TurboGrafx-16 seemed like little more than a legend when I was growing up. I saw reviews in magazines, I knew about Bonk, but I never actually saw one in the wild. It was that "other console."
It wasn't until much later that I learned about the rich legacy of the TurboGrafx-16, also known as the PC Engine, and its impact on Japanese gaming. Like everyone else I pined for a PC Engine Duo so I could finally play Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (the lost companion to Symphony of the Night), and legendary shoot 'em ups like Lords of Thunder. I kept my Wii for ages because I didn't want to lose my TurboGrafx-16 Virtual Console collection. Now I can at last enjoy all of these games in one place thanks to the TurboGrafx-16 Mini, a new mini-console by Konami.
The TurboGrafx-16 Mini is the latest attempt by a publisher to cash in on the brief mini-console craze inaugurated by the NES Classic in 2016. The fad is mostly finished, as demonstrated by the poor sales of the Sega Genesis Mini—a console with far more history in the U.S. than the TurboGrafx-16. For most Americans, it will be little more than a weird curiosity; an extra bit of plastic for their entertainment center. But for weirdos like me—hobbyists who are more than willing to wade through Japanese text to play a 25-year-old shoot 'em up—it's a godsend.
What You Get in the Box
Like every other mini console, the TurboGrafx-16 Mini is meant to replicate the look and feel of the original system. Unfortunately for Konami, the original Turbografx-16 was a pretty charmless hunk of black plastic, so there's not a lot of nostalgia to be found in its build. Viewed from the vantage point of your entertainment center, it just looks like a little black rectangular brick.
The controller is reminiscent of the two-button NES controller of old, making it fairly limited compared to its competitors on the Genesis and the SNES. Then again, it's blessed with a much longer cord than either the NES Classic or the SNES Classic; and it's also a USB-A format, meaning it's more compatible with traditional extension cables.
This is everything else you'll find in the box; in other words, not much.
- One TurboGrafx-16 Mini Console
- One TurboGrafx-16 Mini Controller
- One USB Mini to USB-A Cable
- One HDMI Cable
Frustratingly, the TurboGrafx-16 Mini lacks an AC adapter for its USB Mini power cable. I was able to make it work by cannibalizing my SNES Classic adapter, but if you don't have one readily available, it will run you an extra $20. Add in additional controllers for multiplayer, and the TurboGrafx-16 Mini's MSRP of $99 quickly rises to $150 or more.
Once you get it properly set up, the TurboGrafx-16 Mini's front-end broadly resembles that of the NES Classic and SNES Classic, featuring a menu in which you can scroll through a selection of classic cover art to choose what you want to play. The collection is split between North American and Japanese sections, with a different background for each, and a cute little loading animation in which a card is inserted into the system or a CD spins up. Like other mini-consoles, it features wallpaper borders to put around the 4:3 display, as well as a handful of display settings like stretch and zoom. In a novel touch, you can select a filter designed to resemble the old TurboExpress, which is surprisingly faithful to the look and feel of the classic handheld. This isn't a filter you'll want to use for long, though, as the blurriness makes most games nearly unplayable.
The TurboGrafx-16 Mini's emulation is courtesy of M2, a developer well-regarded in retro circles. The studio's excellent work is once again on display on the TurboGrafx-16, which manages to present a smooth and enjoyable experience with few noticeable errors. This is a pretty impressive accomplishment given that the PC Engine is almost its own console generation, boasting a wide array of technological challenges. M2 handles the unique demands of the platform well.
All told, the TurboGrafx-16 Mini is a nicely presented mini-console, albeit with slightly fewer extras than its competitors, like the ability to record your gameplay. Its biggest selling point is definitely its weird and interesting library, which serves as a tribute to a unique and mostly forgotten period in gaming history.
Do you like shoot 'em ups? Because if you do, the TurboGrafx-16 Mini is absolutely loaded with them. The original PC Engine was known for being something of a shmup powerhouse back in the day, and it's reflected in the surfeit of shooters, from old-school classics like R-Type and Galaga '88 to fun curiosities like Star Parodier. They represent perhaps the single biggest reason for retro gaming fans to sit up and take notice of Konami's odd little machine.
All told, the TurboGrafx-16 Mini contains 57 games-more than double that of the NES Classic-encapsulating every single point in its run. This is notable because the TurboGrafx / PC Engine had a number of distinct eras, which included both a CD-ROM add-on and a "Super CD-ROM" with increased buffer RAM. Its selection is clearly pitched toward import aficionados, as more than half of its library consists of Japanese releases, most of which are in their original language.
It makes the TurboGrafx-16 Mini something of an acquired taste, especially if you don't speak any Japanese, but the novelty of having so many imports on one platform cannot be overstated. Actually, I spent way more time on the PC Engine side of things than the TurboGrafx-16 area, which is largely dominated by the likes of Military Madness and Splatterhouse (and Lords of Thunder and Alien Crush, to be fair).
I enjoyed many of the games on offer, particularly the shoot 'em ups (I love shmups), but these games in particular stood out to me:
- Dracula X: Rondo of Blood: Rondo of Blood needs no introduction, I'm sure. As the game leading directly to Symphony of the Night, it is consistently ranked as one of the very best Castlevanias ever made. It is currently available on PS4 as part of the Castlevania Requiem double pack, but outside of that it's still somewhat difficult to find, making its release on the TurboGrafx-16 Mini a welcome one. I may even beat it this time.
- Bomberman 94: Bomberman is a long way from its mid-90s peak, but its unique brand of multiplayer remains delightfully chaotic. I enjoy Bomberman 94 for its colorful art and snappy soundtrack, as well as its charming kangaroo companion. Even better, Hori is releasing a Turbo Tap adapter for the TurboGrafx-16 Mini, making it possible to play with five other people. Pity that it's not included in the box.
- Snatcher: Developed by Hideo Kojima, Snatcher is a Blade Runner-like adventure game that still commands a certain amount of fascination from fans. A localized script exists on Sega CD, as does a fan translation, but the one on the TurboGrafx-16 Mini is the Japanese version. I'm mostly waiting for some enterprising hackers to make it possible to patch in the fan translation. For now, I'm just glad it exists at all. Maybe it's a good opportunity to practice my Japanese?
- Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire: Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire is a very rare import-only shoot 'em up for the PC Engine CD, and the exemplar of the wild disparity in graphics quality on the TurboGrafx-16 Mini. I'm seriously still feeling the whiplash of going from the TurboGrafx-16 version of Ninja Gaiden, which wouldn't pass muster on the NES, to this beauty, which would have been right at home on the PlayStation. Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire is worth more than $1000 on eBay these days, and it's not on any digital storefronts. And hey, it's a pretty good shoot 'em up too, contrary to Famitsu's incredible negative review. It's definitely one of the TurboGrafx-16 Mini's biggest standouts.
- Gradius 2: Gofer's Ambition: For my money, Gradius 2 is the best game in the series, featuring reasonably well-balanced difficulty and some beautiful sprite art. Like every Gradius game, it's crazy hard, but the flow of collecting power-ups makes it so satisfying, and it sports some very impressive-looking bosses to boot. Like so many other games on the Turbografx-16, it's not readily available, making it an excellent addition to the library.
The rest of the TurboGrafx-16 Mini's library is a smattering of peculiar imports and familiar names like Bonk, often of wildly varying quality. While it tilts more toward good than bad in most instances, there's plenty of junk like J.J. & Jeff and Ninja Gaiden, as well as two versions of Ys Book 1 & 2 (one in English, one in Japanese). A not insignificant portion of the library has aged terribly—Victory Run looks worse than Rad Racer if I'm being honest—making retro beauties like Bomberman: Panic Bomber and Rondo of Blood more the exception than the rule.
What ultimately makes the TurboGrafx-16 Mini's library unique is that so much of it is unavailable elsewhere. Where the SNES and Genesis libraries are widely available on a variety of platforms, the TurboGrafx-16 Mini's collection is far more obscure, making it all the more tragic that Konami wasn't able to fit in classics like Bloody Wolf—a genuinely great isometric shoot 'em up that looks a little like Contra. I wound up passing a very fun afternoon just sifting through the TurboGrafx-16 Mini's lineup, which would periodically surprise me with enjoyable little gems like Valkyrie no Densetsu, which is virtually forgotten these days.
In short, if the goal of a mini-console is not just retro nostalgia, but retro discovery, then TurboGrafx-16 Mini surpasses most of its better-known competitors. This is the console for the retro curious; the classic gaming fans who have a deep affection for old arcade games, but don't have the space or the cash to invest in hardcore collecting. In short, Konami pretty much made the TurboGrafx-16 Mini for me.
So I guess this is where I admit to being kind of in love with the TurboGrafx-16 Mini. It's such a specific console with a specific point of view. Where the SNES Classic was a pure nostalgia magnet—a little bit of kitsch filled with games you already knew well—the TurboGrafx-16 Mini feels more educational. It's a window into an era that I never really got to experience, with many games that are next to impossible to find elsewhere. I mean, until last week I didn't even know that Parasol Stars: The Story of Bubble Bobble 3 existed (forgive me, Taito superfans), and it's actually pretty rad!
In that light, the TurboGrafx-16 Mini may be the one truly "essential" mini-console out there, at least if you care more about actual gaming history than the light buzz of going, "Hey, I used to love that game!" If the rapidly fizzling mini-console revolution offers nothing else, then at least we have that.
The TurboGrafx-16 Mini may be light on additional features, but it's heavy on lost classics, many of which are very difficult to find through traditional channels. With strong emulation and a decent enough range of features, it's one of the better mini-consoles on the market today, even if you have to buy the AC adapter separately. I don't know who the market is for this lovely little machine, but I'm definitely glad it exists.