Last month (well, last month by the time I had planned to write this, as it’s not the first day of February), On The Stick had an episode of “Same Name Different Game” based on Die Hard that spoke of some interesting tidbits about the NEC TurboGrafx-16 console.
After I asked (failing to check the description first — whoops), Joe led me to a 2014 Gamasutra article which basically detailed the history of the console and its Japanese counterpart, the PC Engine. I spoke recently about the tragedy that was losing Hudson Soft to Konami’s all-consuming maw of nothingness, and while they have made a number of great games, I imagine one could put up a strong argument that their greatest contribution to the video game world was the TurboGrafx-16.
While early on in the Console Wars of the early 90s, I had a bone to pick with SEGA (because “who in the hell do they think they are?!”), I never harbored such animosity towards the comparatively humble pairing of NEC and Hudson Soft. Yeah, they were encroaching on the same turf, but they were being kind of cool about it. This ad, for example:
Sure, they’re ragging on the Nintendo Entertainment System as their “16-bit is better than 8-bit” message, but at least they were doing it by using one of their own games. Can you really fault them for that? I couldn’t, not when compared with the likes of this:
To SEGA’s credit, their campaign did work, big time. Looking back, it’s really too bad about how the internal rivalries between divisions caused everything to fall apart to where they are today — but that’s a different story. This is about TurboGrafx-16.
The article really sheds some light on things by interviewing a number of people who were there, but the tragedy of it all is just how dismissive of the entire enterprise NEC in Japan became of the whole thing once they realized they weren’t going to have a significant market share. Doomed to be the ECW to SEGA’s WCW and Nintendo’s WWE (though that metaphor starts to fall apart once you get past 2001), the folks Stateside were ready to keep up the good fight, but the higher-ups in Japan pretty much kneecapped them at every opportunity:
But it was worse than that, Brandstetter says. TTi could rarely even get U.S. versions of existing Japanese games onto shelves. TTi would submit lists of games the company wanted to put out in the West, only to have Japan offer only a fraction: “if we gave a lineup, a list of what we thought would be the killer lineup for Christmas, we maybe got one out of the 10 or 15 titles we asked for,” he says.
“And it wasn’t like the titles had to be redone or anything. We would do the translation over here, the packaging had to be done. And then it just didn’t happen,” Brandstetter says. He flew to Japan for meetings, presenting research on what games would do well in the U.S. market — only to wait, and wait, and then get very little.
For example, he wanted to release Konami’s PC Engine Castlevania title, Dracula X: Rondo of Blood — predecessor to the classic Symphony of the Night. “Have you ever played that game? That would have made a huge difference. It sold like crazy over here in the gray market,” he says. Nothing ever materialized out of his request. Every negotiation had to go through Japan, and answers were slow or not forthcoming at all.
“It’s almost like you can sit there watching paint dry. It’s like, you’re telling them what will make money and they just don’t. And it’s proven. ‘Look, here’s Sega, they’re doing things. Here’s Nintendo, they’re doing things. See what they’re doing? If we just do what they’re doing, we’ll make money.’ And that doesn’t make sense to them,” Brandstetter says.
This was on top of efforts that could have seen the phenomenal Mortal Kombat brought to their platform (“We had the rights to do it — not signed, but I had the verbal agreement — but then they didn’t do it because Japan said, ‘Oh, Mortal Kombat couldn’t be done.’ And then CES came up and we saw it on Game Gear and everything and I said, ‘We could have done it! You guys didn’t do it!'”) and beefing up the system through a HuCard add-on that would make SNK’s best and brightest possible — something that did happen later, eventually after the TurboGrafx-16 had breathed its last in the west.
As I said, the whole story echoes of sadness and disappointment at what could have been. People who didn’t know gaming, people who dragged their feet, and as noted, people who just did not seem to give a damn at all.
I briefly got to play some TurboGrafx-16 way back when it first came on the market, thanks to a neighbor who had rented one. I thought it was pretty neat, and I liked the controller — basically an NES controller with added functions, though I don’t think I was aware of the multiplayer weakness at the time. Also, the HuCards were really neat.
While my parents wouldn’t let me have a Game Boy for fear of it ruining my eyes, I was hopeful that the more vivid display of the TurboExpress would win them over. The system had the same basic form factor as the Game Boy (a little larger, though) and could play the same HuCard games as the console, and even had a TV Tuner! But even if any of that won them over, the price surely dissuaded them.
My time playing the console was quite brief, though, and aside from the legend of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood that would grow in later years, the game that always had my curiosity piqued most? Bonk’s Adventure. That was a long-anticipated game that I took advantage of once TurboGrafx-16 games became available on the Wii’s Virtual Console so many years later. Finally, a chance to see what I’d missed!
It was alright.
I mean, I like it, but it’s a little tougher than what I can dedicate myself to fully mastering these days — much like some of that other older output, like the SEGA Master System. Both are systems I’d love to see (along with Genesis, SEGA CD, etc.) on the Wii U Virtual Console, with its Off-TV play and greater variety of options (controller mapping, Restore Points), and I would be guaranteed (barring unforeseen circumstances) to buy a lot of games there that I did not on the Wii for such reasons.
Fortunately, news from back in October shows Bonk’s Adventure being rated by the ESRB for releases on the Wii U, PlayStation Portable, and PlayStation 3, so maybe the TurboGrafx-16 will soon live once more? Hopefully the third time will be the charm, and I can give Air Zonk a good try.
If you’d like additional material, The Angry Video Game Nerd looked at Darkwing Duck (Not safe For Work) for the system back in May 2015, and while he notes it’s probably one of the worst games to be released on the system, it’s still far from one of the worst games of all time. That kind of speaks to the quality of the TurboGrafx-16’s library right there.
And to throw it back to On The Stick, here are 5 Reasons to Own a SEGA Genesis — games you can’t play anywhere but on the system which helped blow the TurboGrafx-16 out of the water.
Banner image credit: Evan Amos via Gamasutra
David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.