Games

The TurboGrafx-16 Is Being Lovingly Recreated, But What the Hell Is a TurboGrafx-16?

The latest FPGA-based recreation by Analogue, the Analogue Duo, could give a proper reintroduction to a console retro gamers missed the first time.
October 16, 2020, 3:00pm
4-Hucards + FPGA CD

When Kanye West briefly talked about naming an album of his after the TurboGrafx-16 a few years back, it was honestly the most attention that the video game console had gotten in North America in a quarter century.

While the game console, developed by two Japanese companies—the game-maker Hudson Soft and the electronics manufacturer NEC, the latter of which sold the device—carried a strong reputation in its home market under the PC Engine name, it failed to carry the same weight in North America. The TG-16 proved a distant third banana to Nintendo and Sega’s offerings, despite having some of the strongest graphics of its era—visuals that belie the fact that the whole thing is being driven by an 8-bit CPU, despite the 16-bit name. (The graphics were driven by 16-bit chips, see.)

The extent of memories many kids of the era have might be the many ads for the console that appeared on Nickelodeon in the early 90s.

Perhaps it’s for this reason that the nostalgia train is finally, belatedly, taking a long glance at NEC’s main contribution to gaming history, which got a few miniaturized variants earlier this year. (Seemingly reflecting the challenges that traditionally faced the console, the mini version came out just as COVID-19 screwed up the supply chain.) And now, the TG-16 is getting the high-end Analogue treatment.

On Friday, Analogue revealed the Analogue Duo, a high-end remake of the TurboGrafx-16 based on the same kind of FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) innards as the company’s prior consoles, the Nt Mini, the Super Nt, and the Mega Sg.

Like the Super Nt and Mega Sg, the Analogue Duo (which goes on sale next year) will have a starting price of $199, wireless controllers, and a crystal-clear, lag-free HDMI connection. Unlike those systems, a bit more introduction to the system being honored will be necessary. Christopher Taber, the founder and CEO of Analogue, says that, for many, the console is going to offer a new experience—and, with that in mind, the Duo reflects a reintroduction of sorts to a console he personally loves.

“Analogue Duo is designed to be the ultimate way to explore nearly all of NEC’s history, and for most people, it’s gonna be their first introduction to this piece of video game history,” Taber said in an interview.

“The Higher Energy Video Game System”: The TurboGrafx-16’s surprisingly active release cycle

In many ways, the failure of the TurboGrafx-16 was a product of bad marketing, bad timing, a somewhat complex library of add-ons, and distinct geographical differences that can make the console somewhat difficult (and costly) to collect for in the modern day.

Starting as the PC Engine in Japan in 1987, the console line went through numerous design iterations over its long life to account for a variety of upgrades and iterations, including the TurboExpress, a portable edition that competed directly with the Game Boy, Game Gear, and Atari Lynx. (There was even a laptop-style version that appeared nearly a decade before the Sony PlayStation did something similar.)

Design was a fluid thing for the NEC-based console series; the original PC Engine was a 5.5-inch block, significantly smaller than any other major console of the era. Despite this, NEC felt such a small console wouldn’t sell well in the U.S., and made the original version of the TurboGrafx-16 absolutely massive as a result—large enough that the just-released mini version of the TG-16 is still larger than the original version of the PC Engine. (It may have been all for naught, as the system still didn’t sell as well as its American competition.)

Part of what allowed the console to shape-shift so effectively involved the small size of its cartridges, known as HuCards, credit-card-sized objects that could hold up to 8 megabits of data. (Minus one exception—a surprisingly amazing late-era port of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition with a super-sized HuCard cartridge.) Of course, that meant a low ceiling—something NEC was willing to move past by being a first mover with a CD-ROM add-on for the PC Engine, which later appeared as the TurboGrafx-CD in the U.S.

All-in-all, there were 17 separate variants of the console that were released between different countries over its seven-year history—all of which the Analogue console supports right out of the box. (In fact, the only NEC-manufactured video game console the Analogue Duo doesn’t support is the 32-bit PC-FX, a Japan-only system that was crushed by the PlayStation and Sega Saturn.)

Design-wise, the Analogue Duo mimics perhaps the most robust model, the TurboDuo, which combines the HuCard and a CD-ROM drive into a single unit with a slick design.

“I think the original Turbo Duo is one of the best video game console designs of all time and very few people have ever even seen one,” Taber noted.

As a result, the system is the first developed by Analogue that includes a built-in CD-ROM unit. (The Sega-based Mega Sg, released last year, supported the Sega CD through an add-on interface.) While other retro-minded console-makers have dipped into CD-based game consoles—most notably the recently released Polymega, a modular retro system that relies on traditional emulation—it’s a new approach for Analogue, though the company says it’s likely open to future systems.

“FPGA is the ideal way to preserve video game history and of course experience each system now and forever,” Taber says. “Analogue is dedicated to this whether or not it is CD or cartridge based is simply a matter of hardware and difficulty of engineering.”

(One thing that hasn’t proven too hard for Analogue: Supporting HuCard-based TG-16 games on its also-forthcoming Analogue Pocket, something the company also announced support for on Friday.)

Where the TG-16 truly shined: A game library full of hidden classics

Of course, we wouldn’t be talking about the TG-16 today if not for the games, a library of nearly 700 titles, most of which never saw release in the U.S.

Perhaps the best-known title from the system today is ‌Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, a TurboGrafx-CD-based title that is considered one of the best games of that legendary series, one reproduced for other consoles under the Dracula X name.

Other notable titles include two early entries in the long-running Ys series, an action-role-playing franchise that first appeared on NEC’s PC-8800 home computers, along with the highly promoted Bonk titles, which were a major part of the North American marketing for the TG-16. Hudson’s popular Bomberman series had a strong showing on the TG-16 as well.

But for enthusiasts, the area where the console truly shines is its shoot-’em-ups (or “shmups,” if you’re really into them). It’s where Taber says the console holds its strongest appeal.

“I pretty much only play shmups these days and NEC systems may have the strongest shmup lineup of all time,” he says, citing classics of the form such as Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire, ‌Magical Chase, and Sylphia.

Perhaps the value proposition for the TG-16 doesn’t speak for itself in quite the same way as its contemporaries sold by Nintendo and Sega. But the release of some modern hardware might help to get these forgotten classics into fresh hands.