Today I posted a comprehensive history of the TurboGrafx-16. As befits that kind of writing, there wasn't much room for my personal story in the mix. So here it is: my personal recollections of the system -- scattered memories from 1989 to 1996.
Over the last while I've been pouring as much attention as I can spare into the TurboGrafx history feature on the front page of Gamasutra. It's caused me to contemplate one question: Why do I care?
The people who worked on the thing don't care as much as I do. Then again, I was 13 when I got mine, and for them, it was just another job -- one that didn't last that long -- over 20 years ago. For me, it was the best video game experience of my life.
I wanted the system to succeed, but it didn't.
It was the first of the 16-bit systems I bought, but I ended up with all three of them. It's still the one I have the most fondness for, the one that I feel a spark of loyalty toward. I still feel faintly defensive toward it, protective. I know nobody much cares about it anymore, and the idea bothers me. I want it to have mattered, and to matter now.
The TurboGrafx was released in the U.S. 25 years ago, a week from the day that I type these words. When the system came out, I was 12; now, I'm 37. I don't know about you, but I think a lot of people in the game industry live in thrall to the experiences of their childhood, to a greater or lesser extent. What matters is what you do with those inspirations.
It matters to me, as strange as that sounds. Is that okay?
But you know what? The TurboGrafx does matter to me. It didn't last long, but it hit me just right, at just the right time, to make an indelible impression on me. It had a handful of games I'll cherish for the rest of my life, and a smattering of others that matter to me. My memories of it are vivid and real, all this time later.
I'd like to share some of them here.
Sometime in 1989. I was in Toys R Us checking out with my mother. The guy in front of me in line had bought a TurboGrafx. He was older than I was, maybe college-age, though my memories are shaky. I was 12, after all. He talked to me a bit about why he'd chosen the system over the Sega Genesis, the fact that they had pros and cons. The fact that he had selected the TurboGrafx made some sort of impression on me -- and so did his smiling shyness and the fact that he talked to me like I was a person. He seemed to care about games like I did.
Spring 1990. I can remember when I decided I wanted a TurboGrafx. There was an ad NEC ran for the system, with slivers of screenshots. One of them showed a Giger-like alien and somehow that image is what hooked me. In retrospect, I'm sure I must have been reading coverage of the system, but I can't remember anything about that. In fact, I can't remember wanting any particular game -- I'm not sure I even found out that image came from Alien Crush until I bought the game for myself.
But I tore that ad out of the magazine, and another, and pasted them onto a cardboard box with a hole cut in the lid. That was my TurboGrafx fund.
Summer 1990. It was probably around my birthday that I got the TurboGrafx, but that's only conjecture. I'm positive it was the summer of 1990, and I seem to remember that I didn't quite save up enough for the system -- my birthday being in June, I guess my mom made up the difference as a gift.
I walked into Kay-Bee Toys in the Wyoming Valley Mall (or was it the Stroud Mall?) and walked out with a TurboGrafx-16 and a copy of Dungeon Explorer, a game I chose by reading the backs of the boxes in the store, which was pretty much how I always did it back then. Reviews didn't start to matter until, well, until later in the TurboGrafx's life.
Summer 1990, part II. I'm pretty sure I didn't walk out of the store with Bonk's Adventure. I don't think it was actually out just yet. What I do know is that I loved Bonk's Adventure.
I was never that great at video games as a kid, but I didn't just beat Bonk's Adventure -- I beat it thanks to a trick I discovered to farm extra lives. That was just part of why I liked the game; I liked it because it was fun, because it challenged me (but not too much) and because it had a great soundtrack and some really cool bosses.
From then on, until Super Mario World came out, Bonk's Adventure was my primary gaming comfort food. I'd go back to it when I wanted to play a game that I loved and that wasn't going to throw me any surprises.
October 1990. I'd completely fallen under the thrall of the TurboGrafx. I don't remember what all games I got and when, though I can name some of the ones I loved: Dungeon Explorer. Alien Crush. Splatterhouse. Ordyne. The Legendary Axe. What I do remember is that after getting confirmed in the Lutheran church, I spent the money I got from my relatives on a TurboGrafx CD system, which added CD-ROM capabilities to the base unit and cost $399.99.
I remember walking into Toys R Us to buy the thing; I remember that the staff had a hard time even locating it -- because the box, with the awkwardly-shaped system and hard plastic carrying case inside, was so huge that they kept it in the stock-room instead of with the other video game stuff. And probably because nobody else had yet bought one.
I remember my mom asking me if I was sure I wanted to spend so much money on one thing. I was.
When I bought it, there were only two games for it: Monster Lair, a 2D platformer/shooter, and Fighting Street, which was the original 1987 Street Fighter. Fighting Street looked boring to me. I opted for Monster Lair.
Even though its only innovation over other games of the day was CD-quality audio -- audio so good I excitedly played the soundtrack for my adult next-door neighbor on her CD player -- I loved it anyway and was completely satisfied with my purchase. I still love it. I still play it. (I wrote about it five years ago here, if you're curious.)
You see, the TurboGrafx was the first (and probably the last) time I was truly impressed with a system as a piece of technology. I don't do technology fetishism. But the sleek, black little system and its credit card-sized cartridges in their plastic CD cases wowed me that summer. I wanted as many as I could get my hands on. And when I got my hands on an actual, honest-to-goodness CD-ROM drive… I was fascinated.
October 1990, Part II. I remember the complicated process of hooking up the TurboGrafx-CD, which was a behemoth device of peculiar design (it's T-shaped, it has a lock mechanism to keep it attached to the console, and it nets you two power switches that both have to be turned on in the right order once attached. The actual CD drive is removable from the housing, too.)
But what I remember in particular is opening up Monster Lair, and the immediate difference between the HuCARD games and the CD game: It felt more solid, more polished. The giant "CD" logo on the back of the case was strange but appealing (since the games came in boxes, no need to put screenshots here.)
I felt lucky. I knew nobody else had this, pretty much. I felt lucky to be having this experience.
Later in the fall, 1990. Not long after I got the CD-ROM, more games started materializing. I had a choice: Last Alert, I think, and Valis II. I went with Valis II (and I still would.) It was exactly what I wanted. A game brought me what I couldn't get elsewhere -- what felt for the time to be serious, mature storytelling and fantastic music wrapped around an engaging game.
In truth, Valis II isn't a remarkable game, but it's okay for its vintage; it does, however, have great atmosphere and some pretty astounding animated cutscenes for the time and NEC translated them faithfully (rendering them incredibly confusing, as they heavily referenced the events the original Valis game -- which didn't make it to the TurboGrafx or even the Japanese PC Engine for several years, as the series had started out on Japanese computers.)
I don't know what anyone else's early adolescence was like, but for me, I was looking for novelty and I was looking for seriousness; in storytelling this mostly took the form of Japanese cartoons and pulp horror novels, but it worked for me. Valis II stands out as dark and surprising to me, and I'll always be fond of it for that.
Fall 1990, II. Fall 1990, if you're not catching the drift, was the season of TurboGrafx for me. Earlier I said I couldn't remember reading any coverage of the system in the magazines of the time, but one article made a major impression on me: EGM's full-page review of Ys Book I & II in its 1991 Buyers Guide issue. By that time I'd been won over to EGM from Nintendo Power and GamePro for (respectively) its multiformat coverage and its enthusiasm for previewing Japanese games before they even came to the West.
Photo courtesy Frank Cifaldi
I still remember the review: There was a big screenshot with an anime-style character portrait, and the only 10 I can offhand remember the magazine giving to a game back then. I clearly remember poring over the review lying on the sofa in my parents' living room one evening, just studying it -- taking in every detail of the images. I imprinted the game in my mind.
Fall 1990, part III. That was it; it was all over for me. I anticipated the game with every fiber of my being. It was to be the star of Christmas 1990 -- despite the fact that my mother had rarely, if ever, disappointed me, I repeatedly nagged her to make sure that it was waiting for me on December 25.
The Deptford Mall used to have a huge EB -- the biggest I'd ever been in. They demolished it around '90 or '91 to build a food court, but it was there that I clearly remember gazing at the box for Ys I & II, and later, I found out that's where my mom purchased it, too. To the left of the cash desk was the small, tidy TurboGrafx section. I'd pull Ys off its peg-hook and gaze at the back of the box, and put it back, and wait for Christmas.
When Christmas came, well…
Ys I & II is my favorite game. The position was filled in 1990. You're welcome to try, but it seems difficult to believe that you'll succeed. I mean, you're only 13 once -- the brain chemistry is different. That early adolescent mix of childlike wonder and very nearly adult intellectual sophistication is later unobtainable.
I'd never played a game like this; as with every great game, there's not one quite like it -- not even its sequels, though Ys IV tried really damn hard and nearly got there.
I tweeted out a screenshot of the game just now; someone else tweeted back "love that game," and my instinctive response was "it's why I'm here." It's true. It's not the only why I'm here, but it's the most significant one.
Sometime in 1991. Ys III came out probably a year after the original, and I scooped it up as soon as I could get my hands on it. I still remember calling EB and then convincing my mom to drive me over there -- which took much longer than I felt like waiting (sorry, Mom.)
To call it a disappointment would be an understatement. Ys III is a cute enough game, but at the time it felt like a betrayal. The developers took the Zelda II approach: a shift from overhead to side-scrolling. But instead of a richer, more challenging adventure, they delivered a very small game I beat in one day.
I wrote NEC a letter complaining about its quality -- and actually mailed it! -- and got a rather nice one in return, which offered to let me send in my copy of the game in exchange for any of the company's other CD-ROM titles, including some that were upcoming. I still remember the colored photocopies of what must have been internal documents, and I wish I still had them.
I made my peace with Ys III later.
Sometime in 1992. I stuck with the TurboGrafx, though my enthusiasm waned. I had gotten a Sega Genesis (I had to have Phantasy Star II and Sonic the Hedgehog) and later a Super Nintendo, which brought with it Super Mario World and Final Fantasy II, which put Bonk and Ys out of my mind.
But I didn't stop loving the system, and I kept buying games for it -- or, at the very least, picking them up, looking at them, and then putting them back down without buying them but with the intent to do so sometime.
Mainly, I was looking for my next Ys, which was not forthcoming (Dragon Slayer, which I got for Christmas in 1992, didn't hit the spot, despite being from the same developers.) I'd followed the system through thick and thin, and I even mail-ordered the Super System Card 2.0, which allowed the original CD unit to play an improved slate of game titles, directly from NEC (or was it TTi?) I can't imagine many people did that.
Sometime in 1992, part II. I was always trying to find the next great RPG, and the most promising candidate in 1992 was Cosmic Fantasy 2, from the TurboGrafx's only stalwart third party publisher, Working Designs. It had anime cutscenes which mesmerised me, though the gameplay was incredibly banal.
In fact, it's the game that acquainted me of the tactic of playing through the game primarily just to see the next cutscene, though, damn -- I do have some fond memories of that game, in particularly one weekend I stayed over at my friend Phil's house and we played the game all night long.
I remember that I got a friend from AOL to call me -- a rich British kid whose dad had moved to the U.S. for business, who had a terminal case of "nothing to do" on a regular basis, and who was allowed to make as many long distance calls as he wanted. He made fun of us while we played Cosmic Fantasy 2 for freaking out over a video game.
Sometime in 1992, part III. And then I did something unthinkable to anyone but a bored teenager: I bartered my TurboGrafx and several of my games for my friend Aaron's Japanese import Mega CD unit and all of his Mega CD games. The novelty was exciting, but it wore off, and then the Mega CD broke, so I had no hope of trading back.
I still have the box. It's a little worse for wear, 21 years later.
Sometime in 1993. I couldn't live without the TurboGrafx for long. I took some money, a PC sound card I couldn't quite get to work and which needed returning to EB, and walked out with a TurboDuo, the relaunched all-in-one system from TTi, the new company that was handling the TurboGrafx after NEC gave up on it. It came with a copy of Ys, and I felt thrilled to be reunited (Aaron wouldn't take the system without it, I recall.)
I hadn't gotten rid of all of my games, though, so I already had a small collection going, and I got back some others I missed (like Dungeon Explorer and Valis II -- I'm pretty sure I ended up buying my own copies back from the used game stall at the local flea market after Aaron offloaded them.)
Even though I jumped back into the TurboDuo with abandon, there wasn't much time left for the system. I kept tabs on what was going on; I bought a couple of cheap games at EB when their prices fell. I even mail-ordered The Dynastic Hero, one of the last TurboGrafx games, directly from TTi when retailers gave up on the system (and sold it very soon after, sadly, as it's now worth several hundred dollars.)
January 1994. I took my first trip to New York City and, consequently, my first trip to the Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya. Of course, I headed right to the magazine section, and I ended up buying a December issue of Famitsu and Marukatsu PC Engine, a Japanese magazine dedicated to the Japanese version of the TurboGrafx. They both had coverage of Ys IV -- the ultimate, the pinnacle, my most wanted game -- well, except for Final Fantasy VI, which that Famitsu also covered. (It was a goldmine.)
Unfortunately, I don't have the Famitsu anymore. I googled up this image.
I knew the TurboGrafx was going downhill -- I was fairly sure that TTi was closing up shop. But game news wasn't the same as it is now, and I still had some hope. I sent another paper letter about Ys, this time to TTi, begging them to hold on long enough to release Ys IV in the west.
This one didn't get a reply.
When I was sure that the Duo was really dead -- which wasn't easy to ascertain, actually -- I started calling the mail-order import video game shops that had ads in the back of EGM looking for a Japanese copy of Ys IV, but they were all sold out. Those were the breaks, in those days.
Scattered memories. I got a TurboExpress sometime in there, and thankfully never got rid of it -- I still have it, and it still works. I mainly remember playing Bonk's Adventure over and over again and chewing up AA batteries, until I got the AC adapter.
At some point, I got on Usenet and found a guy in Japan who would buy me used PC Engine games directly and then mail them to me if I sent his family checks. I convinced him to buy me a handful of games, including Ys IV. In the spring of 1996, I finally got hold of this 1993 game, and I played the hell out of it, and it was everything I'd hoped it would be -- a fitting sequel to I & II, and a fitting close to the PC Engine for me.
The story isn't over, of course -- not really. Since then, of course, I've kept playing the system. In the mid-90s, I got involved in the TurboGrafx Mailing List, where fans of the departed system congregated before video game forums were even a thing. I've bought used games in Japan. I'll buy more. I'll always love the TurboGrafx in a way that is somehow distinct from any other console, and when I think of it I'll think of slickness, of hopefulness, and that sense that it never quite lived up to its potential.
If this nostlagic little post got you interested in the TurboGrafx-16, read the history article I posted today.