When I was a kid, I spent almost as much time reading about games in magazines as I did actually playing them. There was always so much that was beyond my grasp: a role-playing game from Japan that looked like an anime come to life or fighting game machines that would never come to my local arcade. I would often obsess over expensive consoles that I knew I would never actually own.
The TurboGrafx-16 was one of those consoles. The device — which debuted in North America in 1989, fitting snugly between the NES and SNES launches — wasn’t a big hit outside of Japan where it was known as the PC Engine. It was expensive and unwieldy and didn’t have a killer app like Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog to boost sales. But that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for it; in fact, the oddball factor made the TurboGrafx even more enticing. It was full of games that I’d never heard of and didn’t fully understand, yet wanted desperately to play.
Now, I finally have that chance.
The TurboGrafx-16 Mini is available now for $99.99, and it’s the latest in a growing line of miniature plug-and-play devices based on beloved consoles. (While you can purchase the console now, shipments in Europe and North America have been delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.) It’s a trend Nintendo started in 2016 with the NES Classic, and so far, it has covered everything from well-crafted tiny consoles like the excellent Sega Genesis Mini to more disappointing fare like Sony’s slapdash PlayStation Classic. One thing all of those devices had in common, though, is that they were miniature versions of best-selling hardware. The TurboGrafx-16 Mini fills a different niche. For many people, it won’t be a chance to revisit classic games from their youth, but instead an opportunity to discover a period of retro gaming they likely missed the first time.
The most notable thing about the TurboGrafx-16 Mini hardware is that it’s not exactly mini. Sure, it’s smaller than an Xbox, but compared to other miniature consoles, it’s downright huge. The device measures 240 mm x 156 mm x 35 mm, and roughly, it’s about the same size as two SNES Classics placed side by side. (If you’re looking for a smaller option, there’s always the Japan-only PC Engine Mini or Europe’s CoreGrafx Mini, which are functionally almost identical.) Like the original device, the TurboGrafx-16 Mini is a black, rectangular slab with a curve on its back. The new version mostly looks like the original, though a number of features — like the cartridge slot on the front and auxiliary switches on the side — are purely decorative now.
Aside from the console itself, you’ll also get a single controller that plugs into the front of the TurboGrafx via USB, as well as a separate Micro USB cable for power; though, it should be noted that the console doesn’t come with an AC adaptor to actually plug that cable in. You’ll need to provide your own. In a nice touch for fans of cable management, the rear, curved section of the mini-console pops off, so that you can plug in the HDMI and USB cables, but in a way that looks nice and tidy once you put the cover back on. Overall, it’s about what you’d expect from a mini-console at this point, with a plastic construction that isn’t exactly premium but sits a notch or two above feeling cheap. At the very least, the power switch is very satisfying to flip on.
Of course, the most important part of any plug-and-play device is its library, and the TurboGrafx 16 comes with a lot of games. There are 25 English titles, but you can also swap over to the PC Engine option in the main menu at any point for 32 more Japanese games. There’s some overlap between the two, and not every title is playable if you can’t speak Japanese. Hideo Kojima’s cyberpunk adventure Snatcher, for instance, is full of text, so it won’t work if you don’t know the language. But there are a number of titles like Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, and plenty of classic shoot-‘em-ups that are perfectly accessible even if you don’t understand Japanese.
It’s a meaty collection, one that covers a number of genres; there are lots of shmups, some side-scrolling action games and platformers, and a number of adventure and role-playing titles. What the library doesn’t have is a particular standout title. When I first booted up a PlayStation Classic, for instance, I immediately hopped into Final Fantasy VII; likewise, I dived straight into Super Mario World on the SNES Classic. There’s no such obvious blockbuster game on the TurboGrafx Mini because there wasn’t really one on the TurboGrafx-16
For me at least, plugging in those other mini-consoles was an act of remembering, a chance to revisit games I already loved in an accessible way. Playing the TurboGrafx-16 Mini was an act of discovery. There are some games I already knew, like the oozing pinball adventure Alien Crush, because they’ve been available on other platforms like the dearly departed Wii Virtual Console. And games like Splatterhouse and R-Type weren’t TurboGrafx exclusives, so I had sampled them in arcades. But much of the library was unfamiliar, and this made jumping into new games exciting.
I’m not going to say that every title on the TurboGrafx-16 Mini holds up. The bizarre, slapstick platformer JJ & Jeff is excruciatingly bland, and Air Zonk is entirely forgettable when put up against the other shooters on here. But there’s a lot of great stuff in this library, from the Zelda-like adventure Neutopia and its sequel to the strategy game Military Madness. I’ve lost a lot of time over the past week playing Ys I & II, a collection of classic RPGs that I distinctly remember pining for in those old magazines. There’s something really cool about finally being able to play these games 30 years later. If you never owned a TurboGrafx, the new mini version is a bit like being handed a box full of old cartridges that you have to discover on your own.
Playing the TurboGrafx-16 Mini was an act of discovery
When it comes to actually playing the games, you have a fairly standard set of options. Each game has four save slots, so you don’t have to mess around with passwords, and there are five display options, including one that turns your TV into a TurboExpress handheld console for some reason. (I would not recommend using this beyond the novelty factor.) Naturally, you can also add CRT-style scanlines. I can’t attest to the accuracy of the emulation, but every game I played looked crisp and clear, and I had no issues with control responsiveness.
And while the main menu is pretty simple — you can organize games by things like title and release date — there are some welcome touches. For one, there’s the bouncy menu music, which sounds like a long-lost chiptunes classic. But there are also the animations; when you boot up a game, you get to see a pixelated cartridge slotted in or, in the case of games that released on the CD-ROM add-on, a virtual disc spinning about. It’s a nice, digital way of adding in some of those lost tactile sensations.
Really, what you get out of the TurboGrafx-16 Mini depends on what you’re looking for. If you were one of the few who actually owned the original device, there’s likely some nostalgia value here, as there has been with past mini-consoles. But for everyone else — the people whose experience with the TurboGrafx-16 was limited to fleeting encounters in an arcade or old issues of EGM — that hook isn’t necessarily there, so you’ll need to approach the games with an open mind. It’s a rare opportunity where old games can seem new.