The TurboGrafx-CD

Back in 1988, NEC released the world’s first disc-based video game system in the form of an addon for their PC Engine console.  This was in Japan, where gamers got the new tech first in those days.  The CD-ROM² added some extra power to the base console, and game studios took advantage of this to start making some visually and aurally impressive games.

The PC Engine and the CD-ROM² were quite popular in Japan.  They were always intended to compete with the Famicom, and they of course blew that technology out of the water handily.  The Mega Drive was never really that popular in Japan, but Sega took notes on NEC’s addon and it’s popularity.

Over here in North America we saw the console and its addon released as the TurboGrafx-16 and the TurboGrafx-CD.  There were some other names too, along with other hardware releases, but I won’t get into all that here.  What I will say is that I never ever once even heard of this thing until around the turn of the millennium, after I had gotten into video game console emulation on my PC.  I used to watch TV when I was a kid and when I was a teenager, so I would have surely seen commercials for any video game system.  I saw plenty for every other video game system up to and after that point, even the oddball ones that never took off like the 3DO and the Lynx.  I’m fairly certain this console was just never advertised in Calgary, nor in Spokane where we got our American Cable TV channels from back then.

But no matter, I’m aware of it now, and the reason I’m telling you about the TurboGrafx-CD is that I’m finally able to play its library of games.  For regular TurboGrafx-16 games, I use the awesome MagicEngine emulator.  It can also play CD games if you have an optical drive.  But I was always stymied when I attempted to play those games.  I would put a disc in and then there would be no CD sound – just the chip sound.  I tried unsuccessfully for years to remedy this, but I could never get the full experience, so I just didn’t bother past a test disc here and there every now and then.

Then I went looking for other emulators.  There are about a half dozen other TG16 emulators out there, actually, and some of them claim to be able to play the CD games.  So I tried them all one by one, and I eventually found one that finally worked for me.  It’s called Turbo Engine 16, and it was written by AamirM.  It plays about 95% of games flawlessly – except for the sound.  About 40% of games have sound problems, but I can live with that.  The latest version is v0.32, and it’s already five years old, so I hope there’s an update soon.

The thing that I like best about the emulator is its ability to load and play games directly from .cue/.iso/.bin files, so there isn’t even a need to burn them to a disc first.  But I actually ended up compiling them onto physical DVDs anyway, so I load those into my emulation PC when I play.

Emulation Station

I suppose I could have just used a flash drive… but where’s the retro-fun in that?

Another great feature is the ability to easily switch from “correct” to normal screen resolution.  The TG-16 has a non-standard resolution of (usually) 256 x 242, which is almost square-like.  Some CD games stick to this resolution, and some don’t.  Some look better when they’re in a normal (well, it’s kind of retro now) 4:3 aspect ratio.  You can tell which option to use by looking at circle-shaped things like the moon, planets and things like that when they appear on screen.  And you can switch on the fly by hitting CTRL+C.

And I feel that I can’t really talk about the games that came out for this system without talking about the Sega CD.  In hindsight, it’s so easy to see what Sega was attempting with their own addon.  They were attempting to duplicate the success that NEC had in Japan with theirs, and attempting to use that success to extend the life of the Genesis as it competed with the Super Nintendo in the US and worldwide.  Well, we all know that it didn’t work out that way for Sega.  Eidolon’s Inn has a great write-up about the Sega CD and other Sega consoles, so definitely check that out if you want to know the whole story.

I’ve played many Sega CD games, including the ones that attract the most scorn and derision.  There are many truly horrible games for the Sega CD.  There are however many truly wonderfully awesome games for that system.  It’s a mixed bag.

After sampling some of the TG-CD’s library, I can say that its overall quality is better than that of the Sega CD.  I’d say there are way fewer outright terrible games, though they can still be found.  There are also, joyfully, some amazing games to be played on the TG-CD.  And there isn’t the regrettable glut of dull FMV games to bring the quality of the library so far down.  Most of the games are Japanese, and a large portion of these are either shmups or RPGs.  So if shmups aren’t your thing and you can’t read Japanese, then right away you’re looking at a lot fewer games to interest you.

But I found plenty of great games across multiple genres to keep me interested for a long time – about as many as I have on the Sega CD incidentally.  I just want to specifically mention one game in particular, because I think it’s one of the best games I’ve seen on the TG-CD.

It’s called “Kaze Kiri” and you can see a review of it here.  It’s a highly addictive and beautifully made beat-em-up where you take on the role of a ninja rescuing a princess in feudal Japan.  The TG-16 had sound as good as the Sega-CD, but much better video quality thanks to being able to display 512 colours onscreen.

That’s not the only amazing game that I’m excited to finally be able to play.  There’s also the amazing Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, Godzilla: Battle Legends, Lords of Thunder, and the first installments of the Ys series.  The latter is actually on my “must play” list.

So I’m glad I finally got these games to work.  I’d be even gladder if I could suddenly read and understand Japanese, but I can’t have everything, can I?