Originally launched in 1987, The PC Engine console – known as the TurboGrafx-16 in America – has gained a cult following recently, most notably when controversial rapper Kanye West tweeted his affection for the games machine back in 2016. A massive success in its native Japan, its producer, NEC, failed to repeat the trick in the US, despite the nostalgia for the 16-bit console today.
Over 600 games were released on the PC Engine over its HuCARD and CD-ROM formats. With the Bitmap Books’ first release of 2023, PC Engine: The Box Art Collection, available shortly, we thought it was about time we had a peek at six of our favourite covers and their TurboGrafx-16 equivalents together with PC Engine collector and enthusiast, Lee Thacker, AKA @superplay on Twitter.
Bomberman – Hudson Soft, 1991
For our first comparison, it’s apt that we focus on a game from Hudson Soft, co-developer of the PC Engine alongside NEC. These two covers could not be more different both in content and tone. The PC Engine cover is stark and eye-catching, featuring just the head of Bomberman. Despite its simplicity of expression, there’s still a look of panic on this face – maybe he’s trapped between two bombs! Meanwhile, TurboGrafx-16 owners got something a little more descriptive on their cover of Bomberman. Two combatants are locked in mortal battle, the crumbling walls demonstrating the power of their bombs. The man in red appears unaware as blue creeps up on him, a bomb raised as explosions rock the maze. So, drastically diverse images, albeit with one common theme – those slightly-perturbed eyes…
Lee says: “I find the cover artwork of Bomberman interesting. The Japanese cover is quite plain, with the USA cover using a pseudo-realistic representation of its gameplay.”
Dead Moon – TTI/TTS, 1991
This shoot-‘em-up’s art is another example of an unfussy PC Engine cover versus a busy and more descriptive TurboGrafx-16 effort. There’s a strong Blake’s Seven vibe to the Japanese picture (thanks to the player’s spacecraft’s resemblance to the Liberator from that show) and some fine detail in the cracked surface of the eponymous satellite. This clashes tremendously with the TurboGrafx-16 cover, where an epic space battle is taking place. The player’s craft is there again, this time firing its powerful lasers at an unseen enemy. Beneath this is a beautifully intricate planet leading to a futuristic domed city. Finally, the titular moon is in the top left of the cover and is not quite as impressively detailed – or dead – as its PC Engine counterpart.
Lee says: “The artwork of the Japanese version depicts a ‘dead moon’ and highlights the game’s genre with the text ‘hyper-shooting’. However, the moon in the US version is not so dead and indicates its genre more through imagery.”
Dungeon Explorer – Hudson Soft/NEC, 1989
This PC Engine action RPG is visually reminiscent of the old Atari dungeon romp Gauntlet. The Japanese cover is another less-is-more style of image, albeit with a title that’s not the easiest to read, its letters etched to the paved slab floor of a murky dungeon. Standing over them – perhaps taking in their significance – are four adventurers, only you can’t actually see them. Their four shadows add mystery and an ambience to the picture that far surpasses the cartoonish and impressionistic TurboGrafx-16 cover.
Lee says: “While both clearly show the game's title, my preference is the Japanese cover, a more atmospheric design, focusing on the dungeon floor with the characters lurking in the shadows.”
Magical Dinosaur Tour – Victor Musical Industries/NEC, 1990
Magical Dinosaur Tour isn’t really a videogame, more an interactive encyclopedia of our scaly reptile friends. This is reflected eloquently on its TurboGrafx cover as a young boy strolls through the prehistoric paradise, gazing wondrously at the friendly-looking dinosaurs around him. Contrast this with the PC Engine cover – gone is the lad, as a menacing Tyrannosaurus Rex takes centre stage, a fiery blood-red sky amplifying the raw, primitive power of the scene.
Lee says: “I wonder how many people purchased this thinking it was an action-adventure game rather than a dinosaur reference program!”
Time Cruise/Time Cruise II – Face/TTI, 1991
The origins of this sci-fi themed pinball game are a little muddy – hardly any mention exists of the original Time Cruise from Face, leaving us to wonder whether it was anything more than mere concept and advertising. This Japanese release was undoubtedly named a sequel to avoid confusion, but there were no such qualms for its TurboGrafx-16 version. Both covers are fascinating in their own respect: Time Cruise II’s central image is a bumper-like spacecraft as objects and themes from the game float around it. The stateside game, now named Time Cruise, is more unconventional, an image of four planets overlaid by a weirdly translucent pinball table.
Lee says: “Time Cruise is one of those rare instances where I prefer the USA cover – it clearly projects that the game is in the pinball genre. On the other hand, the Japanese cover could indicate that it’s a compendium of games due to the variety of objects shown.”
Vigilante – Irem/NEC, 1989
Lastly, we have another interesting pair of covers, again massively different in tone and imagery. Vigilante is Irem’s pseudo-sequel to its biggest arcade hit of the Eighties, Kung-Fu Master. Its PC Engine cover is a powerful and terrifying picture: a young woman is held hostage by an unseen captor. Pressed against her cheek is a small yet razor-sharp blade, and you can feel the terror in this poor girl’s eyes. Like most of the western conversions of Vigilante, the TurboGrafx-16 game has a vague and curiously undramatic scene on its cover. Two thugs (bearing little similarity to the in-game villains) are threatening the boiler-suited hero in the ruined streets of downtown New York. Despite the action, there’s no sense of pace or fear in this picture; the frightening PC Engine cover does a much better job of evoking the dread of these lawless streets.
Lee says: “Personally, the Japanese cover wins here. It highlights the kidnapping of your girlfriend, which forms the backdrop to this arcade conversion.”
Our thanks to Lee for his comments and box art scans. Also thanks to Paul Weller of the PC Engine Software Bible – check out his fantastic resource to the PC Engine.
These games and many more feature in the Bitmap Books’ upcoming PC Engine: The Box Art Collection.