In 1989, NEC released the TurboGrafx-16. Nowadays, it’s becoming a sweetheart for game collectors who, for the most part, are playing it for the first time in their lives. Back then, when you were trying to decide if you should buy it, most people passed on it because you couldn’t find anybody else who had one.
I know this because I had one.
I didn’t buy the TurboGrafx-16 when it was first released. In fact, I actually got the Super Nintendo first in 1991. Not even a year later I got the TurboGrafx-16 just to be a little different. Despite how hard I tried, I never did meet another kid who had one. (No web in those days, folks…not yet anyway.) It was a lonely existence. I sat in my room and played with my fancy HuCards. I have old home videos of me doing (camera-assisted) magic tricks with them. Nobody to trade with. Nobody to swap hints with. Nowhere to rent games either.
In 1995, after selling a mere 2.5 million systems, the TurboGrafx was mercifully discontinued.
A Wonderful Machine
By all accounts my personal account, the TurboGrafx was a wonderful console! To start with, it was so obviously technically superior to the NES in every department. The games looked way better, sounded way better, the “cartridges” were smaller and you never had to blow on them to get them to work. The standard controller had turbo controls, and the system looked so00000 sweet. I kept my hardware so clean and dust free it was insane. It was just so pretty and hi-tech at the time I couldn’t let it be sullied.
The games were fantastic, too. Legendary Axe, even to this day, doesn’t get credit for how superior it was at the time. The game looked gorgeous and featured some smoothly-rendered, large-scale enemies. It had an interesting weapon mechanic and each level was so vibrant and different with its own great soundtrack. (I still insist the 2nd-level music sounds like that classic Warriors line.) Tricky Kick is a hidden gem nobody ever talks about and one of my favorite puzzle games ever. The first mobile app I ever made in my life was a game called Counterpart that emulated the same play mechanics. (It sold exactly zero copies on Handango.) World Class Baseball is still, quite easily, the best baseball game ever made. Great music, awesome sound effects, fast motion that gave you a rush, and even though it didn’t have real player stats your imagination took over and created personalities for guys like Takas, Fuka, Ula, and Shima. (Tokyo Ninjas 4 evr yo.)
And there were so many other fun games, too. Bonk’s Adventure was unique and beautiful. Neutopia was a Zelda-clone worth playing. Dungeon Explorer is Gauntlet taken to the next level with RPG mechanics. And Splatterhouse! My god, Splatterhouse.
So, why did the TurboGrafx fail to sell? Just read the names of the games above and you’ll know why.
The System That Lacked Marquee
Theories on why the system failed range from lack of advertising, to a small game library, and to forcing unnecessary accessories like the TurboTap on its owners. All of these are legitimate gripes, especially the latter. NEC only provided one controller port on the system for its short-corded controllers to use. Not only did owners have to but the TurboTap to expand this to five, but often bought cord extenders so they could play the system from a decent distance. The TurboBooster was required to simply upgrade to composite audio and video, and some games even required it such as Champions Forever Boxing! (Even the portable TurboExpress had no problem handling this game.) All of this should’ve been built into the system.
The real problem, however, was the lack of recognizable titles in the library. Of the 94 North American game releases, only 11 had any kind of recognizable brand: Fantasy Zone, Space Harrier, R-Type, Klax, Pac-Land, Talespin, Chase H.Q., Darkwing Duck, Bomberman ’93, Hit the Ice, and Galaga ’90. And really, what excites you in that list? Outside of that, the Turbo specialized in making clones of more famous games. For system owners, Neutopia was your Legend of Zelda, Dungeon Explorer was Gauntlet, Vigilante was Double Dragon (readers have informed me that Vigilante was an arcade title!), China Warrior was Kung Fu, Victory Run was Rad Racer, Final Lap Twin was Pole Position, and so on. Were these games improvements on the originals? Yes. Definitely yes! They looked, sounded, and played better. But they lacked…marquee.
No recognizability. No gravitas. They were anonymous names in a world where the NES classics were already recognized. The Sega Genesis came out at the same time as the TurboGrafx, too, and immediately was providing arcade hits such as Altered Beast, Golden Axe, and their own Space Harrier. This all on top of the very familiar Sega name. Not only could NEC not get people talking about their console, they didn’t have the budget to really try. While the PC Engine (the Japanese TurboGrafx) sold well, the TurboGrafx languished. The games were better, but Bonk was still years away and there was nothing that could capture kids’ attention. The pack-in game was a Japanese comic port called Keith Courage in Alpha Zones and the game looked…strange.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, you had to work hard to build up your intellectual property (IP). The TurboGrafx brought nothing recognizable to their system in the early days and never really would. Meanwhile, back in Japan, the PC Engine was pumping out Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, Adventure Island, and an unbelievably accurate port of Street Fighter II. These games didn’t come to America because of licensing issues that would plague the TurboGrafx for its entire lifetime. It was a damn shame. (As an ultimate insult, a CD version of the original (and yawn-worthy) Street Fighter was released in America and they even changed its name to Fighting Street!)
So Where Does It Rank
In terms of nostalgia (for all you people!), the TurboGrafx has none. Very few people owned one, and very few people had a friend who had one. As a collector, though, you will find a veritable goldmine of 16-bit era games to play through for a first, glorious time! Like sports? Give TV Sports Football a try! It had a challenging pass system which was way more engaging than simple press-a-button-to-throw mechanics. Run through the entire Bonk series, even including the shooter Air Zonk. All awesome.
Speaking of shooters, no system had a better set of them. From Aeroblasters, to R-Type, to the insane Blazing Lasers you will have a blast! Take on the challenge of Legendary Axe and its great sequel. And, I can’t say it enough, Dungeon Explorer is a must-play!
The TurboGrafx-16 was a fantastic system that was defeated by a lack of brand awareness. Luckily, it just means you have so many great games waiting for you to enjoy them today!