Thursday, August 29, 2019

The 50 Greatest TurboGrafix16/PC Engine-CD Games of All-Time! (Part Five: #010-#001)

Part five 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.

Image Fight 2: Operation Deepstriker (1992)
Developer: Irem
Publisher: Irem

Yes, Irem will always be known as the developer who gave us R-Type, but in the eyes of this contrarian retro gamer the SHMUP franchise they REALLY ought to be renowned for is Image Fight. And as good as the arcade port of the first Image Fight game on the TG16/PCE was, Operation Deepstriker on THIS console absolutely blows that one out of the water, with better graphics, music, presentation, gameplay and replay value across the board. With its huge, chunky sprites, the gameplay often feels like s a SUPER amped-up version of Soldier Blade, and if you like shooters that ain’t afraid to kick your ass all over the place, you will dig this UBER-hard vertical blast-a-thon. While there’s not a terrible amount of backdrop variation from stage to stage, Image Fight 2 makes up for it with super-fast gameplay and some downright absurdly challenging boss fights. Throw in the fun-as-all-hell combat system (where you’ll be switching out fire power constantly) and the comparatively epic length (even hardcore SHMUP enthusiasts will likely need an hour or two to beat this one) and you have one unsung subgenre gem WELL worth going out of your way to experience.

Fantasy Star Soldier (1992)
Developer: Interstate / Kaneko
Publisher: Hudson Soft

Hudson Soft’s answer to Parodius isn’t just as good as Konami’s cult favorite cute-em-up, in many ways — if not most of them — Fantasy Star Soldier improves upon the formula drastically. Also known as Star Parodier, this CD-ROM, of course, is a loving, self-reflexive parody of the Star Soldier franchise. From the character-select screen (where, among other options, you can play as Bomberman or a sentient PC Engine system that spits Hu-Cards as projectiles), you just KNOW the presentation in this one is going to be excellent, and thankfully, the folks at Hudson Soft were also able to retain the stellar gameplay of the mainline Star Soldier franchise in this superlative spoof. As expected, the animations in this one are just fantastic, with detailed sprites and huge, colorful levels. The stages are quite diverse — one level, you’ll be battling maraca shaking fish underwater and the next, you’ll be having shootouts with giant snowmen — but what really keeps the game going is its fast and frenetic action. Yes, it be a “joke” poking fun at the likes of Blazing Lazers, but rest assured the core, vertically-scrolling SHMUP mechanics in this one are 100 percent spot on. Yes, it’s shorter and considerably easier than some of the other subgenre offerings on the console, but Fantasy Star Soldier is just so fun to play from start-to-finish that I have a hard time imagining anyone considering this a mere one-and-done playthrough.

Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire (1995)
Developer: CAProduction
Publisher: Hudson Soft

Now, we all know that great graphics does not a great game make. That said, the fact that Sapphire is one of the most visually stunning games on the system — if not the absolute most stunning — certainly doesn’t hurt its standing in the countdown. Indeed, this WAY late release on the TG16/PCE-CD might even be mistaken for an early PS1 game at first glance. With its semi-polygonal graphics and hard cyberpunk theme, one might be inclined to call this one a 2D Einhander, albeit with FAR more intense gameplay. I mean, did you really expect an offering from the same folks who gave us Lords of Thunder and Gates of Thunder to be EASY? While the game routinely dips into the extremely esoteric — at certain juncture in the game, you’ll be duking it out with dragons in front of pagodas and having shootouts with pseudo three-dimensional space amoebas — at heart it’s just a rock-solid, balls-to-the-walls, blink-and-you’ll-die-nine-times-in-a-row hardcore SHMUP fan’s delight, with great controls, beautiful animation and nonstop blasting action so smooth and addictive, you might actually try to inject the instruction manual into your veins. Of course, it’s one major demerit is that it’s VERY short — as in, less than half an hour, folks. Still, this is a game WELL worth going out of your way to experience if you’re among the genre faithful — although I’m not quite convinced it’s worth the $700 people are asking for it on eBay …

Seirei Senshi Spriggan (1991)
Developer: Naxat Soft
Publisher: Compile

It’s a SHMUP from the same people that brought us Recca and MUSHA and about 12 or 16 more all-time classic space shooters — you just KNOW this one is going to be a good one. Indeed, some have called this game an even better sequel to MUSHA than Robo Aleste on the Sega CD — and while I’m not quite sure I’d go that far with my praise of Seirei Senshi Spriggan, the heart of the matter is that this a GREAT shooter, no matter your comparison point. Essentially playing out like a hybrid of MUSHA and Blazing Lazers, the action in this one is both immediate and intense, complete with some of the biggest damn boss fights I’ve ever seen in a shoot-em-up. While it may not have the graphical wow factor of some of its genre cohorts on the system, Spriggan makes up for it with some of the most satisfying pure SHMUP gameplay on the console, with accessible controls, fast and smooth animations and core shooting mechanics that provide plenty of challenge but no controller hassles. Indeed, I’d consider this one to be — pound for pound — the best overall game of its type on the TG16/PCE-CD, which, obviously, is saying something. As most games in its subcategory are prone to, this is a fairly short game (you’ll probably beat it in an hour), but as par for the course for Compile, the central gameplay is so damned fun and gripping that I doubt you’ll only blast through this one once. Besides — name one other game on the system that lets you zap Purple-robed Klan members with spaceship electricity?

Fatal Fury 2 (1994) / Fatal Fury Special (1994)
Developer: SNK
Publisher: Hudson Soft

Anybody who’s ever played a “fighting” game on the NES, Game Boy, Game Gear or Sega Master System can tell you this upfront; two-button controllers just weren’t designed with fighting games in mind. Indeed, the shortfall of pressable pads on the standard TG16/PCE controllers likewise seemed like an intrinsic issue that would bar legitimately great fighters from making its way onto the console, but as fate would have it, SNK figured out a way to game the system … literally. These two exceptional arcade ports of two of the best Fatal Fury games don’t just look outstanding, they’re damn near one-to-one recreations of the Neo-Geo versions (albeit, with a few noticeable technical hiccups, like the aberrant flashing character or minute framerate drop) and arguably better-looking than any fighting game you’d find on either the Genny or the SNES. But here’s what REALLY makes the games worthy of your time and interest; despite the two-button set-up, the core combat mechanics are fine tuned just enough to give the game nuance, but without the necessity for convoluted button inputs. In other words, they found a way to make the central gameplay WORK with just two face buttons, and you better damn believe the controls in this one are silky smooth. Factor in the super-addictive multiplayer component and an absolute ton of replay value and you have a one-two combo from SNK that ought to impress anybody with a penchant for kicking virtual asses.

Snatcher (1992)
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami

Well, I had no qualms about ranking the iteration on the Sega CD as one of the five best games on that particular platform, so I suppose it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I’m equally lauding its counterpart on this system, too. Of course, this iteration loses the voice acting that was found on the Sega CD version, as well as its third act, so while I’m compelled to call this one technically an inferior iteration of the game, that’s not to say it’s not worth playing in any regard (I mean, it is ranked No. 4 on the countdown for a reason, y’know.) For those out of the loop, the cult classic offering from Konami is routinely hailed as one of the greatest digital comics of all-time, if not the greatest Blade Runner video game ever made that wasn’t actually called Blade Runner. With an outstanding story and super smooth detective gameplay, Snatcher stands out as one of the first truly mature triumphs of “adult-oriented” video gaming, and not just because of the occasional side boob and twisted-off heads. Here, you’re getting an adventure game with a top-notch cyberpunk story that’s easily on-par with the narratives of just about anything Hollywood’s churning out these days, if not one that’s considerably better paced, better structured and better written. Naturally, visual novels of the like are an acquired taste, but just as long as you’ve got a penchant for great story-telling (and don’t mind having to click your way through a dialogue box or 400), you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a blast with this one.

Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari (1993) / Downtown Nekketsu Koushinkyoku: Soreyuko Daiundoukai (1992)
Developer: Technos
Publisher: Naxat Soft

Both of these games are such madcap fun that I genuinely couldn’t pick one over the other — hence, my decision to group them in as selections 2A and 2B, essentially. Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, of course, is an amped up version of River City Rumble, a game which is (rightfully) regarded as one of the greatest beat-em-ups of all-time. This version plays very similarly to its more famous NES cousin, although the audiovisual components have obviously gotten a major upgrade (indeed, in this game, the sprites almost could pass for adult characters.) Of course, unless you have a firm grasp of kanji you’re not going to be able to enjoy the full gist of the game’s humor, since it was never ported to the English-speaking, English-reading market. Still, the locus of the game is pretty much the same as the NES game — you wallop ass, you eat food, and you wallop ass some more. It’s such a simplistic game, yes, but the core combat is just so visceral and so enjoyable that it’s pretty hard to not play this one from start-to-finish as soon as the controller wraps around your palms. Along those same lines, Downtown Nekketsu Koushinkyoku: Soreyuko Daiundoukai is basically the predecessor to Crash and the Boys on the NES, which really, belongs to its own genre classification — the race and beat em up. Yes, in DNK:SD, the object of the game is to make it to the finish line before any of your opponents do, but this being a Technos game and all, that also means that, along the way, you’re allowed to bash your enemies’ heads in with bowling balls and fucking Kendo sticks while jumping over steel mesh fences and swimming through raw sewage. Really, this is some of the most fun multiplayer mayhem you’ll have not just on the TG16/PCE-CD, but ANY 16-bit device. Far and away the BEST co-op experience to be found on a NEC-branded console, it’s also one of the most underrated co-op experiences in the annals of 2D gaming — and for shame if you haven’t experienced it by now, you tasteless cretin.

Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (1993)
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami

Yeah, some surprise, I know — figuring out the No. 1 game on this countdown was kinda’ like deducing who was going to win a Harlem Globetrotters game, wasn’t it? While the selection of Rondo of Blood as the best game on the TG16/PCE-CD is a VERY expected one, at the same time I think it’s a little too easy to understate just how incredible this game actually is. We can all agree that Castlevania III and Super Castlevania IV are two of the best third-party games to appear on the NES and SNES, respectively, and what Rondo of Blood does is effectively merge the two into a perfect blend of traditional, non-Metroid-inspired Vania goodness. It’s not that Rondo of Blood does anything revolutionary with the side-scrolling action-horror-platformer template, it’s more the fact that it refines what’s worked since the very first Castlevania game and crystallizes it into what HAS to be the ultimate 2D atmospheric sidescroller. You’ve got the straight-forward action of Castlevania, the exploration component of Simon’s Quest, the multiple-character strategizing from Dracula’s Curse and the audiovisual oomph on loan from SC IV, and it’s all synthesized into sheer monster mashin’ ecstasy in CD-ROM form. Yes, the low-quality animated cutscenes are pretty lame, but beyond that, I can’t think of a SINGLE bad thing to say about this game. The levels are brilliantly laid out, the sprites are supremely detailed, the boss fights are intense and dramatic AF and the controls are absolutely 100 percent spot-on. This is one of the smoothest, best-playing 2D action-players you’ll ever experience, with gameplay that strikes a near perfect balance of instant gratification enjoyment and old school challenge. Not only is this EASILY the best game on the system, for my money it’s STILL the single greatest game in the Castlevania series … so yeah, if for some stupid-ass reason you haven’t by now, you DEFINITELY need to give this game a try some time (and the sooner, the better.)


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