30 Years of TurboGrafX-16 & 25 Years of 32X - A Lethal Flashback Special!

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Gruel

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Greetings and thank you once again for joining me in another anniversary retrospective! I know we are in the second month of 2020, but please indulge me and pretend it is still 2019 so I can say this is officially a piece commemorating the 30th anniversary of the North American launch of the NEC TurboGrafX-16 and the 25th anniversary of North American launch of the Sega 32X! Yes, this is the two-for-one anniversary special! I have been neglecting this for too long and wanted to have this up before the end of 2019, but I think I was a wee burnt out with my tomes I crafted for my other three flashbacks I posted throughout this past summer. I have good faith this will be a shorter piece because even though I have a history with both the TG16 and 32X, my experiences with them are both greatly after their original launches so I do not have those twee childhood memories of the 32X and TG16 as I did with the GameBoy and Genesis. Regardless, I do cherish my time with both ill-fated systems I will be covering today, so let us kickoff with the system that came out first, NEC’s TurboGrafX-16 in 1989.

Yup, these are the issues of Game Players I dug out of the closet and took poor quality cell phone pics for proof of where I first remember reading about the TurboGrafX.
Yup, these are the issues of Game Players I dug out of the closet and took poor quality cell phone pics for proof of where I first remember reading about the TurboGrafX.

Even though TG16 launched in America in 1989, I do not recall seeing it in stores or hearing about it until 1994 when I got my first videogame magazine subscription to Game Players. Yes, I still have those 1994 issues of Game Players in my closet and if I can find the right issues I will attempt to paste in a semi-decent cell phone shot of the pages that referenced the TG16. If memory serves right, I believe there was a spread video pinball games that highlighted both Crush pinball titles for TG16, and another column highlighted TG16’s Ys Books I and II for being a revolutionary RPG title with its then-unprecedented cutscenes and voiceovers. I also discovered about TG16’s mascot, Bonk when reading a review in GP for the NES port of Bonk’s Adventure.

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By consuming other gaming press media over the following years I eventually learned what happened with the TG16 and its CD add-on in America and how they did not fare as well as they did in Japan and quickly faded out within a year or two after the SNES launched in America. I never had a friend that owned the TG16 growing up, nor do I recall a store kiosk having any set up for play in my middle-of-nowhere hometown. I cannot remember even dabbling with hunting down TG16 emulators since I never saw the games out in the wild for sale at my local shops to peak my curiosity. So I believe the first time I played a TG16 game was when the Wii launch in 2006 and also debuted at its launch the Wii’s downloadable classic games for its ‘Virtual Console’ channel. The TG16 was one of the supported platforms and I recall downloading the hit multiplayer game, Bomberman ‘93 around or shortly after the Wii launch making it likely the first official TG16 game I played.

Here is footage of Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, the pack-in launch TG16 platformer that could not compare to the likes of Mario and Sonic......

Aside from playing my first TG16 game in 2006 on the Wii, 2006 was a big year for learning a lot more about the system thanks in part to one particular podcast. Apple debuted podcasts in 2005 and other MP3 players quickly supported them too. I sampled countless gaming podcasts, but one I quickly got turned onto towards the end of 2005 was one Team Fremont Live. That podcast is still around to this day, but underwent a couple name changes and is now known as Super-the-Hardest. I quickly became a fan of the three hosts, John, Moe and Hilden and loved their take on videogames. They had frequent retro gaming segments on the show and the trio frequently waxed nostalgic for their TG16 memories. Over the years consuming their podcast and participating in their forums my knowledge for the system exponentially expanded! If you currently dig through the Super-the-Hardest archives or check outthese links, you will find a wealthy amount of TG16 articles there to learn a ton about the platforms and their recommended games.

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The then-Team Fremont Live hosts lived about a five hour drive away from me, and they had on open invite community event in the summer of 2006 where I first met them in person and gamed and drank the night away with them and their fellow community members. It was an awesome time, and in January 2007 they hosted another community event for their first ever year-end awards, ‘The Darryls!’ I remember meeting up with the three hosts the night before the event for a ‘packing party’ where we drank all night again and quickly got stone cold sober, literally, as we packed up the van with recording equipment in the middle of a January Midwest night of biting subzero temps! The Darryls transpired the next day and I got reacquainted with many community members again and there were several TVs set up with various games to play for everyone in what ended up being another memorable night with the TFL community.

John, Moe and Hilden did a special presentation later on in the night for their 2006 best of game awards and did a contest drawing towards the end of the night that I was the lucky winner drawn. My prize was a TG16 system, complete in box and with a copy of the original pack-in game, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones! I was blown away and stunned the prize was going to be a system! That pic at the top of this article is indeed me being the proud new owner of a TG16! Keith Courage was a decent little platformer, but I would never become that skilled at it and would peter out of lives by levels two or three and regret never taking the time to master that game.

....instead Bonk wound up as TG16's hit platformer series that spawned a trilogy on the TG16

Thanks to listening to many hours of TFL at that point however and through other online research over the years I knew which games to hunt down. Luckily in 2007 and for the next few years TG16 releases remained affordable to hunt down as most games save for a select few went for under $20. I tracked down a far superior platformer in Bonk’s Revenge. Its vibrant visuals, challenging-but-fair platforming and adorably gruff mascot Bonk blew Keith Courage away and looked graphically on par with the other 16-bit platforms. World Court Tennis initially appeared as another run-of-the-mill tennis game, but diving into ‘Quest Mode’ provided an in-depth medieval narrative complete with an RPG-esque overworld and random tennis battles!

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I looked into getting the CD add-on, but from what I gathered it sounded like the add-on attachments had a high faulty rate by 2007 and were not worth the risk. Even with those drawbacks I regret missing out on the TG-CD games and only had the chance to dabble with a handful off of other collections and Virtual Console over the years. Fighting Street (aka the original Street Fighter) had its only American console physical release on the TG-CD, and I did not get a chance to play it until a Capcom released a arcade hits collection on the original Xbox. Ys Books I & II was a revolutionary RPG for what its cinemas and voiceovers debuted to the market, and it was not until the Wii Virtual Console that I finally had a chance to experience the original version. Turbo Technologies brokered a bonkers deal with EA to bring a little known version of Madden to TG-CD that I would have played the heck out of compared to the other gridiron game on the platform I will touch on shortly.

The TFL crew were big fans of shmups (aka the original ‘shooters’) and I recall them being high on Blazing Lazers and I wound up spending many hours trying (and failing) to vanquish that space shooter. Already being a diehard fan of videogame pinball in 2007, both Alien Crush and Devils Crush were among my first TG16 purchases. They were both fantastic multi-layered pinball titles, with several screens of verticality to flip the pinball through and vanquish enemies and mini-bosses away on the playfield. I loved both games, and if you want a current rendition of that then I highly suggest tracking down the recent release of Demon’s Tilt that is available on most current platforms. Demon’s Tilt is essentially a modern take on the Crush games, but on crack with amped up visual effects since it is capitalizing on the horsepower of modern systems.

After accumulating these several titles I would make it a habit to add one or two more a year at an annual retro videogame expo I regularly attended in Milwaukee called the Midwest Gaming Classic. John, Moe and Hilden would also attend MGC most years around this time and I would make it a point to track them down at some point during the convention and get them to recommend me a TG16 for under $20. There recommendations never failed, and this was how I discovered NEC’s answer to Ikari Warriors (Hey, I was a huge fan of the NES game!) in the superior Bloody Wolf, and the quirky platformer, JJ and Jeff. The yearly MGC pick-up was how I finally procured a copy of the gore-slasher-fest that is Splatterhouse. I would also chance random games that caught my eye for the TG16 and did not go for that much. I loved my 8 and 16-bit sports games and took a shot on TV Sports Football, and it was a decent adaptation of the gridiron, but did not measure up to the many other football titles on the other 16-bit platforms.

Acclaimed wrestling game franchise FirePro first started on the PCengine in Japan, here is footage from the second game in the series.

The same can be said for the TG16’s sole American wrestling game, Battle Royal, it was an OK videogame grappler, but nothing that held my lasting attention. However, the excellent FirePro Wrestling series got its start on the platform as Japan-only exclusives, and I will give props to my former podcast co-hosts Chris & Lyzz for grabbing a copy of FirePro: Second Bout for me at MGC one year I could not make it. The FirePro games have evolved into the pinnacle of 2D wrestling games over the years, and it is fascinating to see how it started on the PC-Engine in Japan and even in FirePro’s earliest installments it was already a class above the competition.

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While both of these wrestling games went for under $20 by 2012, the next year when I returned to MGC in 2013 TG16 game prices inflated exponentially. For proof I was looking up some old MGC photos from my pictures library, and found some photos of Chris & Lyzz’s 2010 MGC loot-haul laid out on their bed. As you can see they picked up a TG16 and several games, if you zoom in on the photo you can see most of their games went for under $20. I have no idea what brought on the sudden demand, but a vast majority of TG16 games started going for around $50-100 within a couple years and that was without jewel cases and instructions!

For this piece, I contacted Chris and Lyzz for their memories of picking up the TG16 and their favorite games they have played since, and Chris responded back with the following: ”I can't remember much. I just remembered that I liked Bonk’s Adventure and Fantasy Zone. Bonk’s Adventure because of how much I used to like side scrolling games and that is the only game that I wanted to play at the time that didn't come out for the NES/SNES/GEN. Fantasy Zone because of the sheer weirdness factor of it.”

2009 marked the 20th anniversary of the TG16 launching in North America and I wanted to do something special to commemorate it. I was in the midst hosting my own videogame podcast, On Tap, at the time and invited John, Moe and Hilden to come on for a special TurboGrafX anniversary episode! It was a delight to have them on the show and have them take us all to school with their master’s degree knowledge of all things Turbo and reminisce about the TG16 for an hour. I recently dug that episode out of the archives and uploaded it onto my YouTube channel and will embed it below for your listening pleasure!

This is a special TG16 20th anniversary podcast I recorded 10 years ago! Add it to your queue to listen to for more TG16 wisdom!

I would bust out the TG16 once every year or two until several years ago when the WiiU became my virtual replacement. The WiiU started supporting the TG16 by uploading a ton of the TG16 library to the WiiU version of the Virtual Console in 2016 and uploaded nearly a game a week from mid-2016 until early 2018, well after the launch of the Switch. I sold my Wii after owning it for only a year and only owned a few TG16 games for it, so this late infusion of TG16 titles on the WiiU caught my eye (and other Retro enthusiasts too). This culminated in about 50 TG16 games hitting the WiiU by the end with even a few former Japan exclusives among them….and I bought all of them! The original Wii Virtual Console that is backwards compatible on the WiiU remained open until early 2018 to purchase their TG16 games too which I used to acquire other acclaimed TG16-CD games not available on the WiiU like Castlevania: Rondo of Blood and Ys Books I and II.

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A few times a year I fire up my WiiU and pick a few random games to play from my many Virtual Console purchases. It was this way I finally got around to trying out the Legend of Zelda-inspired Neutopia and having a fun night with a couple buddies hack and slashing away in Dungeon Explorer. I also got to take in the ridiculously huge sprites of the brawler China Warrior and finally experienced TG16’s take on Outrun in Victory Run. The WiiU surprisingly wound up a gratifying legit alternative to the now-absurd asking prices for used TG16 games, and a convenient way to make TG16 games appear on a HDTV without the fuzziness that happens when I plug an SD system into a HDTV.

In a few short weeks a new way to experience the TG16 will be launching in America with the arrival of the TurboGrafX-Mini! It is launching as an Amazon exclusive so do not be on the lookout for it in retail stores right away. It has over 50 games, about half of which are Japanese PC Engine versions. If you want something more physical than pick and choosing which games to download on the WiiU, the TurboGrafX-mini is an ideal way to start discovering most of the top titles for the system!

While I never knew of the TG16 during its active North American lifespan or got a chance to play it until this century, I still have priceless memories of discovering hit titles exclusive to that system that stood out in a way unlike anything else on its 16-bit competition. The 32X is a whole other beast though. I remember being a furious 11 year-old upon its release in 1994. I vividly recall the hype in Game Players for it and even 11 year-old Dale thought Sega was out of its mind for releasing a $150 add-on for the Genesis merely several months before the Saturn when Sega already had plenty on the market to tide them by with the Genesis, Game Gear and SegaCD. A wee shy of 50 games only came out for it in the little over a year games were published for the 32X, and nearly half of them were marginally enhanced Genesis titles. From reading mags during its lifespan and hearing other gaming media reflect back on it throughout the years I gathered the add-on had a handful of standout exclusives, but was largely forgettable and not worth tracking down, and I hand no plans to do so, until….

Living proof of the speculated demon that is Sega's Tower of Power!
Living proof of the speculated demon that is Sega's Tower of Power!

…In 2009 a co-worker was about to get married and was parting with his gaming collection to raise funds for the wedding/honeymoon. He knew me as an ardent game player and gave me a print out of what he was selling and his asking prices. This was still a couple years before the big retro used game boom I described above, because around same time a couple years later 32X game prices jumped just like TG16 games. Still, I noticed most of his prices were at the higher end of most eBay auctions when I researched them online. I did not have a SegaCD or 32X in my collection at the time and there were at least a few exclusives on both systems I always wanted to try, and with the funds going to a good cause I made an offer for those systems with about a dozen games in the middle range of what he was asking for and what other asking prices I saw online at the time. I want to say I paid roughly $200 for the lot.

I loved the port of Virtua Fighter on 32X and this video shows how the 32X version holds its own against the flawed launch Saturn version

I got about six or seven games for 32X from my co-worker and later tracked down three or four more over the next year or two to get the other 32X games I wanted. I had a couple up-ports/’Remasters’ from the Genesis for 32X like Toughman Contest and WWF RAW. Toughman Contest was EA’s gritty take on Punch-Out that I was a big fan of, and it got a big endorsement from toughman hot-shot at the time Butterbean. The 32X version did not add too much other than lightly touched up graphics and framerates. The 32X version of RAW though had a couple extra weapons at ringside to bash adversaries away with and its own exclusive wrestler, the masked Kwang, who later on went to be better known as Savio Vega in the WWF throughout the 90s. Unfortunately the gameplay for those old Acclaim 16-bit games had those tired button mashing grappling meters that killed your thumbs and was a few entries old at that point so it did not get too much playtime from me.

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A 32X version I did enjoy was of Doom, and for a few years it was the only version of the iconic first person shooter I owned until a version hit download on 360 a couple years later. I was a big fan of Sega’s early polygonal titles, Virtua Racing Deluxe and Virtua Fighter on the 32X. The launch Saturn version of Virtua Fighter was notorious for being a buggy mess, and the 32X version that released a few months later surprisingly had a smooth framerate and played as crisp as I recalled in the arcades. Sega somehow against all odds managed a port of Virtua Fighter on the Genesis, but had a somewhat cleaner version with exclusive tracks on the 32X later that year. I loved me some Virtua Racer and if I ever get a Switch one of the first eShop downloads I plan on getting is the recent touched up remake of Sega’s first polygonal racer M2 developed last year. Finally the last upper-tier quality game I have in my 32X library is Sega’s arcade port of Star Wars Arcade. It only had the three missions of the arcade that boasted dog-fighting missions on the Death Star and a Super Destroyer, but they were quick mindless, pick-up-and-play blasting fun.

I do own all five ‘Sega CD 32X’ games that come on discs for the Sega CD, but require the 32X in order to load. All five of these games are FMV-based games from Sega and Digital Pictures and all have releases on the SegaCD already, but the 32X CD versions have slightly better resolutions and framerates thanks to the added power from the 32X. None of the five games are all that fun regrettably. I have awful memories of the clunky controls in one-on-one basketball in Slam City with Scottie Pippen and never getting a good memory for the order of camera patterns in order to succeed in Night Trap. I guess Corpse Killer was a semi-decent on-rails light gun shooter with digital characters similar to Area 51 of that same era, but with far cheesier acting and implementation. Both Night Trap and Corpse Killer recently got touched up remasters on the PS4 for those brave enough to see how they hold up today.

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There were a few other 32X games I wanted to track down, but I neither saw them in the wild, had negative buzz or at that time were already going for a bit more than I preferred, and are selling for outrageously more today. I always heard good things about Knuckles Chaotix being a decent substitute for a Sonic-style platformer on the system, but that one always escaped me. I loved the World Series Baseball games on Genesis, and the 32X got a slightly up-res’d version of the ’95 release, but it had such a low print run that it is one of the higher selling games of the 32X library. I liked the original 80s version of the arcade shmup, Zaxxon and was bummed to see the polygonal 32X follow-up get panned with negative buzz which kept me away from that version. Finally, the comic book game nerd in me always wanted to own Spider-Man: Web of Fire, but with it having a low print run being the final the 32X game, and combined for being an awful game to boot were a lethal combo to keep me away from it for good.

That wraps up this two-for-one flashback anniversary special on the 32X and TurboGrafX-16. What were some of your favorite games or memories of those systems? Feel free to comment about them below or reach out to me on Twitter @Gruel. I guess combining my memories of both systems went on for a bit longer than I anticipated, but I managed a modicum of brevity by being about a 1000 words shorter than my gigantic Dreamcast special.

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csl316

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The Turbo etc. had the coolest controller. Kids with turbo controllers on the Genesis were tough shit, so a console and a Bonk centered around turbo controllers? What a bad ass system, I thought at the time.