Monday, July 25, 2016

The Top 50 TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine Games EVER! (Part One: Number 50 to 41)

Part one of a special five-part series counting down the best NEC's 16-bit system had to offer ... on both sides of the Pacific, no less!

By: Jimbo X
When people think about video gaming in the late 1980s and early 1990s, visions of the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis seem to pop up almost instinctively. However, amid all of that late 8-bit and early 16-bit awesomeness, there was a third home console challenger, which despite never getting as much publicity or reverence as the Big Two, nonetheless managed to grace us with some of the greatest and most inventive 2D shoot em ups, action platformers and multiplayer puzzlers in the history of the interactive medium. 

While NEC's TurboGrafx-16 ran a distant third in the North American console race, its Japanese counterpart the PC Engine had legs well into the mid 1990s. Indeed, the pioneering 16-bit system (which actually used an 8-bit CPU, but no need to muddle with the technicalities) actually outdid Nintendo and Sega in many respects, creating a cult classic piece of hardware that even now, can lay claim to owning one of the best and most versatile software libraries of any console ever. 

As we've done with the Dreamcast, Sega CD, Neo Geo and Game Gear, we here at The Internet Is In America now pay tribute to the iconic NEC system with a special five-part series counting down the absolute best games to ever grace the TG-16 or PC Engine. And exhaustive doesn't begin to cover how in-depth we went for this undertaking - it took a full year, but eventually, we managed to get our hands on every single game to ever legally make its way to either system, thus allowing us to review and rank every title objectively across the entire field of PC Engine and TurboGrafx offerings. 

Before we hop into the countdown, let's go over a few ground rules, why don't we?

First, only games released on the proprietary Hu-Card format are eligible for the list. So that means, as awesome as they were, no PC Engine offerings only available in CD-ROM, Arcade CD-ROM or Super CD-ROM formats are included in the rankings.

Secondly, only officially licensed games released during the system's first hardware run (that's from 1987 to 1995, in case you were wondering) are considered. So no homebrews, ROM hacks, pirated ports or unlicensed mass-produced games got any consideration.

And lastly? Opinions are like assholes, and your asshole is probably different from mine. Don't like the final outcome? Then take it upon yourself to play every fuckin' game on the console like I did and craft a better countdown. I'm waiting, amigo. I'm waiting. 

And without further adieu, how about we get this show on the road? 

Number 50:
Rabio Lepus Special
(1990 - Video System)

With the PC Engine/TG-16, the line between fundamentally absurd and totally awesome frequently blurred. Few games on the console demonstrate that bizarre intersectionality between legitmately great genre games and the profoundly ridiculous as well as Video System's 1990 SHMUP Rabio Lepus Special, which has you commandeering some sort of outer space rabbit mech across a galaxy of all the tried-and-true horizontally scrolling menaces. While it's easy to take a look at the game's aesthetics and immediately write it off as a farce, Rabio Lepus Special is indeed a legit, hardcore SHMUP, complete with some of the most back-breakingly difficult level design in ANY 2D shooter. Factor in the title's great animations, catchy music and constantly challenging gameplay and you have yourself all the makings of a criminally underappreciated little gem. 

Number 49:
Toy Shop Boys
(1990 - Victor Musical Industries)

And here's another game you can add to the system's lonnng list of cutesy-looking shooters that will actually beat the shit out of you mercilessly if you don't take it seriously. Despite the kid-baiting premise (oh no, some evil motherfucker has stolen all the toys in town!), rest assured this game is pure-D, hot and heavy SHMUP action from start to finish, with enemy fire assailing you from every direction and each level capped off with a showdown with some sort of monstrous boss that's equally parts ludicrous and terrifying (ESPECIALLY that little cymbal-crashing monkey ... fuck him, a million times over.) If the inventive set pieces and beautiful animations weren't enough, Toy Shop Boys even throw in a really unique game play hook in that you can take control of one of three characters, each with his own special attack, on the fly, in turn giving the game a bit more strategic feel than the screenshots would suggest. And let me tell you, kids ... you don't know what fun is until you've taken a huge ass light saber to a giant RC car. You just plain haven't. 

Number 48:
Power Eleven
(1991 - Hudson Soft)

This is easily the best sports game on the PC Engine. While there are plenty of decent baseball and footy simulators for the console, Power Eleven is the only that really delivers the goods across the board. The graphics and animations are very good, the audio is great, the controls are tight and responsive and it's pretty much the only soccer game on the platform that actually allows for fun and nuanced defensive play. While the lack of any official FIFA license is a bit of a letdown, the game nonetheless packs on the features, including a great World Cup-like tournament mode and some rock solid multiplayer. It may not provide the most technical footy experience on the system, but it definitely delivers the most enjoyable one.  

Number 46 (tie):
Final Lap Twin
(1989 - Namco)
F-1 Pilot: You're King of Kings
(1989 - Pack-In Video)

You really can't talk about the PC Engine without getting into its robust line-up of racing games. While the console never really had that Super Monaco GP-like killer app, there were certainly a lot of good to almost great offerings on NEC's platform. Going hands-on with the entire library of PC Engine/TG-16 genre titles, I really couldn't decide whether I enjoyed Namco's Final Lap Twin or Pack-In Video's F-1 Pilot: You're King of Kings more. Neither game can really be considered the most technical racing sims on the system, but they definitely make up for the lack of realism with instant pick-up-and-play fun. Final Lap Twin effectively plays out like a souped up version of Pole Position - compete with the physically impossible hair-pin turns - whereas F-1 Pilot offers a more down and dirty, shunts-centric arcade racing experience. The career modes and tuning options are lacking, but as far as good old-fashioned, virtual fuel-chugging and rubber-melting fun? These two will satisfy your need for speed just dandy.

Number 45:
(1991 - Konami)

Hey, you vividly recall playing Lifeforce on the NES, right? WRONG! What you played was bullshit compared to this MUCH better (and MUCH harder) port of the classic Konami SHMUP. Sure, this iteration isn't able to translate that awesome, super-hectic "play-by-play" from the arcade original, but in terms of graphics and sheer gameplay, it matches up with the source material quite admirably (and certainly way better than the halfhearted translation we got on the Nintendo.) We've all got our favorite - and least favorite - aspects of the game; personally, I've always been partial to the first level, which was probably the first video game to ever allow you to blast your way through cancerous polyps and shoot laser ring death at the stomach lining of a living planet. And as for my least favorite? You know, that damned "fire" level always bothered me quite a bit - probably because no matter how many times I play it, I ALWAYS forget about those little flaming dragon heads that cascade from the top of the screen. Oh, I hate those things. I hate them so much

Number 44
(1991 - Data East)

Eagle eye gamers will recognize this under-the-radar gem as a port of Last Battalion on the X68000. While the PC Engine definitely wasn't hurting for quality shoot 'em ups, Override manages to stand in a super-competitive field by offering one of the fastest genre games on the system. While there is hardly anything revolutionary about the game mechanics in Override (indeed, it plays out a lot like Gunnac, right down to its power-up system), this Data East release nonetheless offers a slick, smooth and polished shoot-em-up experience with excellent controls, beautiful visuals and ultra-satisfying, high-tempo, blast-or-be-blasted gameplay. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, so to speak, but why complain about a lack of innovation when the overall product nails the fundamentals so well?

Number 43:
(1990 - Namco)

In case you haven't figured it out yet, there were a TON of great SHMUP games on the PC Engine. Not only can you safely add Namco's Barunba to that expansive list of top-notch horizontal and vertical scrolling shooters, the unique shoot 'em up also represents one of the more innovative genre offerings to be found on the console. The big variable here is the inclusion of a rotating, 360 degree shooting mechanic, which is easily controlled via the "II" button. It feels a little clumsy at first, but after a couple of playthroughs, the gameplay quirk quickly becomes second nature, transforming what was an already competent shooter into a surprisingly nuanced, strategic affair. Factor in the excellently designed levels, the vibrant visuals and some very fun and challenging boss fights and you have yourself a downright dandy - and addictive - little blast-a-thon. 

Number 42:
Mr. Heli No Daibouken
(1989 - Irem)

And here is yet another cartoony SHMUP that packs way more depth than it would appear at first glance. Brought to us by the fine folks at Irem, Mr. Heli is a really interesting shoot 'em up that almost plays more like a Mario-esque platformer than R-Type. You see, Mr. Heli is a game that is ALL about collecting gems and mechanical upgrades, which is facilitated by blasting granite blocks all over the environs. Rather ingeniously, the gameplay system allows you to blast barriers above you with a rocket attack and for the obstacles beneath you? You can actually "ground" your little heli-mech and drop a couple of bombs on the blast-able surfaces, Metroid style. It's a nice gimmick to be sure, but what puts Mr. Heli over the top is that it just doesn't rely upon that semi-platformer hook to carry the game; indeed, this is a great pure SHMUP experience as well, complete with beautiful graphics, wonderfully designed stages and, yes, plenty of challenging boss encounters. 

Number 41:
(1991 - Naxat Soft)

And one more stellar cute 'em up, because hot damn, were there ever a lot of them on the console. What makes Coryoon a superior shoot 'em up is two-fold; first, the graphics are absolutely incredible, with some of the best animations to be found on any game on the system. Secondly, the action here is just insane, with huge sprites bombarding you with nearly unavoidable enemy fire left, right, up, down and diagonally. While I'm not really a big fan of the more claustrophobic, limited-range-of-movement shooters a'la Air Zonk, this game manages to escape the pitfalls of that type of gameplay by throwing in tons of power-ups and a never ending shower of watermelons, apples and pineapples (not that it really serves any mechanical purpose, though - they just increase your score and do nothing to bring back your health.) Oh, and for those of you that immediately write-off the game because of the cartoony visuals? Rest assured, this game is H-A-R-D with a capital, bold-faced "H," complete with some of the toughest boss battles you'll find in ANY SHMUP on the console.

And that's that for part one of this month-long celebration of all things PC Engine! Be sure to check back in a few days, when we continue our epic, sprawling countdown of the best games to ever be molded in the shape of a Hu-Card. Before we call it quits, though, how about we take a quick diversion from the official countdown to explore some of the other pieces of software to make their ways to the TG-16 and PC-Engine? Hold on to your TurboPads, folks, it's time to take a look at FIVE RANDOM MAHJONG GAMES ON THE PC ENGINE!

Sengoku Mahjong!

This one is kinda' like that old kids' board game Guess Who? Well, actually, it's nothing at all like that except for the part at the beginning where you get to pick an avatar and two computer-controlled opponents. My favorite is probably the Arab-looking guy, but the pirate dude is a close-second. And hey! How come there are no African-American or Hispanic people to choose from? Don't the Japanese know your supposed to include a diverse portfolio of differing ethno-and-racial identities in everything that they do? Man, this game - and by proxy, the entirety of Japanese culture - is all shades of prejudiced.

Mahjong Haou Den - Kaisers Quest!

The screenshot above would lead one to think that Kaisers Quest is some sort of Dragon Warrior-like RPG, or perhaps even an early turn-based strategy offering a'la Shining Force. As it turns out, however, all that overworld stuff is just a needless coat of paint atop a really, really mundane virtual mahjong simulator. But hey, at least the cut scenes are kinda' neat, I guess.

Mahjong Gokuu Special!

Despite having the name "Gokuu" in it, no, this title has nothing at all to do with the venerated Dragon Ball license. And unfortunately, despite being programmed and designed by Sunsoft (the some folks responsible for Blaster Master, among other 8-bit classics) this game really doesn't offer you anything other than yet another indistinguishable mahjong sim like the 4,500 other games of the like on the system. Jeez, couldn't someone have mulled making a reversi game or something instead?jg 

Mahjong Gakuen Mild - Touma Soushirou Toujou!

So what is mahjong, exactly? Per, the Wikipedia, it's some old-ass Chinese analogue to Rummy with rules so convoluted, you pretty much have to go to mahjong school for eight years to understand how to play it. Since I'm not an expert on Japanese culture, I really can't explain why the pastime is so popular in the Land of the Rising Sun - or, why there are SO many video game versions of it on the PC Engine. My uneducated guess? Nobody ever exported games that are actually fun, like Don't Wake Daddy and Kerplunk, to them during the Reagan-era trade wars and everybody in the country is just pretending to like the damn game so it looks like they have something awesome of their own we Westerners are too feeble-minded to comprehend. 

Kyuukyoku Mahjong II!

And lastly, we come to Kyuukyoku Mahjong II, which I am pretty sure is the only semi-hentai mahjong title released on the console. Basically, it's the exact same as every other mahjong game on the PC Engine, but with an all-female cast that may or may not get nekkid at the end of every round. That, in and of itself, is pretty dadgum freaky, but the female avatars represented in the game look - well, not exactly realistic, as in they more closely resemble Keane paintings than graphical depictions of flesh and blood human beings. Still, if you just have to have yourself some video mahjong, you might as well couple it with perverted digital nudity - in fact, considering how uniform all of these damn games are, one has to wonder why more games didn't include that very hook to distinguish themselves from the madding Hu-Card crowds.


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