Hardware Review: PC Engine Mini – Still An Acquired Taste, Even After 30 Years

PC Engine Mini vs Original© Nintendo Life

Konami – which is now the custodian of the PC Engine brand following its purchase of Hudson Soft in 2011 – is perhaps a little late to the party with its take on the ‘micro-console’ concept that kicked off with the Nintendo Classic Edition a few years back. Since then, we’ve seen SNK, Sony and Sega all jump on board the retro money train, often with wildly varying degrees of success.

However, while the Neo Geo Mini and Mega Drive Mini both offered up a selection of games that will be familiar even to the most casual of retro gaming fans thanks to the fact they’ve been released (and re-released) on a wide range of digital storefronts over the past decade, the PC Engine Mini (alongside its western counterpart, the TurboGrafx-16 Mini) offers up a library of games that’s a little more off the beaten track. That’s not to say it lacks quality – quite the opposite, in fact – and with emulation expert M2 doing the heavy-lifting (just as it did with Sega’s micro-console) authenticity is assured.

However, while the PC Engine Mini is questionably home to some fine games, there’s no denying that it lacks the fame and recognition that have arguably made Nintendo’s NES and SNES Classic Editions so popular. With Nintendo, you know you’re getting Mario, Zelda, Metroid and much more besides, but if you stopped the average person in the street and asked them to pick their favourite PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 releases, most wouldn’t even know what console you were talking about. Can Konami’s console overcome this thorny issue and establish itself as one of the best micro-consoles money can buy? While the western release of the console has been delayed by the recent coronavirus outbreak, we’ve been able to get our hands on a Japanese unit, so let’s find out.

PC Engine Mini Review: The History

PC Engine Mini vs Original© Nintendo Life

Unlike Nintendo and Sega’s micro-consoles, the PC Engine range is perhaps a little less famous with the average gamer. A fruitful collaboration between Japanese software company Hudson Soft and Japanese electronics giant NEC, the PC Engine burst onto the scene in 1987, offering players a more powerful home system than the ageing (yet still dominant) Nintendo Famicom. With its faithful arcade ports and robust support from the likes of Konami, Namco and Taito, it quickly established itself as Japan’s second favourite games console – a position it would maintain even after Sega launched its technically-superior Mega Drive in 1988.

A dizzying array of hardware upgrades followed; the PC Engine was blessed with a CD-ROM add-on in 1988, and was given a ‘Pro’ overhaul before Pro consoles were even a thing when Hudson and NEC released the ill-fated SuperGrafx in 1989 (only six games were ever released for it, and two of those are included on the PC Engine Mini – Daimakaimura and Aldynes). The PC Engine was released in North America as the TurboGrafx-16 in 1989, which struggled to keep pace with Nintendo and Sega in what would become a memorable console war. Despite the name, the system is powered by an 8-bit Hudson-made HuC6280 CPU – however, the graphics processor is 16-bit, which is why PC Engine games look so much better than NES titles.

While it failed to make any real impression in North America, in its native Japan the PC Engine was still popular enough to keep Sega at bay and would benefit from several additional hardware refreshes; the PC Engine Duo would combine the base console with a CD-ROM drive and would be iterated upon twice with the Duo-R and Duo-RX, while the system’s power was augmented using ‘System Cards’, the most notable of which was the Arcade Card which enabled slick ports such as SNK’s Fatal Fury Special and Art of Fighting. There was even a low-cost, kiddie-friendly variant in the form of the bizarre-looking PC Engine Shuttle, and portable editions such as the PC Engine GT and PC Engine LT, the latter of which came with an eye-watering price tag.

The PC Engine would eventually be replaced by the PC-FX in 1994 – another joint venture between Hudson and NEC – but the system was a dismal failure and never made it out of Japan.

PC Engine Mini Review: The Hardware

The PC Engine Mini’s naming is slightly disingenuous because it’s not actually that much smaller than the real deal. The original PC Engine was famous for its diminutive size – it was much, much smaller than systems like the NES, Mega Drive and SNES – so it stands to reason that Konami (via Hori, which is handling the hardware side of things with this project) was always going to struggle to shrink it down any further for this 2020 edition. As it stands, the PC Engine Mini is around 25-30 percent smaller than the 1987 model, but it has the same kind of dimensions as the NES Classic, SNES Classic and Mega Drive Mini. In fact, having all of them on a shelf together looks pretty cool.

From the green power switch to the fact that the console even ships with the red ‘EXT BUS’ protective plastic cover on the back (which has to be removed to reveal the USB and HDMI ports), the PC Engine Mini is a close match to the system that revolutionized the Japanese home console market in the late ’80s. However, there are some notable differences; NEC’s branding is completely removed from both the system itself and the packaging. Konami’s purchase of the PC Engine brand has effectively erased NEC from the picture – which is a bit of a shame given the firm’s contribution to the system’s legacy, but understandable in the context of giant corporations gobbling up IP.

PC Engine Mini vs Original© Nintendo Life

Also, some purists may be upset by the fact that there’s no HuCard slot on the console – where these credit card-sized games would be inserted on the original console is simply a blanked-off gap on the PC Engine Mini. This is a relatively minor cosmetic grumble, however, and naturally has no impact on the system’s functionality. If it does bother you, then you’ll be even more annoyed by the fact that the AV and power sockets on the sides are also blank.

The controller feels like a one-for-one match with the original and comes with a generous 3-metre cable. The rolling D-Pad is brilliant, as are the two face buttons. Sadly, there’s no autofire option, as was the case with the revised PC Engine controller released after launch (this was the pad that the TurboGrafx-16 launched with). There are two USB ports on the front of the console (the original PC Engine only had one) so two-player games don’t need any additional hardware. For games that support more than two players (Bomberman, we’re looking at you), you’ll need to purchase a special adapter.

The version we’re reviewing here is the Japanese model. The North American version is renamed TurboGrafx-16 and features a different case design, while the European variant is based on the CoreGrafx revision of the Japanese PC Engine.

PC Engine Mini Review: The Games

The PC Engine Mini range offers 58 games – that’s 34 Japanese titles and 24 TurboGrafx-16 (American) games – but some of these are actually duplicates. In some cases where both a Japanese and North American version exist, both versions are included. So, Nectaris is available in its Japanese form as well as Military Madness, the North American release – and these are listed as two separate games on the console’s menu. There are some exceptions – Soldier Blade is only included in its TG-16 form, despite a Japanese release existing – but in this case it matters little as the versions are identical between regions due to the lack of Japanese text.

While the lineup is very similar across the three available hardware variants, there are some differences; the Japanese console gets Tokimeki Memorial and Tengai Makyō II: Manji Maru, while Konami’s shooter Salamander is exclusive to the North American and European editions. The version of Splatterhouse present is also different depending on which model you have; the western versions have the censored North American release where Rick wears a red mask to make him look less like Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees, while the Japanese model has the original, uncensored version.

It’s also worth noting that some of the games – such as Soldier Blade – come with bonus versions based on the popular ‘Caravan’ events which toured Japan at the time. These versions are usually score-focused and have a strict time limit, and are accessed by holding down the ‘Select’ button while pressing ‘Run’ to boot the game.

PC Engine Mini© Nintendo Life

The complete line up is as follows:

With (almost) 60 games available, the PC Engine Mini arguably trumps its micro-console rivals in terms of pure volume of software, but that number doesn’t tell the whole story. While Nintendo and Sega’s machines benefited from the amazing depth and breadth of their respective libraries, the PC Engine can’t offer quite the same degree of quality. There’s no 2D platformer here that is even close to rivalling Super Mario Bros. 3, nor is there an RPG present that can match The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Likewise, there’s no side-scrolling fighter at all, which means the PC Engine Mini lacks an answer to the brilliant Streets of Rage 2 on the Mega Drive Mini. In terms of pure software quality, Nintendo and Sega won that war a long time ago.

However, it’s worth pointing out that several of the titles on the PC Engine Mini rank as some of the best of the era. Dracula X: Rondo of Blood is widely regarded as one of the best entries in the entire Castlevania series, while Ys Book I & II is a classic JRPG with glorious 2D cinematic scenes and an epic soundtrack. Daimakaimura – better known to western players as Ghouls ‘n Ghosts – is presented here in its SuperGrafx form, and is arguably one of the closest home ports available. Alien Crush is a brilliantly twisted take on pinball and a forerunner to the equally fantastic Devil’s Crush, and the caveboy Bonk – arguably the PC Engine’s most obvious rival to Mario and Sonic – appears in two excellent side-scrolling platformers.

However, where the PC Engine Mini truly shines is in its shooters. The original console was famous for its talent in this particular genre, and back in the day, import-savvy players debated endlessly over which console was best for this kind of intense experience – the PC Engine or the Sega Mega Drive. The system’s proficiency in this field is evidenced by the sheer volume of shooters present on this miniature re-release: Galaga ’88, Fantasy Zone, Dragon Spirit, Super Darius, Super Star Soldier, Aldynes, Seirei Senshi Spriggan, Spriggan Mark 2: Re-Terraform Project, Gradius, Gradius II: Gofer no Yabō, Star Parodier, Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire, Psychosis, R-Type, Space Harrier, Cho Aniki, Lords of Thunder, Blazing Lazers / Gunhed, Air Zonk and Soldier Blade are the 20 shooters available here, which means that over a third of the console’s entire library is devoted to the genre (shamefully, the astounding Gate of Thunder didn’t make the cut).

PC Engine Mini vs SNES Classic vs Mega Drive Mini© Nintendo Life

Given the quality of the assembled blasters, it’s hard to complain; Seirei Senshi Spriggan, Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire, Soldier Blade and Star Parodier alone would cost you thousands of dollars to acquire in their original forms. Even the more common examples – such as the peerless port of Irem’s R-Type which helped sell the PC Engine to the masses at launch – are well worth a play, making this system a shooter fan’s dream come true. However, if you’re not so keen on that genre, you may find that pickings are slimmer than you’d like.

Granted, RPG fans are well served with the aforementioned Ys: Book I & II, Dungeon Explorer, Cadash and Neutopia II (the latter being as close as PC Engine fans got to a Zelda on the system), and titles such as Moto Roader, Power Golf, Parasol Stars, Splatterhouse, Panic Bomber and the superb Bomberman ’94 offer some much-needed variety, but there are one too many duds on offer here for our liking. The Kung Fu – known in North America as China Warrior – impressed in the ’80s thanks to its massive, screen-filling sprites but in terms of gameplay, it’s a proper snore-fest and should have been omitted in favour of something more worthy. J.J. & Jeff is also a waste of space; while the Japanese original, Kato-chan & Ken-chan, is infamous for its toilet humour, it’s a dog of a game to play and the North American port is even less interesting as much of the amusing content is stripped out. Victory Run – viewed by some as the console’s answer to Out Run (which is ironic as the PC Engine actually got a port of Sega’s famous racer) – is similarly superfluous, and unless you have a real fondness for it, you’re unlikely to boot it up more than once. Why include these when titles like Gekibo: Gekisha Boy and Magical Chase are potential picks?

Then there’s the issue of Japanese text. The fact that the PC Engine Mini in all of its various guises includes Hideo Kojima’s seminal Snatcher is fantastic, but unless you can read Japanese, it’s going to be a closed book to you. The same can be said for Tokimeki Memorial, Tengai Makyō II: Manji Maru and Jaseiken Necromancer, all of which are dense RPGs which don’t feature an English language option because there never was one; they were exclusive to their native Japan back in the day.

In terms of emulation quality, everything is absolutely spot-on as far as we can tell – and that’s to be expected with M2 at the helm. The menus are animated neatly and look very similar to the ones seen on Nintendo’s Classic Editions and the Sega Mega Drive Mini (the latter of which was also handled by M2). The games are presented in two categories for each region, and switching between the two of them triggers a cool effect where the screen blinks off before switching over to the other menu, just like when you’d turn the original hardware off on your old-school CRT TV back in the day. Booting a game also triggers a cool animation which shows the HuCard or System Card being placed in a console, complete with authentic sound effects.

You have slots for save states and it’s possible to change the way the screen looks, too. Sadly, the CRT filter makes the image look very fuzzy, and when running with the default setup there’s an odd shimmering effect due to the fact that the pixels are being distorted slightly. Switch to pixel-perfect mode and this issue vanishes completely. There’s also a filter mode which plays the game via a PC Engine GT / TurobGrafx Express, which is really awkward but amusing all the same.

PC Engine Mini Review: Conclusion

PC Engine Mini© Nintendo Life

The PC Engine holds a special place in the hearts of many retro gamers, so it’s fantastic to see a micro-console hit the market which caters for this very specific niche. While the PC Engine Mini isn’t going to have the same widespread appeal as the SNES Classic or Mega Drive Mini, it’s nonetheless a welcome addition to this burgeoning sector of the games industry.

Sure, there are a few odd selections when it comes to the bundled software, but being able to play titles like Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, Seirei Senshi Spriggan, Soldier Blade, Splatterhouse, Parasol Stars, Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire without having to remortgage your house is pretty special. M2’s emulation is as faultless as ever (shame about that CRT filter, mind) and if you’re a fan of the system already then this is perhaps going to rank as your favourite micro-console so far.

However, without a recognisable slate of characters like Mario, Sonic or Link to pull them in, total newcomers might be left wondering what all the fuss is about – which perhaps says more about the failure of the TurboGrafx-16 in the west than it does about the overall quality of the games. Outside of Japan, the PC Engine was always an acquired taste, so it’s actually rather fitting that the situation should remain largely unchanged in 2020.

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