Exploring the SuperGrafx

PC Engine SuperGrafx

For anyone who grew up with an intense interest in gaming there were of course always some systems they liked and some they didn’t like, but I’m willing to bet there was also one which they were always intrigued by, one they wanted but probably never even got to see nevermind own. A system that seemed to take on an almost mythical aura of wonder and excitement. For me that system was the PC Engine SuperGrafx.

The original PC Engine was an amazing machine itself, like the Holy Grail to a videogame-obsessed teenager like myself. All the hype and excitement surrounding it in the pages of magazines like C&VG built it up and up – even my dad was impressed with it! But then reports started surfacing of a new, more powerful PC Engine. What could possibly be better than the amazing Engine? Well, as many of you may well know by now, it was not well received and few games were ever released for it, but even in spite of that it retained its mysterious and enticing aura in my mind and it has remained ever since. Until, that is, I attended the Replay gaming expo in Blackpool where I was excited to see this very console nestled menacingly between a standard Engine and and a NEC PC-FX. Finally I had been granted the opportunity to use a real SuperGrafx in the flesh (so to speak) and I seized it!

Whatever faults the SuperGrafx might’ve had, it’s always sad to see a console flop as dramatically as this one did and sadly, as a consequence of this, there were only ever five dedicated games released for the system, with a further two that worked on both the standard Engine as well as the SuperGrafx, benefiting from improved graphics on the latter. Here I’ll take a look at all five of the dedicated titles released for it:

Aldynes (1991)

Aldynes
Amusingly sub-titled ‘The Mission Code for Rage Crisis’, this is one of just three all-original games made specifically for the new system and to be honest, I can’t decide if it’s the best or the worst of them! It’s a pretty traditional side-viewed shmup set over various alien landscapes and through space with you in command of a small but formidable space fighter. There are of course numerous power-ups to be found including speed-ups and various fairly unoriginal but effective weapons, but there are also drone-type devices which seem to have a bit more sentience than most as they home in on and zap the enemies for you! It’s a good idea in theory but they do make the game rather easy (except the bosses – eek!). The graphics are pretty nice though – their style reminded me of an Amiga game to start with but there is some nice backgrounds and bosses and the music is good too. Aldynes is a decent horizontal-scroller but there’s better examples on the standard Engine.

Madouou Granzort (1990)

 

Granzort

Out of all the SG games, this is the one I knew least about prior to this feature and my instant first impressions of it weren’t too good. Predictably based on an anime series, Granzort itself is a giant robot warrior fighting to rid the world of invading monsters which, in the case of this game, results in a side-viewed run ‘n’ gun adventure. Granzort looked and moved a bit clunkily to start with, but after I’d played this for just a short while I soon realised it’s actually pretty sweet! As Granzort the player can switch between three different robot configurations, each with its own attacks which are more effective against certain enemies than others. The music is catchy and the graphics are really nice too, particularly the backgrounds. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that Granzort is a top-notch platform/combat game and I’ll definitely be playing this some more.

Battle Ace (1989)

 

BattleAce

This was the first SuperGrafx game I played (at Replay) and I was initially rather deflated. It certainly didn’t strike me as demonstrating a significant leap in graphical abilities but after playing it a for a while I started to rather enjoy it. It’s essentially a first-person take on After Burner and requires little further explanation beyond its slightly more futuristic setting. Your craft is equipped with cannons and heat-seeking missiles with which you must take out the many enemies that advance from the horizon. The music here is largely forgettable and the graphics aren’t particularly impressive, with somewhat sparse backgrounds and uninspiring sprites, but there are some nice weather effects and the chosen perspective allows for the inclusion of a useful HUD which helps make this a fairly enjoyable, if unoriginal into-the-screen shmup. Probably not as good as After Burner on the standard Engine though!

Daimakaimura a.k.a. Ghouls n’ Ghosts (1990)

GhoulsnGhosts
This was the SuperGrafx game the magazines mostly used screenshots of to tantalise us readers with and I can see why – it’s a cracking conversion of Capcom’s arcade classic. As most (old) gamers will already know, it’s a hard-as-nails platform shooter which sees you, as Sir Arthur the knight, battling hordes of undead creatures across many creepy locations in an effort to save your lover from the evil clutches of Lucifer. Frequently compared to the fantastic MegaDrive version, this SuperGrafx port very nearly succeeds in eclipsing it which, when you consider it’s still technically running on an 8-bit machine, is an amazing achievement! This is a superb port of a superb game and is every bit as playable as the best versions around.

1941: Counter Attack (1991)

1941
Yep, it’s another shoot ’em up! This time a conversion of the arcade game of the same name and latest in the 194x series of WWII-set vertical-scrollers from Capcom. Surprisingly this port for the SuperGrafx is the only official conversion the game received which is surprising given its quality. As you might expect, the game sees you taking on the entire enemy military single-handedly, this time using a P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft. You start with a pretty feeble forward-firing cannon and three ‘loops’ (smart bombs) but numerous power-ups are of course forthcoming. It’s a fast-paced game, with enemies zooming around all over the place and appearing from all sides of the screen so it’s pretty tough going in single player mode, especially considering how small many of the sprites are. Luckily there’s a nice two-player mode which helps. A hard but good shmup which ably demonstrates the SuperGrafx’s sprite-handling abilities!

The Verdict:
And there we have it – the entire back catalogue of the SuperGrafx! To be honest it’s hard to know what NEC were thinking when they decided to go ahead with this machine. The PC Engine was a big success in Japan, a moderate success in the US (which is good considering how little they promoted it), and highly sought after in Europe (where they stupidly never released it), and the Engine CD-ROM was going pretty well too, featuring many games that wouldn’t be possible on a standard Engine so, to a mere mortal like me, it would’ve seemed like a better idea to concentrate on that machine.

Admittedly, NEC’s vision was more grandiose to start with though. The SuperGrafx was originally intended to be a full 16-bit system dubbed the ‘PC Engine 2’ but somewhere along the line something happened and NEC got cold feet, scaled down their plans for the new machine, and released it earlier than expected as the SuperGrafx. Hardware improvements over the standard PC Engine ended up being negligible with the new system using the same CPU as its predecessor, benefiting only from additional RAM and a couple of extra chips.

I’d love to interview the heads of NEC around this time to find out exactly what they were hoping for with the SuperGrafx. Its games are all good and do look nice for the most part but there’s better examples of each of them on a standard Engine. The most baffling thing for me though is NEC’s decision to make the SuperGrafx another HuCard-based system. While it does allow the console to be backwards-compatible with Engine games, I can’t work out for the life of me why they didn’t make it a CD-based system, especially considering the Engine CD-ROM was well established by this point.

So, it wasn’t a success, and deservedly so to be honest. It had very few improvements over the popular PC Engine which already had hundreds of games available (not to mention a CD-ROM), and it had perhaps the smallest number of dedicated games of any console ever. It seems hard to see the console as anything other than a lesson by NEC in how to squander success and money, but in spite of this and everything else, I still can’t help but be entranced by it! Just look at it – has there ever been a cooler or meaner-looking console?

Top Five MegaDrive Platform Games

megadrive2

Though popular since the 70’s, it was the late 80’s and early 90’s when gaming, particularly on consoles, really hit its stride, and like today there were a few genres that dominated release schedules. Among the most popular were shoot ’em ups but even more popular than these were of course platform games, and few if any consoles saw more examples of this genre than the MegaDrive. Most of them were average, some were horrifyingly bad, but there were still plenty of top-quality ones, and they took up a significant portion of my MegaDrive game-time.

I’ve owned and enjoyed dozens of them over the years so picking the best five is no easy task. To make it a little easier I decided to not to include any of the MD’s fantastic arcade conversions such as New Zealand Story, Rainbow Islands, etc, and the (at the time) splendid Sonic series only gets one nomination here too. Naturally, run ‘n’ gunners (Shinobi series, Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts, Gunstar Heroes, etc) aren’t included either, and nor are arcade adventures such as Flashback, Puggsy, etc. These categories are all good enough and numerous enough to receive their own Top Fives at some point. So, with all that in mind, here is my five favourite Mega Drive platformers.

Games-Related Top Fives Disclaimer: I’ve traditionally stuck to the games I know and love so far, and these game-related top fives reflect that. One of the purposes of this blog is diversify my gaming experiences, to play games I haven’t played before, so I will do new game-related top fives in a few years to see how different they are!

If I review any MD platformers in my upcoming feature that get really high scores, they don’t appear in this Top Five because I hadn’t played them before! (a.k.a covering my arse!)

5. Wiz ‘n’ Liz (1993)

 

5 - Wiz n Liz

I’m starting to wonder if I’m the only fan this poor old game has! I’m not usually a fan of fast ‘n’ frantic, against-the-clock type games, but Wiz ‘n’ Liz is so happy and cheerful (not to mention addictive), I can’t help but love it anyway! The object is simple enough – one or two players must race through each of the themed worlds rescuing the many rabbits that populate each whilst also collecting magic fruits and other items with which to create spells and prolong your game. It definitely seems to be a ‘hidden gem’ in the MD’s back catalogue but I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s the lack of violence and destruction but for me this has always been a top game – nice graphics, fantastic music, addictive gameplay, and even a few original ideas, equals a winning formula in my book.

4. Magical Flying Hat Turbo Adventure (1990)

4 - Robocod

I’ve mentioned this great game before, and I’ll do a full review at some point, but for now be assured that it’s awesome! Most Western gamers will know it by the new name and identity given to it for its European and US release (Decapattack) but I much prefer this Japanese original which is perhaps more famous for its amusing name than anything else! It will be instantly familiar to fans of Psycho Fox on the Master System as they share many qualities, but this is no sequel or tarted-up port. It’s a pretty large game with some stages featuring multiple routes through them and there are many quirky features present in its stages. Magical Hat is a real charmer which constantly entices you to explore its strange world. If you’ve never played it, or even if you’re veteran of Decapattack, do yourself a favour and give it a try.

3. James Pond 2 Codename: Robocod (1991)

3 - Magical Hat

Games don’t come much more nonsensical than this one! The original James Pond was an original and entertaining romp but this sequel cranked everything up a notch and is now a full platform game too, thanks to the special suit that allows James to remain on land. The game takes place across many themed stages populated by some very strange enemies and seemingly random collectible items but, perhaps aside from its strangeness, it doesn’t really do anything that countless other games haven’t done before – it just does it better than most games! The graphics and sound are among the MegaDrive’s best and the many stages are packed with features and secrets. This is probably the most slick and polished of all MD platformers, and certainly the craziest non-Japanese one!

2. Ristar (1995)

2 - Ristar

Good old Sonic Team. Not only did they regale us with the wonders of their Sonic games, but they also found time to sneak in this gem late in the MD’s life. It actually started out as the game that would become Sonic before being resurrected with Ristar in command, and the first stage does feature similar graphics, but the gameplay differs quite a bit. The pace is a lot slower for one thing. Ristar clambers around the gorgeous stages using his arms as much as his legs. He can climb up walls, across ceilings, and around trees and logs, and it is by experimenting with these abilities that you’ll be able to fully explore his world. The more sedate pace really suits the game and the character, as does the laid back soundtrack, and gives you the opportunity to appreciate the lush graphics! Many gamers missed this, what with the Saturn and PlayStation being unveiled, but if you were one of the ones who did notice it, you’ll not need me to tell you how good it is!

1. Sonic 2 (1992)

 

1 - Sonic 2

Sorry but it had to be really, didn’t it? No other game got MegaDrive gamers whipped up into a frenzy like this one, nevermind any other platform games. Sega’s motives for creating Sonic may not have been the best but at least they made a great game for him, so the sequel had a lot to live up to. To say it did would be one of gaming’s biggest ever understatements! Sonic 2 features bigger stages and more of them, a tougher challenge, and perhaps the nicest graphics and sound the console has ever produced. I’m sure everyone who owned an MD had this game so I don’t even need to extol its virtues really. Suffice to say, everything here is so much flashier than the first game it’s almost as if they’re running on different consoles, and the gameplay so finely-honed that, sadly, no further games in the Sonic series would ever better it.

As mentioned, the MegaDrive was swamped in platform games, so picking the best five was tough, mainly because I had to leave out some other great games. So, honourable mentions also go to: Castle of Illusion, Rolo to the Rescue, Kid Chameleon, Flicky, Quackshot, Aladdin, Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, goodness knows how many others…

Ghouls N Ghosts

Ghouls N Ghosts splash screen
Ghouls N Ghosts splash screen

Ah, the game that made me break one of my many Sega Genesis’s. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was released to the arcades in the spring of 1988. Maybe by Capcom, it was the popular sequel to the 1985 arcade smash Ghosts ‘n Goblins.

In Ghouls ‘n Ghosts the heroic knight Arthur must once again faceoff against the demonic hordes of Loki. After an attack on his kingdom Arthur’s lover, the lovely Princess Prin Prin, is killed along with many innocent civilians. To avenge the death of his love and restore her soul and the souls of the others Arthur will have to take down the big man Loki himself.

Ghouls ‘n Ghosts plays pretty much like Ghosts ‘n Goblins it is a platform run and gun type of gameplay meaning you have to always be on your toes firing away at the enemy and  avoiding traps and pitfalls. Luckily this time around Arthur can fire upwards and while jumping fire downwards which is a must in this game. In addition Arthur has an array of weapons at his disposal including a mega axe, a golden sword and even golden power armor.

Ghouls N Ghosts screenshot
Ghouls N Ghosts screenshot

When Arthur jumps in certain spots on the map a treasure chest will pop out of the ground. If Arthur destroys the chest he can find two things. First is an evil magician who turns him into a duck. As the duckyou are pretty much undead chow because you have no armor or weapons. The best thing to do is avoid any enemies until the effect wears off.

The second thing that can appear from the chest is Arthur’s golden armor. The golden armor allows any weapon Arthur currently has to gain a charged power up move that unleashes a special attack. Sadly, the golden armor works just like the normal silver armor where as if Arthur is hit it will break apart leaving him pretty much naked.

Once you work your way through five levels you discover you need a special weapon in order to defeat Loki. This restarts the game and you must fight your way through the same five levels and back to Loki’s chamber.

The game is extremely fun to play, but it can be very unforgiving at first, but once you learn your jumps, attacks and timing you can make it through the game without too much trouble. I can say this now, but when I first played it I had an awfully hard time and ended up punching my poor Genesis to death.

Ghouls ‘n Ghosts had some great music composed by Tamayo Kawamoto. The bosses were well designed along with the levels making sure your twitch level was high. In addition to great arcade success GnG was ported to several systems including the Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, CP System, Commodore 64, X68000, Sega Saturn, PlayStation, SuperGrafx, Sega Master System, Mega Drive/Genesis, Virtual Console, ZX Spectrum.