There has been no shortage of mini-consoles since Nintendo kickstarted the trend with its NES Classic, and being a sucker for nostalgia I’ve collected most of them. They’re fine things, all, though they often end up on the shelf after a couple of weeks once I’ve revisited everything. The PC Engine Mini, though, has been plugged into my TV constantly for a month now, and has been played far more than any of its other tiny hardware brethren. Why’s that, exactly? It’s simple, I think – the PC Engine Mini offers the thrill of discoverability.
If you’re a diehard collector maybe that’s not the case for you, though I think for most of us the PC Engine and its original games line-up has been out of reach for some time. Its release in the UK in 1990 was some three years later than its introduction in Japan and, as a result of the system’s failure in America, limited. Many of its very best games never made it west at all, and even if you did want to import you’re looking at some seriously steep prices for essentials such as Castlevania: Rondo of Blood or Ginga Fukei Densetsu: Sapphire. I daren’t imagine how much it’d cost you to assemble the 57 titles included on the PC Engine Mini.
What the PC Engine Mini offers is an instant library, and good lord what a library it is, bound together by a character that seems unique to NEC’s console. Maybe it’s something in how Hudson Soft, purveyors of amped-up shmups such as Soldier Blade and Gunhed – both available here, of course – were heavily involved in the console’s design, but the PC Engine screams action. It’s where you can find some of the most stylish, hard-edged thrills of the era.
In fact, the hardware does play into that. The console itself is neat enough, powered by mini USB and managing to be not much smaller than the real thing – the PC Engine always was a diminutive machine. You can switch menus between a PC Engine-flavoured one where you can access the Japanese language games, the background clinical white allowing those beautiful covers to really strut their stuff, or the darker, edgier Turbo Grafx, complete with some more… unattractive art. There’s neat detail too, like how CD read time has been emulated for the PC Engine CD games included, or how there’s a neat little animation and clunk when a ‘cartridge’ is selected and inserted.
Most importantly, the controller is spot on, with a decent amount of weight and the chunky rocker d-pad lending a real fidelity to your movements. There is input lag – I can’t quantify how much exactly, but rest assured Digital Foundry will be able to in due course – and while emulation experts M2 are on the case here, providing a neat interface as well as save-states and a small handful of filters, this isn’t as refined a beast as the Mega Drive Mini.
Not that that’s stopped me from putting hours into the PC Engine Mini’s library, unearthing so many fantastic games that had previously held mythical status or that I’d simply never heard of at all – or the classics I’d never got to play first time round. Castlevania: Rondo of Blood has a decent claim at being one of the best in Konami’s series, a muscular take on the action formula that folded in some of the optional routes that would soon become standard fare, and with a soundtrack that’s absolutely killer. Ys 1&2 are atmospheric RPGs that play just as competently now as they did back then, Bomberman ’94 is as entertaining a spin on the Bomberman formula as you’re ever likely to play and the port of R-Type is entirely faithful to the otherworldly eeriness of Irem’s shooter.
I’m always up for an excuse to play Hudson Soft’s games, and there’s a fine selection here – Soldier Blade offers hyper-fast action and a super stylish sci-fi aesthetic, Gunhed pushes the hardware just as much as it pushes your reactions and I’ve even got time for Victory Run, a no-frills arcade racer that offers a neat twist with its chunky gear gate shift mechanic.
Compile’s Spriggan games are a revelation, Lords of Thunder is as rawwwwk as shooters get and Ginga Fukei Densetsu: Sapphire is a dazzling display of what the lesser-spotted Arcade CD-Rom add-on was capable of, heck, there’s even room for bizarre croquet game Appare! Gateball. There are omissions here, of course, as well as a small handful of duds that have somehow made the cut, and if you’re looking for a complete PC Engine library then this most definitely isn’t it. What you’re getting, though, is a treasure trove of lesser-known, fantastically playable games.
There’s the problem of availability, too – current circumstances obviously play into this, though as an Amazon exclusive it should theoretically be easy to get hold of. Stock issues mean it isn’t, however – I personally opted to import from Japan, not because of the marginally different game line-up on offer (you can have a browse of what’s included and what isn’t in your own region over here) but simply because I’m a shallow sort and have always preferred the cleaner lines of that particular model of hardware, as well as the controller that’s unblemished by the TurboGrafx’s tacky turbo buttons.
It’s worth importing yourself, or just pre-ordering on Amazon and waiting for new stock to arrive, because this thing is special. We haven’t been short of mini consoles, and I’m sure your own shelves aren’t short of one or two of the things sitting there unplayed. The PC Engine Mini, though, serves a wonderful purpose in opening up a world of games that has previously been out of reach – they’re games forged in the fires of the arcade boom at its boldest, full of action that’s just as electric now as it’s ever been. This is the first mini console, for me, that’s pretty much essential.