Thursday, February 18, 2010

We Have Entered the Age of the 16 Bits!

...or maybe we're still in the age of the 8 bits. It depends on who you're asking. Either way, the first amazing episode of Chronturbo has arrived, and may be downloaded or streamed at! This new project, announced so long ago, sees us add a third console to the series. The PC Engine, known in the US as the TurboGrafx 16, is the first "fourth generation" video console: released in October of 1987 by electronics/technology giant NEC, with most early titles published by Hudson.

The PC Engine was quite successful in Japan. Most sources say NEC's console outsold the Famicom for the first year after its release. Some sources go further and say it outsold the Famicom for the rest of the Famicom's lifespan. That's quite impressive, but it must be remembered that the Famicom had already reached an unthinkable level of market saturation by 1987. Nintendo's console was four years old when the PC Engine hit the shelves and so enormously successful that anyone interested in video games probably already had one by that point.

In the US, the system did not do as well, to put it in polite terms. With the release of the Sega Genesis, the TurboGrafx found itself in a distant third place in the console wars. Still, the console was highly regarded by hardcore gamers, and earned itself a loyal cult following. Today, the hardware is highly prized among collectors, and working TurboGrafx 16 and TurboDuo consoles are far more expensive than Nintendo or Sega machines.

The one sticky point about the PC Engine is whether or not it should be classified as a 16 bit console. NEC certainly thought so, as the name TurboGrafx 16 implies. On the other hand, while the system does utilize dual 16 bit GPUs, the CPU itself is a just a souped-up version of Western's 8 bit 65C02 chip (which is itself a souped-up version of the old MOS 6502, found in the Atari 2600. The Famicom was also based on a MOS 6502 variant.) Of course, regardless of the CPU, the PC Engine was clearly leagues ahead of the Famicom in terms what it could put on the screen. A total of 482 colors could be displayed at once and sprites could be substantially larger. The PC Engine had considerably more RAM than the Famicom, and once the CD-Rom add-on was released, the amount of RAM was dramatically increased (The Arcade System card provided 2048 KB.)

Gigantic bosses - a PC Engine staple.

But, while such technical facts and figures are interesting to the geeky sorts of folks who play video games, ultimately what matters are the demonstrable results of all that hardware. And in that department the PC Engine definitely delivered. Perhaps the system's main technical weakness was its lack of multiple background layers, yet it somehow managed to fake it with the best of them. The extra space provided by the CD-ROM drive allowed for high quality cut scenes, voice acting and pre-recorded music. When all the stars were aligned just right, the PC Engine was capable of producing better looking games than the Genesis/Mega Drive: Lords of Thunder being the classic example. So if the PC Engine was not a "real" 16 bit console, at times it sure acted like one.

Sega CD Lords of Thunder

TurboGrafx Lords of Thunder

Chronturbo Episode One is a little short by Chrontendo standards; in order to get the first two episodes to neatly enclose 1987-1988, I decided to go with 13 games per episode at first. But what a selection of games! Platformers, shoot-em-ups, baseball games, RPGs, racing games, beat-em-ups, puzzle games - there's a little something for everyone. Naturally, one game outshines the rest, so we'll begin there:


The first must-have game for the PC Engine, and the first to really show off the hardware's power. I've mentioned my love of R-Type before on this blog. It's a beautifully done game in every aspect: fantastic graphics and sound, innovative game play, and a wonderful sense of design. Its influence on the shoot-em-up genre was huge, but so was its importance to the PC Engine. Namely, that such a recent, cutting edge game could be reproduced, virtually perfectly, on a home console, must have impressed the heck out of gamers back in 1988. R-Type is, perhaps, the most faithful and accurate arcade port we've seen so far.

Some other fine games this episode:

Kato-chan and Ken-chan/J.J. & Jeff

This odd little platformer from Hudson doesn't deserve the bad reputation is sometimes has today. Based on a TV show starring comedians Cha Kato and Ken Shimura, Kato-chan is a sort of a follow up to Adventure Island, with healthy serving of scatological humor added in. Goofy, silly and gross, the subject matter tends to disguise the fact that this is a creative and well constructed hop and bop style side scrolling platform game.

Victory Run

What a cool idea for a racing game! Victory Run has you driving the famous Paris-Dakar Rally (oddly, an unrelated Paris-Dakar Famicom game will be turning up soon.) While clearly an Out Run clone, Victory Run outshines Sega's Master System port of Out Run. A grittier, more realistic driving game than we're used to seeing, Victory Run throws in such novelties as auto parts that wear out and need to be replaced, and extremely rough desert roads. Along with Rad Racer, this is the best driving/racing game we've seen so far.

Bikkuriman World

Along with Shanghai, Bikkuriman World was one of the PC Engine's launch titles. A bizarre sounding name, but it turns out to simply be a port of Sega's Wonder Boy in Monster Land with altered character sprites. Wait a second, you say! That's the same thing Hudson did when they based Adventure Island on Wonder Boy. Well, they did it again, this time using characters from a series of stickers packaged with a Japanese snack food. While nowhere near as impressive as R-Type, Hudson pulls off a pretty decent port of Monster Land.

Galaga '88

Another arcade port and the best of the three Namco games this episode.

What about the bad games? Well, there's nothing too terrible on display here - the fact that all titles are from Hudson or Namco sees to that. But I'd say the worst of the bunch are these:

The Kung-Fu/China Warrior

Based on the "Vol 1" found in the upper right hand corner of The Kung-Fu's box art, I'd say Hudson intended this to be the first game released for the new console. It ended hitting the shelves three weeks after launch. It almost seems more like a tech demo than a complete game. The Kung Fu is a rather simple beat-em-up featuring a Bruce Lee lookalike and a single enemy type. However, the real point of the game is to demonstrate the PC Engine's ability to produce enormous, detailed sprites. It succeeds in that department; it's too bad Hudson didn't invest a bit more time in creating an interesting game.

Pro Yakyuu World Stadium

While not exactly a bad game, World Stadium does manage to piss me off. Why? This is third time Namco has released the exact same game! Yes, Pro Yakyuu World Stadium is merely Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium AKA Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium '87 with better graphics. Namco, I know the first one sold a lot of copies, but how long are you going to keep milking this?

And the rest:

Youkai Douchuuki

Another arcade port from Namco, this time of the game known in the West as Shadowland. A weird and unique supernatural themed platformer with some bits of exploration thrown in, Shadowland is given a less that stellar home version, courtesy of Tose.

Sengoku Mahjong

The first mahjong game for the system. Mahjong games are like golf and baseball games, no Japanese console is complete without having one out as early as possible.

Power League/World Class Baseball

Speaking of which, this is the second baseball game for the PC Engine, this time from Hudson. The first in the reasonably long lived Power League series, and the only one released outside of Japan.

Jaseiken Necromancer

And since this is 1988, there's also got to be an RPG. This Hudson title is most notable for its impressive H.R. Giger box art and spooky opening music. Sadly, the enemy design found inside the game itself fails to be as interesting.


The first console version of Activision's puzzle game, originally for the Macintosh. We saw a Famicom release of this from Data East a while ago, but the PC Engine game actually came out first. It's not every day another console gets a game before the Famicom.

Yuu Yuu Jinsei

An early entry in an inexplicably popular genre: video games based on the board game, The Game of Life.

There you have it. I must admit I was quite impressed with the lineup of games. Compared to the Master System, we are off to a pretty strong start. So, go ahead and check it out.


Anonymous said...

Yesssss finally! I've been looking forward to this for quite a while; very stoked to see it come out! Bikkuriman is a highly underrated game, and IMO one of the finest adventure games of the entire 8- and 16-bit era (although Dynastic Hero does it a little better).

I hope you cover Keith Courage, too- also highly underrated IMO

Cornervizion said...

Well worth waiting for! And didn't dissapoint either. Alas, it's only recently I've been enjoying PC Engine games as the UK's release got aborted at the last minute. France got to enjoy it though. Look forward to episode 2, and of course Chrontendo 28

Jungman Jansson said...

Great stuff as usual!

I'm itching for the next episode already. What's next, Chronsega 4 or Chrontendo 28?

Lynxara said...

If you cover Keith Courage, do you plan on talking about how extensively it was altered for US release?

(Better yet, will you attempt to explain Wataru to your poor innocent viewers?)

CJ Lowery said...

This was excellent. I am woefully unfamiliar with the PCE and absolutely love the concept of going through and playing most of the games arguably more than the system that I am woefully overfamiliar with (the Famicom).

I have a few questions though. Are you going to bring back the text scroll for different games/same game on different platforms? And what is the music that plays on each game (besides excellent.)

Doctor Sparkle said...

I'm glad folks liked the episode. I've been really looking forward to Chronturbo, and it's nice to see it finally in place.

It's odd that the TG-16 is the best console to play the Wonder Boy games, even though they didn't normally use the Wonder Boy name. I will agree that the later games, like Dynastic Hero are an improvement over Monster Land/Bikkuriman. ML's a pretty cool game, but seems like a transitional title between the first game and Monster Lair.

Lynaxara - Hey, how's it going? Sorry about OMG Nintendo, it was a great site. I've never cared much for Keith Courage and I've never actually played Majin Eiyuuden Wataru. Were there a lot of changes made? I'm about the worst person in the world to be discussing anime or manga. Larry King probably has more knowledge of those subjects than me.

Next up - Chrontendo 4 featuring DQ III and Contra!

Doctor Sparkle said...

Did I neglect to utilize text scrolls in this episode? And the music: The opening music is from the intro of Lords of Thunder - which if full of crazy rockin' guitar music - the between game music is "Cross a Fear" from Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, and the credits music is the title music from Air Zonk.

CJ Lowery said...

On further rewatch (I'm bedridden right now, so the Chron_____ archives are lovely light fare) you only didn't do it on the original Hudson games at the beginning. But again, thanks for keeping this up and I can't wait for whatever comes next!

qaylIS aka Nicolas Deußer said...

Nice episode, its really interesting so see the console launch...but it never took on here in europe, so I only know some cross-plattform games which came out. The PC as a gaming platform was still very strong (and honestly, its still in germany) at that time, so I was confused by the name PC-Engine...I didn't realize what the console was really about...and I believe we only saw the worst part of PC-E software in europe. Hmm, I think I do some research for this...brb

qaylIS aka Nicolas Deußer said...

Ah, in europe the PC-Engine (which was just called Turbografx then) was just sold in Spain, and not for very long, due to legal wonder it didn't take off. Sometimes we are so screwed in europe...

Anders M said...

Hi, I just want to let you know how much I enjoy the Chron-series. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

BTW, would love to see you cover the PC-FX if possible-- I never got a chance to play any of those games, but because it was so inaccessible it had a mystique that still holds sway over me haha. Can it be emulated yet?? I haven't looked in years...

Doctor Sparkle said...

I can imagine that NEC was hesitant about try launch the console in Europe, what with the US release not going too well, and Sega dominating the region.

PC-FX - now that's a rare system, at least in the West. I think about 90% of the game were dating sims. It is currently emulated by the folks who do the Magic Engine, though it is a commercial emulator. Obviously, copies of the emulator and ISOs can be found through the usual channels. At least one game has been fan-translated: -- but still a pretty inaccessible system for the most part.

Chris Sobieniak said...

Incidentally, that box art you showed for the history date of the US launch of the TG-16 is actually the obscure UK edition. The US box art looked like this...

Yeah, doesn't really show you much of the system there!

It still is kinda funny to see the retouched sprites still doing certain odd things like humping the light post or squatting when they use the spray can. It's funny the game worked at all regardless of it's origins.

The aspect of "Fun TV with Kato-chan and Ken-Chan" that was used for America's Funniest Home Video was essentially the premise of laughing at user-submitted videos that was a concept done on the Japanese series. If anything, it touched off a rather short craze of this sort of thing in America during the early 90's and a sort of progenitor to the reality TV program we have today.

There are several episodes of Majin Eiyuuden Wataru that were fansubbed into English if that might help to figure out what the origins of Keith Courage were.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Chris, yeah, you're right about the EU box for the TG-16, but I didn't happened to have a pic of the US box handy when I was trying to throw that thing together. Laziness, I'm afraid.

Maybe one reason why people hate JJ & Jeff so much is that some things don't make much sense in the bowdlerized version - like squatting when using the spray can. The original, with its constant scatological humor, is a much more coherent experience.

Chris Sobieniak said...

Didn't realize how big Bikkuriman was until I checked Wiki to see it also had several TV anime and movies released over the years. Oh well.