Nick DeMarco

TURN TO CHANNEL 3: ‘Air Zonk’ shows the crazy creativity of TurboGrafx-16 games

TURN TO CHANNEL 3: ‘Air Zonk’ shows the crazy creativity of TurboGrafx-16 games
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Obviously with my shop, I get a lot of questions about my own retro gaming collection and, in truth, it isn’t some vast room of thousands of games because I only buy the games I’m actually going to sit and play, so I am the furthest thing from a collector.

However, I have a sweet spot in my heart for consoles that didn’t get much love and were considered commercial flops in some ways. The chief of these is the TurboGrafx-16, a console by NEC with ties to Hudson Soft, a company known for classic franchises like “Bonk,” the console’s mascot, and the equally lauded “Adventure Island” series, which was a force on many consoles of that time and beyond.

So what spelled doom for the TurboGrafx-16? Was in the terrible marketing campaign that was only prevalent in major U.S. cities? Did the wrong choice for a pack-in game, “Keith Courage in Alpha Zones,” send the wrong message to gamers at the time? Was the debut just doomed from the start because, by 1989, Nintendo had such a stranglehold on the market?

I’m not here to debate any of that, but I am going to give those who aren’t in the know a look at four titles this month from a console that, for better or worse, made an impact on the industry and created a niche collectors’ market today, nearly 30 years from its debut in the United States.

We begin with a quirky shooter where we take to the skies as “Air Zonk!”

“Air Zonk” (TurboGrafx-16)


Without question, this is one of the most stellar soundtracks you will hear on the TurboGrafx-16. Equal parts old school “Mega Man” and classic side scrolling shooter like “Gradius” and “Life Force,” “Air Zonk’s” infectious upbeat tunes will keep you rolling through waves of enemies.

While there may be one or two sound effects that can be grating to the ears, they don’t stick around long and thus don’t take away from the overall soundtrack, which is the kind of stuff you’ll want to bring to your next treadmill session at your local gym.


“Air Zonk” is colorful, unique, and full of character, sometimes bordering on the bizarre, with enemies that sometimes look like they were the brainchild of a Japanese anime artist and an apprentice of Tim Burton, but in that original design lies the allure.

The levels are all futuristic looking and, if anything, the speed of the game sometimes doesn’t allow you to fully appreciate it all. Zonk’s transformations and ally power-ups may be some of the most creative things I’ve seen in a game like this, and the bosses are almost the stuff of candy-coated nightmares, equally impressive as they are creepy.


Fast and furiously addicting, “Air Zonk” takes you through futuristic worlds with enemies and power-ups that tie into the world you’re in. The sheer amount of power-ups can make blasting through bad guys a breeze in spots but, like any game of this sort, enemies and bosses become trickier and thus deadlier, so there are elements of strategy and skill involved past simply blasting through walls of enemies.

Despite the fact the game only has five stages, each is broken up into two sections, which adds to the replay value. It also breaks the game up into more playable chunks. I really love how everything about Zonk is themed to the stages he’s in, with him and his power-ups being sports-related in a stadium-themed level. “Air Zonk” is a fast-paced romp that still gives you some time to stop and really appreciate what you’re playing and the unique, quirky atmosphere it puts you, the player, in.


Some questions are better left unanswered, like why two of the bosses you face in the game are a John Elway-numbered, drill-handed gator mascot and a giant black garbage bag, and why it will cost you nearly $100 for just an unboxed copy of “Air Zonk.” (A complete boxed copy starts at $170!) Whether or not you feel the price is justified is up to you, but I do know this – “Air Zonk” will surprise you with its brilliance and, if you have a TurboGrafx-16, you owe it to yourself to pick this game up if you have the funds to do so.

Next time on Turn to Channel 3, we jump into the wrestling ring for “Battle Royale!” Until then, stay warm and game on!

Tune in to NEPA Scene’s gaming column, Turn to Channel 3, every Thursday for new perspectives on retro gaming as well as fresh twists on the classics. All ratings for Turn to Channel 3 are based on a scale of 1-10.