By Kris Randazzo & Dan Ryan
The TurboGrafx-16, released originally in Japan as the PC Engine in 1987, hit America in August of 1989. The system was a joint project between Hudson Soft, of Adventure Island fame, and NEC, a chipmaker who would later go on to work with Nintendo on the chipset for the N64 and with Sega on the Dreamcast. Its release was met with a fair amount of anticipation and strong initial sales. Unfortunately though, a relative lack of third party support ultimately killed the system in the states and its follow up, the 32-bit PC-FX, released only in Japan. While largely forgotten amongst the nostalgia hype-train the carries Nintendo and Sega to new generations of fans every year, the TG16 was a great system with a slew of badass games worthy of your attention. Submitted humbly for your approval, The Stone Age Gamer Podcast’s Dan Ryan and Kris Randazzo would like to offer you not one, but two top ten lists for the best US released TurboGrafx-16 games.
Kris’s #10. Turrican–The Turrican series is awesome, and while this may not be the best version of Turrican around, it’s still a pretty good time. You’re a little robot dude, running and gunning (or at least I think you’re a robot. There isn’t much in the way of in-game story here), but Turrican’s more than just a straight shooter. In fact, it’s more like a combination of Contra, Mega Man, and Super Mario Bros., except not quite as cool as that makes it sound. Oddly enough, it’s as much a platformer as it is an action shooter, and with its multi-directional laser, cool power ups, and secret-filled level design, Turrican stands out as a unique title on the platform. Later games in this series took the formula to some new heights, but there’s something about the original that will always have a place among my favorite TG-16 games. The soundtrack is pretty excellent, too.
Dan’s #10. Air Zonk–Air Zonk is ridiculous. Ostensibly R-Type in all but name, Air Zonk is a side scrolling shmup with challenging gameplay, insane bosses (a pile of literal garbage is one of them), a catchy soundtrack, and a fun power up system that gives the game a sense of depth and strategy beyond blow up all the things! Zonk himself is a cyber punk update on the original TG-16 mascot Bonk, a caveman we will see later in this countdown. And while it smacked of desperation, the TG-16 died shortly after Zonk’s introduction, Air Zonk nonetheless made an impression. Hit up your virtual console and check out EGM’s best TG-16 game of 1992.
Kris’s #9. Splatterhouse–Dan, I know you’re going to hate me for putting this so low on my list, but hear me out. Splatterhouse is a fantastic game. It’s got ambiance, gore, color, cool music, the works. However, at its core, it’s a pretty basic beat ’em up. Contemporaries like Double dragon and Streets of Rage were offering more gameplay variety at the time, and while they could never hold a candle Splatterhouse’s unique style, those games had me coming back more often than this. Because of that, I just can’t place this one any higher. That said, it’s an extremely entertaining game, and has stood the test of time fairly well. Its sequels addressed some of this game’s problems, as good sequels should, but much like Turrican, this will always be the original, and no matter how much more advanced the sequels may be, it will always have that.
Dan’s #9. New Adventure Island–Oh, Kris… I will explain why you are wrong a little further down this list. My number 9 game is the fourth Adventure Island game, coming shortly after Super Adventure Island for the SNES, New Adventure Island. It took a tried and true formula, polished the hell out of it, put on a shiny new coat of paint, and let their baby out into the wild. Is this game groundbreaking? No, it isn’t. Even with the “New” in the title, there really isn’t anything new here minus the fireball weapon. What you do get is classic Adventure Island gameplay. Master Higgins is on a quest to rescue his kidnapped bride. To get her back you will move through about twenty four stages, either on foot or trusty skateboard, platforming throughout. It’s paced beautifully, the level design is some of the best in the series, the music is great, the graphics are bright… what more do you need? Super solid game available on the Wii Virtual Console. Grab it.
Kris’s #8. New Adventure Island–While I’ve placed this game ever so slightly higher on my list, I couldn’t agree with you more. New Adventure Island is a fantastic game, and is easily one of the best in the franchise. Considering that Adventure Island was just a reskin of Sega’s Wonder Boy, it’s interesting how Hudson decided to iterate on that same formula, while Sega went a more action RPG route for Wonder boy 2. I, for one, couldn’t be happier that they did. While I still prefer Super NES’s Super Adventure Island (and the strangely Zelda 2-ish sequel Super Super Adventure Island 2, which actually has more in common with Wonder Boy 3 than previous Adventure Island games) New Adventure Island is still a bright and colorful joy, and is easily one of the best platformers the TG-16 has to offer. It also deserves credit for leaving out the dinosaur friends introduced in Adventure Island 2. Master Higgins is better off without them. Yoshi, they are not.
Dan’s #8. Bloody Wolf–Oh Data East, sometimes I really miss you. Bloody Wolf is, quite simply, American Action Movies the Video Game. You take control of either Snake or Eagle of the Bloody Wolf Special Forces Unit and take on an entire army, at their weapons base, to rescue some hostages and oh yeah… the President. Because, action movie tropes. The game plays like a beat ‘em up with machine guns. Add some verticality to the level design; not jumping or platforming, but moving farther along z-axis than standard beat ‘em ups, vehicles, grenades, tons of weapons, a power up system tied to hostage rescue, some kick ass music, killer boss fights, and great graphics and you get a super solid, and most importantly, super replayable package.
Kris’s #7. Soldier Blade–It’s hard to deny the unbridled awesomeness of that cover, but having never played Bloody Wolf, my #7 spot goes to a different kind of shooter. The TG-16 was king of the hillwhen it came to arcade-style scrolling shooters. Sure, quite possibly the best one ever made (UN Squadron) was on the Super NES (and not the TG-16), but more often than not, developers churned out some damn fine shooters on the TurboGrafx-16. Of the three Star Soldier games made for the system, Soldier Blade sits right at the top of the pile. It didn’t have some sort of crazy gameplay hook that made it special though. No, what made this game stand out was the way it perfected everything Super Star Soldier set out to do. It’s just about as perfect an example of this genre as you can get. It’s fast, challenging, nice to look at, and has a pretty decent soundtrack. Simply put, it’s one of the best shooters on a system that was known for great shooters. It also has a really cool-sounding title.
Dan’s #7. Bonk’s Revenge–Released in 1991, this sequel to sometimes pack-in title Bonk’s Adventure took everything Bonk and made it bigger and better. King Drool gives way to his great grandson King Drool the 3rd, who promptly steals half of the moon to begin building his dream home. Your job is to headbutt your way through a variety of locations and bosses and show him the error of his ways, with your head. Like other games in the series you can climb walls with your teeth, scurry up waterfalls, spin around ledges, turn into a crab (yeah… ), and (and this is very important I feel) bonk things with your head either by regular side headbutt attack, jumping up and dive bombing with your head, or jumping up and hitting enemies from underneath. This feature separated Bonk from Mario in a dramatic way and made me like this game way more than I would have otherwise. (I’m not careful, I die in Mario a lot) Bright graphics, great sound, good music, and more collectibles than you can shake a meat covered bone at, Bonk’s Revenge is a blast.
Kris’s #6. Ninja Spirit–Bonk’s Revenge at #7, eh? More on that later… Anyway, on to #6! Ninja Spirit mixes the gameplay of a good game (Ninja Gaiden for the NES) and a bad game (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, also for the NES) and comes up with a formula that is completely awesome. The most impressive part? This game came out before either of them. The multi-directional attacking and giant, floaty jumps of TMNT combined with the power up system of Ninja Gaiden makes for one heck of a cocktail. Mix in some intense, screen-filling bosses, and you have a ninja game that should have gotten way more play than it did. Sure, it’s character design is a little wonky, and the music and backgrounds aren’t the best the console has to offer, but it feels so good to play that none of those things matter quite as much as you would think. And when you factor in the infinitely awesome ninja doubles, (shadow versions of yourself that follow you around and do all sorts of damage) it’s a wonder that this game hasn’t achieved a more legendary status. Nearly 2 years later, Ninja Gaiden II for NES would flat out plagiarize this power up, and if one of the most revered action platformers of all time is lifting your stuff, you know your stuff must be good. Ninja Spirit definitely deserves the #6 spot.
Dan’s #6. Neutopia II–(Oh Ninja Spirit, how much I love thee. How much? Look down a little bit farther.) Right off the bat, this is a Zelda clone in every sense. There is no point in denying or trying to pretend it is anything other than what it is. But, that in no way diminishes how awesome Neutopia II is. As with any good Zelda title, the themes here are exploration and adventure. The controls are great (diagonal movement FTW!) with some minor quibbles about hit detection (not that it’s bad, it’s just different than Zelda which can be off putting if you are expecting that exact same thing), the graphics are bright and colorful, the music is top notch, the story is… there (it’s as good as any other adventure/exploration game), and the boss battles and enemy types are varied and fun to play against. The one massive win Neutopia II has over any other game of this type is the fire wand. That thing is amazing if a bit overpowered. Overall, Neutopia II is the very best type of clone, one that improves upon its source material and adds something new. It’s out on the Wii U virtual console and the PS3 store and is well worth the small price of admission.
Kris’s #5. Ys Book I & II–The Neutopia games just barely didn’t make my list. They’re great, don’t get me wrong, but I think the straight up plagiarism of The Legend of Zelda holds it back for me. The snakes’ attack pattern is almost the same! The statues that shoot fireballs at you in the dungeons are… oh nevermind. My #5 is a different kind of adventure game. One with an even harder name to pronounce. Ys Book I & II is the kind of adventure game that wears its identity on its sleeve. One look at that box and its title, and you know this is going to be a wonderfully obtuse adventure game. Is it weird that the way you attack is by walking into stuff? Sure. Does it matter? Not really. This game has it all, from a robust overworld, a kick ass soundtrack (this was a CD game, after all) and oh yeah, it’s two games in one! The voice work is delightfully 90’s, and the art style is a pleasure to look at, especially the NPC character portraits you see when talking to them. Like I said, there is some inherent wonkiness in this game, but for some reason, instead of detracting from the experience, it adds to its charm. Ys Book I & II is is a definite win.
Dan’s #5. Ninja Spirit–Ys Book I & II (pronounced eess) would be in my top twenty but maybe towards the back half. You make a solid argument though Kris. As far as where you put Ninja Spirit, I can see the Ninja Gaiden and TMNT comparison but raise you Legend of Kage as a more accurate analogue. Ninja Spirit is a criminally under-played title and is perfect for fans of ninja games and action games alike. The weapons and their associated powered up versions combined with the shadow copies created an incredibly fun and complex way to play through the game. (Your shadow copies do not move unless you do so when you jump, land, and move a tiny bit, some of your copies will still be in the air, perfect for attack certain enemies or boss characters) The controls are absolutely perfect in this game and most importantly, nothing feels cheap. The bosses in this game are amazing. Flat-out screen filling monsters that take some time to bring down. The graphics are a bit bland as far as backgrounds go but what is there is nicely done. This game, simply put, is a must play. I absolutely adore this title and have always wanted a sequel/remake. Everyone I have showed this to has had the same reaction, “Why the hell didn’t I know about this?” It was also the first game to receive a perfect 10 from EGM. What more do you need to see?
Kris’s #4. Air Zonk–Legend of Kage! Good call, Dan. But speaking of underrated, my #4 was your #10! Like I said, the TG-16 was known for great shooters, and Air Zonk is one of my favorites on the console. There’s just something about blazing around as this little dude that’s so much fun to do. Where the majority of shooters were set is space or went for a detailed, “realistic” look, Air Zonk took the aesthetic of the Bonk series, and applied it to a completely different kind of game. Basically, Air Zonk is the Jetsons to Bonk’s Flintstones, and it creates this weird sense of familiarity, even though it couldn’t be more different. It’s fast, it’s funny, it has an awesome power up system, and most importantly, it’s just plain fun. It’s Turbo Duo sequel Super Air Zonk was fairly excellent too, but I have to give the spot to the original. Air Zonk is a must own if you have a TurboGrafx-16. (And deserves way better than #10 in a top ten list). I mean seriously, look at that bad-ass box art! His sunglasses are actually part of his body!!!
Dan’s #4. The Legendary Axe–One of the TG16’s launch titles, The Legendary Axe is one of my favorite games of all time. I got it on a whim, a reward for a good report card from a videogame store who was out of everything TG-16 except for this and Andre Panza’s Kickboxing. (Not a terrible game but not great either) The Legendary Axe is a simple game, think Rastan if you need a comparison. You control a savage warrior, Gogan, who is on a quest to rescue his lady, Flare, using his axe, Sting over six levels. Like most games of this era it is a side-scrolling platformer in which you collect powerups and fight a boss at the end of each level. Hidden in that formula is a surprising amount of depth. At the top of the screen is an attack meter that completely depletes after every swing. That leaves you with a huge choice, lots of swings with little damage or very few swings with max damage. It let you play in your style, a rarity back then. (and today if we are being fair) Certain powerups would increase your attack damage or its speed, give you a piece back on your life bar, or grant you extra lives. The graphics do a really nice job displaying depth in each level, the levels are really varied, the enemies are super cool, the bosses are awesome (giant possessed bears, an evil boulder), the music is solid, and the controls were excellent. While The Legendary Axe did nothing groundbreaking, its setting and characters were unique to the TG-16 and the overall game is about as solid as games get.
Kris’s #3. Bonk’s Revenge–What can I say about this game that Dan didn’t already cover? Bonk’s Revenge is an absolute joy. Where the first Bonk was a good time, it wasn’t exactly the system seller NEC was hoping for. Bonk’s Revenge, on the other hand, was the evolution this caveman needed. Bonk’s second outing was the Super Mario Bros. 3 of the series. It took everything that worked about the original, and took it to the next level. The graphics and sound were some of the brightest and boldest on the system, and it played like a dream. Most importantly, it was still a unique platformer, which was becoming more and more of a rarity at the time. Remember, this game came out in 1991, the same year as Super Mario World and the original Sonic the Hedgehog, and it can absolutely stand with those two titans of platforming. Quite frankly, It’s a shame that it hasn’t achieved the same legendary status. While I do love the original, and the subsequent Bonk 3, Bonk’s Revenge is the clear high watermark for the franchise, and in my opinion, stands as the best traditional platformer the TG-16 has to offer.
Dan’s #3. Devil’s Crush–While this has been a relatively clean article so far, I can hear you, sitting there reading, maybe in something sexy like an old pair of boxers, you know with holes in the crotch, and a dirty t-shirt, thinking what the everloving fuck? A pinball game? Third best on the system? How dare you good sirs. How VERY dare you. Hang with me though. Devil’s Crush is a pinball game… about Satan. And Demons. And Hell in general. The playing field is littered with pentagrams, skulls, and various other evil looking stuff. So, not your daddy’s pinball, unless your dad is me and really loves the Tales From the Crypt table. The thing is though, stripped of the interesting visuals, this is a damn fine pinball sim. The field is three screens high, has multiple flippers, secret rooms that lead to six different mini-boss fights worth tons of points, the ability to shake/tilt the table, and a ridiculous final boss battle. The playing field is interesting in and of itself with various ways to attack it and rack up points. What this game, and its previous version/latter versions, really nails are the physics inherent to pinball. It feels right. It feels like pinball. Devil’s Crush is insanely addicting and one of the top three games on the TG16.
Kris’s #2. Dragon’s Curse–I’m not going to lie to you Dan, I’ve seen Devil’s Crush near the top of a lot of TG-16 best game lists. It’s a good time, and while I respect your opinion, it’s another game that just didn’t make the cut for me. Now Dragon’s Curse, that’s a damn fine game. It has a lot in common with titles like Zelda 2, Battle of Olympus, Blaster Master, and was likely even an inspiration for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. (The way the game starts bears more than a few resemblances). You begin the game as an adventurer who fights a giant metal dragon, and gets turned into a dragon himself after felling the beast. What follows is a giant non-linear adventure that’s filled past brimming with personality, an awesome world to discover, brutal challenge, secrets, and some of the catchiest tunes the TurboGrafx-16 has ever been lucky enough to play. It’s the kind of game that begs for sequence breaking, and uses the environments and the enemies within them to show you where to go next. There isn’t an ounce of hand holding here, just smart, clever design. Oh, and all the shops are manned by cigarette smoking pigs with eye patches. If it wasn’t for this game being a slightly inferior port of the Sega Master System’s Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, (sure, the TG-16 game is technically superior. It just doesn’t have quite the same soul as the original) it probably would have made my #1.
Dan’s #2. Blazing Lazers–Kris has mentioned a few times in this list that the TG-16 was a fount of shooters. None of them even come close though to my number two game, Blazing Lazers. Blazing Lazers, or Gunhead as it’s known in Japan, is a vertically scrolling, sci-fi shmup of the highest caliber. It is one of the best shmups of all time on any system. My regard for this title is such that I consider it a personal measuring stick, the game I judge all other shmups by. So what makes Blazing Lazers so great? First off, it’s fast. The amount of stuff, bullets, enemies, missiles, etc., on the screen at one time is incredible for a system with the power of the TG-16, which is to say not much. There is absolutely no slowdown during gameplay. Your ship controls beautifully. Movement is super quick, super responsive, and super precise, all huge things in a shmup. The enemy attack patterns are interesting and varied and the boss battles are very much like dancing. Everything looks great as well. The graphics in this game are some of the best on the system. The music is fantastic as well. Simply put, Blazing Lazers in an incredibly satisfying, wonderfully realized shmup worthy of the number two placement on this list.
Kris’s #1. Lords of Thunder–You’re right, Dan. I did say that the TG-16 is known for its shooters, and as such, it’s only fitting that my top game should be one. And what a shooter it is. I’ve always been more a fan of side scrolling shmups than vertical ones, which is probably why Blazing Lazers didn’t make my list. But Lords of Thunder is something more. Lords of Thunder (besides having one of the most delightfully awesome/cheesy titles of any game ever) has layers of depth to it that make it one of the most intense shooters on any system. You choose between 4 elemental themed suits of armor, each with different weapon attributes, and then you choose a stage. Right off the bat, it’s far less linear than your average shooter. Then you start your game, and you’re immediately greeted with some fantastic visuals and, I can’t stress this enough, some kick-ass music. This is the type of music that could easily be considered dated by today’s standards, but even with the “CD-quality” instruments blasting those 80’s style electric guitar riffs, the compositions are put together in just the right way to make them sound exciting rather than lame. It’s not the type of soundtrack you’re going to listen to on its own, but a more fitting score could not have been made for this game. Now, What gives Lords of Thunder its extra layer of depth is that much like Sin & Punishment or Kid Icarus: Uprising, shooting can be supplemented with melee attacks, which can prove to be more powerful than your regular blasts. This puts the payer in a different kind of mindset. Besides being a colorful, diverse, and fast paced bullet-hell shooter, you constantly have to decide whether or not its worth the gambit to use your sword. A giant lizard monster that unleashes a stream of enemies on the screen can show up, and you can take your time shooting it from afar and risk dodging more enemy fire, or you can risk getting up close and going for the quick kill. And risk is the right word, because the stakes in this game are very high. Once you die, that’s it. Game over. But each time you restart, you learn the patterns. You get better. You adopt a play style. You take those risks, and the game is all the more rewarding because of it. Lords of Thunder, more than any other title, exemplifies TurboGrafx-16 gaming to me. It’s a singular shooter that is very much a product of its time, but because of some truly remarkable execution, it stands the test of time, and is easily one of the best shooters of all time.
Dan’s #1. Splatterhouse–Oh Kris… number nine? I mean, really? Look, your criticisms of Splatterhouse are sound. You make a valid point that Streets of Rage and Double Dragon were doing more within the genre and were we making a list of side-scrolling beat ‘em ups, I would put Streets of Rage one, Splatterhouse two, Double Dragon three. But, BUT, we are not making a list about side-scrolling beat ‘em ups, we are making a list about TG-16 games and if you owned this system, you owned Splatterhouse. The core mechanics of this game are nothing a million other games haven’t done. Move left to right, punch and kick (occasionally shot or slice) through a bunch of enemies, fight a boss, move on. However, the ambience of this game is what sets it apart. It’s dark. It’s different. It’s one of the goriest games of the retro era, perhaps THE goriest. And it’s that gore that keeps you coming back. Not for any reason other than to see what happens next. A boss fight against a bunch of leeches/worms leads to a fight against a possessed room a la Evil Dead II leads to a fight against Chainsaw Hands, and so on. For a horror genre fan, this game is a dream come true. For an action game fan, this game is a dream come true. It’s just the right length, challenging, has gorgeous graphics, an amazing soundtrack, and the most atmosphere of any game on the system and possible the era (minus maybe only Metroid). Quite simply, Splatterhouse is the game you bought a TG-16 for; the game you showed your friends who questioned your purchase. There is nothing else like it and that fact, along with everything else Kris and I mentioned, make Splatterhouse the number one game on the TG-16.
Kris’s Final Thoughts–I guess this list just goes to show you that the TurboGrafx-16 was actually a pretty versatile console. We each had 5 titles that weren’t on each other’s lists, and that really says something. Sure, the TG-16 was known for its shooters, but there was so much more to be seen. By and large, almost everything on this list was exclusive to the TG-16, too. So, while it may not have had the same popularity as the Genesis and Super NES, it was a much worthier competitor than it got credit for. I’m still discovering gems on the system, and thanks to digital platforms like the Wii Virtual Console, it’s not such a daunting task. In fact, nearly every title up there is available on the Wii, so if you haven’t played them already, get on it!
The bottom line is, even though I don’t necessarily agree that Splatterhouse is the #1 game on the system, or that blazing Lazers is a better shooter than Lords of Thunder, I think we can all agree that the TurboGrafx-16 was an awesome system.
Dan’s Final Thoughts– As much as it pains me to say it, I agree with you Kris. The versatility of the TG-16 is quite stunning considering the relatively short life and lack of third party support (not that it had none, just that it didn’t have nearly the variety of third parties enjoyed by Nintendo and Sega). Should this system have had a bigger following? Absolutely. Should it be a bigger deal in the retro scene? Probably. Can you play these games today and still be blown away? Definitely! Dust off your Wii, scour the PS store, mine Ebay, garage sales, flea markets, whatever. There is so much good on this system. Kris and I could easily drop a Top 20, or 30. The games that just barely missed my cut, Cotton for example, are amazing. I love this system dearly. I hope this list makes you at least TG-16-curious.
Bottom line, you need to play these games. Your life as a gamer is incomplete without them.
What do you think? Are we crazy? Post your comments below, and let us know what your top TurboGrafx-16 games are!