• Neo Geo - The Future Is Now

    The Neo Geo system today is a paradox: it is both a ‘retro’ console (the machines are not in production) but one for which there are still games being developed and marketed. Few home systems can boast of such an achievement, and none have ever had games in mass production so many years after the machine itself had ceased to be made.

    The reasons behind this stem from the nature of the hardware: the Neo Geo was created in 1990 by SNK (Shin Nihon Kikaku, or ‘New Japan Project’ ) as both an arcade and a home system. The idea behind this unusual marketing approach was that people could play games in the arcade on superior hardware, and then could purchase the title for enjoyment at home. A bold strategy, the project was hampered from the start by a fundamental (and obvious) hurdle: cost. Such power came at a price, and the AES (Advanced Entertainment System; the home version of the hardware) cost around £500 at retail on release and, even after the customer was forced to make such an immense initial outlay, the games themselves would then cost said punter around £200 each.

    The reason for this is that each cartridge carried the massive amounts of ROM necessary to hold all game data to arcade standard – it truly was an arcade machine in the home, comparable in power and ability to any system in the arcades at the time.

    The arcade version of the Neo Geo was called the MVS (Multi Video System), and was a standard JAMMA spec board. It was available to arcade owners in one-, two-, four- or six-slot versions, and with games in each slot, the player could switch between a selection of games in the one cabinet. Although the MVS versions cost a great deal more than the home carts on release, prices drop dramatically once their popularity in the arcades wanes, and are replaced by newer titles.

    Today, gamers wishing to take advantage of the cheaper MVS carts often purchase or construct their own machines capable of playing these games. The ‘Supergun’ is probably the most popular of these odd hybrids, as it is available from such well-known import shops as Raven Games, is well constructed and reliable.

    In 1994, SNK released a CD version of their hardware. The rationale behind this move was more obvious than the ‘arcade at home’ plan: games would be cheaper to manufacture and release, and this cost cutting could both widen the appeal of the brand, as pass the saving on to the consumer. However, the platform by this time was becoming superseded by other machines on the market. On top of this, the Neo Geo CD had long loading times that made a nonsense of the games’ arcade heritage, and even a later revision of the hardware – the CDZ (with a larger RAM cache for faster loading times) failed to excite the public’s interest.

    So, why is the machine still so popular? Popular enough to have both MVS and AES versions of the games still in production? The reason behind this unusual state of affairs stems, ironically, from the machine’s initially high price tag. Gamers who slavered over screenshots of Neo Geo games in their teens now have the financial power in their late twenties to afford the nigh-extortionate costs of the games.

    Hardware in any iteration can be picked up cheaply (if you know where to look), and many of the earlier games (plus some high-profile titles, and those produced in large quantities) can be bought at much lower amounts than on release. Still, due the nature of the beast, the AES home system (which is the most desired by collectors, as games are packaged and presented fully – unlike their MVS equivalents) has a disproportionately large number of incredibly high-priced and valuable games in its portfolio.

    Dog Tags, Cartons, Clamshells and Snap-Locks

    The one thing any potential collector must bear in mind before navigating the minefield that is SNK’s gaming landscape is that no avenue will be without its complexities. Neo games in any form are comparatively hard to find. Before the advent of the internet, and the use of resources such as eBay, collectors would have to either source their games from foreign countries (as the market for the games in the UK is comparatively miniscule) or purchase from import shops.

    Things are easier in the new millennium, but it remains an area of games collection fraught with danger and requiring a great deal of knowledge. MVS games are often very cheap, but need either a Supergun or the knowledge to construct a board able to run them. CD games are even cheaper, but the hardware is slow to load and (in its CDZ incarnation) unreliable – reports of the machine breaking down are common. The AES is attractive and home-ready, but the games for this version are the most expensive to come by.

    Even with a large income, your pockets will be drained by the games’ high price tags on the AES system. The more sought after titles such as Blazing Star, Ninja Commando and Metal Slug will leave you staggering.

    One must also bear in mind the variations between different release versions of the games. Although the machines and games are all multi-region, the carts come in a bewildering variety of packaging for the AES. Firstly, we have the Cartons. These are cardboard boxes with plastic inserts, and only housed the first eighteen titles. Cartons in good condition are rare, and fetch higher prices than their later equivalents.

    Next up: Clamshells. These are fold-over plastic cases that snugly fit the cartridge. Not the most robust of protection, but they are quite attractive.

    Finally, we have the Snap-Lock cases. These are both functional and provide excellent protection, and all the later games post 1995/96 come in them. So effective was the design that SNK used smaller versions of the design for their handeld system's games (the Neo Geo Pocket Color).

    There is a whole load of esoterica covering Dog Tag editions, the stripes on US releases, manual baggies, shock boxes and tons of other idosyncracies surrounding SNK's physical output. Suffice it to say that, as a collector, you will happen upon these things in the natural course of collection, and it is not necessary to recount them here.

    In terms of the games themselves, reviews that do not come from biased fansites, or that are actually published in print magazines, are rare. Clearly, a good grounding in the history of the machine and its games are advisable before selecting your hardware of choice. Suggestions for places to begin finding such arcane knowledge are listed at the foot of this article.

    The AES system uses a memory card to hold game data, much as modern consoles do. The concept behind this was that both the arcade cabinets and the home system would use the same card, allowing you to trade data between your copies at home and your gaming emporium of choice. The fact that the cards are a mere 1k of RAM, though, and retain only information on which level you have reached in the game makes them rather superfluous. The inability to save high scores is a sad omission.

    The King of Fighters…?

    Enough of such talk; gaming should not be about prices or problems in manufacture. It should be about the games, and the Neo Geo has a rich and full catalogue comprised of some amazing software. All titles were (and still are) developed on the MVS system, whether they are released or not, although only a handful remain MVS-only (The Irritating Maze, Captain Tomaday and the first Shock Troopers game are examples).

    As you are no doubt aware, the system came into being in an era of success for the arcade market. Early releases such as NAM 1975, Magician Lord and Baseball Stars Professional showed a willingness to diversify into a variety of genres but, however, no title was bigger at the time than Street Fighter 2, and this affected the company's direction...

    SNK quickly jumped on the fighting game bandwagon: games such as Art Of Fighting, Fatal Fury and Samurai Shodown were released and, in some aspects, they and their progeny improved on Capcom’s seminal title. The King Of Fighters series debuted in 1994, and cemented the machine in players’ minds the fact that SNK were developers of high quality. Their output covered all the bases, but excelled with 2D scrappers and shoot ‘em ups. To this day, the King of Fighters series and Metal Slug games remain possibly the most highly regarded and most widely played SNK titles.

    As a company, SNK went into liquidation in 2000, with their final release being Sengoku 3. Far from being the end of the machine, a Korean company named Playmore bought up the rights to all of SNK’s assets (and acquired some of their artists and development staff), and continue to publish games for the arcade and home systems. Last year saw The King of Fighters 2002, Metal Slug 4 and Rage of the Dragons, and 2003 already has Metal Slug 5 and SNK vs. Capcom (Playmore’s own take on the companies' rival franchises) slated for release.

    These games will never see the light of day on the CD-based systems, but many of Playmore’s 2D fighters have appeared (and still appear) on the Dreamcast. Metal Slug 3 is due to surface on the PS2, as is The King of Fighters 2002. Who knows how far SNK’s successors intend to stretch their product?

    The only thing that’s certain is that the Neo Geo lives on. SNK may be dead, but their tagline still carries conviction: The Future Is Now. Someone in the company obviously had the gift of foresight.




    Recommendations

    Below is a list of recommended games for the system, based on the most expensive platform (the AES) as this remains the hardware of choice for collectors. As always, this is not a definitive list, but all are ‘must have’ for the reasons listed below:

    Magician Lord


    One of the first releases, Magician Lord is like a grown-up Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts. A magician capable of morphing into a ninja, a dragon warrior and an aquatic warrior, you must navigate levels that are similar to Capcom’s title with the ‘cute’ removed and some twisted treats added. Featuring a striking set of demon enemies and immensely hard gameplay, ‘Lord is a must for all AES owners…especially at its low market price.

    NAM 1975


    Ever wanted to know what it’s like to fight it the Vietnam war? Probably not. No matter, as NAM 1975 ignores the moral implications and simply concentrates on killing bad guys against jungle backdrops. Strikingly similar to TAD corp’s Cabal, ’75 is best described as Operation Wolf with the character controlled on-screen. Featuring brilliant animation, with some gruesome/hilarious touches, this is another toughie that, although limited in single-player, you and a friend will labour at (and enjoy) for a long time. Great value.

    Samurai Spirits 2


    Spirits 2 is easily the best value for money of the series, and is arguably the best value AES release period. Another 2D fighter, Spirits showcases warriors who use weaponry (primarily katanas/swords) instead of fists and feet. The action is tense and technical, but colourful and eclectic opponents make it a fun experience rather than a chore, even to the uninitiated.

    Viewpoint


    How Sammy contrived to make a 3D game in 2D no-one knows. A dayglo, isometric evolution of Darius , Viewpoint features smoothly animated monsters that look like polygonal creations. Constructed like a maze, the levels are as much about navigation of obstacles as they are blasting aliens, giving the game a unique perspective (‘viewpoint, see?) Bear in mind, though, that it’s one of the hardest games ever made…..

    The King of Fighters 98


    The game many believe to be the pinnacle of the KoF games, 98 is a ‘Dream match’, in that it contains characters that have died or been replaced in the storyline proper. With masses of protagonists to choose from (over 30, each well designed and interesting), different fighting styles to select and the trademark style and precision of all SNK’s scrappers, 98 has remained the fighter of choice for SNK acolytes (rumours persist that KoF 2002 finally manages to better it, though. Stay tuned to NTSC-uk for updates… ). N.B. When buying, make sure your copy contains the artwork/moves book that came with the game.

    Windjammers


    Frisbee, Street Fighter-style. Utilising just two buttons (for high and low throw) and special moves, Windjammers (Flying Power Disk in the West) fashions an excellent digital sport from a real world lark-about. The object is simple: throw the Frisbee past your opponent. But from such humble acorns, mighty oaks are formed. Pong and Air hockey are the templates, but keen CPU AI and tight play mechanics elevate the title above its simple origins. One of the most unique games available on the system, and a boat-load o’laughs, to boot.

    Metal Slug X


    The ‘Sluggers are SNK’s answer to Contra, but one made with a smirk on its lips and irony in its voice. Full of humour and comedic violence (and Camels), this ‘Run ‘n’ Gun’ game is frantic and beautifully hand-drawn – tons of detail and animation justifies the expense, and the high difficulty level ensures replayability. A mix of varied enemies and attack patterns keeps it interesting, and the humour prevents frustration to a larger degree than you would expect. ‘Slug X is regarded by most as the greatest of the series, although ‘Slug 3 runs an extremely close second.

    Garou – Mark of the Wolves


    Fatal Fury is the closest series in tone and play mechanic to Capcom’s Street Fighter games, and Garou is the latest (and, sadly, possibly last) in the series. Undeniably the most gorgeous of SNK’s fighting games when in motion, the animation rivals Street Fighter 3 in places (and it runs on far inferior hardware – quite an achievement). Oft criticised for being a Capcom game wannabe, the truth reveals itself at play: simple to get into with approachable characters, the complexity of the game system emerges with practice and effort. The Fatal Fury sprit burns at its core, and is a brilliant all-rounder.

    Pulstar


    A slick copy/homage/sequel/expansion (call it what you will) of R-Type, this game is one of the most highly sought after of all AES releases. Featuring smart graphics, neat design and fantastic controls, is comes very close to superseding the game from which it takes so much of its ‘inspiration’ (to use a non-litigious expression). A very expensive release, it stands as the best shooter on the system along with its sequel, Blazing Star.

    Twinkle Star Sprites


    An odd mix of shooter and puzzle game, Twinkle Star Sprites is a vertical shoot ‘em up where the screen is divided in two - you and your opponent battle it out by shooting enemies in standard fashion, but creating chains sends special attacks over to your opponent’s screen. Creating specific chains is vital for victory, and creates that feeling of fun/tension that SNK seemed able to generate in their games at will. Gloriously bizarre visuals lend the game a unique appeal, making this relatively rare title much prized by AES aficionados.

    Key:

    Ca = Carton (cardboard box version)
    Cl = Clamshell (plastic case)
    Sn = Snaplock (plastic case)

    Resources

    Fore-warned is fore-armed. Any knowledge you can glean before starting a Neo Geo collection on any of their hardware platforms is useful. The first place to start (and one you will visit over and over again) is www.neo-geo.com. Founded by a collector who has now branched into sales as well, the site carries news, reviews, a helpful price guide, a ‘Master List’ giving full release information on every Neo Geo game made for the system, cart photos and screenshots of all titles.

    Article by Stuart Peake
    Originally published many moons ago
    Comments 27 Comments
    1. Brad's Avatar
      Brad -
      Nice read. Is it important to get an NTSC version rather than PAL? I'm assuming, based on the age of the system, that it is.
    1. briareos_kerensky's Avatar
      briareos_kerensky -
      The Neo Geo AES never had an official PAL release; I've heard that consoles with a serial number beginning with 1 have a better video out circuitry, but don't quote me on this.
      I would go for a consolized MVS just for how expensive AES games are...I have a modded AES and I don't play much with it because I can't afford games for the system ;__;
    1. Brad's Avatar
      Brad -
      eBay lies then! Or maybe it's people putting PAL to show that it will work fine on a PAL tv? Right, MVS search then. Avoid the CD system yes?
    1. buster_broon's Avatar
      buster_broon -
      Did he mean ninja masters instead of ninja commando, commando commands a decent enough price but no where near masters

      Im sure I had a pal AES because it came with a 3 pin uk plug and no transformer, plus the usual rf switch for aerial working when that was the standard lol
    1. Jamie's Avatar
      Jamie -
      Yeah, I had a PAL AES once, also a PAL Neo Cd.
    1. _SD_'s Avatar
      _SD_ -
      Quote Originally Posted by FSW View Post
      Nice read. Is it important to get an NTSC version rather than PAL? I'm assuming, based on the age of the system, that it is.
      It's the same as with all retro consoles: the PAL ones run at 50Hz and have nasty black borders. You ideally want a Japanese or US machine, but it's quite simple to make a UK system run at 60Hz. If you add a UniBIOS to the system then it doesn't matter which region the machine was to begin with, as it allows you to change the language and switch blood on or off, etc. And you're most likely going to have to whip the top off anyway because......

      Quote Originally Posted by briareos_kerensky View Post
      The Neo Geo AES never had an official PAL release; I've heard that consoles with a serial number beginning with 1 have a better video out circuitry, but don't quote me on this.
      It's the first 90,000ish units that have decent RGB straight out of the box. But the serial numbers aren't a strict guide in themselves. More than likely you'll end up with a later board revision that will need modding, but once done you'll have perfect RGB output.

      What makes you think that the Neo Geo never had an official UK release? These PAL consoles came straight from SNK themselves for the UK market.

      I'm also dumbfounded by the decision to recommend Magician Lord and NAM over fantastic games like Last Blade 1 & 2, Blazing Star, Neo Turf Masters etc.
    1. briareos_kerensky's Avatar
      briareos_kerensky -
      Quote Originally Posted by _SD_ View Post
      What makes you think that the Neo Geo never had an official UK release? These PAL consoles came straight from SNK themselves for the UK market.
      I tend to merge the whole PAL market of those days with what was officially available here in Italy, the Neo Geo could only be bought via costly import routes and none of the best stores ever stocked a UK machine, so I though the Neo Geo was only released in US and JP.
    1. Baseley09's Avatar
      Baseley09 -
      Blazing Star must have one of the worst colour palettes of all time, it's like the inside of Priscilla Queen of the Desert's wardrobe, that's why it's not on the list.
    1. J0e Musashi's Avatar
      J0e Musashi -
      Deffo were UK PAL models available, they came with official SNK RF units.

      Blazing Star should be on no lists due to continually saying "Bonus".
    1. CMcK's Avatar
      CMcK -
      The AES I had years ago was a PAL model IIRC. I remember modding it for 60Hz output.
    1. Nico87's Avatar
      Nico87 -
      Great read, but I would like to have seen Nam 75 replaced by Shock Troopers or Sengoku 3 on the list.

      Personally have a MVS system and around 15 carts.
    1. moonwhistle's Avatar
      moonwhistle -
      I like Blazing Star's gaudy colours and ridiculous voice samples. It also plays really well. There are far worse shooters on Neo Geo like Ghost pilots, andro dunos, ninja commando etc.
    1. Olly C's Avatar
      Olly C -
      Quote Originally Posted by J0e Musashi View Post
      Blazing Star should be on no lists due to continually saying "Bonus".
      Haha, love this comment.
    1. Colin's Avatar
      Colin -
      Quote Originally Posted by Nico87 View Post
      Great read, but I would like to have seen Nam 75 replaced by Shock Troopers or Sengoku 3 on the list.

      Personally have a MVS system and around 15 carts.
      Sengoku 3, from what I remember really pissed me off as it was the same enemies on every level, just a different colour. Main character sprites looked fantastic though. Sengoku 2 was the superior game for me. I'd love it again, but I refuse to pay the silly prices now being asked for it.
    1. Nico87's Avatar
      Nico87 -
      Ah, yes, I obviously meant Sengoku 2, I haven't even played Sengoku 3!

      My top 5 in no order for what it's worth:

      Metal Slug X
      Garou: Mark of the Wolves
      Shock Troopers
      Sengoku 2
      The King of Fighters '99

      Honorable mentions to Pulstar/Blazing Star, Fatal Fury: Real Bout Special, Matrimelee and Breakers Revenge.

      Take it you got an AES, ikobo? I kinda wanted one myself initially, but the prices of the Metal Slug games alone could buy me a new living room including a 52" 3D TV and a surround set.
    1. Colin's Avatar
      Colin -
      I have an AES, yes, it must be the fifth or sixth time i've had one at the least.
    1. buster_broon's Avatar
      buster_broon -
      Quote Originally Posted by Nico87 View Post
      Ah, yes, I obviously meant Sengoku 2, I haven't even played Sengoku 3!

      My top 5 in no order for what it's worth:

      Metal Slug X
      Garou: Mark of the Wolves
      Shock Troopers
      Sengoku 2
      The King of Fighters '99

      Honorable mentions to Pulstar/Blazing Star, Fatal Fury: Real Bout Special, Matrimelee and Breakers Revenge.

      Take it you got an AES, ikobo? I kinda wanted one myself initially, but the prices of the Metal Slug games alone could buy me a new living room including a 52" 3D TV and a surround set.
      out of your 5 I'm not a fan of Garou or KOF99 - Sengoku 2 is tremendous

      KOF98 was better and Garou is a decent game but its just not as good as Fatal Fury Special, but graphically is awesome

      but another here that likes Breakers and Breakers revenge
    1. Nu-Eclipse's Avatar
      Nu-Eclipse -
      The Last Blade and The Last Blade 2.

      End of thread!
    1. Colin's Avatar
      Colin -
      Quote Originally Posted by Nu-Eclipse View Post
      The Last Blade and The Last Blade 2.

      End of thread!
      Stunning games, I don't know why anyone bothers with Samurai Spirits on the system when these exist.
    1. Atticus's Avatar
      Atticus -
      The Last Blade games are ace but I prefer Samurai Spirits II & IV.

      Never played any of the Sengoku games.