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Official Article

Failed 90's Video Game Console Wars

Video game enthusiasts know that the main event of the “Console Wars” in the 80’s and 90’s was fought between Nintendo and Sega. Insults were hurled in TV and print ads, neighborhoods were divided based on choice of video game system and in the long run Nintendo won the war. But there was also a battle for third place during this time with Neo Geo and Turbo Grafx 16 squaring off for our gaming dollars. What follows are my memories of these fringe gaming systems and their legacy.

I remember noticing the ads for Turbo Grafx 16 on the back of comic books around 1991 and thinking they were the edgiest kind of advertising I had seen. That kid had a gaming screen fused to his face, there were broken shards of other 16 bit adventures blasting out of his head. It was totally extreme. I saw the strange new logo, but everyone I knew was still stuck on Super Mario Bros. 3 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Then a kid named John moved into the neighborhood and introduced me to punk rock in gaming form.

I ha gotten to know John over the years en he came to town to visit his Grandparents, a sweet, old German woman named Elfie and a thin, harp playing gentleman named Victor, who were my neighbors.  Since I was the only kid in the neighborhood they knew by name, I was invited to over to be John’s friend. He was cool guy, with a mischievous side, that for the purposes of this article will be represented by the late Brad Renfro.

During previous visits John had always brought along the latest in video gaming technology. In 1989 it was the Power Pad for the NES, where we raced each other in World Class Track Meet. In 1990 I remember being dazzled by the 3-D graphics of Marble Madness and thinking he must have had some special connection to the gaming industry to score such hi-tech equipment.

On one summer visit in 1991, John revealed that he and his family were going to be moving the grandparent's house permanently. Even more exciting, he was going to be in my class at school during the next year. Soon I was coming over after school every day to play video games and on one weekday afternoon John revealed a black machine I had never seen before, with a logo that identified it as Turbo Grafx 16. It was that “thing” from comic books! Based on the ads I had thought it was some black market device that only older, high school kids with drug habits had the guts purchase and now it was in front of me.

Looking at the system itself, the controller was similar to the Nintendo style, but the black color scheme made it seem so dangerous. Plus, the games weren’t cartridges, they were flat plastic cards that you slid into the front of the console. It was alien technology as far as I was concerned and I didn’t dare touch it for fear of being infected with “trouble”. Then John chose a game, Splatterhouse.

If you’ve never heard of Splatterhouse, it was like Double Dragon meets Friday The 13th with a whole lotta bloody, supernatural mutants. You played as a guy named Rick with an evil mask attached to his face who tore his way through a haunted house and ripped monsters to shreds with 2x4’s, meat cleavers, shot guns and other implements of destruction. The kicker was that the dying demons did indeed splatter against the walls and you bled if you got attacked! This was in the days before Mortal Kombat, so this kind of gratuitous violence was totally unheard of. 

In this one afternoon, John basically confirmed everything I ever imagined about Turbo Grafx 16, it was bad news. My curiosity was satisfied and my stomach turned. I never even asked to play the thing again, just winced through scenes of ultra-violence and waited for him to plug the NES back in. John actually got over the Turbo Grafx 16 pretty quickly as well. I don’t remember him hooking it up much as the years went on, opting mostly to play NBA Jam  for the Super Nintendo where he showed me how to unlock P-Funk and President Bill Clinton as playable characters. Yes, the Turbo Grafx 16 experience was short lived, but another mysterious gaming system showed up in the neighborhood shortly after in an attempt to get my loyalty.

My neighbor Andy lived directly across the street from my childhood home. He was a first generation American of Chinese descent, which really just meant that I had to take off my shoes off when I went over to his house to play. He had an awesome collection of M.A.S.K. figures, including the Boulder Hill base playset and was my first introduction to Dragonball Z comics. Then one day in August, after a summer trip visiting his extended family in China, Andy returned with the most exotic video game system I had ever beheld, Neo Geo.

It wasn’t really the look of the system itself that was special. After all it was just a black box with standard cartridge games, but it was the library of games that made it awesome. The main game I remember was King of the Monsters. It was a fighting game with a twist, you were gigantic monsters battling each other in the middle of a city. I always chose the giant super hero Astro Guy, but there was also a Godzilla like lizard named Geon, a King Kong wannabe name Woo and more to choose from. It was basically professional wrestling for monsters, but the awesome thing was that the buildings around you would crumble and blow up as you kicked your opponent around.

The other thing that made Neo Geo special was the rumored compatibility to the arcade games. According to Andy, the home console had a removable memory card that you could plug into the Neo Geo cabinet at the arcade. I was always suspicious of this claim, since we used to go to the local arcade a lot together (after digging in the couch cushions for loose change) and I never saw him bust out the card to play King of the Fighters. Still, it added to the mystique of the system and the fact that those bright red cabinets did have the slot for your memory card always gave me some hope to see this feature in action. 

2 factors kept Neo Geo out of my home and everyone else I knew besides Andy. One, it was over $1,000 to buy and as a result, I never saw it for sale on store shelves. You were getting arcade quality graphics, but I think most kids would rather spend $5 in quarters at an actual arcade than make Neo Geo their only Christmas present for the next decade. Two, there was no mascot for the system that made an impact. They seemed to have mostly fighting games with generic character designs, none of whom had the charm of Sonic or Mario. Ultimately, some people might have heard of Neo Geo as a home console, but would be have been hard pressed to choose a favorite game.

Speaking of mascots, I should mention that Turbo Grafix 16 did have one icon who tried to give Mario a run for his money. Who was this pretender to the crown? Just a little bald Caveman called BONK! Imagine the mutant hybrid love child of Fred Flintstone and Charlie Brown in the body of Stewie from Family Guy bashing prehistoric obstacles with his cro-magnon cranium. That was BONK!

For a while there the little guy was getting some good press. 2 page comic strips featuring BONK were regularly inserted into my issues of Spectacular Spider-Man in order to raise awareness of the apparent heir to the Italian plumber’s throne. It didn’t happen, but he did get 2 games, BONK’s Adventure and BONK’s revenge out of the deal, which were pretty fun.

Well, that’s it. Who knew I would have so much to say about a pair of failed video game systems that I barely played. Perhaps the weirdness that kept them from being fixtures in our household was what made them memorable.

Did you ever get a chance to mash buttons on Turbo Grafx 16 or Neo Geo? What were your favorite games?
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Looking for more from Hoju Koolander?

echidna64 Posted on Jan 17, 2017 at 05:15 PM

The World Track game was one hell of a workout!

NLogan Posted on Jan 11, 2017 at 02:22 PM

I can still hear the music from Marble Madness looking at the levels, and feel the frustration. That game was murder hard.

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