Alright, look. The Super Nintendo and the Genesis are cool and all that, but we need to discuss the realest 16-bit system:
The Neo Geo.
The Neo Geo was released by SNK in 1990 in both arcade and home variants. The arcade hardware, known more colloquially as the MVS (for “Multi Video System”), was pretty capable kit when it was released. Early titles like NAM-1975 and Riding Hero looked good, but didn’t necessarily blow the doors off the competition. The system’s real advantage, though, was that the ROM size of arcade games could be expanded by simply producing beefier carts – the actual Neo Geo hardware didn’t limit the memory that could be used. While the initial batch of games clocked in at a paltry 50 megs or so, Samurai Shodown V Special, the last game on the system, was a whopping 708 meg monster. What this meant from a practical standpoint was that SNK was free to produce bigger, more lavishly animated games as the years went on, even when the system should have been long past its sell-by date. And thanks to that, the Neo Geo lasted for a whopping 14 years before SNK finally pulled the plug. Beat that, Sony.
So, why should you give a shit? Because Neo Geo games are off tha motherfucking hook.
The system’s specialty was fighting games, and SNK was at the height of their creativity during the Neo Geo era. Games like Garou: Mark of the Wolves, Last Blade, Real Bout Fatal Fury 2, Samurai Shodown II, and the King of Fighters series showcase some of the best gameplay the genre has ever seen. Admittedly, The Neo Geo library was so fighter-laden that if you didn’t like fighting games, chances are that the system didn’t have a whole lot to hold your attention. But there were some notable run-n-gun shooters like the Metal Slug series (remember when that was good?) and Shock Troopers, as well as some solid shmups like Blazing Star and Pulstar. Hell, even the sports games were fun, even if you typically hate the genre. I defy you to find one level-headed person in this world who doesn’t like Baseball Stars 2 or Windjammers. Seriously. Try it.
Neo Geo games were also some of the prettiest 2D games ever made. The artistry on display in some of these games is unbelievable, and the visuals are just as striking now as they were back when they came out. Maybe even more so, given the extra bit of perspective the passage of time has given us.
Ultimately, the Neo Geo remains a fantastic system today and is well worth checking out even if the system was before your day. The games have aged remarkably well, and there are plenty of obscurities that you might have missed out on the first time around that are absolutely deserving of your attention.
Check Out These Rad Games:
Last Blade 2
Samurai Shodown II
Garou: Mark of the Wolves
Crossed Swords II (CD Exclusive)
The arcade hardware. There are several variants of it. For older versions of the MVS, there are 1-slot, 2-slot, 4-slot, and 6-slot versions. What’s the difference? The number of slots = the number of game cartridges you can have inserted at once. Convenient! There are a couple of revisions of the MVS, like the MVS-1B and MVS-1C, and the biggest difference with those is the smaller form factor.
SNK didn’t wait long to bring the Neo Geo home. The consumer system, known as the AES (Advanced Entertainment System) was released in 1990, not long after the arcade hardware debuted. Instead of taking the typical console route and dumbing down the hardware for the home, SNK opted instead to make the AES an exact replica of the arcade units. The games weren’t similar to the arcade versions, they were the arcade versions – the code on MVS and AES cartridges is literally identical. The only difference is that the hardware, itself, is set to play the console version of the game, which typically includes training modes and defaults to free play.
The system didn’t fare particularly well against more popular systems like the SNES, which may have been due to the $650 price tag. Now, maybe in this era of overpriced game consoles that do a bunch of shit you don’t care about, that doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you adjust that for inflation, the price comes out to about $1,161. Which is a lot. Games weren’t much more affordable, weighing in at a couple hundred dollars each. So… it was a stupidly expensive proposition all around, but if you could afford it, you were unquestionably the coolest kid on the block.
Neo Geo CD
Realizing that $650 was waaaaay too much to charge for a game system in the '90s, SNK made another system, the Neo Geo CD, in 1994. The price was $300, which would merely put your parents in the poorhouse instead of bankrupting them, but the bigger upside was that games were priced at a far more rational $50. The biggest advantage to the CD versions of games was that they were given remixed soundtracks. And while remixed soundtracks typically don’t turn out so well in games, NGCD music was incredible. Certain games even got bonus modes or other extras that, in some cases, made the CD version preferable to the original cart. There were even a few games exclusive to the CD platform. But while the base hardware was very similar to the normal Neo Geo, CDs lost the advantage of cartridge’s massive storage space. This led to certain games (particularly later releases) having some frames of animation cut. Other games didn’t make it to the system at all. The biggest problem by far, though, was the CD unit’s atrocious load times. Loading a fight can literally take minutes, depending on the game. In the end, the CD system has its advantages, but really isn’t an ideal solution for delving into the Neo Geo library.
A revised version of the system, dubbed the Neo Geo CDZ, was released in limited quantities in Japan. It didn’t have a faster drive, but it had a different method of caching data, which lead to faster load times. The difference wasn’t dramatic, but it was an improvement. Unfortunately, this unit also had issues with overheating, and was ugly.
There was also a front-loading Neo Geo CD system that was limited to about 25,000 units. It was also ugly.
Neo Geo MVS/AES
Processors: Motorolla 68000 (12Mhz, 16-bit), Z80 (Zilog-80a 4Mhz, 8-bit)
Color Palette: 65,536
Maximum colors on-screen: 4,096
Maximum sprites on-screen: 380
Minimum sprite size: 1x2
Maximum sprite size: 16x512
Maximum amount of game planes: 3
Sound Channels: 4-FM synthesis, 7-Digital Internal, 3-PSG, 1 noise channel
RAM: Internal RAM: 64kb, Video RAM: 68kb, Z80 RAM: 2kb
Memory Card: 8kb or *68-pin JEIDA ver.3 spec memory
Neo Geo CD
Same specs, but the 7MB of RAM was split as such:
68000 Program Memory: 2 MB
Fix Layer Memory: 128 KB
Graphics Memory: 4 MB
Sound Sample Memory: 1 MB
Z80 Program Memory: 64 kB
SRAM: 2 KB (For high scores / save data)
What’s the best way to play Neo Geo games today?
The best way is to get a Neo Geo MVS unit, mostly because MVS games are a LOT cheaper than AES games. Unfortunately, it’s kinda cumbersome. You’ll have to get the MVS hardware (obviously), and you’ll also want to either get an arcade cabinet, or a supergun. The MVS won’t just conveniently hook up to your TV. And if you go the supergun route, there’s the issue of getting controllers that can connect to your supergun. So yeah, it’s a bit of a pain.
An easier route is to get a consolized MVS, which is basically MVS hardware that’s been rigged to plug into a normal TV. It’s definitely a lot more convenient, but it’ll cost you. Fortunately, there are units that have component output, so you can get a great experience right out of the box.
You could go with an AES unit, as well, but game prices on home cartridges are ridiculous. Paying $1000 for Metal Slug is fucking stupid. I wouldn’t bother.
The most chic option is to get the Neo Geo X, which is a portable system produced by Blaze. It hooks up to your TV, too, if you want to do things the right way. The system comes pre-loaded with 20 games, though in typical SNK fashion, most of the games aren’t available for the system and probably never will be. But it does look nice:
The most realistic option is to pick up one of the trillions of console releases.
Avoid anything on the SNES, Genesis, or Turbografx. Those ports suck.
The ports on the Saturn and PS1 vary in quality. None of them are perfect, but the ports of games like Real Bout and Samurai Shodown III and IV on the Saturn are fairly close. Others, like Waku Waku 7, are awful ports, even though they use the RAM cart. I’d chalk that up more to incompetence rather than the Saturn being unable to handle the games, though. The releases on the PS1 have a lot of cut animation, in general. Metal Slug X is, to my knowledge, the only game to come out in the US, and it’s also censored.
The Dreamcast ports of games like Garou and Last Blade 2 were merely okay – they had some sound issues, and Last Blade 2 was censored in the US, but they could have been worse. Twinkle Star Sprites is pretty much an entirely different game than the Neo release.
The PS2 and Xbox ports were hit and miss. Garou on PS2? Good. The gameplay’s timing is a little bit off (which can throw off certain combos), but it’s close. Last Blade 1/2? Awful. It feels like the entire game is dropping frames. I’m not sure if it’s because the PS2 genuinely didn’t have enough RAM for the games or if it was just a shitty port job, but it’s not good. Metal Slug 3? Good on both systems. They got rid of the slowdown, but the Xbox version is limited to like 5 credits for the entire game… and despite that being a manly way to play, it’s kinda dumb. SNK Arcade Classics on PS2? An atrocity. Even the front-end’s menus don’t run at full speed. Just fucking lazy. So, approach this on a case by case basis.
The Wii is a solid option, for the most part. The games on VC are generally very accurate, and the SNK Arcade Classics Collection is good, too. There are some sound glitches on the latter, but for the most part, it’s a decent collection. The only real issue is that Nintendo has some policy in place about flashing lights, and won’t let you put them in your game. Something about a lawsuit over Pokemon causing seizures or some shit. I dunno. So anyway, none of the Neo Geo games are allowed to have flashing lights, which means that you lose the hitflashes that let you know you’re damaging bosses in games like Metal Slug, for example. And that’s really annoying. The Metal Slug Anthology was bad. There were like 5 different control schemes you could choose from, and all of them sucked. It was either using motion controls, or using the Gamecube controller, and even then, it just didn’t feel right. And there were no hitflashes.
And then, we have the XBLA and PS3 releases. The XBLA releases seem fairly accurate… but then, there are only a few games on there. Metal Slug 3, Garou: Mark of the Wolves, Fatal Fury Special, and Samurai Shodown II are the only ones that come to mind. They have online play, so that’s kinda cool. The PS3 has a thing called Neo Geo Station, which has a smattering of Neo Geo games available, but it’s mostly the early Neo Geo games that nobody gives a damn about. The ports were done by M2, which should be good news, though I noticed some inaccuracies in Metal Slug (again, those fucking hitflashes were off), which seems weird for a company that’s otherwise an extraordinary port house.
So, yeah. If you want to play Neo Geo games on the consoles you already own, it can be tough. In general, you’re going to be dealing with less-than-accurate ports, and there’s a distressing hesitance to put anything other than a select few games, most of which suck, on any of the modern systems. I wouldn’t be so hard on 'em, except that emulators that offer a superior experience to 99% of SNKP’s compilations have been available for like 15 years now, and that’s downright pathetic. Welcome to SNK-Playmore, kids!
Huh? What’s SNK-Playmore? How is it different than SNK?
SNK died once. Back in 2001. The same year we made contact (according to Capcom vs. SNK 2). A company called Playmore brought them back from the brink, but many argue that they were never the same company afterwards. A lot of people moved around after SNK’s supposed death, so a lot of talent that contributed to games like Metal Slug 1-3 weren’t around for the comparatively awful Metal Slug 4 and 5.
What’s this Unibios thing?
Unibios is a modification that can be made to NeoGeo hardware that lets you dick around with all kinds of settings. You can, for example, change the regional version of the game you’re playing (all of the regional versions are included on an MVS or AES cart, regardless of whether it’s a Japanese, American, or European version) and remove any censorship that might be present. Or, if you have the MVS cart, you’ll be able to play the home version of the game, if you wish. Neat!
Can I play MVS games on my AES system, or vice versa?
No. AES games only work on an AES system, and MVS games only work on an MVS system. Despite that the same data is contained on both cartridges.
So… wait, what’s this supergun thing you were talking about earlier?
A supergun is basically a magic box that allows you to play arcade JAMMA boards on your TV or monitor. It hooks up to an arcade PCB (or in this case, your Neo Geo motherboard), and has the audio and video outputs, as well as the controller ports. You can build one yourself, or call on arcade enthusiasts lurking on various message boards to build one for you. Or, you can go through established manufacturers like MAS System. A supergun will run you, at most, around a couple hundred dollars, so it’s not quite chump change… but, you don’t get into proper Neo Geo gaming unless you’re willing to drop some coin.
Which games should I check out first?
If you’re trying to delve into Neo Geo games for the first time, I’d recommend Garou: Mark of the Wolves, Last Blade 2, Baseball Stars 2, and King of Fighters 2000; as well as Metal Slug 1, X, and 3. All of those games are accessible, really fun, and make it immediately clear why the Neo Geo is so revered.
I’ve already played those. Gimme something more obscure!
Check out Windjammers, Breaker’s Revenge, Rage of the Dragons, Sengoku 3, Waku Waku 7, and Blazing Star. Sengoku 3, in particular, is a hidden gem.
Which games are exclusive to the Neo Geo CD?
Crossed Swords 2
King of Fighters '96 Collection
Mahjong Final Romance 2
Neo Geo CD Special
Samurai Shodown RPG
The only ones you should actually care about, though, are Crossed Swords 2 (worlds better than the original) and Iron Clad. Zintrick is a puzzle game, so you can play it even if you don’t know Japanese, but it’s not very good. Samurai Shodown RPG is entirely in Japanese. The other games are also in Japanese, but you wouldn’t want to play them even if they were in English.
Well, which games are better on Neo CD than on cart?
Depends who you ask, but, I’d just (speaking out of my ass, of course) say:
Art of Fighting 3
Baseball Stars 2
Neo Turf Masters - adds an extra course not in the cart version.
Real Bout Fatal Fury
Samurai Shodown 1 and 2 - those soundtracks are incredible.
Some would also point to Metal Slug 1 and 2 because of the “combat school” modes, though it’s worth noting that both games definitely have animation cuts. If you’re looking for Neo CD games that best the originals, I’d focus more on the older Neo Geo games. The newer ones (anything past 1996) are where you really run into issues with cut animation.
I don’t believe you when you say that Neo Geo games had a high level of artistry. I want proof!
Sure. These are backgrounds from SNK games:
You combine that with the fantastic character art and musical scores typical of SNK games, and you have poetry. Neo Geo games were really the pinnacle of sprite art, and while graphics have gotten more advanced over the years, they haven’t necessarily gotten better.
What are Neo Geo fans like?
They’re fucking assholes.