Saturday, August 10, 2019

The 50 Greatest TurboGrafix16/PC Engine-CD Games of All-Time! (Part Two: #040-#031)

Part two 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.

Bomberman: Panic Bomber (1994)
Developer: Hudson Soft
Publisher: Hudson Soft

Don’t let the fine folks at Compile know, but this is secretly the best Puyo Puyo variation to be found on the TG16/PCE-CD. Sort of a cross-pollination of Yoshi and Tetris Attack (with a healthy bit of Columns thrown in the mix for good measure,) Panic Bomber is a fun, frenetic and fast-paced puzzler with a truly fantastic multiplayer mode. Sure, the audiovisuals aren’t terribly impressive, but hardcore puzzlers like this are all about substance over style, ain’t they? Throw in the satisfying “story mode” and you have yourself a fun little CD-ROM offering that’s easy to pick up and play but damn near impossible to put down. And oddly enough, this is somehow the only full-length Bomberman to get released on the TG16/PCE-CD … lest we forget, that “deluxe” version of Bomberman ‘94 you sometimes see on countdowns of the like was literally just a limited demo port of the Hu-Card classic.

Bonanza Bros. (1992)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: NEC Avenue, Ltd.

A lot of the Sega ports on the TG16/PCE-CD, to put it mildly, sucked. Go ahead, try and play the iterations of Altered Beast and Golden Axe on the console and tell me those things don’t look and play like 100 percent undiluted asshole. Thankfully, this port of the criminally(*)-underrated Sega arcade favorite fares much better, with great graphics, solid audio, smooth controls and gameplay that’s every bit as satisfying and enjoyable as it is on the Master System and Genesis. I know already said this when taking a look at the SMS version of the game, but I still can’t believe that Sega was able to release a video game that literally allowed children to become virtual burglars, albeit ones of the robotic variety. Even more amazing is how Sega was able to take such a one-note premise and build it into a surprisingly fun and intense proto-stealth action game, complete with some fantastically-designed levels and a rollicking, riotous two-player mode that’s been a get-together favorite ‘round my household for decades now. If for some stupid reason you’ve never played this one before, do yourself a favor and hit up a copy on the .ROM dumps — it’s a hoot and a half no matter which system you’re playing it on.

(*) Get it, because in the game, you LITERALLY play as criminals? Eh, fuck you, too.

Valis II (1989)
Developer: Telenet Japan Co, Ltd.
Publisher: NEC Home Electronics

Despite what can only be called a Hyper-Kojima-esque reliance on cutscenes, Valis II is nonetheless a rock-solid action-platformer with smooth controls, satisfying combat and an utterly fantastic soundtrack. Granted, the visuals are nowhere close to being the best on the system (indeed, the sprites in this one are hardly any better-looking than the first wave Hu-Card releases on the console), but what Valis II lacks in aesthetic quality it generally makes up for it with pure-D Metroid meets Shinobi gameplay that feels vaguely familiar but wholly distinct at the same time. Considering you can plow through this one in about an hour, I suppose the CD-ROM doesn’t offer too much in regards to replayability, but the pick-up-and-play nature of the title is so endearing, accessible and surprisingly engrossing that as soon as you start wacking buttons on the control pad, you’ll probably see yourself playing through the whole kit and caboodle all over again. Sure, the subsequent games in the franchise on the console may look better and have more bells and whistles, but when it comes to straight-up gameplay, this is easily the best way to get your Valis fix — on the TG16/PCE-CD or just about any other system, the more I think about it.

Cho Aniki: Super Big Brothers (1992)
Developer: Masaya
Publisher: Hudson Entertainment, Inc.

The legendary homoerotic SHMUP series started with this installment on the TG16/PCE-CD, which all things considered, isn’t as gay as you’d imagine it to be — in fact, players have the option of playing as a practically naked, green-haired anime chick wearing a translucent shower curtain, if that kind of thing floats their boat. LGBTQI+ allusions aside, Cho Aniki is actually a very solid shoot-em-up that’s a lot better than its memetic status would probably lead you to believe. The fast and frenetic gameplay and oddball enemies makes it feel like Parodious on crystal meth, and while the visuals aren’t the best the system has to offer, the sprites and animations in the game are nonetheless vibrant and detailed. That, and the music is downright phenomenal, with a soundtrack covering the spectrum from classical-inspired sonatas to hardcore thrah metal mega-riffage. Really, the only major downside here is its duration; even novice SHMUP enthusiasts will probably be able to plow through this one in less than 30 minutes.

Gain Ground SX (1992)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: NEC Avenue

I’m not even going to attempt to delve into how a competing 16-bit console ended up getting a port of a beloved Sega arcade game at the cultural and economic zenith of the Genesis/Mega Drive, but I can tell you this: Gain Ground SX is a fucking fantastic offering that I’d feel comfortable describing as being every bit as good as its coin-op forerunner. For those of you who’ve never played Gain Ground, for whatever stupid reason, it’s a top-down shooter/puzzler/strategy/kill ‘em up hybrid in which you’re tasked with wiping out an entire screen of enemies while cunningly working your way around environmental hazards and enemy entrapments. It’s an incredibly easy game to pick up and play, but it’s super-addictive and really, unlike just about any other game you’ve ever played. Even better, this iteration packs a tremendous multiplayer mode, and if you’re worried about replay value, think again — with more than 20 characters to unlock, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth outta’ this one.

Download II (1991)
Developer: Alfa System Co, Ltd.
Publisher: NEC Avenue, Ltd.

Well, if you can overlook the preposterously long opening cutscene (which, for some stupid ass reason, you CAN’T skip everytime you boot up the game), you’ll find yourself a very enjoyable SHMUP in Download II. While the visuals in the game aren’t up to snuff with some of its genre contemporaries, Download II DEFINITELY delivers the goods when it comes to fast and frantic shoot-em-up gameplay — indeed, it’s one of the fastest (and most challenging) SHMUPs to be found on a system absolutely inundated with games of the sort. Another cool thing about the game are the backgrounds, which — in sharp contrast to the genre norm back in the early 1990s — are all vibrant, pastel colored, with some palpable atmospheric variation from stage-to-stage. And the final boss fight of the game has to be one of the damn freakiest you’ll encounter in any video game — it’s against a humongous skull with spider-legs that shoots FETUSES out of its brain as projectiles. Factor in the top-notch soundtrack and you’ve got all the makings of a rock-solid shooter that doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel — rather, the only thing this game is concerned about is making that wheel go as fast as humanly fathomable. 

Asuka 120% Maxima BURNING Fest (1995)
Developer: Fill in Cafe Co.
Publisher: NEC Avenue, Ltd.

Effectively a port of an X68000 port of an FM Towns game, Asuka seems like the kind of game destined to suck. A WAY late release in the console system, and a 2D fighter you’re supposed to play using just two face buttons? Sure, the guys at SNK found a way to make it work, but clearly, the folks at Fill in Cafe Co. ain’t the same people who gave us Fatal Fury Special and World Heroes 2. That said, Asuka is actually a remarkably competent one-on-one tournament fighter, complete with surprisingly intuitive controls, a robust move set and a fairly large roster of characters who actually have diverse fighting styles. Factor in the detailed backgrounds, excellent animation, well-defined sprites and surprisingly engaging story mode and you’ve got yourself a very good (if not low key great) fighter that totally surmounts its hardware limitations. Don’t let the visuals fool you, folks — I assure you this one is way more than just ‘batin’ fodder for weebo perverts.

Kiaidan 00 (1992)
Developer: Alfa System
Publisher: Telenet Japan Co, Ltd.

From the same folks who gave us Sinistron, Cyber-Core and the Download games comes this atypically lengthy SHMUP, which certainly benefits from having one of the coolest weapon upgrades system of any subgenre offering of the sort on the console. Rather than give you one rank-and-file attack (or an array of random items that augment your shooting stream) Kiaidan 00 gives you five weapons from the get-go to tinker around with, and this one definitely requires a bit more strategizing than most SHMUPs on the system. The levels, naturally, are filled to the brim with enemies, and the boss fights herein are certainly memorable — especially the one against a giant, beige zombie, which could almost pass for a 2D version of Nemesis from Resident Evil. While the graphics in Kiaidan 00 aren’t terribly impressive, the backgrounds are smooth, the animation consistent and the sprites are nonetheless well-detailed. And, as to be expected, the music in this ‘un just plain kicks ass — needless to say, hardcore shoot-em-up fanatics shouldn’t sleep on this oddly-titled CD-ROM offering.

Hyper Dyne: Side Arms Special (1989)
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: NEC Avenue

It’s a pity we didn’t get more Capcom-developed games on the TG16/PCE-CD — U.N. Squadron probably would’ve been balls deep on the system. Alas, it looks like we’ll have to make do with the aberrant port like Hyper Dyne: Side Arms Special, which includes a, well, special, mode called “Before Christ” that gives you access to a handful of extra levels (and a VERY badass, R-Type-like chargeable beam attack, I might add.) The gameplay itself is quite similar to Forgotten Worlds, except WAY more polished and refined, with controls that don’t make you feel as if your hands are slip-sliding all over the place. And while the lack of any sound effects is weird and mildly off-putting, I don’t have anything bad to say about the soundtrack, which is just jazzy as fuck. The graphics, while far from being the best on the console — which is understandable, considering it is one of the first games to come out on the system —are certainly serviceable and the gameplay is just as solid and satisfying as you’d expect it to be. And give the level design folks some credit, too — this one definitely has some of the more unique stages you’ll find amongst the robust assortment of SHMUPs on NEC’s cult classic console.

Lords of Thunder (1993)
Developer: Red Company
Publisher: Hudson Soft

If there was ever a video game that was just plain MADE by its soundtrack, it has to be Lords of Thunder. With a thunderous heavy metal soundtrack that sounds like the orchestral section from the latest Dream Theater or Green Carnation album, this game just sounds symphonic as fuck from start to finish, and it adds so much ambiance and atmopshere to the overall experience. And visually, Lords of Thunder is just as impressive, featuring lightning-fast gameplay and some of the best parallax scrolling effects to be found on the platform. Add to that some of the most challenging SHMUP gameplay on the system — as well as some of its most memorable boss encounters — and super-fluid controls and you’ve got a cult favorite shooter that’s certainly a must-play experience for the genre faithful — especially if you’ve only played the ganky port that was released on the Sega CD a couple of years later. Really, the only thing holding this one back from higher placement is the replay factor: expect to blast through this one in 20, 30 minutes tops, with no unlockable content around to incentivize you hit “start” a second time around.


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