First there was the NES Mini. Then the SNES. Then Sony joined in with the PlayStation, and last year Sega resurrected its hardware division with Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you prefer). And now it’s Konami’s turn, with the PC Engine Core Grafx Mini.
“Wait!” I hear you cry. “Konami never released a games console, did they?”
Well, no. But Hudson Soft did, and the venerable Japanese publisher (best known for Bomberman and an adorable bee logo) was slowly acquired by Konami from 2001 on, eventually merging entirely in 2012.
One retro console boom later, and here we are.
So that’s that cleared up - but there’s good odds you’ve still never heard of the PC Engine anyway. Launched in Japan in 1987, it came to the US two years later as the TurboGrafx-16, where it was quickly eclipsed by the Sega Genesis, launched just two weeks earlier.
Outside of France, it never saw a proper European launch at all, so while Japan and the US are getting mini reproductions of their respective originals, the European release (limited to the UK, France, and Italy) is of the CoreGrafx variant, an updated version of the hardware that dropped the original PC Engine’s white and red colour scheme.
If that all sounds a bit complicated, don’t worry: I’ve barely even gotten started yet. But I don’t mean that as a criticism. With less mass-market nostalgia than the SNES or Mega Drive to draw from, Konami has instead decided to play into the tastes of enthusiasts and collectors with a mini console that’s little less than a labour of love, as I found out when Konami let me play with the new PC Engine for a couple of hours in its Windsor office.
For starters, there’s the games. The Western versions include 57 games - 25 TurboGrafx-16 games in English, and 32 PC Engine games that never made it to the US, available here in their original Japanese-language ROMs.
As a kindness, Konami stripped out two of the more text-heavy JRPGs from the Japanese selection, making it up with bullet hell shooter Salamander. A few games appear both in English and Japanese (meaning that 57-game count is ever so slightly inflated), but most are one or the other. Including, thanks to the quirks of historical releases, a US ROM of Bomberman ‘93, but Japanese-only Bomberman ‘94.
The charitable read - and Konami’s company line - is that this is a lineup designed to let you discover great games you’ve never played before. That’s a nice way of saying that outside of Bomberman, Gradius, R-Type, and Castlevania you might struggle to find many names you recognise.
There is plenty to discover here though. Scrolling shooters are especially well represented, with R-Type and Gradius joined by Salamander, Blazing Lazers, Super Darius, Super Star Soldiers, and even more besides. There are a few of the less text-y JRPGs too, along with curios such as the Zelda-like Neutopia and its sequel, messy horrorfest Splatterhouse, and the almost indescribable J.J & Jeff.
To keep things clear(ish), Konami has split the Japanese and US ROMs up into two separate menus - each with a UI based on the colour scheme of the respective console, with another option in there for the black-and-blue Core Grafx we’re getting. You can even activate an animated chibi console - PC Engine-kun - to wander around the backdrop at all times. I will never turn this off.
Display options are just as diverse, ranging from authentic one-to-one pixel reproduction up to fullscreen stretch (please don’t use this) and even the option to watch the whole thing inside the display frame of the portable PC Engine GT (this thing had a lot of variants). Since there was never a proper PAL release these are all 60Hz NTSC versions, and Konami has also thrown in a CRT filter that throws in a few scan lines to cut through the flatscreen sheen.
As for the hardware, that’s from ever-reliable accessory company Hori. The console itself is about 10 percent smaller than the original - already pretty dinky - and comes with two controller ports, though only one pad is shipped in the box. The controller also includes two turbo switches that let you adjust the input of the two main face buttons for different in-game effects - something that plenty of PC Engine games took unique advantage of.
Grab the optional Turbo Tap accessory and you can even go up to five players in supported games like Bomberman. Konami’s representatives wouldn’t comment on whether third party controllers would be supported but, well, it’s a USB port. You do the maths.
While Nintendo, Sony, and Sega’s retro machines have been precision-targeted at nostalgic gamers’ wallets, the PC Engine will struggle to leverage the same appeal, especially here in the UK where it’s virtually unheard of. It’s not helped by a higher price - £99/$99 - and global Amazon exclusivity that will lock it out of any physical retail when it launches on 19 March.
It would be a shame if we all slept on it though. The commitment to detail is easily on a par with Sega’s - so far the gold standard - and while the game library may seem lacklustre at first blush I suspect it’s packed with hidden gems. That makes it a breath of fresh air for retro gamers fed up of buying Super Mario Bros. 3 or Street Fighter II for the eighteenth time - at least there might be something here you haven’t played before. And isn’t that the point of buying a new console in the first place?