No, I never owned a TurboGrafx-16 back then. But I owned a TurboGrafx fold-out pamphlet, and for a little while that was almost as good. At some point in 1990, NEC reps showed off the console at the air-base commissary where my parents shopped, and I got to sample Bonk’s Adventure for a few minutes. My mother was adamant that I wouldn’t get a TurboGrafx, not when I’d just gotten an NES, but she couldn’t deny me some of the fine literature they were handing out.
A credible piece of marketing for adults and kids, the entire pamphlet is preserved at Chris Bieniek’s excellent Video Game Ephemera. The booklet does a good enough job of emphasizing the TurboGrafx’s capabilities while downplaying its negatives, such as the lone controller port or the asking price of the CD system. Yet the best part is the poster formed by the back of the entire booklet. It’s a huge panorama of TurboGrafx games presented like a slice of the Sears Wish Book and filled with adorably outdated taglines like “CD Challenge!” and “So-Real Sports!”
Some part of me must've known that I’d never get a TurboGrafx until nearly a decade later, when I paid an eBay charlatan twenty-five bucks for a stained system with a broken controller. The best I would get in 1990 was this free reading material, so I pored dreamily over the expanse of games. It didn’t take too long for me to pick out my favorites, the five ones I’d definitely try if ever I laid hands on a TurboGrafx of my own.
Now I can play them and measure them against my youthful expectations, and because I can’t leave well enough alone, I’m going to do just that.
Then: In the dim, distant days when arcades still mattered, R-Type was a blockbuster, a shooter touchstone for anyone capable of grasping the intricacies of holding down a button to make an energy bullet larger. The booklet’s careful to show things any R-Type player would recognize: we all knew the hideous scorpion eye fetus from the end of the first level, and we knew those huge mechanical claws, the ones that looked like medical equipment and seemed like they should do something but never quite did.
R-Type was a highlight of the TurboGrafx-16’s first years. It replicated the arcade version very well, and it would stay an exclusive throughout the system wars. The Genesis never had an R-Type, and the Super NES had the slower, uglier Super R-Type and the superior-but-different R-Type III. NEC positioned their star prominently, and R-Type very nearly became the pack-in for the system instead of Keith Courage. No one really liked Keith Courage.
Now: R-Type is still an enjoyable shooter, but the TurboGrafx port’s fallen behind a bit. You can get nice, arcade-perfect R-Type very easily on modern systems, and the TurboGrafx version suffers from terrible flicker as the system tries to process a game it was never built to handle. In fact, you can see this in that larger screenshot—a good chunk of the player’s R-9 starfighter is missing. That bothered us a lot less twenty-three years ago.
THE LEGENDARY AXE
Then: The pamphlet shills The Legendary Axe pretty hard, citing all sorts of awards and critical laudation, and at the time the game looked sharp and intriguing. Sure, Bonk’s Adventure was a cute Mario-style attraction, but The Legendary Axe was a bit more savage with its torchlit duels in ancient catacombs. It had the allure of the well-drawn cover to some cheap sword-and-sandal flick you’d see at Blockbuster. Your parents would never let you rent it, no more than they’d let you have another game system, but the box art was just enough.
And then you had that giant…thing in the larger screenshot. Was that the “evil Jagu” mentioned in the accompanying text, or was it just an earlier level’s boss? I expect most of us thought it wasn’t the final boss. Nintendo Power never showed the final bosses to games, and there was no reason for the TurboGrafx’s keepers to violate that sanctity of surprise. And if that was just a level boss, a middle-management type of The Legendary Axe’s corporate structure, what would the actual Jagu look like?
Now: Disappointing, really. The Legendary Axe still looks darned good for an 8-bit system’s output (that whole “16” angle being fudged a bit), but it’s otherwise boring. It suffers the Castlevania malady of forcing players to grab power-ups just to make the hero’s basic weapon effective, all while putting the poor loinclothed guy through jumps and enemy attacks that he’s just not agile enough to handle. It doesn’t even have The Legendary Axe 2’s surprise ending.
And guess what? That giant guy from the screenshot really is Jagu, the final boss. The rest of the bosses are exceptionally lame, including two smallish bears and a giant boulder. Yes, the ultimate showdown of level two is a huge rock. That would’ve disappointed me terribly back in 1990.
Then: I wasn’t much for racing games. When the Nintendo World Championships rolled around, I worried that Rad Racer was one of the three titles key to the competition (my family spared me further fretting by not moving back to North America until well after the tournaments were over). But Victory Run had a certain something, a certain je ne sais…OK, so it just had a screenshot of a car flipping through the air. I thought it looked cool.
Now: Victory Run is mediocre fare, and I suspect it always was. It’s a pretty mundane racing game with only a few details, like a glowing skyline and motorcycle hazards, to set it apart from the stuff you’d see on the ol’ NES. In fact, Victory Run isn’t all that different from Rad Racer, which, now that I think about it, also showed your car flying off the road in style.
Then: Another beneficiary of the “show the huge bosses” school of promotion, Blazing Lazers set itself up as the best original shooter on the console. The triangular battleship dominates the larger of the two screens, while the player’s craft clearly has a decent arsenal of shields, machine guns, and whatever those orbs might be. The smaller shot isn’t very impressive, though it depicts the initial form of the game’s final boss. Why this pamphlet wanted to spoil so many endgames, I’ll never know.
Now: Blazing Lazers holds its own among 16-bit shooters, thanks in no small way to the talents of Compile. It has all of the developer’s hallmarks: ample power-ups, nicely varied level layouts, and a ship that doesn’t control like a garbage truck in the swamp. Yet it’s not quite as accomplished as Compile’s best offerings. The levels drag on for too long, your ship is rapidly overpowered, and it never reaches the breakneck fury of M.U.S.H.A., Spirit Soldier Spriggan, or Robo Aleste. Still, it beats Cyber Core, Dragon Spirit, and just about every other shooter on the poster.
Then: We now come to the last game on my list and, not by coincidence, the single coolest screenshot in the catalog. The small square of a warrior fending off a goat-beast in some ornate space-temple is striking, but the larger screen is the show-stopper. The same warrior’s crouched in the same combat pose, yet now it’s against the muddy vermillion skies and magma-veined peaks of some alien world. Sunset glints on the cracked ribs of a monstrous carcass while serpentine horrors assail our sword-wielding crusader, whoever he or she might be. The writeup’s a bit vague on that.
At the time I didn’t know that the warrior is Yuko, a blue-haired schoolgirl drafted into being the scantily dressed savior of a barbaric dimension. Valis II bridged Yuko’s odyssey with animated cutscenes patterned after direct-to-video anime of the 1980s, when titles like Leda: The Fantastic Adventures of Yoko and Dream Dimensional Fandora didn’t need anything but heroines in battle bikinis to get their budgets stamped. This made Valis II a novelty in the America of 1990, where anime was a wondrous unexplored land of sexy science-fantasy chaos for many young game nerds. I didn’t need any of that to sell me on Valis II. A broken alien costae verae was enough.
Now: The Valis games were never particularly amazing in level design. You might cynically label them conveyor belts for cartoon intermissions. Yet Valis II is sturdy for the side-scroller that it is, and it gives Yuko projectile attacks that prove a little more interesting than the usual methods of jumping, slashing, and jump-slashing. The synthy music and cramped cutscenes, dated as they are, turn Valis II into a neat little artifact of late-1980s anime clichés. Those cutscenes also sport some delightfully awkward performances. My favorite is the monster who calls Yuko’s sword “Varris.”
So it’s not that bad of a game. I even played it long enough to recreate the catalog’s iconic screenshot! Well, I recreated most of it. Those darn snake-men wouldn’t cooperate.