TurboGrafx-16 Mini review: Mostly best-in-class retro gaming, sometimes WTF


Enlarge / Say hello to the TurboGrafx-16 Mini.

Sam Machkovech

With the arrival of every recent, retro-minded “mini console” launch, we’ve had at least one original console to compare with. The same goes for fancypants, FPGA-fueled console recreations. We’ve always had tangible reference points for the West’s console biggies: Nintendo, Sega, and Sony.

When we talk about this month’s launch of the TurboGrafx-16 Mini, we should get one key difference out of the way: nobody at Ars has an original TurboGrafx-16 console to compare this with. Our classic gaming experts missed the TG-16 boat when it reached our shores in 1989, and we weren’t alone. The TG-16 was a famous casualty of late-’80s NEC failing to unseat either Nintendo’s dominance or Sega’s upstart momentum in the States.

As we’ve come to realize in the decades since, this one-step-up console kicked way more butt in Japan, where it was known as the PC Engine. In fact, its overseas presence persisted for a long time, in part thanks to add-ons like the PC Engine CD (which also got a Western version but, again, didn’t do as well here). We’ve mostly explored the TG-16’s legacy via unofficial emulation, but that changes this week with a bold launch from the console’s current copyright holders at Konami.

The $100 TurboGrafx-16 Mini, which emulates 55 cartridge and CD games, takes the console’s history to heart with a surprising quirk. In whatever region you buy this new miniature console, you’ll get almost the exact same mix of English and Japanese games, exactly as they launched in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The result is both a carefully molded homage to NEC’s console glory days and a confusing dump of games for anyone already running from behind on their TurboGrafx-16 and PC Engine fluency.

Oversized “mini,” proper controller

Let’s start with the hardware itself, which, for a “mini,” is quite large.

While the original PC Engine broke records due to how small its hardware was—and surely helped the system’s popularity in a space-starved nation like Japan—the TurboGrafx-16 was noticeably beefier, clocking in at over double the PC Engine’s size. That issue persists with the TG-16M, which measures 9.25×5.8×1.1 inches. Just like in 1989, this new American mini is over double the size of its Japanese mini sibling, and part of that bloat comes from its attention to detail. The TG-16M adheres to its original model and includes a massive, removable “dust cover” on its backside. Since I have zero attachment to the original design, I immediately removed and discarded this extra plastic piece, as it gets in the way of cord access (since I tend to unplug and replug retro systems in moving them around my home).

Even with the removable dust cover, Konami could have shrunk the American model if it had opted for a more rectangular circuit board, but it has instead chosen to use the same internal hardware as the Japanese model, which better fits that region’s square console design. (A draconian NDA attached to our review hardware prohibits us from showing you photos of the TG-16M’s motherboard, but these aren’t hard to find elsewhere.) Consider the wasted space and plastic an issue only if your entertainment center has limited space on its retro shelf.

The TG-16M's controller largely resembles the original, right down to the divots in its action buttons, the firm-yet-pliable d-pad, and, of course, those sweet, sweet "turbo" toggles.
Enlarge / The TG-16M’s controller largely resembles the original, right down to the divots in its action buttons, the firm-yet-pliable d-pad, and, of course, those sweet, sweet “turbo” toggles.

Sam Machkovech

In better news, the American model comes with something that Japanese buyers don’t get: dedicated “turbo” buttons on the controllers. The original TG-16 is one of the only consoles in the world to launch with built-in, rapid-fire controller toggles, and that’s no small perk. The TG-16’s general library is heavy on arcade shooters, a fact that TG-16M embraces, and your nostalgic, adult hands will thank you for not having to hammer a “shoot” button in classics like Gradius or Galaga ’88. While other users have complained about the firmness of the TG-16M’s d-pad, the controller I received has pleasantly firm d-pad resistance, as opposed to the loose wobble found in cheaper d-pad variants. Its mildly curved edges make it a satisfying alternative to the NES’ sharp-block design, while its 9.5-foot cord is ample enough for most living rooms.

Like the original console, the TG-16M ships with support for five-player modes, though these require peripherals from Hori (who co-developed this system). Though the system includes USB Type-A ports for its controllers, I tried but failed to get any of my spare multi-port USB adapters to work, and I’ve yet to test Hori’s TG-16M adapter.

Retrobit's Sega Genesis USB controller is the only non-official gamepad I could get working with the TurboGrafx-16 Mini.
Enlarge / Retrobit’s Sega Genesis USB controller is the only non-official gamepad I could get working with the TurboGrafx-16 Mini.

Retrobit

In better news, I managed to get non-Hori gamepads to function, but only those made by Retrobit. Their line of wired 2019 Sega controllers plays nice with the TG-16M, so long as you hold those pads’ Up and Start buttons for five seconds each time you plug them in. None of my others worked (including PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and various generic pads). I’m unsure what protocol Retrobit uses that other gamepads don’t, but, hey, it’s a good sign for anybody trying to more cheaply play in multiplayer modes. Perhaps a future jailbreak will remove these arbitrary hardware limits so that more people can throw a five-player Bomberman ’94 party on this machine.

But where can you buy it?

Of course, whether you can get your hands on the aforementioned hardware is another matter.

Unlike every other major retro console we’ve reviewed over the past three years, the TurboGrafx-16 Mini—and its regional counterparts, Japan’s PC Engine Mini and Europe’s CoreGrafx Mini—were announced late last year as Amazon exclusives. In some ways, that’s some serious accidental serendipity on Konami’s part, especially as video game companies react to a wave of brick-and-mortar closures. Unfortunately, the current, unclear messaging at Amazon (“will ship by December 31, 2020” for new orders) makes us wonder about wait times for new orders.

We have seen all three regional variants in the wild as delivered to Amazon’s pre-order customers, so this may be a moot concern. But it’s one I’d be remiss not to point out, since Konami’s experience as a hardware seller is pesky compared to the competition.

59 games? 55 games? Perhaps less than that…?

Only three games differ based on whether you pick up the TG-16M, the PCEM, or the CGM. The US model comes with Salamander, better known to American gamers as the classic Konami shooter Life Force, while the other regions get two games that are indecipherable without knowing Kanji script: Tengai Makyo II: Manji Maru and Tokimeki Memorial.

The rest of the 55-game lineup is split into discrete TurboGrafx and PC Engine menus. If it’s in the former, it’s the version that originally launched in the United States. If it’s in the latter, then it’s whatever version of the game launched in Japan.

TurboGrafx-16 Mini game selection (USA)
Air Zonk Alien Crush Blazing Lazers
Bomberman ’93 Bonk’s Revenge Cadash
Chew-Man-Fu Dungeon Explorer JJ & Jeff
Lords of Thunder Military Madness Moto Roader
Neutopia Neutopia II New Adventure Island
Ninja Spirit Parasol Stars (Story of Bubble Bobble) Power Golf
Psychosis R-Type Soldier Blade
Space Harrier Splatterhouse Victory Run
Ys Book I & II
TurboGrafx-16 Mini game selection (JPN)
Aldynes Appare! Gateball Bomberman ’94
Bomberman: Panic Bomber Bonk’s Adventure Castlevania: Rondo of Blood
China Warrior (THE Kung Fu) Cho Aniki Dragon Spirit
Dungeon Explorer Fantasy Zone Force Gear†
Galaga ’88 The Genji and the Heike Clans Ghouls ‘N Ghosts
Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire Gradius Gradius II: Gofer no Yabo
Jaseiken Necromancer Military Madness (Nectaris) Neutopia
Neutopia II Ninja Gaiden Salamander
Seirei Senshi Spriggan Snatcher Spriggan Mark 2
Star Parodier Super Darius Super Momotaro Dentetsu II
Super Star Soldier Twinbee† Valkyrie No Denetsu
Ys Book I & II
†: hidden

As usual, we’re not getting everything we want in a system like this, and the English half in particular has some stinkers—yikes, what is the clunky and unforgiving Moto Roader doing here? In terms of games Konami could have licensed, we don’t see full representation from Hudson, who Konami acquired years ago. Where’s the classic “shmup” Gate of Thunder or the superior action-RPG sequel Dungeon Explorer II? Why not go all-out with the system’s best-known mascot and include either Bonk III: Bonk’s Big Adventure or Super Air Zonk? I don’t like begging for ports, but I do wish Konami had flexed more of its Hudson-license muscle in this lineup, since it, by default, pales compared to hit-filled collections from Sega and Nintendo.

That being said, if you want to question the TG-16M’s $100 price tag, peruse eBay’s average prices for games like Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, Sapphire, and Soldier Blade. PCE and TG-16 each have ridiculously inflated resale values attached to their best and rarest games, and while Konami’s licensing team didn’t get all of the biggies (sorry, Magical Chase fans), the above selection is no slouch, easily totaling over $1,000 in used-store values.

Konami’s official TurboGrafx-16 Mini explainer video, with snippets of every included game as they run via M2’s emulation.

Notice that Military Madness, Neutopia, Neutopia II, and Ys Book I & II repeat in both regions. That’s not a typo; you can play those four games in either English or Japanese (and as such, I don’t count them as distinct games in the “55-game” total). The rest are locked to their respective regions. In quite a few cases, that won’t make any difference gameplay-wise. Many of the PC Engine’s best games have very little text to speak of, or their menus and basic text prompts conveniently revolve around English.

But Konami is coy about exactly how impenetrable the TG-16M’s Japanese selection may be, and breaking down exactly which games are and aren’t playable without working Japanese comprehension gets into subjective territory. Here’s an example. Valkyrie no Denetsu, which roughly translates to “Legend of Valkyrie,” opens with a crawl of text as uttered by a goddess. Players then take control of a sword-wielding woman in a viking hat. Move forward, kill monsters, grab coins: Ah, the universal language of gaming.

You might be comfortable mashing buttons and skipping text in this pretty, easy-to-play game for a while, but eventually, you enter a house where a villager asks a question, and you’re given three prompts. Pick the wrong one, and you get kicked out of the house, unable to go back in. Was that important? Beats me. I dunno about your TG-16M, but mine didn’t come with a translated strategy guide.

The language barrier comes pre-installed

Instead, my system came with a QR code that leads to this page of instruction manuals… which are authentic to their respective retail launches. Everything in the USA section is in English. Everything in the JPN section is in Japanese. Etto… umimasen? (This roughly translates to “durrr…. wha?”)

This instruction page would have been a great place for Konami to offer some consolation to Japanese-language novices. Why not some basic notes and warnings for “how to BS your way through a wholly Japanese game,” instead of making users dive into the ASCII wasteland that is GameFAQs? Instead, I was left asking questions like, how do the multiplayer modes in Bomberman: Panic Bomber differ? Is the legendary shooter Sapphire really playable without knowing Japanese? And how in the heck does this croquet-like “Gateball” game work, anyway?

(Speaking of: Please throw out any hopes of playing the Hideo Kojima classic Snatcher without understanding Japanese. This critically acclaimed, text- and dialogue-heavy game includes zero hidden English mode. Your only hope is to play the game’s translated Sega CD version; might we recommend the Mega SD?)

Hence, this package’s count of 55 distinct games is insincere, because getting there requires a weird amount of legwork. But that’s pretty much the only way in which Konami dropped the ball with this collection.

M2 is number one—mostly

The smartest thing Konami did was to hand this collection’s production duties to M2, the Japanese development powerhouse responsible for the Sega Genesis Mini. Their work on that 2019 system was downright redemptive for Sega, and they’ve outdone themselves with the TG-16M.

We could simply say the animation timing, sprite flicker, and sound emulation in classic TG-16 and PCE games has landed impeccably and call it a day. That’s a good baseline recommendation, right? But M2 went above and beyond. For starters, the full range of PC Engine peripherals, including multiple CD-ROM models and the incredibly limited SuperGrafx model, all receive accurate emulation. CD seek times are emulated to split the difference between original, compatible timings and occasional “we’re running on Flash memory, let’s speed this up” convenience. And the processing oomph added by those peripherals has landed without compromise, which is great news for games like the legendary SuperGrafx port of Ghouls ‘N Ghosts.

It’s also nice to see a ridiculous amount of care applied to the system menu interface, which comes in both TG-16 and PCE flavors. Whichever selection of games you pick through, they appear as their original retail cases. When you pick a game, its “HuCard” or compact disc appears and is inserted into its respective slot in a quick, cute animation as the game loads (which you can tap a button to skip, if you’re that impatient).

Additionally, I’m happy to report that M2 has delivered the least offensive “CRT” filter for an emulation-filled game collection I’ve ever seen. I typically disable this filter on most classic systems, owing to issues like uneven scanline presentation and gamma-correction failures, and these issues even plagued M2’s work on the Genesis Mini. But the second time’s a charm.

To be fair, the scanlines still can’t be manually adjusted, so if your preferred HDTV doesn’t play nicely with the system’s 720p maximum resolution, the results may drive you nuts. But color calibration and scanline spread are better here than I’ve seen outside of finicky, wholly customizable emulators. Plus, the filter helps reduce “shimmering” effects if you want to stretch the pixels to a classic 4:3 ratio.

M2 has learned from one major Genesis Mini mistake: You can now tap a button combo to instantly reach the TG-16M’s in-game menu, which you can use to create or load “save states” and quit to the system’s main menu. (The Genesis Mini forced users to hold the Start button for five whole seconds to do the same thing.)

It’s not perfect, but neither was the TG-16

Sadly, the realities of emulation on a budget-priced SoC rear their ugly head once more, as the TG-16M suffers from the same combination of input lag and sound lag that I found on M2’s Genesis Mini. By themselves, these issues are forgivable, and most of TG-16M’s games were originally coded to keep button-press lag as low as possible. Which makes sense: this console’s history is rich with shoot-’em-up arcade classics, and I didn’t struggle with their TG-16M versions in that “I died because of lag” way.

But there are a few exceptions, particularly both games starring the console’s bald mascot Bonk. Playing these on standard TG-16 hardware always included a smidge of obnoxious lag, and there’s no getting around how sluggish this game feels on the TG-16M. Which is a shame: most Americans who stumble upon this mini console will likely boot Bonk first, since that game was aggressively advertised more than any other TG-16 series in the States, and it’ll leave a bad taste in their mouths.

Still, the console’s under-the-radar release plan, complete with Amazon exclusivity, means you’re likely not going to stumble upon this as an accidental impulse buy. The TG-16M exists primarily for people who either already love the TG-16 and the PCE or want to know more about its legacy. And that crowd is likely already prepared for inherent issues, particularly the console’s shortage of must-play epics. NEC’s console never had a Sonic, Legend of Zelda, or Final Fantasy to call its own.

Instead, this console was a show-of-force platform for its era, and its focus on killer, quarter-munching arcade conversions, much like the pricier Neo Geo, doomed it to a beloved niche status—as opposed to a system that catered to the era’s tastes of lengthy, oft replayable adventures. In good news, much of its library holds up as a reminder of a bygone arcade era—with a surprising lack of compromises. Personally, it’s the range of shmups, from the primordial classics (Gradius, R-Type, Galaga ’88) to the bullet-hell innovators (Sapphire, the Spriggan series, the frantic wackiness of Parodius), that I love served on TG-16M’s all-in-one platter.

These home ports of action classics from the likes of Capcom, Namco, and Konami are still a blast, and—at least for the ones you can comprehend—carried forward impeccably by M2’s emulation engineers.



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