Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 8    February 1999

Fast Graphics? No! Turbografx, Baby!

by Adam Trionfo

When the Nintendo 8-bit ruled the world, it was all that the average gamer required. But NEC thought differently. They believed that the public wanted a better machine, one that would whip the little NES back to nursery school. Their Turbografx 16 was the answer. Unfortunately, it wasn't really the solution.

The gaming public didn't take to the machine very well, at least not here in the United States. But can you blame them? It was released with a horrible little game called Keith Courage. The game had excellent graphics and far more colors than the Nintendo, but there was no game-play value. Basically, it was a demo that you could play. There was no comparison between it and the game that sold the NES -- Super Mario Bros.

The Turbografx 16 was released just prior to the Sega Genesis in 1989. It was advertised as the first 16-bit system, even though it only had 16-bit graphics (meaning more colors). It was only slightly faster than the NES. Oh, but the difference a few colors can make! The Turbografx 16 graced gamers' screens with the best graphics on any system until the release of the 32-bit consoles over five years later. That is quite an achievement for a system regarded by most as inferior. But why was it seen as substandard in the first place?

For one thing, the first batch of games in the US didn't look any better than Nintendo games. The average character was the same size as on the NES, and in most cases, even the color palette wasn't much greater. This is what people saw, and this is what they remembered. The system was therefore no big deal; it never did catch on. It was the equivalent of owning an Intellivision when the Atari VCS was the platform of choice: The Turbografx may have been superior, but all of the good games were being created for the technically inferior NES platform.

The Turbografx has the distinction of being the first console with a CD-ROM drive. Unlike those who bought games in the initial card format, most people were fairly impressed by the first few CD games; but the CD-ROM drive was very expensive and there was little hope that it would give NEC's system the push it needed. A great game was needed to boost sales, but there didn't seem to be one in sight.

Finally, two games were released that were like revelations. Bomberman and Bonk's Adventure proved that the Turbografx 16 was a viable machine. Although NEC did an admirable job at promoting the system once the good games started to be released, it was all too late. The early titles had tainted the water and there was nothing that NEC could do about it. The US market was lost.

Meanwhile, strangely enough, the machine did more than just survive in Japan -- it thrived. It sold in large numbers and gained a great amount of support. The system really caught on. Many of the best games are available only as import Hu-Cards (cartridges).

My favorite shooter on any system is called Gate of Thunder, and is only available as a Super CD-ROM for the Turbografx CD system with added memory. The system really excelled at shooters. Think about it: It could show 512 colors on the screen at once, far more than any other system of the period. The graphics were simply incredible. It was the speed that showed the system's weakness. But with careful placement of graphics, the 8-bit processor was more than able to handle anything that was thrown at it.

While hardcore gamers enjoyed some of the best games of the time, most people were locked into the NES mentality. It's a shame, because the Turbografx 16 is really exciting and deserves to be recognized as an innovative platform that succeeded in introducing some of the best games of the 16-bit era. -- AT