You can’t move for mini retro consoles these days. It’s a good job they’re so small, really.
Ever since Nintendo launched the NES Classic Mini three and a half years ago, we’ve been swimming in chibi versions of vintage video game systems.
The NES, the SNES, the Mega Drive, the Neo Geo… even the Commodore 64 was miniaturised (until someone saw sense and just re-released a full-sized one with a working keyboard).
Even Capcom decided to get in on the action, clearly revealing that they have no idea what ‘mini’ means by releasing a massive fuck-off arcade stick with a bunch of old coin-op classics on it.
Now it’s time for a dinky do-over of a system I desperately wanted to get the mini treatment, but didn’t actually expect we’d get: the NEC PC Engine. Well, a version of it, at least. Look, it’s confusing, but I’ll explain all in a second.
The EU version, the PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini, was supposed to launch back on 19 March, but then there was some sort of virus thing – I think I saw it briefly mentioned in one of the papers – and by pure chance one of the tiny handful of buildings shut down as a result was the Chinese factory that was manufacturing them.
Although there’s still not a set date, I’m reliably informed a release is now imminent, which is why I was sent one of them for review purposes. Let’s get stuck in, then, and find out how the CoreGrafx Mini performs and where it fits into the bigger (smaller) picture of mini consoles.
UPDATE: Amazon UK is now finally sending out units to customers.
The history of the console
Before we get properly into this, it’s probably worth giving a brief rundown of the history of the PC Engine, partly because the vast majority of British gamers don’t know much about it, and partly because it had so many different variations.
The PC Engine was designed by Hudson Soft and made by Japanese electronics company NEC. It’s an interesting system because it lies somewhere in between 8-bit and 16-bit: while its processor is 8-bit, its GPU is 16-bit.
This meant that when it first launched in Japan in 1987 its games immediately looked more impressive than those on the Famicom (NES), but Nintendo’s system was already so established that the PC Engine never really overtook it.
It came to North America in August 1989 with a complete rebranding as the TurboGrafx-16: a name designed to focus more on the console’s 16-bit graphics and make it clear that it was competing with the 16-bit Sega Genesis (Mega Drive), which had launched just 15 days earlier.
Whereas the PC Engine was a tiny little system, the TurboGrafx-16 was significantly bigger: this was because NEC felt American gamers would prefer a bigger, more ‘futuristic’ console.
Some may not realise that the TurboGrafx (minus the 16 in its name) actually made it to Europe. Its sales were so minimal, though, that you’d be hard pushed to find someone who owned one.
Here’s where things get confusing, though: there were no fewer than SEVENTEEN different versions of the PC Engine / TurboGrafx hardware released over the course of the system’s life, from the PC Engine LT – a weird laptop-like version with a portable screen – to the handheld TurboExpress.
Buying one these days, then, is a bit of a nightmare because you have to try to find one that ticks as many boxes as possible. Some played CD-ROM games, but then NEC released a Super CD-ROM format. An arcade card, meanwhile, increased the Super CD-ROM’s RAM and… excuse me, my head is fucking throbbing.
I’ll address the numerous PC Engine variations in a different article in the future. All you need to know for now is this: the Mini comes in three different designs, one for each major region.
The three versions
Most mini consoles released to date have had the odd regional variation in line with how the system looked in that area back when it was originally released.
The NES Mini, for example, is the Famicom Mini in Japan, while the SNES Mini is the lovely grey system with the coloured buttons in EU and JP regions while North America instead gets that horrible purple mutant they’re used to.
The same is the case with the mini version of NEC’s console, but this time all three main regions have wildly different hardware designs.
In Japan they get a mini version of the original PC Engine, the white system that was fairly dinky in the first place. This makes sense: it’s the one that started everything off. On the downside, this means the controller that comes with it is just like the original controller too: perfectly functional, but pretty bare bones.
Naturally, North America instead gets a mini TurboGrafx-16, which is slightly more impressive because that was a much larger console back in the day. The bonus here is that the TurboGrafx-16 controllers had autofire switches, which were massively useful for the console’s large shoot ‘em up library.
What about Europe, then? Well, a couple of years after the PC Engine launched in Japan, NEC released a slightly updated version called the PC Engine CoreGrafx. This looked like the PC Engine but it had a moodier dark grey and light blue colour scheme: this is the Mini that we in Europe are getting.
The PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini is, obviously, a smaller version of the original CoreGrafx hardware. It’s close to identical but it does have a few differences.
It doesn’t have the NEC logo in the top-left corner, for example, and it’s got a ruddy big Konami logo on the underside: after all, this is a Konami product (Hudson Soft went bust in 2012 and was acquired by it).
That aside, though, it’s pretty impressively authentic. It even has the removable expansion port in the back, although here it’s used for the obligatory HDMI and USB power ports.
My favourite touch, though – which is admittedly a massively nerdy one – is the little tab that slides over when you turn the power on. You see, PC Engine games used to come on plastic Visa-like cards called HuCards, and the tab would hold the HuCard in place to make sure it didn’t slip out.
The tab comes out here too, but since there are no HuCards with the Mini it’s absolutely pointless. This makes the fact they took time to include it even better in my eyes, though.
The provided controller, meanwhile, is pretty much identical to the original ones. Like the US version, the EU one also has autofire switches, meaning some shoot ‘em ups where rapid presses are required are far less painful to play (others have autofire on by default, though).
I’ve got a PC Engine Duo R (a Japanese update to the PC Engine that included a built-in CD-ROM drive). For comparison purposes, here’s the CoreGrafx Mini controller next to my actual PC Engine Duo R controller.
Speaking of controllers, I’m sure anyone with an NES Mini will already be keen to know one specific thing, but you can rest easy: the cables are pleasantly lengthy for this one.
Also included with the console are the typical combo of an HDMI cable (to plug it into your TV) and a Micro USB cable (to power it up). As is normal with devices like this, there’s no AC adapter to plug the Micro USB cable into: the understandable assumption is that you’ll either have your own or have a spare USB slot in a nearby device (I used my Xbox One to power it).
In summary, when it comes to the externals, it’s full marks. It looks right, it feels right and there are no notable issues when it comes to accessories or design choices.
It may be a nifty little piece of kit on the surface, but that accounts for precisely hee-haw if the games are as entertaining as a slap in the stones.
On paper, there are a hefty 57 games on offer here, but that number can be interpreted in a number of different ways.
Interestingly, there are two separate game menus: one for English-language TurboGrafx-16 games, and one for Japanese PC Engine games. This means that roughly half the titles on offer here are in Japanese, but the majority are absolutely playable.
Here’s the full list. All of them are standard HuCard format games, unless noted in brackets:
• Air Zonk
• Alien Crush
• Blazing Lazers
• Bomberman ‘93
• Bonk’s Revenge
• Chew Man Fu
• Dungeon Explorer
• JJ & Jeff
• Lords of Thunder (TurboGrafx-CD)
• Military Madness
• Moto Roader
• Neutopia II
• New Adventure Island
• Ninja Spirit
• Parasol Stars
• Power Golf
• Soldier Blade
• Space Harrier
• Victory Run
• Ys Book I & II (TurboGrafx-CD)
PC Engine games
• Akumajo Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (Super CD-ROM²)
• Aldynes (SuperGrafx)
• Appare! Gateball
• Bomberman ‘94
• Bomberman: Panic Bomber (Super CD-ROM²)
• Cho Aniki (Super CD-ROM²)
• Daimakaimura (SuperGrafx)
• Dragon Spirit
• Dungeon Explorer
• Fantasy Zone
• Galaga ‘88
• The Genji and the Heike Clans
• Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire (Arcade CD-ROM²)
• Gradius II: Gofer no Yabo (Super CD-ROM²)
• Jaseiken Necromancer
• The Kung Fu
• The Legend of Valkyrie
• Neutopia II
• Ninja Ryukenden
• PC Genjin
• Seirei Senshi Spriggan (CD-ROM²)
• Snatcher CD-ROMantic (Super CD-ROM²)
• Spriggan Mk 2: Re-Terraform Project (Super CD-ROM²)
• Star Parodier (Super CD-ROM²)
• Super Darius (CD-ROM²)
• Super Momotaro Dentetsu II
• Super Star Soldier
• Ys Book I & II (CD-ROM²)
It’s an extremely interesting list, for a number of reasons. Firstly, all five PC Engine ‘formats’ are represented here. Over the course of the system’s PC Engine’s life there were five different game formats, each of which needed a new upgrade or hardware.
Although it launched with support for normal HuCards, it then got:
• a CD-ROM add-on called the CD-ROM² (pronounced ‘CD ROM ROM’, for some reason)
• another one called the Super CD-ROM², which increased the buffer RAM
• an Arcade Card, which increased the RAM even further
Then, in late 1989, NEC released the SuperGrafx, a follow-up system to the PC Engine that was noticeably more powerful. The thing was a financial disaster and only six games launched for it. Surprisingly, two of those games – Aldynes and Daimakaimura (aka Ghouls ‘n Ghosts) – are included here too.
This means all five types of PC Engine and SuperGrafx software are emulated on the Mini, which is a pretty cool way of showing the full range of capabilities of this system and its practically forgotten successor.
It isn’t all entirely positive news, mind you. There are some duplicates here that appear in both the TurboGrafx-16 and PC Engine lists, meaning the game list is smaller than it initially looks.
The likes of Neutopia, Neutopia II, Military Madness (aka Nectaris in Japan), Dungeon Explorer and Ys Book I & II are counted twice, but all of these games rely on dialogue boxes to an extent, so you can pretty much consider the Japanese versions a write-off.
It’s not a massive deal, of course, because you have the English-language versions on there too, and they’re all worth playing: the Neutopia games in particular are excellent Zelda-likes. But just be wary that the number of games on here isn’t necessarily the number of DIFFERENT games.
In a similar vein, a couple of the Japan-only games are practically unplayable if you don’t know the language. The Mega CD version of Snatcher is one of my top 10 favourite games of all time, but that was the only version released in English. It’s on here, but it’s entirely in Japanese, and since it’s basically a cyberpunk visual novel it’s a complete no-go.
Jaseiken Necromancer is another example: as a dialogue-heavy RPG it’s similarly bewildering. The rest should be manageable, though a couple will take a little trial and error until you figure out what’s going on: I even managed to have some fun with Monopoly style board game Super Momotaro Dentetsu II despite the reams of Japanese text.
Confusing things even further, there are some hidden games and alternative versions tucked away in the system too. Hold down Select while choosing Fantasy Zone, Gradius or Salamander and you’ll get modified versions of each game designed to look and sound more like the arcade versions.
For the most part these aren’t massive changes – Fantasy Zone only tweaks the colours and improves the music, for example – but they’re interesting for nerds like me. Here’s a video I took of both versions side-by-side, switching the audio halfway through. This is some Digital Foundry level shit, hope you like it.
That said, one of them does change things drastically: if you die in the PC Engine version of Salamander the action stops and you’re taken back to a predefined checkpoint. Play the newly modified arcade-like version and you’ll respawn immediately where you died instead, making boss fights much less frustrating.
As for the hidden games, there’s a little more to understand here. Back in the day, the Japanese dating game Tokimeki Memorial had two hidden shoot ‘em ups: a side-scroller called Force Gear and a short remake of TwinBee called TwinBee Returns.
Now, Tokimeki Memorial is included in the PC Engine Mini in Japan, but not in the CoreGrafx Mini. Does this mean the two hidden games are gone too? Nope: if you highlight Salamander on the game menu and press Select twice you’ll be able to play Force Gear, and if you press it three times you’ll get TwinBee Returns.
This has been a lot to take in. It’s nowhere near a simple list of games like you’d get on other consoles. The official number is 57, but allow yer man Scullion to break it down in real terms. If you take those 57 games and:
• remove the Japanese duplicates that are also available in English
• remove the Japanese ones that are unplayable without knowing the language
• ignore the alternative versions (because they aren’t different enough)
• add the two secret games
…you end up with an unofficial total of 52 games, which is still a good number.
What obviously makes it a more interesting selection of games than you’d maybe get on other systems, though, is the likelihood that players – especially those in Europe – are going to be less familiar with the PC Engine and TurboGrafx-16 libraries than they maybe are with the NES, SNES and Mega Drive ones.
There are some real gems in here that didn’t get the attention they deserved in this region. Bonk’s Adventure (in here under its Japanese title PC Genjin) and its sequel Bonk’s Revenge are Hudson Soft’s attempt to create their own Mario or Sonic style mascot, and while the series clearly never reached those heights it’s arguably funnier than Nintendo and Sega’s efforts.
Those aren’t the only classic platformers in there: you’ve got Ninja Ryukenden (aka Ninja Gaiden) and Daimakaimua (aka Ghouls ‘n Ghosts) as well as the likes of New Adventure Island, Parasol Stars, not to mention the sensational Akumajo Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, a brilliant Castlevania game.
RPG fans are catered for too: the iconic Ys Book I & II will keep you busy for ages, while the aforementioned Neutopia and Neutopia II are great little Zelda clones and Dungeon Explorer is a sort of ‘Gauntlet meets RPG’ adventure that kept my attention for longer than I expected.
While numerous other genres are represented on the console, it has to be made clear that the PC Engine and TurboGrafx-16 – and this Mini console too as a result – were very much considered shoot ‘em up systems first and foremost.
If you count the two secret games as well there are no fewer than 23 shooters on offer here, that’s nearly 45% of the game list. I’d be lying if I said some of them didn’t start to feel like they merged together by the end of my review period, but I’d also be lying if I said it wasn’t an accurate representation of the original system’s library: this console did shoot ‘em ups brilliantly well, and so it simply had a lot of them.
There are still some crackers here, to be clear: the charmingly funny Star Parodier is probably my favourite game on the entire system, Lords of Thunder has an awesome heavy metal CD audio soundtrack, and Spriggan Mk 2 is a fantastic shooter once you find the option to turn off its lengthy Japanese-voiced cutscenes (which keep pausing the action) and replace them with skippable text instead.
I’m more than happy with how the CoreGrafx Mini runs. Emulation is about as perfect as you’d hope, which to be fair should be expected given that unofficial PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 emulation has been nailed down for a long time now.
Both the emulation and the overall menu system were handled by M2, who are masters at this sort of thing. M2 are the team responsible for the fantastic Sega Ages series on the Switch, and also put together the Mega Drive Mini last year, so it should be no surprise whatsoever that everything is of a supremely high quality here.
Everything’s charmingly presented, with little cartoon PC Engine characters wandering around in the background and a couple of new chiptune themes. There are two separate menus for the TurboGrafx-16 (English) and PC Engine (Japanese) games, and you can even decide whether the latter has a white PC Engine or dark CoreGrafx skin to suit your system of choice.
I’m also a big fan of the extremely nerdy animation that plays when you choose a game. If it’s a standard HuCard game you’ll see the card being inserted into the card slot. If it’s a CD-based game, you’ll instead see the CD-ROM System card being inserted and then get to see (and hear) the disc spinning in the drive. You can skip these brief animations if you like, but I never have.
Here’s a video I took so you can see what I mean. Also, feedback on the site’s snazzy new built-in video player is welcome.
In terms of picture quality, there are a number of scaling options available to you which should be familiar by now to people used to this sort of thing. The display settings available are:
• stretching the picture to widescreen (UGH)
• 4:3 resolution, stretched to fit the screen vertically (mild horizontal and vertical shimmering)
• 4:3 resolution, scaled 3x (mild horizontal shimmering, doesn’t fit the entire height of the screen)
• original pixels (narrower than it would have looked on an old TV, but no shimmering)
• TurboExpress (novelty view that makes it look like it’s running on a handheld)
In case you aren’t sure what I mean by shimmering, bear with me because this is a bit complicated: some old systems, like the PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16, used to render their games at a bespoke resolution that didn’t perfectly match the 4:3 (fullscreen) aspect ratio of old TVs: it was usually narrower and looked more like a square image, rather than the slightly more rectangular one on your TV.
This wasn’t a big problem back in the day, because old TVs just stretched the picture to fit and the natural blur meant you didn’t really know any different. On modern displays, though, if you take the original picture and stretch it out slightly to make it look 4:3, you aren’t multiplying the pixels by an exact number. This means the emulation has to make educated guesses to fill in some of the picture information.
For the most part this looks perfectly fine, but if the native resolution hasn’t been scaled by a whole number, if you’re playing a game with fast scrolling you may notice the background ‘shimmer’ a little as the emulation tries to calculate what the extra pixels should show.
(The above explanation isn’t exact, but I’m deliberately simplifying it because I don’t want to fry any brains. I can go into greater detail in a separate article in the future if anyone’s curious to know more.)
The vast majority of gamers either won’t notice shimmering at all, or won’t consider it a big enough issue. I’m in the latter camp: it really doesn’t bother me too much, but I thought it was worth mentioning anyway. If you don’t want any shimmering at all, go for the original pixels option: just bear in mind it’ll take up less of the screen.
My personal recommendation is to go for the 4:3 ratio with the vertical scale x3 (which you can see in all the screenshots in this article, which I captured myself). What this means is that the picture’s width looks more like it would on a normal TV, which does mean there’s some minor shimmering when scrolling sideways.
Meanwhile, the vertical resolution is multiplied exactly by three times the original resolution. This means it doesn’t quite reach the top and bottom of the screen, but the fact the scale is an exact number means there’s no shimmering when the screen scrolls vertically, and given that a huge number of the games here are fast-paced vertical shooters that’s far more important than horizontal shimmer.
The final verdict
The PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 was very much the Dreamcast of its era, especially in North America, because it was essentially a mid-generation system that didn’t sell as well as it deserved to.
It launched late enough in one generation (8-bit) to completely outpower everything else available, but too early for the next generation (16-bit), meaning it quickly became the least powerful.
However, while we’ve seen a bunch of classic Dreamcast games getting re-released numerous times in the past – the Sonic Adventure games, Space Channel 5, Jet Set Radio, Crazy Taxi, SoulCalibur etc – the PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 library has rarely been made available to modern gamers: Nintendo’s Virtual Console had a bunch and the PS3 got something like 10 of them a decade ago, but that’s about it.
Because of this, and because of the system’s relative anonymity in Europe, there’s a huge percentage of the gaming public who have a love for retro gaming but for whom NEC’s system is a massive gap in their knowledge.
This is why the PC Engine TurboGrafx-16 CoreGrafx Super Ultra Fancy Mini Thingy is an absolute treat for retro gamers. It’s a celebration of a system that deserved more love than it got, in the form of 50+ games that are far more hits than misses.
If you have experience with the system and its library then you should already be keen to get the Mini: the only thing that may have been stopping you were potential concerns about the quality. Rest assured these concerns aren’t necessary: Konami and M2 have released a device that’s as solid as Nintendo and Sega’s miniature offerings.
If, however, you’re fairly unfamiliar with the console, this is an exceptional way to discover many of its best games. In this sense it’s maybe even more effective than something like the SNES Mini: whereas there was a good chance you’d already played many of its titles, there’s an equally good chance that you haven’t played most of these, meaning there are potential new favourites here you just haven’t discovered yet.
The only situation in which I wouldn’t recommend this system is if you have zero interest in shoot ‘em ups. The nature of mini systems means that you’ll almost never find someone who likes every single game included, but their libraries are usually varied enough to make sure there are at least some titles on there you’ll enjoy. With 20-odd shooters in here, you really have to be at least tolerant of that genre in order to get value for money.
As long as you tick that box, I strongly recommend the CoreGrafx Mini (or whatever it is in your region). At £99 it’s on the pricier side of mini consoles, especially since it only comes with one controller. But I can happily say it’s one of the best mini consoles around, especially if a number of its games will be new discoveries for you.
The PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini is out now. It’s exclusive to Amazon UK and can be bought for £99.99. Alternatively, if you live in America, the TurboGrafx-16 Mini can be bought from Amazon US for $99.99.
In order that I could write this review, I received a review sample from Konami. This was not a ‘free’ unit to keep: it was sent back after the review was written and I pre-ordered my own from Amazon. Regardless, the content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by Konami’s assistance in securing an early unit for review purposes.
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