Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Duo-ver: A Second Shot at the TurboDuo

First, a little background. In those bygone days we call the early 1990s, Bill Clinton was the president of the United States, Friends was the most popular show on television, and compact discs were making their first timid steps toward becoming the video game industry's preferred storage format. I wasn't on board with any of these things. I reacted to the Sega CD with frustration and disgust, and laughed off the TurboDuo as NEC's last desperate grasp at relevancy in a market dominated by the Sega Genesis and the freshly released Super NES.

"Bah, they're just overpriced gadgets that'll drive a wedge in the market!," I told myself... and on that point, I was right. "It's not like they're using much of that space on the disc anyway... it's just a dumping ground for grainy full-motion video!" I was pretty much right about that, too. "Someday we might need compact discs, but only for a truly revolutionary game console... like the 3DO!" Okay, so I blew it with that observation, but my skepticism about these add-ons was nevertheless justified. There had to be some reason Nintendo passed on a CD-ROM drive for its Super NES...

The more compact second model
of the Sega CD. Same grainy quasi-
games, now in a smaller size!
However, hindsight (along with emulation, and the fact that the price of a Sega CD has fallen off a cliff in the past twenty years) has revealed something to me; something that had been obscured by all the red I saw after console manufacturers expected me to buy an upgrade for a system I just purchased. Sure, these early CD-ROM systems were loaded with regurgitations of games you already bought on cartridge, cartoons fiendishly disguised as video games, and those weird novelties where Phil LaMarr stitched together music videos to vex an evil, uh, Phil LaMarr. However, if you were willing to dig through this mountain of instantly dated detritus, you could find gold in them thar hills!

There was a handful of worthwhile titles on the Sega CD; games that took advantage of both the capacity of the CD-ROM format and the handy features not available on a bare-bones Genesis. There are plenty of gamers who still swear by Sonic CD, even with its tricky time travel play mechanics, and Final Fight CD is likely to go down in gaming history as one of the best conversions of Capcom's jaw-dropping beat 'em up. Then there's Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side, a fighting game that's almost as ambitious as it is bloody (and boy is it ever ambitious!), Konami's interactive comic Snatcher, and several GameArts RPGs that helped fill a gaping hole in the library of the standard Sega Genesis.

The TurboDuo came with Ys Books I &  II, Bonk's Adventure,
Bonk's Revenge, Gate of Thunder, Bomberman, a HuCard
game, and a signed naked photo of Jonathan "Johnny Turbo"
Brandstetter. TTi Technologies was really eager to move
these things in 1993...
There were a few diamonds in the Sega CD's rough, but it was the TurboDuo that sparkled most brightly. The system wasn't as advanced as the Sega CD; essentially a CD player with extra RAM. However, support for the TurboDuo was stronger, with twice the available games. Gamers eagerly accepted it as the next generation of the TurboGrafx, because the CD-ROM format was a necessary step up from the cramped confines of HuCards. R-Type, a game that had to be split into two cards when the TurboGrafx first launched in Japan, could easily fit on a CD, with plenty of room left over for animated cut scenes and a soundtrack spun right off the disc.

TurboDuo games also had their own unique style, which was a world apart from what the Sega CD had to offer. In keeping with TurboGrafx tradition, software for the TurboDuo was unmistakably Japanese, with candy colors, saucer-eyed heroes, and frantic gameplay. This was in stark contrast to the Sega CD's library, which suffered from the anemic color palette of the Genesis (the only shortcoming the add-on didn't address) and either dialed down the action or put it well out of the player's reach. Full-motion video games were distressingly common on the Sega CD; on the TurboDuo, they were far more the exception than the rule.

The legendary Arcade Card,
with a whopping two mega-
bytes of RAM! (Trust me,
that was a lot for a game
system back in the day.)
The only problem is that TurboDuo games were also hard to come by for Americans. Before the Saturn made importing cool (or just necessary... thanks, Bernie), the few gamers who took up arms with the TurboDuo in the 16-bit console wars had to purchase Japanese games from mail order stores. The most extravagant of these titles demanded the Arcade Card, which significantly boosted the system's RAM while emptying the wallets of TurboDuo owners. (It's never easy backing the underdog in a console generation, is it?)

I consider myself a gaming historian, but the TurboDuo is one of those blind spots in my knowledge of the industry... I was fiercely loyal to the Sega Genesis as a teenager, and never owned a Turbo anything until years after the system was taken off the market. (If you ever saw those idiotic Johnny Turbo ads in GamePro, you'd understand why.) While I'm not proud that this gap exists, it does give me a rare opportunity to relive the past, playing all this great software as if it had just hit store shelves. And that's exactly what I've been doing over the past week. I'll cover some of the standouts of the TurboDuo library in future updates of this blog, so stay tuned!

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