Neo Geo: Quality at a cost

The Neo Geo and Sega share a similar history with amazing highs in their arcade output and some terrible lows with home releases. In the 90s they were two of Japan's biggest video game companies and beloved by gamers for their quality, hardcore gaming experiences. They were also the first companies to bring actual 'arcade-perfect' gameplay to the home; AES with 2D and Dreamcast with 3D videogames. The companies also joined forces with the release of the Neo Geo Pocket to Dreamcast link cable which we looked at a few weeks back, and playing through some of the amazing 2D fighters on the system recently, and with the release of the Neo Geo X over Christmas, I thought it would be nice to take a look at the history of a company which brought games like Last Blade 2, King of Fighters ’99 Dream Match,King of Fighters ’99 Evolution, King of Fighters 2000, 2001, 2002, Garou: Mark of the Wolves and even quirkier games like, Twinkle Star Sprites and Cool Cool Tune, to our beloved Dreamcast.

Twinkle Star Sprites, so effortlessly SNK!

A mythical untouchable beast of a console, SNK's Neo-Geo Advanced Entertainment System is a console that has lived on through three console wars, is the second longest running system ever (after Atari 2600), and has become the most collectible console of all time. I want one. In a 1989 Japan, still enjoying the benefits of an economic ‘boom’, S-N-K (Shin Nihon Kikaku, or ‘New Japan Project’) Corporation a developer famous for it's graphically advanced arcade games, decided to enter the home rental system with luxurious console that was as expensive as it was powerful. Featuring the same MVS technology use in its arcade boards, the company decided to release an exact replica version that would be used in hotels or which would be available on a rental basis.

As luxurious as the day it rolled off the conveyer belt.

Realising that gamers were desperate to purchase the console, the company pulled the system from the rental marker and released it into the home market. This advanced 16-bit technology came at a price, a huge one. At £500 a pop, with the games retailing at £200, the system was never going to dent a hole in the sales of Sega and Nintendo’s inferior consoles, especially as you could have bought both said company’s system and still had enough over to decorate the bathroom. The reason for this was that each cartridge carried massive amounts of ROM necessary to hold all the game data to arcade standard. The Neo Geo AES truly was an arcade machine in the home, 10 years before Naomi was even a twinkle in Sega’s eyes.

The system's games were huge in size to accommodate the huge capacity needed

Lead by Nishiyama Takashi, a designer who had worked on the original Street Fighter and had been poached from Capcom, SNK soon became synonymous with 2D fighting games. Fatal Fury, Samurai Showdown, King of Fighters all became well known gaming franchises’. To create an even greater link between your experience on the home system and the arcade, save game information on the system’s memory card could be saved on the AES, and then used in the local arcades allowing gamers to unlock secret features, or just simply upload the high-scores they had spent so much time working on. This feature was again to be used by Sega’s with their VMU memory cards for the Dreamcast.

Metal Slug, a game which epitomises what the Neo Geo is all about.

Unfortunately, with the advent of 3D gaming and Sega’s Virtua Fighter, the system declined into a position of relative obscurity as 2D games were considered out of date by the mainstream. Even SNK's much heralded Neo Geo Pocket console did much to stop the rot and the company went into liquidation in 2000 (it's final ever release was the budget re-release of King of Fighter's 99 Evolution for the Dreamcast); however, far from being the end of the machine, the company reformed as SNK-Playmore and began to buy back the rights to all of SNK’s assets (and acquired some of their artists and development staff). The company continue to publish games for the arcade and home system and their final release for the Dreamcast, King of Fighter's 2002 is heralded by fans as one of the series' finest.

A game often scorned; after the amazing conversion of CvS I was gutted it never came to DC

However, the company's output has done little to appease the scrupulous Neo-Geo gaming community. Admittedly, the new SNK did have big shoes to fill with the old companies last big releases, Garou: Mark of the Wolves and Last Blade 2 both receiving critical acclaim and fairly successful commercial success, spawning as we know Dreamcast, and more recently PSN/Xbox live releases. The aforementioned title being a particular favourite of mine on DC and has an especially distinctive art and play style which is timeless.

A large amount of Neo Geo games can be played on Dreamcast, complete with awesome custom covers!

Still, despite the fantastic conversions of these games onto our console, as well as the supremely well-done Neo Geo emulators for Dreamcast that are available from Iso Zone, the AES releases are the ones that that connoisseurs still pine for these days, and with a back catalogue of over a hundred games the console has began to attract the people who where kids when the console launched. The more sought after titles such as Blazing Star and Ninja Commando's [sic] can now cost in the region of £400-£500 a piece, and so anybody wishing to join SNK’s exclusive club will need pockets the size of a small country. So something to bear in mind before you begin your 2D journey. The most expensive of them all, Metal Slug, will set you back a staggering £1000-plus! Still, if you can persuade yourself, the missus, or your bank manager, that you deserve such a luxurious piece of kit, there are many excellent gaming experiences just waiting to be started. The Neo Geo AES; a gamers ultimate status symbol ? Perhaps. The grandmaster of 2D gaming? Most definitely