Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Top 50 Greatest PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 Games EVER! (Part Five:Number 10 to 01)

Part five 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 10:
Battle Lode Runner
(Hudson Soft - 1993)

Released way late in the life cycle of the PC Engine, Battle Lode Runner was definitely the last truly great Hu-Card ever manufactured. Indeed, next to a certain other multiplayer favorite from Hudson Soft that may or may not be ranked a little higher on the countdown, this has to be the best all-around party game on the PC Engine. So, what makes Battle Lode Runner so awesome? Well, despite its incredibly simple premise - you dig holes, and wait for your foes to fall into them - it is also a strangely entertaining and addictive offering. Up to five players simultaneously can run around the stages trying to bury each other alive, and adding to the hilarity, generous power-ups and tertiary enemies are sometimes sprinkled around the playing space to make things even more hectic. Even better, the game contains no less than three multiplayer battle modes (survival, escape and tag team), ensuring you and your pals will be playing this one for a long time to come. 

Number 09:
Detana!! Twin Bee
(1992 - Konami)

Whatever you do, do not let the aesthetics of this game fool you. Oh, it's colorful and whimsical and humorous and all, but deep down, it's a real SHMUP, complete with some very challenging levels, some incredibly daunting boss fights and some of the most persistently intense (and awesome) firefights to be found on any genre game on the console. The fifth entry in the spin-off heavy Twin Bee franchise (which, interestingly, also includes detours into platforming action on the SNES), Detana!! is a vertically scrolling shooter with vibrant graphics, well-defined sprites, memorable music and lots and lots of weird enemies. Although one could lump this into the "cute 'em up" subgenre, the game isn't for beginners. Indeed, it will kick your ass and hard if you don't take it seriously, and even seasoned SHMUP enthusiasts might be sweating it a bit when playing on the highest difficulty setting. The game's most brilliant feature, in my eyes? An ingenious "power-up" system that requires you to shoot bells until they change colors, and like Kryptonite, thusly change intrinsic properties. Trust me, this is not an easy task, especially when you have two dozen kamikaze onions flying at you and fungi on railroad carts blasting you at ground-level...

Number 08:
Parodius Da!!
(1992 - Konami)

Leave it to Konami to create a game that mocks, ridicules and totally deconstructs one of its most valuable, beloved and long-running series - with the end result an even more entertaining and memorable game that its inspiration! Obviously aping the core mechanics of Gradius (you can even play as the iconic Vic Viper, if you don't want to play as an octopus, a bird or the titular aircraft from the Twin Bee games), Parodius manages to outdo the company's "more serious" SHMUP offering with brighter visuals, more detailed sprites, much more creative level design and, as should be glaringly apparent, a lot of self-referential (if not self-deprecating) humor. Needless to say, the aesthetics here are just gorgeous, and the music is among the best you'll ever hear on the PC Engine. But amidst the boss fights against dancing Vegas showgirls, sumo wrestling pigs and a naked woman laying in bed for no discernible reason whatsoever, you'll soon discover something truly shocking about Parodius: not only does it look cool, it also provides a bona fide fantastic SHMUP experience, complete with some super-challenging fire fights and some of the tightest, close-corridor combat the genre has ever seen. 

Number 07:
The Legendary Axe 2
(1990 - Victor Musical Industries)

The first The Legendary Axe game was awesome, but part two completely takes things to a whole different level. Somewhat eschewing the pure platforming action of the original, part dos instead takes on a more linear, straightforward hack and slash dynamic, essentially providing players the bastard love child of Rygar and Ghosts 'N Goblins. The thing that really separates this game from the herd, however, is its atmosphere. In many ways, this might just be the creepiest game on the console, with a weird sense of suspense permeating every pixel on the screen. Granted, a lot of that has to do with the super-spooky foes you face, including midgets swinging ball-and-chain weaponry twice their size and a trio of demonically possessed baby dolls. But no, there's something else unnerving about the title (and no, it's not just the fact that enemies continue pursuing you, even after you lop their noggins off.) Maybe it's the incredible sense of isolation the game provides? Aye, as you wander around the pitch black environs, doing battle with winged demons, lizard people and the occasional robotic death machine, you can't help but feel a profound existential dread, as if the the very next thing around the corner is destined to do you in. Not a lot of three dimensional survival horror games in this era manage to accomplish that feat; that a half-century old cartridge based game from the George H.W. Bush era does is more than enough reason to give this one a try. 

Number 06:
(1992 - Taito)

I fuckin' love me some Sega Genesis, but there's no way around it: the venerable Truxton on the Mega Drive is utter dog shit compared to this port on the PC Engine, which not only looks and sounds more like its arcade inspiration, it also plays smoother and with much less slowdown. Although SHMUPs are clearly an acquired taste, even non-fans can take one look at Tatsujin and immediately see what makes it different from its contemporaries. For one thing, the field of play is just a smidge larger than most shoot em up titles, which means there is an "invisible" margin a few pixels to the left and right of the screen at all times. Of course, this means enemy ships can sometimes barrel into you from out of nowhere, but at the same time, the feature gives you far more leeway to engage in some artistic SHMUPing. Yes, more so than just about any other genre game on the PC Engine, Tatsujin is a game that demands you find a certain "rhythm." To excel, you can't just stand still and bob and weave out of enemy fire, you constantly have to be on the move, slipping and sliding across the screen like a laser-gun toting hockey player. It's definitely one of the more fluid games to be found on the system, and when it comes to straight up genre goodness, Tatsujin brings it in buckets: the controls are tight, the visuals are colorful, the sprites are huge, detailed and chunky and the music and sound effects are just terrific. And my goodness, is it ever fun powering up the "blue lightning" upgrade and just slinging hot, neon death across the cosmos while skating around like you're in The Ice Capades or something...

Number 05:
Devil's Crush
(1990 - Naxat Soft)

Who'd thunk a Satanic-themed pinball game wouldn't just be an enjoyable little romp, but one of the absolute best games ever released on the Hu-Card format? Give it Naxat Soft, they really managed to take an out-of-left-field idea (which, somehow, avoided the wrath and consternation of the early '90s Moral Majority types) and amp it up into a truly unforgettable experience. Although the game only has one primary table, the title is also loaded with mini-games, including some daunting flipper-based boss fights against skeleton armies, marching goat-people and cackling, demon puking skulls. Oh, and that's to say nothing of the miniature bad guys ambling around on the main playing field itself - at times, Devil's Crush feels less like a video pinball game than it does a bizarre Tolkien real-time-strategy game! Of course, the core gameplay is what matters most, and Devil's Crush certainly delivers the goods. The controls are pretty much perfect, there is hardly any slowdown (even when hordes of the undead are blocking your ramp shots) and the in-game challenges, while imposing, are nonetheless doable pending you get enough practice in (indeed, the game itself can be "conquered" if you rack up 9,999,999,900 points.) And if absolutely nothing else, you have got to play this one to hear the music - it's about as close as we'll likely ever get to hearing Goblin in chiptune form. 

Number 04:
Super Star Soldier 
(1991 - Hudson Soft)

The Soldier series has to be one of the most underappreciated old school franchises ever. Remember Star Force and Star Soldier on the NES? Well, this game is technically part of the same series, but it totally strikes out on its own, revamping the core gameplay mechanics, pushing the tempo to thumb-blistering speeds and bombarding you with absolutely gorgeous - and chaotic - space-blasting action with absolutely zero slowdown whatsoever. You know what to expect here: appealing visuals, hyper-speed blasting action, incredible techno-rock music, a million-billion awesome power-ups that can be upgraded to near god-levels (the blue rings of death are definitely my favorite), some clever boss battles (beginning with the first one, which ensnares you inside a coiling loop of death with chunky, insta-kill objects trying to careen into you) and some really, really cool looking level design (the indigo crystal stage is an absolute masterpiece of minimalism.) And then there are the special effects, including impressive looking quasi-three-dimensional quicksand and lava and quite possibly the most amazing explosions to be found on either the PC Engine or the TG-16. 

Number 03:
Blazing Lasers 
(1989 - Hudson Soft)

That this game came out in 1989 absolutely blows my mind. Even now, the vibrant 2D visuals and virtually flicker-less onscreen action is technically impressive, so way back in the day - when Altered Beast was more or less the most graphically advanced home console game to date - this shit was absolutely flooring. Even the absolute best of the best on the NES and Sega Master System - top-tier stuff like Gun-Nac and Power Strike - were held back by hardware limitations. There was always slowdown and flickering - an absolute open-mouth, tongue loaded kiss of death for shoot-em-ups - was all but unavoidable. What Blazing Lasers provided was an absolute technological marvel - a space shooter with huge, detailed sprites, lighting fast tempo and, the biggie, no graphical hiccups whatsoever. That alone would be reason to heap tons of praise upon the game, but in addition to being a mini-miracle of software design, it's a downright fantastic genre offering in its own right. Employing a power-up system comparable to Compile's outstanding Aleste series, Blazing Lasers (known as GunHed in non NA-markets) absolutely bombards you with the action early and often, with damn near two-dozen enemy ships on screen at any given time (unless, of course, you are doing battle with gigantic bosses, who usually take up anywhere from half to four-fifths of the entire screen.) Add in some very creative stages (the one with the bubbles always impressed me) and some of the most awesome SHMUP weapons ever (dude, the lightning gun whose trajectory you can control even after you hit the fire button!) and you have one of the greatest triumphs of early 1990s gaming, for sure. 

Number 02:
Bomberman '94
(1993 - Hudson Soft)

With the lone exception of the absolutely insanely awesome Saturn Bomberman, this has to be the best Bomberman game Hudson Soft has ever produced. It's not just that the game looks absolutely gorgeous - it's a much better looking game than any of the Bomberman games released on the Genesis or SNES, in my view - it's that the game strikes a practically perfect mixture of old-school, kill-em-up action with hardware-driven experimentation. By now, you know how the Bomberman template works, and Hudson Soft wisely refused to fix what was never broken. However, what they do is harness the graphical power of the PC Engine to create extremely detailed stages, complete with some downright marvelous visual effects. Take a look at the factory level, which is absolutely inundated with moving foreground and background pieces, or the haunted house stage, with its ingenious "spotlight" mechanism to simulate abject darkness. This the kind of stuff that just couldn't have been done with NES hardware, and its little shift-ups like that (as opposed to utterly needless overhauls of the tried and true gameplay) that really makes this one pop as one of the franchise's absolute best. Oh, and if the fantastic single player mode wasn't enough, this game also offers a stellar five-player battle mode - which, needless to say, is far and away the best multiplayer experience available on the console. 

Number 01:
Soldier Blade 
(1992 - Hudson Soft)

For my money, Soldier Blade isn't just the best PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 shooter ever, next to M.U.S.H.A., I'd consider it the absolute best pure 2D shoot-em-up ever made. While thematically and mechanically this game is not unlike dozens of others on the PC Engine and TurboGrafx-16, it manages to compile (get it?) all of the best elements of the SHMUP genre into a nearly flawless blast-a-thon experience. The visuals are absolutely beautiful, the music is downright incredible (I am this close to using the first stage theme as my ringtone), the levels are exquisitely designed (dude, the part with all of that funky, vibrating purple stuff!) the controls are absolutely perfect, the power-ups are an absolute blast to tinker around with, the boss fights (there are at least two in every stage) are clever and challenging, and the super-fast action never, ever lets up as soon as you hit the start button. And if that wasn't enough? The game also includes a special challenge mode, which lets you see just how long you can survive in two and five minute-long all-out aerial bombardments. Does Soldier Blade do anything radically new with the SHMUP genre, or give you anything, explicitly, that you haven't experienced in other games? No, it doesn't. But what the games does do, however, is merge everything great about shoot-em-ups into a top-notch, super smooth, incredibly addictive synthesis of the absolute best elements of the genre. Or to put it another way? Soldier Blade may not reinvent the proverbial wheel, but the wheels it has takes you on one of the wildest, most satisfying and enjoyable rides of your gaming career - and if you haven't given this one a spin, you have no earthly idea what kind of fun you are missing out on. 

And that's all we've got, folks! It was a downright delightful duty having to replay all of these old-school PC Engine and TurboGrafx-16 classics. Indeed, I had totally forgotten how awesome so many of the Hu-Cards were, and during the ranking process, I was additionally exposed to scores of fantastic games I had never played - let alone heard of - until now. Of course, you may have observed a few noticeable excisions from the countdown. Before you start picking up torches and sharpening your pitchforks, allow me one final opportunity to explain why a few popular PC Engine and TG-16 games didn't make my final cut, as we take a parting look at FIVE HU-CARDS THAT EVERYONE SEEMINGLY LOVES THAT I DIDN'T THINK WERE QUITE GOOD ENOUGH FOR THE TOP 50!

The Bonk Series!

OK, I know what you're thinking. "How could I possibly make a TG-16 countdown without including a single entry from the Bonk series?" Well, it's pretty simple, honestly: while enjoyable, I just don't think the Bonk games were really all that great platformers. Yes, the visuals were nice and the level design was quite good and it was funny watching your caveman avatar turn into an evil degenerate after eating meat (is that some sort of sly pro-vegan commentary, by the way?), but frankly, the games themselves felt just too industry standard to me. They didn't have the diversity of the Mario games, they lacked the thrilling speed of the Sonic games and they even lacked the core idiosyncratic charm of B-level hop and boppers like Kid Chameleon and Keith Courage. Overall, the Bonk games were decent, but they just don't have the same intuitive, pick-up-and-play appeal these days that they had 25 years ago.

Street Fighter II: Champion Edition!

This port of the ubiquitous Capcom brawler is a technical marvel, to be sure. While it is far and away the most visually impressive Hu-Card ever developed, the fact of the matter is that there are much, much better versions of the game to be played elsewhere. Honestly, if you own Super Street Fighter II on either the SNES or Genesis (or its definitive iteration on, of all things, the motherfucking 3D0) you've already got a game several times more enjoyable than this one. Furthermore, this thing is practically unplayable with the standard Turbo Pad, as it excises no less than four pivotal face buttons needed to truly kick virtual ass efficiently and effectively.


To be honest, I never really saw what was so great about this game. Yeah, I get that it was one of the first "God" games to gain any semblance of popularity, but I still thought the pace was far too slow with too few things, in-game, that you actually wanted to sink any time into. Furthermore, this game was just a headache to play with the standard issue Turbo Pad - if you just have to get your Populous on, you're better off playing the versions on the SNES or Amiga - or better yet, trying your hand at the vastly superior Powermonger from the same studio. 

Ninja Spirit!

Fun fact: did you know Ninja Spirit is the first game to ever receive a perfect 10 from the old school "Review Crew" at Electronic Gaming Monthly? Well, despite such lofty praise from Sushi-X and pals, this Hu-Card really doesn't offer you anything you haven't already played before in much better games like Ninja Gaiden and Strider. Yeah, the huge-assed boss fights are cool, but what's the point when you can literally finish the entire game in 15 minutes?

Air Zonk!

And lastly, we come to a game that it seems I would really, really dig. I love weird, irreverent games with bright, cartoony graphics and you know I love me some SHMUPs. Put the two together and you'd think I would be in hog heaven. Alas, while Air Zonk is a noble effort, it just doesn't have the same overall "oomph" that Parodius, Twin Bee or even Coryoon provided. Ultimately, this comes down to sheer technical issues: for one, the controls feel very slippery, and with enemies attacking you from every direction, it can be a real hassle trying to navigate the screen. And secondly, the game is one of the few on the console to display any noticeable signs of slowdown or flicker - which, as we all know by now - can sometimes render games nigh unplayable. Now, is Air Zonk a terrible game? Not at all, but with so many AAA SHMUPs on the console, it unfortunately just doens't have what it takes to compete with genre heavy hitters like Soldier Blade and Blazing Lasers.

1 comment:

  1. final soldier indeed, the best shmups on tg16 imo, glad to meet someone that also like it, cheers o/


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