Remember going to the arcade as a kid? Man, that was a blast! Whenever a friend was having a birthday party I would always hope it would be at Chuck E Cheese’s or a similar establishment. The roller skating party was also pretty common and there were always a few arcade cabinets in those places, same with bowling alleys. Most of the time the most popular game would be the latest licensed beat ’em up such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Simpsons. If enough quarters were on hand it was possible for four buddies to battle it out to the game’s end (or in the case of the awesome X-Men game, six friends) and then move onto the next one.
Aside from the brawlers of the day, fighting games were really popular as well. There was Capcom with Street Fighter 2 and its various incarnations. Midway really took hold of the scene when Mortal Kombat arrived with its copious amounts of blood and gore. There was always one other cabinet though that usually featured not one, but as many as six games on it. I’m talking about that red cabinet with SNK emblazoned on the sides. These cabinets usually included multiple fighters like Fatal Fury, The Art of Fighting, The King of Fighters as well as the popular Bust-A-Move puzzle game. SNK was not entirely well known in the US, mostly because its games usually remained in the arcade while others were ported to the Super Nintendo and so on. SNK was quite popular in its native Japan though and it has developed the reputation as being one of the finest publishers of 2D arcade games.
SNK games actually were available for home play, it’s just few could afford them. SNK put out its own console called the Neo Geo (later dubbed the Advanced Entertainment System, or AES for short). It was a cartridge based system that had perfect arcade ports. It was basically the company’s arcade cabinet crammed into a console. The games were huge in actual size to accommodate this demand for perfection. While most companies use boards for arcade games, SNK’s cabinets took cartridges, which made porting to the home console relatively easy. That’s also why it was common to see an SNK cabinet with multiple games on it as they just built multiple cartridge slots into the cabinet’s motherboard. Because of their size, this made the games really expensive. Some new titles cost as much as $300 alone, and with the system running for around twice that at retail, it put the Neo Geo out of reach for many consumers.
The Neo Geo was basically there to serve a niche market. For those dying for SNK at home it was available, just costly. When it first came out in 1990, it was far and away the most powerful home console on the market and would remain so really until the Playstation era. And even then, many argued those later systems couldn’t out-do the Neo Geo at what it did best, 2D sprites. It has obviously been surpassed at this point by titles like BlazBlue but the visuals still hold up well, especially later titles (the last official title was released in 2004). Because the Neo Geo was never really popular, it’s still an expensive piece of hardware to acquire today. Even more expensive though are the games. The most popular titles, like Samurai Shodown II, can be found for under $100 but the later and more obscure titles can total well over $500 on online auction sites. Collecting Neo Geo AES games is an expensive hobby, but some people are only interested in playing the games and not collecting them, so they’ve found a cheaper alternative.
The home console was later termed the AES, while the arcade hardware was referred to as the Multi-Video System (MVS). This distinguishing was necessary because even though the hardware was the same, the cartridges were not. Probably to prevent arcade owners from buying the cheaper AES games, SNK made the AES and MVS cartridges a different size. Physically, they’re actually very close in size but the pin-out is different making it impossible to play an AES game on an MVS board and vice versa. The AES games were originally cheaper, but have become the more desirable collector’s item over the years due to them being physically more appealing and were often produced in smaller numbers. AES games came in a large box and were decorated nicely while MVC games usually just have a label on the spine. They’re also rectangular and visually kind of ugly as they were never meant to be seen. Because the hardware that runs each system is essentially the same, some people have started taking arcade motherboards and have converted them into home consoles. This has been dubbed consolizing.
I fit into the crowd that just wanted to play some SNK games. While my inner collector would love to amass a collection of AES hardware and software, I’ve resisted the temptation (I have enough stuff anyways). There are devices out there that can allow the playing of an MVS cart on an AES system. Similar to a Game Genie, it plugs into the AES and then the MVS cart is plugged in on top. I researched it though and found few worked flawlessly. There is a third option, the Neo Geo CD, but being an early CD console it has some atrocious load times. The ports for it also aren’t quite arcade perfect, which kind of defeats the purpose. I’m not a tech savy person and consolizing my own system was not an option so I kept my eyes open on eBay. I was pretty close to getting an AES machine but a consolized MVS popped up one day for an acceptable price and I jumped on it.
Since acquiring this machine late last summer, I’ve acquired three games: King of Fighters ’98, Metal Slug 3, and The Last Blade. The machine works exceptionally well. All three carts work fine and all three controllers I have also work. The system was soldered with component cable hook-ups and is fairly small. It’s also pretty light, but feels sturdy. Still, I take great care when plugging in a controller or something as I don’t want to break anything. Because this is arcade hardware all of the games function like an arcade game. There’s a bios installed on the hardware that lets me access the normal arcade functions like free play. The machine seems to work with all Neo Geo accessories as well. I was initially concerned the later paddles that came with the Neo Geo CD wouldn’t work as they require a different electrical current than the joysticks but the one I bought works fine.
In addition to the Neo Geo CD controller, I have two Neo Geo CD era joysticks. The quality is fairly high on both with arcade-like buttons and responsive joysticks. I bought the controller mostly as a curiosity piece. It came out in 1994, well before the Nintendo 64, and features an analog directional pad. I know Atari had an analog pad back in the day, but for me (and I assume most people) I didn’t encounter one until the Nintendo 64 and wanted to see how SNK’s earlier design compared to that one as well as the current ones. Not surprisingly, it’s awesome. SNK just seems to put out quality hardware and their analog thumb-pad may be the best one I’ve ever used. It has some resistance to it and even a satisfying “click” when used. While the joystick pads are preferable, this controller is actually usable for fighting games unlike most analog pads which are just atrocious when used that way.
Despite only having four face buttons, SNK fighters prove quite complex in their controls. This just points out how redundant modern fighters are with their six button layouts. I have especially enjoyed my time with The Last Blade. The Last Blade is the spiritual successor to the Samurai Shodown series and arrived late in the Neo Geo life cycle. It had one sequel, and both are extremely expensive to acquire for AES owners but the MVS cart is less so. The sprites are large and the color palette is vibrant. The gameplay focuses on weapon-based combat and each fighter has two modes; speed and power. This gives the game tremendous variety and it’s a must play for fans of 2D fighters. By comparison, King of Fighters ’98 is a more traditional fighter and one most people have likely experienced in the arcades. It’s basically an all-star game with characters from the Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting series.
Metal Slug 3 is arguably the best in the Metal Slug series. It’s just a side-scrolling shooter like Contra but it’s even more relentless with the enemies. The sprites are especially enjoyable for this one and a lot of the levels feature an amusing gimmick like vehicles of some kind or the ability to become a zombie. The boss battles are intense as this game was designed to devour quarters. I can’t imagine beating this game on one set of credits. As it stands, I can usually only make it to level 3 without free play on.
I’m not sure how many games I’ll eventually get for this machine. There are several other series of games put out by SNK that I’ve never experienced that may be worth visiting. I wish I had a buddy close by who was really into SNK’s fighters so I’d have someone to duel with. The fact that I don’t is why I never really entertained the idea of getting a full-fledged cabinet (though the kid in me would have loved to) as it would have become a space occupier after six months or so. I may one day dabble a bit in the AES market, but for those just wanting to experience the games, a consolized MVS is a pretty attractive option. They’re not cheap and the initial investment will easily dwarf the cost of getting an AES, but if all you have is an AES you’ll likely never experience a game like The Last Blade. And in the end, getting my hands on some of these forgotten gems is the whole purpose of getting an SNK system.