Sunday, August 4, 2019

The 50 Greatest TurboGrafix16/PC Engine-CD Games of All-Time! (Part One: #050-#041)

Part one of a special FIVE INSTALLMENT series counting down the best NEC’s cult classic console had to offer!

By: Jimbo X


Part One (Games #050-#041)
Part Two (Games #040-#031)
Part Three (Games (#030-#021)
Part Four (Games #020-#011)
Part Five (Games #010-#001)

It’s a late summer rite at The Internet Is In America. The same way we’ve given you long, all-encompassing round-ups of the best software to be found on the Dreamcast, Sega CD, Neo Geo, Game Gear, TurboGrafx16/PC Engine, Atari Lynx and Sega Master System, for 2019’s epic retro gaming mega-marathon we’re gonna’ be taking a look back at one of the more obscure 16-bit systems out there — and one that, regrettably, never got the love and attention it rightly deserved: The Turbografx-16/PC Engine CD. 

Now, technically, the system was essentially just an add-on called the  CD-ROM2 — which, later got upgraded to the Super CD-ROM2 — which itself was released in various models (the PC Engine Duo, the PC-Engine Duo-R, the PC-Engine Duo-RX, etc.) all of which could be upgraded with various expansion cards. So, needless to say, things can get real convoluted in a real hurry talking about the platform, so for the sake of simplicity, it’ll put it this way: if it was shit you could play on the TurboGrafx-16 or PC Engine on a CD, it’s good enough for consideration on our countdown.

While hundreds of games were released on the platform, only a small percentage — we’re seriously talking less than 10 percent — ever made their way out of Japan and on the Americanized model of the console. Thanks to the emulation revolution, however, we can now play all of those outstanding, Nippon-centric games from the late 1980s and early 1990s, and as it turns out? This system was just BRIMMING with outstanding games, covering just about every genre and subgenre you can think of.

Of course, a good chunk of those games that never made it stateside were endless mahjong and karaoke permutations, and a staggeringly high volume of pseudo-pornographic visual novels that — depending on your perspective — are unfortunately (or fortunately) a little too kanji-centric to be accessible to the non Japanese language-reader. So while we might be missing a couple of RPG and adventure games, our omnibus overview of the TG16/PCE-CD oeuvre IS fairly comprehensive, and as such, we’ve managed to boil down our list of top games on the system to 50 … which, as customary, we’ll be taking a look at 10 at a time as part of a special, five-installment series paying homage to the best and brightest the cult classic console had to offer. 

So before we get into the countdown, a few caveats:

— One, only officially licensed software is eligible for consideration. Nor are we including tech demos, sampler CDs or title so deficient of actual gameplay that you can’t really call them “games” in the traditional sense — i.e., visual novels or other primarily text-driven adventure games.

— Secondly, only games that were commercially produced during the system’s organic lifespan are eligible for inclusion on the countdown. So that means “homebrews” are strictly off limits

— And lastly, this countdown is just one man’s opinion, so if you made your own list, I’m pretty sure it’d look a lot different … although, at the end of the day, my list is still better, so blow me.

And with all of that prerequisite material out of the way, who’s ready to get this countdown chugging along? That’s right … every single person on the planet, that’s who.

Zero4 Champ II (1993)
Developer: Media Rings Corp.
Publisher: Media Rings Corp.

Now here’s certainly an idiosyncratic Japanese release — a racing game without hardly any actual racing gameplay. Yes, Zero4 Champ II is mostly a visual novel/adventure game in which you hop into the shoes of a guy who’s trying to make money so he can buy real-world cars and aftermarket the fuck out of them to turn them into hot rods. Don’t ask me how or why, but this somehow leads to some dungeon crawling sequences in which you have turn-based RPG battles against naked S&M maniacs and an entire feature-length dog breeding simulation mode, complete with what may very well be the only puppy-walking mini-game in the history of virtual entertainment. While there is some traditional video game racing included in the package — represented here in both a first-person, Pole Position like mode and a top-down, poor man’s R.C. Pro-Am mini-game — the bulk of the game is anchored around managing inventory and fine-tuning the shit out of your vehicles which, to the designer’s credit, is certainly way more nuanced and accessible than it probably had any right to be. Clearly, it’s not a game for all tastes, but considering how well Zero4 Champ II manages to meld together so many seemingly incongruous gameplay mechanics, it’s definitely a game worthy of some acknowledgement on this countdown.

Laplace No Ma (1993)
Developer: Group SNE
Publisher: Human Entertainment

A fairly long and surprisingly atmospheric dungeon crawler that stands out as one of the better pre-Resident Evil survival-horror offerings of the 1990s. The level design probably isn’t going to win any awards for creativity (I hope you like slinking your way through the same brown and green hedge mazes, because you’re going to be doing it a lot in this ‘un) but the core gameplay is nonetheless quite solid, and the obvious H.P. Lovecraft influence certainly gives Laplace No Ma a nice, creepy aesthetic and ambiance to help it stand out from all the other Uninvited clones out there. Really, the only thing holding this one back from being a legitimately good game is the rather uninspired turn-based combat — although I suppose the amusement of experiencing periodic random battles against evil ponies, demonic trout and Satanic roosters ALMOST makes up for the endless menu sorting. And if absolutely nothing else? The soundtrack definitely gives it an edge over the SNES port, even if the visuals aren’t as pristine as some of the top-tier games to be found on the TG16/PCE-CD.

Dead of the Brain 1 & 2 (1999)
Developer: FairyTale
Publisher: NEC Home Electronics, Ltd.

Believe it or not the last official TG16/PCE-CD release came out just months before the Dreamcast was released in the U.S. Essentially a port of an MSX game that came out in 1992, Dead of the Brain 1 & 2  is a hybrid adventure/visual novel offering chock full of all sorts of horrific happenings, with a plot that owes more than just a few granules of inspiration to Re-Animator and Dawn of the Dead. While there’s virtually no animations in the game, Dead of the Brain 1 & 2 nonetheless manages to evoke a unique sense of atmosphere … one that, no doubt, can be attributed to its deluge of blood, guts and nudity that just plain wouldn’t fly with American censors, even THIS late into the 1990s — I mean, can you imagine any game with LITERAL zombie rape getting the greenlight for the PlayStation TODAY, let alone just a couple of weeks after Columbine? As with most subgenre games of its ilk, the majority of the gameplay comes in the form of menu-scrolling, so those of you with itchy trigger fingers might not take to the (in)action at first. Still, the surprisingly solid story and neat fusion of exploitation horror with cyberpunk aesthetics definitely gives it a look and feel all its own, and the minimalist music certainly keeps things creepy from start to finish. It ain’t for all tastes, but if you’re a B-horror loving degenerate who can read at at least a third grade level, you ought to be able to find at least some amusement in it.

Beyond Shadowgate (1993)
Developer: ICOM Simulations, Inc.
Publisher: Turbo Technologies, Inc.

Now here’s a game that I’ve always thought was slightly ahead of its time. While at its core Beyond Shadowgate is a classical point-and-click adventure game, it changes things up considerably by presenting all the action from a left-to-right and right-to-left 2D platforming perspective. So basically, what we have here is something of a proto-Oddworld, albeit with a far greater emphasis on exploration. The gameworld itself is actually pretty expansive, and the combat system is open-ended enough to allow for some pretty amusing situations — i.e., scenarios in which you defeat boss enemies using such random-ass inventory as paddleballs. Overall, the sprites are decent enough, but the backdrops are actually really nice, and the music (and voice acting) are definitely top-notch. Throw in the oblique pop cultural references to Orson Welles’ frozen peas commercials and all of the hilariously bloody death scenes and you have all the makings of an adventure epic that ought to satisfy even non fans of the sub-genre.

Dungeon Explorer II (1992)
Developer: Hudson Soft Co., Ltd.
Publisher: Turbo Technologies, Inc.

Lest you’ve forgotten, Dungeon Explorer was one of the launch titles for the TG-16 here in the States. While conceptually similar to the original title, Dungeon Explorer II simply outclasses its predecessor in just about every way, all while maintaining the core Zelda meets Gauntlet gameplay that made the franchise such a hoot to begin with. For starters, this game actually gives you a couple of incentives to replay the game, providing players with no less than 16 different characters to choose from, all of whom have their own distinct combat styles. Furthermore, the game contains some lite R.P.G. elements, allowing your avatars to evolve into more powerful goblin slayers as the game chugs along. If that wasn’t enough, the game includes quite a few sidequests, a mini-game or two and the big draw, a totally awesome hair-metal soundtrack with some of the shrillest guitar licks you’ll hear anywhere. Sure, the level design isn’t too exciting and the boss fights are that hard, but the multiplayer mode DEFINITELY makes up for the kinda’ barebones single player mode. I mean, how can you hate a game that allows up to five players to co-op ass beat a buncha’ constantly respawning skeletons and warlocks, anyway?

R-Type Complete CD (1991)
Developer: Irem Corp.
Publisher: Irem Corp.

When R-Type was first released on the PC Engine, it was broken up into two Hu-Cards. As the name implies, the CD redux puts the game back together as God originally intended — and thanks to the magic of the compact disc medium, with an all new (and ultra awesome) soundtrack, to boot. While the overall graphical upgrade isn’t that impressive (personally, I wasn’t too enamored by the addition of animated cutscenes, either), you really can’t complain about the rock solid gameplay, smooth-ass controls and technically hiccup free presentation — sans any sorts of flicker or slow down, this thing is just pure D SHMUP smooth sailin’ all the way through. Of course, a classical arcade shooter through and through, don’t expect to take too long to blast through this one, since the entire game is barely half an hour long. Still, as fun and satisfying as the core gameplay here is, it’s pretty hard to not find yourself gravitating back to this one for a yearly playthrough or two; needless to say, this is one CD do-over that DEFINITELY outdoes its cartridge-based predecessor.

Shin Megami Tensei (1993)
Developer: Atlus Co. Ltd.
Publisher: Atlus Co. Ltd.

Anybody who thinks video gaming didn’t take on more adult cinematic vibes ‘til Hideo Kojima came along definitely ought to revisit Shin Megami Tensei. The cult classic RPG/adventure hybrid gives players a legitimately terrifying thinking man’s horror game, complete with a creepy, surreal story about demonic cults that puts 99 percent of the genre movies Hollywood keeps shitting out these days to shame. Sure, the visuals may not be that impressive (even compared to its contemporaries), but what Shin Megami Tensi lacks in graphical horsepower it certainly makes up for in sheer atmosphere. With a haunting soundtrack and some downright gruesome enemies, SMT is a title that’ll give even the most hardened horror gamers a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, and hardcore RPG fans ought to give it a try just to experience the game’s unorthodox turn-based combat system. I mean, how many other role playing games from the epoch allow you to defeat enemies by LITERALLY ridiculing them to death?

New Japan Pro Wrestling ‘94: Battlefield in Tokyo Dome (1994)
Developer: Varie
Publisher: Fujicom

Now here’s something you don’t see everyday: a 2D pro wrestling game from the 1990s that doesn’t have the words “Fire Pro” in it and still DOESN’T suck. As you’d imagine, this standout NJPW brawler has a who’s who cast of puroresu royalty, featuring everybody from Shinya Hashimoto and the Great Muta to the Road Warriors, the Steiners and Chris “Wild Pegasus” Benoit. And unlike most of the WWF and WCW games from the timeframe, the developers here actually tried to give each character their own idiosyncratic weight, sense of movement and move set, in turn creating a substantially deeper ‘rasslin product than most American gamers ever got to play in the mid-1990s. While the core gameplay isn’t as smooth and intuitive as in the Fire Pro games (indeed, if you really wanted to be a cheap, no-class sonofabitch, you could probably win each match by just spamming the default punching and kicking attacks), Battlefield overcomes some of those structural issues  by offering a TON of game modes, including a full-fledged G-1 tournament option. Needless to say, this is one CD-ROM well worth going out of your way to experience if you’re a fan of 1990s Japanese wrestling … and yes, that should be everybody reading this right now.

Bonk 3: Bonk’s Adventure (1993)
Developer: A.I. Co., Ltd.
Publisher: Hudson Soft

I was never that big a fan of the Bonk games, but I think it’s safe to say this is easily the zenith of the series. Obviously, the CD format gives the game a much better soundtrack than its Hu-Card predecessor, and from my vantage point it appears that the overall graphics and animations are smoother, brighter and crisper than in the TG-16 original. While it’s not a terribly difficult game, you can overlook the general simplicity of the platformer thanks to its well-designed levels and humongous sprites, not to mention its super-responsive and intuitive controls. Ultimately, there’s not a whole lot of new content here — save, perhaps, a few additional multiplayer levels — but virtually everything is so fine-tuned and well-polished that it’s hard to not enjoy the game from start to finish. On the whole Bonk may have never reached the lofty heights of Sonic and Mario, but he certainly put in a fine showing, regardless, in this CD-ROM redux — indeed, it’s hard to imagine calling any other game in the series his veritable magnum opus.

4-in-1 Super CD (1992)
Developer: Hudson Entertainment, Inc.
Publisher: Turbo, Technologies, Inc.

Hands-down the best compilation to be found on the TG16/PCE-CD and it ain’t even close. Gamers on the prowl for virtual value probably won’t get a better bang for their buck than this four-title comp, which includes the original Bonk’s Adventure, Bonk’s Revenge AND the beloved SHMUP Gates of Thunder, as well as a slightly churched up remake of the original Bomberman game … which, for some bizarre reason, you can only play by inputting a special code at the title screen (I’ll save you the Google search, homie: it’s up, right, down, left, II.) All four games are rock solid, but I’d like to put a special emphasis on Gates of Thunder, a game which had previously been a Japan-exclusive. Not only is it widely regarded as one of the best SHMUPs on the system, some websites have called it one of the best SHMUPs of the entire 16-bit era; while I wouldn’t personally go that far, I nonetheless think it’s safe to call it a fantastic genre game … and the fact that you get it plus two fun-ass Bonk games and an immensely addictive Bomberman re-do all in one package makes 4-in-1 Super CD a disc WELL worth going out of your way to dig up.


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