The Best Console of Japan’s Golden Gaming Era Finally Gets Its Due

A big hurdle to enjoying these games today is the wide array of console types available on the used market. Some games require obscure upgrades or special RAM-filled cards to play. Some games are only on CD, and not every PC Engine model has a CD drive. There’s also the added annoyance of titles being locked to one geographical region. That’s what Analogue is hoping to eliminate with the Duo—its mission is to play every game, every type, every region, no muss, no fuss. Analogue arranged for me to borrow a bunch of titles across CD-ROMs and cards, and as someone with little exposure to the PC Engine and its derivatives, I was shocked. While these games can be brutally hard in the way only old video games are, they can also be so much fun.

From what I experienced, the PC Engine and TurboGrafx-16 games feature punchy colors and high-quality animations of onscreen characters. I cackled when caveboy Bonk, the star of Bonk’s Big Adventure, grew to fill a quarter of the screen and went nuts after scarfing down a hunk of meat. (I’ve arrived at the opinion that Bonk is leagues more charming than milquetoast Mario and less of a tryhard than edgy Gen-Xer Sonic.) In Parasol Stars, I inexplicably scooped up (??) and flung (???) animals, musical instruments, balls of water, lightning bolts, and whatever else was around with an umbrella (!), and had a blast doing it. I have no idea what this game is about, but it’s a hoot and a half.

CD-ROM titles like the role-player Ys III and space shooter R-Type Complete hold up surprisingly well, with cool animated intro sequences, snippets of voice-over, and incredible, god-tier synthesized soundtracks. These early ’90s games can be a whole aesthetic experience.

All of these games are made to look and sound their best by the Duo, but if you don’t want them at their best, you can make them look worse. By default, the console uses a “pixel perfect” interpretation to upscale games, and it looks great for cartoony games, letting you appreciate the time and care that went into every element. Then there are three novelty display filters—a pair that degrade the image to look like the different portable variants of the console, and one that tries to simulate the look of a Sony Trinitron tube TV. I didn’t love the portable looks, but the Trinitron look is stunning—especially for dark, moody titles.

As someone who prefers handheld gaming so I don’t hog the whole TV with my sessions, the layout and selection of ports on the Duo was greatly appreciated. With HDMI-out, I was able to hook up a computer monitor to the system. Thanks to the Duo’s 3.5-mm headphone jack and volume wheel, I could plug nice headphones straight to the box. This meant I could play at my desk, with sound, for hours on end.

Fake It Till You Make It

Unfortunately, the weak point of the whole system is its software, AnalogueOS. It has a simple text-based menu system (just like on the Analogue Pocket), but the Duo has some missing features out of the gate. For now, Analogue Duo can’t complete instant saves within games, which means you’ll have to tough out some truly unforgiving boss battles that send you back to the very beginning of the game every time you die. You can nab screenshots, tweak the display settings, and get a little information about each title you insert, but it feels bare-bones at launch. One feature that’s unsupported on the Duo is openFPGA, which lets Analogue Pocket users load all sorts of software “cores” onto their handhelds, encouraging developers to make the handheld compatible with a ton of additional systems. It’s safe to assume that Duo will never be able to play games beyond those made for the PC Engine and TurboGrafx-16.

The physical design of Analogue Duo has some quirks too. The port for the original-style controllers is all the way around one side of the Duo instead of smack dab on the front like on the original NEC-built hardware, making it inconvenient to access. Also, the slim, front-facing game slot covers up most of the artwork on cartridges—maybe not a huge deal, but it was a feature of the original hardware that’s missing from this modern recreation. (For what it’s worth, many American games had ho-hum text on the front instead of splashy art.)

Plastic Love

Photograph: Analogue

Diving into the past with the Analogue Duo, I can’t help but be struck by the legacy of the PC Engine. By letting collectors play American and Japanese games on a rock-solid piece of hardware, Analogue is giving this underappreciated system a new lease on life. For American TurboGrafx-16 fans, and perhaps especially gamers in Japan with hoards of games waiting to be revisited, Analogue Duo makes it dead easy to plug in and revisit old favorites, all while making them look better than ever.

Let’s be clear: Collecting and playing old video games is an expensive hobby for the privileged. Maybe you wanted to import a PC Engine, CD drive, some games, and some controllers (and multi-tap—you’re not playing alone are you?)—you would be out hundreds of dollars. If you want to shore up that old console and fix leaky capacitors and busted CD drive gears and get it outputting HD-grade video, stack a few more Benjamins on top. A competing modern console, the Polymega, can play most of the same games, but it costs more than a PlayStation 5. In that context, with all its quirks and key software features yet to come, the $250 Analogue Duo seems like a decent deal.

Part time machine, part media preservation effort, the Analogue Duo will impress its niche audience even more than it impressed me. Dust off your Tatsuro Yamashita cassettes and rev up the Toyota Sera—the creative spirit of Japan’s Bubble Era is still alive in the exquisitely ’90s games of the PC Engine.