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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?
Hana Taka Daka!?
(1991 - Taito)
There were a lot of unusual - albeit visually captivating - shooters on the PC Engine. In many ways, Taito's Hana Taka Daka!? is quite possibly the weirdest of the weird ... and thankfully, one of the best of the best at the same time. As the screenshot above indicates, the graphics in Hana are insanely detailed, with a lot of weirdo humor that makes Rocko's Modern Life and Katamari Damacy look downright staid by comparison. However, this isn't just your rank-and-file SHMUP that's only noteworthy for its bizarre aesthetics and vibrant sprites - it's very much a rock-solid shoot-em-up all the way around, complete with some of the best level design you will see in any genre game on the system. Utilizing the same "get this item to get big but if you get hit you will shrink" dynamic as Super Mario Bros., the game really plays more like a platformer than your standard shooter. This is enhanced thanks to the litany of power-ups all over the place and multi-tiered, "pick-your-own-path" stages. Yes, it is fairly short and compared to its genre contemporaries it is rather easy, but the sheer fun of the experience makes it a Hu-Card you play through dozens of times and still catch something new going on in the background. That, and the game includes one of the greatest slights against Super Mario Bros. 3 ever - a final boss fight against a man in a raccoon suit, who has a very pronounced lower abdominal area bulge and shakes his ass at you very sassily as his primary attack.
Number 19:(1990 - Hudson Soft)
The thing that really makes Aero Blasters stand out is the sense of speed. There are a lot of fast SHMUPs on the console, but I don't think I've played any on the system that conveyed such a powerful sense of motion. This is a game where the enemies don't just come at you, they come at you at breakneck speed, with the illest of wills. Oh, and ramping up the challenge? There are a ton of enemy ships on screen at all times, and on the off chance it's just you and your jet fighter cruising around? Yeah, that means you are just seconds away from coming nose-to-nose with one of the game's many huge-assed bosses. While there is a lot to like about the game, probably my two favorite elements are the second stage "warp drive" tunnel (which puts the speeder bike level in Battletoads to shame, not only in sense of velocity but maybe even difficulty) and the entirety of the fourth stage, which just keeps throwing bad guys at you (complete with one of the dopest SHMUP bosses ever ... a humongous, wall-walking purple mech in a red football helmet that swings a razor-edged mace and pukes giant boulders at you.) Really, this is just a tremendous little genre offering that does so many cool, inventive things. You can beat the whole thing in less than 30 minutes, but it's just such a - pardon the pun - blast zooming through the levels that you're destined to play through this one a couple of times. And hey - just wait until your experience what may be the first - if not only - moving block puzzle in any SHMUP ever!
1943 Kai(1991 - Naxat Soft)
Capcom's venerable vertically-scrolling SHMUP series was in more than capable hands when they entrusted the license to Naxat Soft for this rock-solid PC Engine port. Yeah, structurally, it's the "same" as the game on the NES, except, well, better in every way imaginable. The graphics are superb, the music is nice, the controls are super smooth and the gameplay is just tremendous. There are tons of enemies on screen at all times, there are tons of power-ups all over the place and some of the massive warships you have to go toe-to-toe with are truly awe-inspiring. Granted, the backgrounds are a little static - pretty much the entirety of the game takes place zooming over the bright blue Pacific, albeit it with a few brief detours over some volcanoes and a nice ride-along next to a rail line - and there's not too much variability to the adversaries you encounter. Still, the shoot-em-up action is immensely satisfying, well-polished and super-addictive ... and if that wasn't enough, it even throws in a downright fantastic two-player mode!
Psycho Chaser(1990 - Naxat Soft)
With a million billion shoot-em-ups on the console - including some of the absolute best 2D SHMUPs ever - you really had to put on your thinking caps to create a PC Engine genre game that stood out from its contemporaries. Psycho Chaser - despite having a name that probably pisses off mental health advocates - is indeed such a game. While mechanically it is your "basic" shoot-em-up, it throws you quite a few curve balls from the get-go. For starters, instead of playing as some sort of hyper-sonic jet in outer space, you commandeer a dude who could be a distant cousin of RoboCop, marching your way through seven stages that run the gamut from "grey cobblestone ruins future hell hole" to "neon-purple disco gay bathhouse in 1980 nightmare zone" to "didn't I see this level in Salamander?" While the aesthetics ain't exactly revolutionary, the game nonetheless offers up a fantastic, immensely enjoyable vertically-scrolling blast-a-thon, complete with a really great "secondary fire" mechanic that adds in a whole lot more strategy than you'd think a game like this would even mull including. It's short (but then again, what SHMUPs on the console aren't?), but it's just so dadgum fun that I can't imagine any genre purists playing this one once and being done with it.
Psychosis(1990 - Naxat Soft)
Known as Paranoia on the PC Engine, Psychosis was definitely one of the trippier shoot-em-ups to make its way to the TurboGrafx-16. Set inside the mind of an insane person possessed by some sort of demonic spirit who flips you off during the level transition cutscenes(!?), Psychosis merges the gross biological aesthetics of Salamander with the hippie-dippie, LSD-slicked visuals of Parodius as you embark upon a journey through the deepest recesses of your subconscious to reclaim your sanity. The enemies - as you would imagine them - are really, really inspired, with boss fights against Hindu goddesses, a wolf that farts on you and what appears to be a Roomba\skull hybrid with two human tongues that can somehow telepathically control two huge, skeletal sabers that may or may not be Freudian metaphors for penises. The game is absurdly short (barely 15 minutes long!) but the atmosphere is just so damn freaky (and the core gameplay so satisfying) that you'll definitely want to break this one out every Halloween. That, and it is a hoot messing around with the game's inventive shield system, which really, is worth at least three or four playthroughs alone just to see how many different ways you can reconfigure your defenses against evil elephant deities and humongous cybernetic heads.
Final Blaster(1990 - Namco)
You know why this game is called Final Blaster? Because it's so goddamn hard, it's a lock that it will be the last SHMUP on the console you ever finish ... that is, if you even have what it takes to get passed the game's third stage. Without question, Namco's shoot-em-up is the most back-breakingly, ball-crushingly difficult shooter on the PC Engine, guaranteed to have even veteran genre enthusiasts cryin' "have mercy!" and contemplating throwing down their Turbo Pads for good. Indeed, this has to be the most claustrophobic game on the system, as you are never more than two seconds away from dealing with a dozen onscreen enemies at once ... well, that is, unless you are going toe-to-toe with one of the games' many enormous bosses. Interestingly, the game's big gimmick (the ability to supercharge your space jet into a phoenix) is probably the least notable thing about the title (indeed, that it often morphs you straight into enemies once you go back to "normal" mode, effectively, makes it a semi-broken gameplay mechanic.) What makes the game stand out - beyond the aforementioned testicle-gripping difficulty - has to be the inventive level design, which thrusts you in the middle of all sorts of perilous, moving death traps. More than just another blast-a-thon, you really have to have stellar reflexes to survive this one, as well as a knack for recognizing patterns. And if all that isn't enough to whet your appetite? The game also has what may be the single most fucked up end-boss in the history of video gaming - a gigantic, mechanical death orb made up of what appears to be dead fetuses.
Die Hard(1990 - Pack-In Video)
While a lot of people disliked Die Hard on the NES, I happen to think it's one of the best top-down shooters on the system. As good as that game was (and fuck you if you don't think it was a good game), this PC Engine exclusive is even more awesome, providing a killer (pun, probably intended) blast-a-thon that puts lesser genre offerings like Snake's Revenge and Ikari Warriors to shame. While the game does take some excessive liberties with the source material (the first quarter of the game, you find yourself wading through a rice paddy and running-and-gunning through the jungles of Cambodia, for some reason), there's no denying this is a freaking incredible shooter that deserves mention alongside such heavy hitters as Guerrilla War, Mercs and every iteration of True Lies you can think of. Furthermore, the platforming elements (this is one of those rare top-down-shoot-everything-moving-games that incorporates jumping) are surprisingly well done, and the level design is shockingly diverse (although I'm still not entirely sure what a moat is doing on the 35th floor of a skyscraper, but what the hell ever.) Through in some truly bitchin' boss fights (the one against a machine gun-toting Hans Gruber is definitely my favorite), some inventive gameplay dynamics (the "spotlight" shootout) and so many cool little touches - like your shirt falling off to reveal bloody lacerations all of your virtual Bruce Willis when your health is low - and you have yourself a downright stellar gun-fu offering well worth going out of your way to experience.
Sinistron(1990 - IGS)
Given the decisively pacifistic namesake Violent Soldier on the PC Engine, Sinistron has to be one of the best looking SHMUPs on the console. The backgrounds are super vibrant and trippy, with some really cool motion effects a'la Thunder Force III. The sprites are just gorgeous, with some of the most detailed enemies you'll find in any TG-16 game - in fact, some of them even have some quasi-3D textures! Of course, funky purple backgrounds can only take you so far, and thankfully, Sinistron brings the goods when it comes to satisfying core shoot-em-up gameplay. The weapons are your tried and true genre staples (heat-seeking rockets, super-fast laser cannons, etc.), but the big variable is that you can hit the "I" button to switch from steady-stream fire to multidirectional blast-a-mania. That, and the stages are just exquisitely designed, especially the labyrinthine one with all of the little mini-robots chasing after you. While it's an insanely short game - if you can't beat this one in less than 20 minutes, you must really suck at old school video games - it's just such an audiovisual hoot that it's hard to only plow through this one once. Short, sweet, smooth and satisfying, Sinistron is simplistic shoot-em-up bliss ... no superfluous whistles, no extravagant features, just great graphics, great atmosphere and, most importantly, great gameplay.
Splatterhouse(1990 - Namco)
I've long been an admirer of the Splatterhouse franchise (yes, even its weird-ass "chibi" version on the Famicom), and in many ways, the first installment in the cult series is probably the most disturbing. The guys at NEC didn't even try to sanitize the gory arcade port, as this Hu-Card retains pretty much all of the goopy and bloody ghastliness of its coin-op forerunner. By the 10 minute mark of the game, you've already had karate fights with flesh eating intestinal monsters, shot zombies point blank in the face with shotguns and gone toe-to-toe with an ungodly Josef Mengele experiment rocking two sets of chainsaws for appendages, and boy howdy, is that only the tip of the iceberg of fuck-up-edness. After that, you find a whole bunch of demonic creatures about to eat your wife, and right after you save her she turns into a fucking mutant teddy bear you have no choice but to kill - then, you travel into her womb(!) and fight a whole bunch of unborn fetuses in Bubble Bobble containers before going straight to hell to fight the Devil himself. Needless to say, Splatterhouse was very much the sort of graphic, gruesome gaming experience you weren't going to get on the NES in any way, shape or form ... and on top of its outlandish, excessive Fangoria violence, it's also a damned entertaining side scrolling beat-em-up, to boot.
Rastan Saga II(1990 - Taito)
As much as I love Sega's Altered Beast, there is no denying that Rastan Saga II is everything that game should've been, times ten. Taito eschewed the more exploration-based, Ghosts N' Goblins lite motif of the original for their arcade follow-up, which instead focuses on fast-paced, hot-and-heavy, up-close combat. And folks, this has to be one of the best damn arcade ports I've seen of any game; indeed, the PC Engine iteration of Rastan Saga II looks nearly identical to its coin-op inspiration, making it easily one of the most graphically astounding games on the unit. But the super-detailed sprites alone aren't what makes Rastan Saga II awesome and worthy of playing almost 30 years down the road. No, what makes this game shine is the ultra-satisfying gameplay, which at times, feels kinda' like Castelvania on steroids (and not just because your avatar looks like a WWF heavyweight 'rassler, circa 1988.) The controls are extremely fluid, the platforming portions are challenging but masterable, the boss fights are tremendous (my favorite is either the one against Medusa's uncle or the centaur) and oh yeah, the weapons are fucking boss. Trust me, you don't know what awesome feels like until you've adorned a set of Freddy Krueger gloves and gone to town on a half-torso zombie trying to take a chunk out of your ankles. You simply don't.
And that's that for part four 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 HU-CARDS THAT ALMOST MADE THE COUNTDOWN!
Bloody Wolf is a tremendous little side-scrolling beat-em-up in the vein of Guerrilla War and P.O.W. Incorporating every single 1980s military-action-fantasy movie trope not already used up by Contra or Ikari Warriors, this game is about as close as we'll likely ever get to playing a bad Chuck Norris Cannon Film Group offering in video game form. Naturally, that's both a positive and a negative: on the plus side of the scoreboard, the amount of action in this game is just absurd - within the first minute of gameplay, you're already taking steroids as a power-up (no joke) and running over commie rebels on Harley Davidson bikes. Alas, the controls are very slippery, which makes it a bit of a hassle going into firefights with a ton of enemies on-screen. Regardless, it's still a damn fun cheese-fest, and something you probably ought to play if, at any point in your life, you though Commando was a good motion picture.
Some people prefer the follow up Dragon Saber, which in addition to featuring beefed up visuals, also included a pretty solid two-player mode. While stuck as a solo affair and with scaled back visuals, I've actually long-preferred the original arcade port on the PC-Engine, which (despite dropping one level from the coin-op version), nonetheless looks, sounds and plays an awful lot like the stand-up cabinet from Namco. At heart, it is your standard vertically scrolling SHMUP, albeit with a prehistoric theme as opposed to the tried-and-true outer space motif. The core gameplay here is just rock solid, and I think its overall pace and challenge is much better than that of its sequel (and needless to say, it wallops the dragon-shit out of that watered down port the NES got.) That, and who doesn't enjoy the prospect of firebombing diplodocuses?
In hindsight, the first Gradius seems almost pathetically basic. The sprites are virtually microscopic, the power-ups are unimpressive and the backdrops, for the most part, are just perpetually scrolling blackness, like Pac-Man or something. Alas, as visually underwhelming as the first entry in the much regarded Konami series may be, there is no denying that it has some strong replayability, with simplistic (but ridiculously additive) gameplay that's just as entrancing and hard to put down as it was back in the late 1980s. Pretty much a dead ringer for the coin-op version, this game absolutely murder-death-kills the NES port, providing a much more authentic Gradius experience that might as well be declared officially "arcade perfect."
Yeah, I had no idea they made a version of Ninja Gaiden for the PC Engine, either! Assuming you've played the NES version (and if you haven't, what the hell have you been doing with your life?), there are no real surprises here. For the most part, this version of the Tecmo classic plays a lot like the Nintendo iteration, but as you see for yourself, the visuals are much, much improved. It doesn't reinvent the wheel by any stretch, but what it does do, however, is provide a graphically refined re-do of one of the best action-platformer on Nintendo's 8-bit juggernaut. So, uh, what's your excuse for not playing this one, exactly?
Now this is a really interesting little puzzler. Like Bomberman, you find yourself stuck in a claustrophobic playing field. Whereas in Hudson's revered series you can just explode your way out of trouble, in Zipang you have to use a little more grey matter. And when I say "grey matter," I don't just mean more thinkin', I mean you literally have to conjure up little stone blocks to navigate your way around the screen. If you've ever played the absurdly underrated NES game Fire N Ice, this is pretty much its spiritual predecessor. If only the controls had been tweaked a little (to jump, you actually have to hit the "up" direction on your joypad, which, naturally, leads to some awkward hopping about), it definitely would've wound up on the top 50 countdown. Still, it's a quirky little attraction probably worth experiencing if you are an old school, 2D gaming enthusiast into puzzlers ... or really, really atrocious box art, for that matter.