PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini: First Impressions

I’ve been more excited for the PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini (or PC Engine Mini, or TurboGrafx-16 Mini depending where you get it from) than any of the other “mini” consoles that have appeared over the course of the last few years.

The reason for this is that I know very little about the PC Engine platform as a whole. I know things in passing, from second-hand information and from occasional enthusing in multi-format games magazines from the ’80s and ’90s — but I’ve never experienced its library for myself.

With the PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini offering a fine curated selection of Japanese and Western releases all loaded up and ready to go, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to start exploring. So let’s do that!

The PC Engine (as we shall refer to the platform as a whole from hereon) is a strange old beast. It’s regarded as the first of the 16-bit consoles by some people, though technically it’s only an 8-bit system in terms of processing power. The reason for the confusion — and for its misleading “TurboGrafx-16” moniker in the States — is that it has a 16-bit video processor, allowing for considerably more complex visuals than Nintendo’s NES and Sega’s Master System were capable of.

The PC Engine did extremely well in Japan, putting up a very solid fight against Nintendo’s Famicom thanks to its technological superiority upon its 1987 launch, and it eventually became a significant rival for the Super Famicom. In the States, however, it fared less well; its 1989 arrival was so late to the party that it found itself directly up against the Sega Genesis, which had been released two weeks earlier to test markets.

The reason for the lengthy delay was that NEC felt the North American market wouldn’t respond well to either the name “PC Engine” or the diminutive form factor of the original Japanese system, so they took their time redesigning it in a “futuristic” style as well as completely rebranding it. While the system has long been a cult favourite of American gamers, this long delay meant that it never stood a chance in the mass market against the true 16-bit systems.

This is particularly relevant for European gaming enthusiasts, because it meant that the PC Engine only ever came to Europe in very limited quantities after its failure in the United States. A few made it to the UK and Spain under the name “TurboGrafx” — dropping the “16” — while French distributors modified Japanese units to output an RGB signal to the country’s SECAM television standard. But you’re very lucky if you ever saw one of these; I wasn’t even aware the system came over here at all until a couple of years back!

The reason I provide this historical preamble is that it gives some context as to why I’m so interested in the PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini. The platform and its games are a completely unknown quantity to me. I have zero experience with it. I could have emulated, sure, but then I would have run into the problem of never knowing where to start, or being faced with “analysis paralysis” when confronted with a wall of ROMs to choose from. For my purposes, a curated collection of the supposed “best” the system had to offer seems like a prime starting point.

(Incidentally, if you’re wondering where the original PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini fit into the whole history of the platform, it was not, as I originally assumed, the European release of the system, but rather an updated model released in Japan in 1989 that featured AV instead of RF output. Now you know.)

Anyway, onto the PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini itself. In terms of hardware, it is pretty much as you might expect if you have any experience with the current crop of “mini” consoles. The unit itself is a loving miniature recreation of the original system’s look, albeit with the original ports replaced with USB sockets for controllers on the front, and USB power and HDMI ports on the back behind a removable “expansion” port. Like most of its peers in the mini console market, it comes with a reasonable length HDMI cable and a USB cable, but no USB wall brick, so you’ll have to provide your own via one means or another.

There’s only one physical control on the system itself: a mechanical power switch, which slides over to the right and even includes the original system’s detail of poking out a “lock” to hold the game card in place and prevent accidental removal during play — a nice touch. The single USB controller provided with the system has a very good length of cord, and the provision of two USB sockets means you can enjoy two-player games just by picking up another controller rather than having to buy a Multitap adapter as with the original system. There is also a USB Multitap available for games that support more than two players — I’d say this is not a particularly necessary purchase, but there are several versions of Bomberman on this system, so make your own mind up based on your own personal circumstances!

Booting up the system launches you almost immediately into the menu of games available. The localised Turbografx releases and the unlocalised Japanese PC Engine games are kept in two separate libraries, accessible through a toggle icon in the corner of the screen. To further distinguish the two sections of the system’s library, the menu aesthetics change when you switch between them, with the Japanese section being themed after a PC Engine CoreGrafx, while the English section is TurboGrafx themed.

Each menu has a happy little tune and cute little pixel-art PC Engines wandering around in the background. You can also see at a glance whether you’ve used any of the four available save states for each game, and how many players the game supports. The system does lack built-in manuals, which is a bit of a shame but nothing unusual for these mini consoles, though PDF versions of all the manuals are available via Konami’s website. Interestingly, each manual does take care to note that it “may contain content that is considered inappropriate by today’s standards” but that Konami has “kept editing to a minimum in order to preserve the atmosphere”.

It’s not entirely clear what this refers to as there’s nothing obviously offensive about any of the games in the collection — though some people today have a real knack for taking offense to literally anything, so it’s probably safest to just include this disclaimer and be done with it. But I digress.

The options menu for the system as a whole allows you to tweak the game’s display by choosing between four different presets: 4:3 output with a slight black border all the way around the outside; slightly zoomed-in 4:3 that reaches the edge of your TV but may cut the edge off in some games; a 1:1 square aspect ratio; and a virtual TurboExpress portable system. Any of these modes can have a CRT filter applied, but as with most “virtual CRT” modes on systems like this, all it does is blur the image slightly and add some obtrusive scanlines without really making it look like it’s actually on a CRT — but the option is there if you happen to like that sort of thing, as are several wallpapers to replace the empty black space on the screen if you prefer.

Curiously, you can only change these options from the main menu, not during gameplay; this is a minor issue, particularly when save states allow you to pick right back up where you left off, but it might have been nice to be able to switch modes without quitting a game.

Selecting a game causes a short (skippable) animation to play depicting the original game card being inserted into the system with a satisfying clunk. Rather delightfully, the CD-based games show the CD system card being inserted, followed by a pixel art animation of the CD drive starting up, the sound of a CD spinning up and the original startup screen from the CD-ROM addon. A really nice touch that adds a nice bit of authenticity.

We’ll talk more about the games specifically in the coming weeks, but for the most part the emulation feels very solid. Scrolling and animation is very smooth, and any technical issues such as sprite flicker are authentic to the original hardware. Some games do exhibit a minor amount of pixel “shimmer” when scrolling horizontally, regardless of screen mode; this is a common side-effect of scaling low-resolution pixel art up to today’s resolutions. Vertical scrolling in all games is flawless, however, and the shimmer is not seen in all horizontal scrollers by any means; R-Type is probably the most noticeable, and it can also be seen on the sprites in Ys Book I & II, but interestingly the issue disappears altogether if you use the CRT filter.

Controls are tight and responsive with minimal lag being evident to the untrained eye, and the fact the controller incorporates turbo fire switches will certainly save your thumbs in some of the more intense shoot ’em ups.

Sound is good; if you’ve never experienced the PC Engine, it has a very distinctive and immediately recognisable timbre to its built-in sound capabilities that is markedly different from the NES and Master system, and CD-based games feature the very best of howling late ’80s/early ’90s cock rock backings for the most part — an absolute delight.

Visually speaking, the PC Engine is distinct, too, with that 16-bit GPU really shining in many titles. Like many platforms of the era, the PC Engine has a distinctive colour palette that sets itself apart from many of its contemporaries, and given the prevalence of Japanese arcade-style experiences on the system, it will probably not surprise you to learn that this errs on the more bright and vibrant end of the spectrum without crossing a line into garish.

The software library itself is the shining star of this device, however; while there are some duplicate entries between the localised and Japanese collections, there are enough unique titles among them to make both exploring — and don’t let a lack of Japanese knowledge put you off exploring that Japanese library either. There are only a few games that are heavily reliant on Japanese text or audio — sadly one of them is Hideo Kojima’s classic Snatcher, which it would have been lovely to see a localised version of — while the others are very accessible to an international audience, being based on arcade-style mechanics and structure for the most part.

If you enjoy shoot ’em ups, you’ll be in heaven, as a significant number of Compile and Naxat Soft games are provided for your enjoyment, including Super Star Soldier, Soldier Blade, Spriggan and Blazing Lazers. Also from Naxat and Compile, video pinball game Alien Crush is in the lineup, too, though sadly its follow-up Devil’s Crush is not.

The CD version of Ys Books I & II can be played in English or Japanese, as can the two Neutopia action RPGs. Racing game fans can enjoy third-person vanishing point rally game Victory Run and top-down multiplayer affair MotoRoader. And those with friends can enjoy titles like Bomberman ’93 and Dungeon Explorer.

Personal highlights for me include the Japanese version of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, which is a title I’ve wanted to play for a long time, along with maze puzzler Chew Man Fu and shoot ’em up Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire (commonly known as just Sapphire). The latter of these is apparently one of the rarest, most expensive PC Engine games to collect, so to have it included on the PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini is a delight — particularly as it’s a very impressive shoot ’em up.

We’ll be exploring the games on this system in detail individually in the coming weeks, but suffice to say for now that even if you’ve been on the fence about these “mini” systems, this is one definitely worth looking at for its unique library alone — especially if you live in a region where, like me, you never had easy access to this platform at its time of original release.

I’m a convert, then. What do PC Engine fans call themselves…?


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