Monday, August 8, 2016

The Top 50 TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine Games EVER! (Part Three - Number 30 to 21)

Part three 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 DreamcastSega CDNeo 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 30:
Military Madness
(1990 - Hudson Soft)

Released on the PC Engine in Japan in 1989 as Nectaris, Military Madness is an early action-strategy game a'la Advanced Wars that was really ahead of its time. While the game doesn't exactly bowl you over with its realism, it's nonetheless a gripping lite-RTS that's greatly enhanced by its attention to small details. For example, this is one of the few action-strategy combat-sims I've played on any platform that actually takes into consideration variables like height and terrain type. That means if you position your fleet of tanks on a small plateau, the enemies beneath you are pretty much fucked, since the geographical advantage gives you virtual free rein to pick them off in one fell swoop. Even more interesting, the game doesn't let you position combat vehicles in certain spots - like ravines - so you pretty much have to engage in down and dirty guerrilla warrior gun fights to win the map (which is something I really haven't seen implemented in any other console strategy sim, come to think of it.) Add in a great two-player mode and some of the system's most memorable music and you have yourself one of the most unexpectedly deep (and unexpectedly awesome) games on the platform. Yes, even if some of the infantry battles seem to drag on forever...

Number 29:
Parasol Stars
(1991 - Taito)

Whatever you do, don't let the cutesy graphics fool you - if you don't take this one seriously, it will kick your ass hard. Effectively the third entry in the Bubble Bobble series (technically, it's a sequel to Rainbow Islands, but since that's the de facto original Bubble Bobble sequel, both this AND Bubble Bobble Part 2 on the NES can both lay claim to being Bubble Bobble 3), this one brings the multplayer goods with vibrant and extremely hectic kill-em-up action. Whether you're flying solo or tag teaming with a buddy you'll no doubt have a blast walloping sentient water droplets and killer trombones that magically transform into fruits with your handy-dandy umbrella - and just wait until you start throwing down with the game's downright massive bosses! The sprites are downright gorgeous (they look more detailed than just about anything you'll see on the Genesis or SNES, to be honest) and the level design is positively genius. While blasting through the entire game probably won't take you more than an hour and a half, Parasol Stars nonetheless inundates you with challenging stages, with some sections filled such a daunting parade of bad guys you'll wonder if you'll ever be able to clear the screen. Oh, and if you are looking for historical significance? If I am not mistaken, this game may very well include the first mid-credits boss fight in the annals of video gaming...

Number 28:
(1989 - Taito)

There are ingenuous ideas for video games, and then there are the really ingenuous ideas for video games. A game like Volfied, however, probably deserves a category unto itself. At first glance, the arcade hit from Taito (if there's a better port out there, I haven't played it) looks like just another SHMUP. However, the cleverness of the gameplay makes itself evident as soon as you hit the fire button: instead of traveling across scrolling screens and dodging enemy fire, you find yourself stuck in a single, static screen, with only a Tron-esque laser tail to protect you from a dazzling array of baddies (oh, and if the enemies or their projectiles touch your laser tail? You explode immediately.) The idea, effectively, is to draw lines around your enemies, which considering how fast these motherfuckers are moving, is a task much easier said than actually accomplished. For a game so mind-numbingly simple in theory, it actually does have a surprising amount of depth to its execution. Do you think your timing and spatial skills are solid enough to be able to trap that gigantic spinning blade of laser-shooting death just a split second before it crashes into you? Are you artistic (and daring) enough to try and spell out your initials Etch-a-Sketch style while cordoning off a gigantic, fireball spitting insect warrior at the same time? It may not seem like it when you first get your hands on the control pad, but this is definitely one of the most addictive games on the PC Engine - and I assure you, the replayability on this sucker is off the charts

Number 27:
(1991 - Victor Musical Industries)

If you read my countdown of the 50 greatest Sega Game Gear games of all-time, you're no doubt already familiar with Skweek (which was released on that particularly handhold under the title Slider.) Skweek, essentially, is that core game, only WAY bigger, with WAY better visuals and with WAY more stuff going on. The premise of Skweek is almost insultingly simple - you play a giant orange fuzzball who may or may not be an unauthorized clone of the eponymous creatures from Critters, and all you have to do to advance to the next stage is walk across panels on the playing space, changing them from blue to pink. Doesn't sound like much of a challenge, does it? Well, thankfully, the playing space is littered with all sorts of obstacles, including trap doors leading you to the abyss, panel triggers that cause your controls to invert, blocks that effectively double as high-speed conveyer belts and oh yeah, a million billion bad guys all over the damn place, including little cucumber monsters with Donald Trump hair and what I am pretty sure are supposed to be midget members of the Ku Klux Klan. With some pretty neat power-ups thrown into the mix (the freezing attack is probably my favorite), Skweek kind of plays out like a cross between Bomberman and Bubble Bobble, only with far trippier visuals and arguably more challenging core gameplay than either of the venerated puzzlers. The cutesy visuals may trick you into thinking this is just another easy-ass kids game, but rest assured, Skweek is a game that packs a much greater wallop than you'd expect it to. 

Number 26:
Galaga '90
(1990 - Namcot)

Galaga is one of the most beloved shoot 'em ups of all time for a reason: though technically simple, it provides such engaging and addictive twitch-action gameplay that it's next to impossible to peel yourself away from the joystick (or control pad, if you just so happen to be playing one of the many console ports of the Namco/Namcot arcade stalwart.) While the central gameplay in Galaga '90 (which is actually a slightly modified version of the somewhat obscure arcade game Galaga '88) is practically identical to the Galaga shootin' action we all know and love, there are some pretty big enhancements in this one, and the vastly improved graphics are just the beginning. Some stages include some additional barriers (like little crystal space rocks you can more or less use for Space Invaders-like cover), and hoo boy, are the enemies a whole lot slicker than they were back in the early '80s: not only do they have much more unpredictable flight patterns (I'm still not sure when I'm about to get suicide bombed), some of them even merge into double-sized adversaries, making for all sorts of hyper-speed blastin' fun when it's down to you and just a couple of lighting quick intergalactic bugs. It's pretty much everything you would expect out of a beefed up Galaga, and I assure you, that's not just a good thing, it's a great thing. Oh, and for bonus points: you can now choose to start the game with the iconic "double ship." How cool is that shit

Number 25:
Alien Crush
(1988 - Naxat Soft)

As we already are well aware, The TurboGrafx-16 had one of the best crop of launch games of any console. Among the triple-A offerings on store shelves from day one was Alien Crush, a downright awesome video pinball game filled to the brim with so much H.R. Giger-lawsuit baiting awesomeness that I sometimes refer to it as the true canonical sequel to Aliens. Seeing as how we've already covered the game here at The Internet Is In America a good two and a half years ago, I reckon I'm allowed to quote myself to describe why it made it so high up on the countdown:
"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."
Well, I was right back in Jan. 2014, I'm right in Aug. 2016, and considering the inherent awesomeness of Alien Crush,  I think it's pretty safe to say the words above will ring just as true a good 50, 100 and 250 years from now, too. 

Number 24:
The Legendary Axe
(1988 - Victor Musical Industries)

Hey, lookie here, it's yet another day one TurboGrafx-16 launch title making the list. While the TG-16 is by and large remembered mostly for its stellar lineup of arcade-quality shooters and insanely addictive puzzlers, the console also had its fair share of top-notch, Castelvania and Rygar-type action platformers. The Legendary Axe definitely made a big impression early on in the console's life cycle, giving players both a visually and mechanically satisfying hack and slasher with downright excellent level design. And since we've already had our say on this one way back when, that means I get to quote myself yet again:
"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 commandeer 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."
Oh, and not to foreshadow the remainder of the countdown or anything, but I recall the game's sequel being pretty awesome, as well... 

Number 23:
(1989 - Hudson Soft)

And by golly, it's one more TG-16 North American release day uno selection (told you the system had a stellar launch!) Over in Japan, R-Type was an arcade port that was released on two Hu-Cards, but over in the States, we were lucky enough to receive both of those offerings on one cartridge. Although it may look a little basic now, back when it was first released it was a technical marvel, easily representing the smoothest SHMUP home console experience North American players had gotten their hands on up to that point. And because I'm lazy as fuck content-resourceful, I figure I'm just as well off restating what I said two and a half years ago to describe its high placement in the rankings:
"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."
So to sum up? R-Type is no-frills, hard-as-all-hell, old-school, side-scrolling shoot-em-up awesomeness that doesn't feel the need to put on any snazzy dressings to impress you. After all, the severity of how much it kicks your ass does enough of that on its own. 

Number 22:
(1991 - Hudson Soft)

With so many not just great, but all-time great shoot 'em ups on the console, developers really had to bring their A-games if they were developing SHMUPs on the PC Engine and TG-16. As an arcade port, this game actually looks remarkably like its coin-op inspiration, if not even better at certain junctures. Whereas a lot of SHMUPs on the console were  - despite their inherent awesomeness - mere "space shooters" with vacant blackness conveniently filling up the backgrounds, the designers of Raiden really went the extra step to make the environments in the game vibrant, colorful and full of bustling activity. Of course, aesthetics can only take a shoot-em-up so far, and thankfully, Raiden really brings da muthafuckin' ruckus when it comes to intense twitch-action. Bullets are flying everywhere, the enemies are relentless in their attack and some of the "bosses" are absolutely gargantuan, sometimes taking up a good 90 percent of the television screen. It's a pretty short game - it'll take you probably about 30 minutes, if you have even mediocre SHMUP skills - but there's so much going on (and the core gameplay is just so satisfying) that there's no way you'll only play through this sumbitch once. Of course, there are more impressive genre games to be found on the system, but Raiden nonetheless deserves serious commendations for providing such a thorough - and unpretentious - retro blastin' experience. 

Number 21:
Time Cruise
(1992 - Face)

OK, so technically, this is Time Cruise II ... but seeing as how the first game wasn't released on the TurboGrafx-16, Face decided it would be a whole lot easier to just call the sequel the original when they ported it over to the North American market. Confusion surrounding the series chronology aside, there is hardly anything at all to complain about here if you are a hardcore pinball fanatic. While there isn't as much stuff going on in Time Cruise as the beloved Crush video pinball games, this offering from Face nonetheless provides a solid silverball experience, with a ton of huge, multi-level playing fields. The aesthetics may not rival Alien Crush or Devil Crush, but the pinball mechanics are so solid and the controls so smooth that you still can't help but find yourself glued to your control pad for just ten more minutes of flippin.' And then, there are the mini-games, which for my money, actually manage to outdo the "bonus stages" in either of Naxat's revered pinball games: the only question is whether my favorite is the one where you try to smack jellyfish, help a caveman play golf or try to tilt your way through a bizarre, cybernetic pachinko cabinet...

And that's that for part three 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 THE FIVE STRANGEST PC-ENGINE GAMES OF ALL-TIME!

Tsuru Teruhito no Jissen Kabushiki Bai Bai Game!

Even ignoring the fact that it has a title that takes longer to pronounce than it is to actually finish the game, Tsuru Teruhito still deserves recognition as one of the weirdest games to ever make its way to the PC Engine. Although my grasp of kanji isn't exactly the best in the world, it doesn't take too much knowledge of the written Japanese language to deduce that this game is effectively a stock trading simulator. And when I say simulator, I mean it - unlike something like The Wall Street Kid on the NES, there are no character narratives underlying the hot and heavy stock monitoring spreadsheet action here. Considering how absurdly in-depth the game is, one has to wonder who exactly the target demographic for the game was supposed to be: I mean, if you're able to navigate the labyrinthine, menu-heavy gameplay, you'd probably be better off playing the real stock market, wouldn't you?  

Kato-chan & Ken-Chan!

J.J. & Jeff was one of the first games released on the TurboGrafx-16. It's a weird selection already - a Mario wannabe starring two Japanese comedians nobody in the U.S. knows anything about? - but the original PC Engine version was WAY more bizarre. You know how in the North American version, if you hold the directional pad down, your character starts blasting spray paint? Well, in the original version, instead of engaging in some petty vandalism, your avatar actually cuts a rank fart. Oh, and among the hilarious things you can interact with in the background include dudes taking a piss on lamp posts and a guy taking a big old shit behind some bushes. Then, there are the enemies, which include - and this is the condensed list - birds that shit on your head, guys in suits who try to kill you with Coca Cola cans, a Macho Man Randy Savage rip-off who throws rocks at you and pesky gnat adversary the game describes as "a big fly [sic] lives in toilet." 

Gekisha Boy!

From the same fine folks who gave us R-Type comes this unorthodox action-adventure game, which employs a pretty unique gameplay hook. You see, it's fundamentally a platformer in which you are tasked with taking photographs of certain things going on in the game's background. It sounds easy, but the control set-up makes it very, very challenging, with blink-and-you'll-miss it photo ops blazing by at the speed of light (that you only get a handful of pictures per stage makes it even more difficult.) While the atypical, almost Ren & Stimpy-like visuals already makes the game weird, it's not until you start getting your photo assignments that the intrinsic strangeness of Gekisha Boy starts to shine through: among other tasks, you're asked to take photographs of transvestites flashing their junk, upskirt images of Marilyn Monroe, people being incinerated in hot air balloon crashes, drowning victims, Michael Jackson in full Thriller music video regalia, Native Americans slitting the throats of cowboys and a streaking caricature of a black person so offensive, it might as well be lifted out of Birth of a Nation

Strip Fighter II!

Yeah, somebody out there decided to hack Street Fighter II, replace all of the characters with poorly animated strippers and mass market it to perverts the world over. As you'd imagine, the fighting system here absolutely blows - dude, the two face buttons perform the exact same attack! - and the controls are more slippery than an oiled up Chippendale dancer's pecs. Alas, as mediocre as the core gameplay is, the thing that really puts the game over the top is its emphasis on trashy 2D nudity. Yes, this is a game that does indeed feature the fighters whipping out their cartoon tit-tays during special attacks, but it's even weirder because none of the characters are really animated to look like human females. Virtually all of the characters have these awkward gaits, so they all move like shambling zombies - and oh yeah, some of them have heads shaped like eagles and at least one playable character is pretty much a re-skinned Blanka with D-cups. As for the turbo-titillation, you are treated to some animated cuts scenes of nude Cindy Crawford epoxies in between rounds (albeit, with the pubic hair censored), but really ... if all you want to do is wack your weasel, do you really need to incorporate a crappy version of Street Fighter into your jerkin' routine

Toilet Kids!

Very, very few times have I encountered a video game that absolutely floored me with its audaciousness. There was that game on the Atari 2600 about raping Indians, that one P.C. game made by the Aryan Nations about killing ethnic minorities, and an offering on the Xbox which literally constituted C.P. Until somebody comes along with a Sim-Auschwitz, however, Toilet Kids is probably going to be  high mark for crass, crude and brazen video game concepts for a long time to come. We've already covered this one in-depth before, but it's brass-balled weirdness deserves recognition once more. In fact, there's just one thing more astounding than the fact that someone made, then mass released, a video game about children on flying toilets shooting enemies that puke, piss, shit and blow snot on them - the fact that someone actually managed to make, then mass-release, a game about children on flying toilets shooting enemies that puke, piss, shit and blow snot on them that, believe it or not, is mechanically a fairly enjoyable and technically competent SHMUP


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