorite is probably the battle against the sentient boulder, which you have to defeat by use of a conveniently placed safety rope dangling from the opening of a cavern.

As before, the game's greatest weakness is it's length -- had this one been a little bit lengthier and just a tad more nuanced in the gameplay department, it would have been far and away the best launch title for the fledgling system (and the developers of the game did make those crucial improvements for "The Legendary Axe 2," which is definitely one of the absolute best games to be found on the TG-16.) As is though, it's still a really fun game, and an instantly accessible platformer with a distinct style and some really, really nice gameplay touches. If you dig arcade platformers like "Ninja Gaiden" and "Ghosts N Goblins" (and are in pursuit of some way easier experiences), then "The Legendary Axe" is a game I would highly recommend tracking down.

My Score: 8 out of 10

Victory Run


"Victory Run" is pretty much a blatant clone of "Out Run," which peculiarly, had its own official TG-16 release a little later on in the console's life cycle. While I don't think it's necessarily as enjoyable as Sega's arcade racer -- nor as much fun as stuff like "Rad Racer" or "Formula One: Built to Win" on the NES -- "Victory Run" remains a respectable little title, that's certainly quite fun in short spurts.

The gameplay in "Victory Run" is very simplistic: you have a finite amount of time to cruise from checkpoint to checkpoint. If you collide with other traffic, or veer off road, you're penalized a few precious seconds. The hairpin turns aren't too bad, and most gamers will have little difficulty memorizing track layouts. It's a solid arcade racer, through and through, and the graphics and music aren't too shabby, either.

Now, as for the game's shortcomings: the tracks are all a bit too familiar feeling, and the on-road obstacles tend to repeat ad nausem. That huge ass transfer truck, in particular, is especially annoying, and requires god-like reflexes to avoid most of the time. Really, the thing that hurts the game most is also one of the game's coolest features: the day-and-night cycle feature. While it is pretty awesome watching the sun rise and set during races, the nighttime racing is extremely frustrating, and will no doubt lead you to many fender benders and unintended off-road adventures. Would it really have killed the designers to include a headlight feature here?

My Score: 6 out of 10

Vigilante


Next to "Power Golf," probably my least favorite launch title game for the TG-16. In essence, it's a spiritual sequel to "Kung Fu Master," but with WAY more frustrating controls and gameplay components. It's structurally the same as "China Warrior," but it does everything worse, in my opinion.

The gameplay in "Vigilante" is about as basic as it gets. You play a generic ass-kicker, and you travel from left to right, kicking ass. It's really standard stuff, but it's marred by two major design missteps: one, you have a very limited number of attacks, and two, your enemies have the ability to grab you, which depletes your health bar in no time at all. To be fair, you can shake them off by hitting the directional pad, but it's a very, very difficult attack to avoid.

The graphics are OK, and the music is fairly forgettable. The stages look nice, and the game certainly plays better than the dreadful Sega Master System version of the game, but it's still a fairly ho-hum experience, through and through. Simply put, beat em up fans can do WORLDS better than this mediocre side scroller.

My Score: 5 out of 10



So, let's recap, shall we? There were nine U.S. TG-16 launch games, of which four registered at least an 8 out of 10. One game was a solid seven, and two more boasted above-average ratings of 6 out of 10. All in all, just two of the nine titles were really lackluster, and even then, they weren't astoundingly terrible games.

Compared to some other console launch line-ups, the TurboGrafx-16 may not have had the sheer quantity of, oh say, the Sega Dreamcast or the Game Boy Advance, but it certainly beats the slim pickings of the U.S. SNES and Genesis launch software library, for sure. I suppose you could say that the TG-16 launch was mildly marred by the lack of a Day One killer app -- as good as a majority of the games were, I really wouldn't call any of them all-time masterpieces -- but at the same time, you definitely got a lot of variety, and a majority of the titles, even now, hold up quite well.

Really, the TG-16 is one of the most underappreciated consoles out there, probably the best all-around commercially unsuccessful system not named the Dreamcast. The launch line-up, as great as it was, was really the tip of the iceberg, though. With a half-decade life span (not to mention the later release of a region-free CD add-on), there's close to 600 or so games playable on the unit, including some of the absolute best titles of the 16-bit era --seriously, if you have't played "Soldier Blade" or "Bomberman '94," you don't know what you're missing, folks.

With scant quality offerings on the horizon for the new-wave consoles, perhaps now is the most opportune time to revisit NEC's unheralded console? If you're a true blue old school gamer -- with a particular penchant for the unique and challenging -- spending some quality time with the TG-16 might just be the best resolution you could make for the New Year.

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