I’ve already done an article on the Turbografx-16, which is also known as the PC Engine outside North America. Hence, I shall not waste your time talking about its hardware or what made this system so successful. Instead, let’s take a look at some of the more underrated games that were released on this console.
Today, I shall take a look at the 30 best PC Engine games of all time that you must play. However, these games are going to be very different from the ones I reviewed in my original Turbografx-16 article. In fact, you’ll find that quite a few games on today’s list were never released outside Japan.
If you’re a collector or enthusiast who’s interested in Japan-exclusive PC Engine titles, you might want to keep reading. Of course, not all games on today’s list are Japan exclusive. So you have plenty to keep yourself busy with if you aren’t familiar with the Japanese language (or keen on downloading modded ROMs from niche forums/ archives).
A game in which you play as a ninja, mercilessly slashing your way through hordes of enemies to avenge your father who was killed by a man-beast hybrid. Ninja Spirit perfectly encapsulates the 1980s and its love for all things related to ninjas. These mysterious Japanese assassins are often portrayed as skilled, cold-blooded killers who can fade in and out of sight while throwing smoke bombs and ninja stars.
In Ninja Spirit, you don’t do much sneaking. Instead, you go through one platforming level after another while fighting everything from enemy ninjas to monsters. The setting is feudal Japan, and each level has its own unique visual theme (forest, castle, temple, etc.).
Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film birthed an era of Hollywood blockbusters based on superheroes. Today, superhero films are the norm and make the most money. Back then, people never imagined that these characters could be portrayed as anything more than children’s entertainment.
Like the movie it’s based on, the Batman game of 1989 also shattered several norms and preconceptions. It showed that platformers can be dark and cool, unlike Mario in which you play a colorful Italian plumber saving his princess from a castle. Batman’s plot is based on the 1989 movie and features many of the same characters.
This is basically a remake of Sokoban with the same gameplay mechanics and characters/ models. Much like Sokoban, you’re tasked with pushing boxes inside a warehouse-like structure. Your goal is to line up all the specially marked boxes in the storage location.
Apparently, forklifts aren’t a thing in this warehouse. Either that or the boxes are really light because your character never runs out of stamina. To get more points, you must complete the puzzle in the fewest number of turns possible.
Chew Man Fu
You might have heard of Dr. Fu Machu. He’s an evil Chinese supervillain written in the early 1900s by English author Sax Rohmer. Fu Manchu is the template behind many modern villainous characters, including many evil bosses from the James Bond books/ movies.
Chew Man Fu is a clear play on words, and its cover-page character looks similar to the legendary Chinese villain. However, the game itself isn’t some dark fantasy adventure or story involving magical Chinese assassins (like one would expect). Instead, this is a simple maze game in which you bounce a ball between walls.
Believe it or not, strategy games have been around since the 1980s. And I’m not talking about the basic stuff like chess (that game was created hundreds of years ago). Think modern simulation/ military strategy games similar to X-COM or Civilization.
Military Madness is a turn-based strategy that takes place in a futuristic sci-fi universe where humans have colonized the moon. A WW2-like situation is playing out between the aptly named “Allied” and “Axis” forces. This time, the bad guys have nukes and will obliterate all of Earth if you don’t stop them on time.
Gate of Thunder
The Turbografx-16 got a few revisions and upgrades during its lifecycle. One of these was the Turbografx-16 CD (also known as PC Engine CD outside North America). NEC later released a “Duo” model that could run both CD and regular titles.
Gate of Thunder is a game that uses its CD format to display detailed sprites with complex colors. It’s one of the best-looking 2D shooters from the early 1990s and still holds up pretty well to this day. You pilot a space fighter called the “Hunting Dog”, with a support craft called the “Wild Cat” at your side as you plow through waves of enemy spaceships.
Castlevania: Rondo of Blood
You play as vampire hunter extraordinaire Richter Belmont who invades Dracula’s castle to rescue his kidnapped lover Annette. Dracula’s castle contains many horrors, as well as treasures. You’ll come across several women who’ve been kidnapped by Dracula’s minions and are being kept in cages for him to feed on.
Enemies include monsters, ghosts, minotaurs, etc. While rescuing trapped maidens from the castle, you can free one of your distant relatives who then becomes a playable character. Your primary weapon is an enchanted whip, but you can also use holy water, axes, daggers, etc.
Veigues: Tactical Gladiator
Three centuries from now, Earth is being attacked by an invading alien force who are relentlessly occupying new locations and exterminating the human population. Various scientific and military groups around the world came together to create a new superweapon that will defeat these aliens. And since this is a game made by Japanese devs in the late 1980s, giant combat robots called Veigues are what humanity comes up with.
It was originally known as Air Buster in Japan before being renamed “Aero Blasters” for an international release. The game is a 2D side-scrolling shooter in which you fight against an alien mothership that is hovering above the city skyline. You’re equipped with a state-of-the-art fighter aircraft that can equip different types of cannons, rockets, and bombs.
New Adventure Island
The original Adventure Island was an adaptation of Sega’s arcade game “Wonder Boy” in which you play as a lone hero trying to rescue his girl from an evil kidnapper. New Adventure Island is more of the same stuff with some additional characters and gameplay mechanics to keep things interesting. Once again, you play as Master Higgins.
Your marriage with the love of your life Tina is finally complete. But just as you’re leaving the church, a group of thugs hired by a mysterious mafia boss character kidnaps your wife. You go on a quest to get her back, armed with multiple weapon types including axes and bows.
Possibly one of the most interesting pinball games ever made. Time Cruise is about a young scientist called Eric who learns how to build a time travel machine through his contact with an extraterrestrial lifeform. His time machine consists of seven buildings, with a silver-colored travel pod that moves between each building.
The travel pod is your main screen and you can switch between the 7 different buildings, each of which is represented by a different screen. If you hit one of the switches with your ball, you’ll dial in a specific time period. Occasionally, the machine will malfunction and send you into a hidden dimension that’s different from what you dialed in.
A game based around the Battle of Midway in the Pacific Theatre during June 1942. The game is a vertically scrolling shooter in which you pilot American fighter aircraft, going through clouds and waves of Japanese planes to reach your target. The final boss is a sunken Japanese battleship that some of you WW2 nerds might be familiar with- the Yamato.
You’re retaliating against Japanese aircraft that attacked American carriers, and there are 16 levels in total. Out of these, 5 are pure air-t0-air dogfight stages while the rest involve air-to-sea attacks against ships. You don’t have multiple lives, and survivability is decided by your fuel gauge.
It’s the future, and humans have established colonies in outer space. One of those, called Terra 12, is attacked by aliens. Instead of sending their troops, the aliens unleash a large radiation wave that transforms all sentient life into mutated zombies.
After affecting everyone with this disease, the invaders drop in with their massive “governors” that are each the size of a giant mothership. You play as a small combat robot equipped with jetpacks and a variety of weapons. There are a total of 6 stages, each culminating with a fight against one of the alien governors.
A game that did first-person shooters before Doom 64 or Wolfenstein 3D. Faceball can also be credited with inventing the “deathmatch” concept. You take a bunch of game systems, daisy-chain them, and assign a master system that hosts the game.
It doesn’t have people, but low-resolution faces that shoot rubber balls. Each level is made up of a maze, consisting of several walls (Faceball is basically a port of MIDI Maze). The game comes with preloaded maze designs, but you can also create your own with an editor.
Super Star Soldier
This was initially released in the HuCard format for PC Engine before a Turbografx-16 version was made for North American markets. Super Star Soldier never became all that popular outside Japan. But over time, it has gathered a cult following and is considered one of the best PC Engine shooters ever made.
This game is a sequel to Star Soldier, which featured giant sentient spaceships equipped with AI-powered supercomputers that wanted to take over the galaxy. They have returned with a giant mothership this time. And you have an improved starfighter to defend Earth from their attack.
Mecha anime was pretty popular during the 1990s. And culture often flows downstream from movies/ anime to video games. In Browning, you control a giant combat robot designed to infiltrate and destroy a man-made island fortress that is designing super weapons.
There are only five levels and an equally few unique enemy types, plus boss fights feel too forced. All these reasons meant that Browning never gained much popularity outside Japan. Despite that, it’s one of the best side-scrolling shooters on this console.
Don Doko Don
Platformers were all the rage during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Even games that weren’t necessarily platformers featured many of the same mechanics. After all, there’s only so much you can do within a 2D space.
Don Doko Don takes this system and tweaks the gameplay to keep things interesting. Instead of jumping on enemies, you stun and crush them with your mallet. Then, you toss the stunned enemies at others to gain bonus points.
What’s worse than a race of alien insects invading the Earth? A race of robotic alien insects invading the Earth. And to fight these extraterrestrial cybernetic bugs, humans have designed a special fighter jet.
This jet has both inorganic and organic components, reverse engineered from alien tech. It can transform the pilot into an insectoid form to infiltrate the underground alien base. You can fire in all 8 directions and drop bombs on ground targets.
The team at Quest who created Ogre Battle and FF Tactics cut their teeth on Magical Chase before moving on to create two of the best strategy titles. Magical Chase is a 2D side-scroller in which you play as the apprentice to a powerful witch.
After messing up a spell, you’ve accidentally released 6 demons into the world. Accompanied by your assistants, you must capture these demons before the witch decides to turn you into a frog as punishment.
The 3rd installment in a legendary ARPG series, Ys III starts with an ominous fortune telling. Dogi and Adol are both traveling to a town when on the way, they come across a fortune teller. However, the crystal ball explodes which prompts both of our heroes to head toward Dogi’s hometown in fear that something bad is about to happen.
On your way to the town, you meet one of Dogi’s childhood friends. It turns out that Dogi’s home village is under attack by a group from the nearby castle. And thus begins an adventure that takes you across a giant land filled with adventures, monsters, and treasures.
At the start, you’re shown an introductory scene of a young female warrior getting overrun by hordes of monsters. She dies and is resurrected as a fairy. This 2nd life is your chance to beat the invading monsters who are ravaging your lands.
Silphia (her name is different from the title) can use 4 different weapons, each base on an elemental force. The fire attack shoots out balls of flame that follow your targets. Wind moves indiscriminately and affects a wide area, while water can affect multiple units in different directions.
Puyo Puyo CD 2
A simple falling block puzzler in which you combine 4 Puyo blocks of the same color to make them disappear before your stack reaches the top of the screen. Chaining combos will result in special bonuses like Nuisance blocks which don’t match with any of the regular blocks. If you spawn one of these in your enemy’s box, they have to destroy Puyos that are directly next to it in order to make the Nuisance disappear.
Legend of Hero Tonma
Another platformer, another princess to rescue. But this time, you’ve got a hero who can spit fireballs like Bowser (and he even wears a cape). Legend of Hero is the exact kind of game you play once in your childhood, and get nostalgic about after watching a couple of gameplay clips on Youtube.
Even though this game was released all the way back in 1988 when VHS was still a thing, it features a rather unique camera angle. You see, Marchen Maze doesn’t use a top-down or sideways camera. Instead, it portrays the environment through an isometric lens that lends some pseudo-3D effect to what is otherwise a completely 2D game.
The game itself is a mix of a tactical puzzler and a platformer. You control Alice- a little girl who must make her way across mazes while avoiding enemies. You can blow bubbles to capture enemies and collect powerups that grant new abilities.
This game is licensed after the first Die Hard movie. In which off-duty cop John McClane fights his way through floor after floor filled with sophisticated European terrorists. He is trying to rescue his wife, and all the innocent civilians trapped within the building.
The game opens up similarly to the movie. You are in Los Angeles to meet up with your wife at a Christmas party in the giant Nakatomi Plaza. A terrorist group ruins your day by holding everyone hostage while they attempt to crack the safe at the top of the building.
A shooter that tries to switch things up in order to stand out from the competition. It was released during a time when there was no dearth of shooters for consoles, PC Engine very much included. So why would you pick this up over more popular stuff like R-Type?
Well, for starters the design of your character is quite unique. Instead of a forward-facing ship that scrolls in one direction, Barunba features a floating globe with a pilot in the center. This globe is surrounded by rotating weapons that can fire in any direction.
You might know this game by another name- Solomon’s Key. It was on NES, C64, arcade, etc., but this version is exclusive to PC Engine. Zipang is actually a licensed game adaptation of a Japanese movie (the movie has a different name), which also features a samurai.
In Zipang, you don’t have action hack ‘n slash gameplay. Instead, it’s a tactical platformer in which you create and destroy blocks to move up until you find a key that lets you exit the level.
3×3 Eyes: Sanjiyan Hensei
This is one of the weirder games on my list, and that’s saying something for an old anime-themed visual novel from Japan. You play Yakumo, the guardian to a 3-eyed girl known as Pai. What’s interesting is that your character has been granted immortality.
However, it’s regarded as a curse rather than a gift. If the person you’re guarding dies, so do you. Pai is looking for a way to become human once again, which might break the curse.
Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire
Also known simply as “Sapphire”, this game is about a time-traveling female police force. Each member of this crime-fighting community is trained and equipped with the latest in weaponry/ armor. You can think of their field agents as a hybrid between Minority Report officers and Bladerunners.
The actual gameplay isn’t on foot but inside a fighter. It’s a shoot ‘em up, and one of the best-looking games ever made for PC Engine. The soundtrack is pretty catchy too.
Strider is based on a 1988 manga by the publisher group Moto Kikaku (the manga is called Strider Hiryu). The game blends classical ninja action with sci-fi elements. Your main character can jump, dash, and cut through enemies with his plasma sword. The main thing that separates Strider from other action-platformers of that era is its depth of gameplay.
Depending on how you use your controls, you can make Hiryu execute a wide range of acrobatic maneuvers. These include dodges, rolls, slides, jumps, etc. Retro game historians and gaming journalists often consider Strider Hiryu to have influenced many modern action games like God of War, DMC, etc.
Believe it or not, the PC Engine was actually launched in Japan well before it made it into North American markets as the Turbografx-16. It was created as a collaborative project between Hudson Soft and NEC, both Japanese tech companies. Back in the 1980s, NEC was riding a wave of success thanks to its excellent PC-88 and PC-98 home computer models.
On release, the PC Engine was doing quite well against Nintendo’s Famicom. This was due to a combination of good design choices and excellent support from 3rd party game developers. The PC Engine was later released in Europe where it generated a cult following.
Gamers were buying NTSC-to-PAL adapters, and a British company even made their own PAL version of the PC Engine (not officially supported by NEC). The PC Engine would go on to receive quite a few accessories and hardware revisions. One of those was the CD-ROM upgrade known as PC Engine CD/ Turbografx-16 CD.