The NEOGEO Mini

 

img_0003When I was a kid, there was a game console that was so unattainable it was practically mythical. And that console was SNK’s Neo Geo, the home console version of SNK’s popular arcade technology. I only heard about it through social circles, but never knew anyone who actually had one. And had I wanted to even see one I wouldn’t have known how to even go about that. Game magazine didn’t bother covering it and I can’t recall ever seeing one in a store. And that’s because the unit ran for around $650, and that was just for the console. The individual games were often sold for $150 a piece, some even more. And these things were behemoths! Just eyeballing it, they look to be around 8″ by 6″ and are about an inch and a half thick.

It’s sort of ironic that the Neo Geo was so expensive and rarely encountered because SNK’s arcade cabinets were the opposite. Those white, black, and red cabinets were pretty prolific in the 90s and that was because they were quite the value compared with other games. A SNK cabinet contained a board that usually had at least two cartridge slots and as many as five. These cabinets essentially functioned like a console, and arcade owners could swap out games whenever they wished if they felt they needed to change things up, which is a heck of a lot cheaper than buying an all new cabinet. Plus the owner gets to save on floor space, making SNK machines pretty popular for smaller venues looking to just add a game or two like a pizza place or a bowling alley.

The Neo Geo was also super expensive because SNK wasn’t really looking to compete with the likes of Nintendo and Sega. SNK knew what it did well, and it had a dedicated fanbase. The Neo Geo was for people who loved SNK’s arcade games and wanted to take the experience home without having to buy an actual cabinet. Because of this, the guts inside the Neo Geo is essentially identical to that of the arcade cabinet. Where other console developers looked to achieve a half measure or so, SNK said “screw that.” And the gigantic cartridges gave SNK plenty of room to increase the power in its games helping the Neo Geo to still be viable into the 2000s.

Something the Neo Geo brand has never really shook is its high cost. Even decades removed from its debut, a secondhand console will still set you back several hundreds of dollars. And the games might set you back even more since they weren’t produced in massive quantities. SNK’s home version of the Neo Geo hardware was referred to as the AES, with the arcade version referred to as the MVS. Since they were the same, SNK made the shape of the cartridges different between the two. The thinking was that SNK didn’t want Neo Geo owners just buying the cheaper MVS carts, which featured no artwork or case, and playing them at home. Over the years, third parties have come up with adapters so Neo Geo AES owners could indeed play the cheaper MVS carts on their home system. More experimental and determined gamers have even taken old cabinets and “consolized” them to create their own Neo Geo. Many years ago, I bought such a device as I wanted to get into Neo Geo. At the time, the MVS community was starting to take off and now collecting those instead of AES games isn’t the value it used to be. I made one post on that thing, and no more because I just wasn’t willing to devote all of those resources to Neo Geo.

 

Not surprisingly, SNK decided to get into the mini console business. It’s a business presently booming, and there’s money to be made. SNK also decided it needed to do things a bit different. While Nintendo and Sony had dedicated home consoles to celebrate from its respective pasts, SNK also wanted to acknowledge that Neo Geo wasn’t just a home brand, but an arcade as well. And in true SNK fashion, it also decided it needed to be the most expensive option in town.

The Neo Geo Mini was released late in 2018 for both Japan and the international market. Like other mini consoles, the lineup of software differed between the two regions and was supposedly tailored to the tastes of each. Considering SNK’s games span few genres, I’m not sure what differences there really is in terms of taste save for SNK’s football title. The Neo Geo Mini ran for as high as $130 on release, though of all the mini consoles this one seemed to vary the most in price depending on where you purchased it with some offering price points closer to $100 (which is what the Japanese version translated to in US dollars).

That price point may have seemed alarming at the time, but there was some justification behind it beyond the usual “it’s Neo Geo.” The Neo Geo Mini comes with 40 pre-loaded games, the most yet for these official mini consoles (the soon to be released Genesis Mini will top it with 42) so if you were placing a value of 2 bucks a piece on each game that would already get you to 80 dollars. And to celebrate the arcade legacy of Neo Geo, SNK opted to make its mini console a dedicated gaming device without the need of a television. The Neo Geo Mini is an adorable little arcade cabinet all by itself. It more resembles the barcade style than an actual SNK cabinet, but this makes it much easier to place the device on your lap. It has a 3.5″ LCD screen which is in a 4:3 format to preserve the native aspect ratio of the software. There’s a mini analog joystick on the left, and the four buttons are on the right. Because of the limited space, the buttons are arrayed in a diamond shape as opposed to in a row as they would have been on an actual cabinet or on the AES joysticks. The Mini is powered by a USB cable, but it does not come with a wall adapter. It also does not contain an internal battery, so it has to be plugged in. This is the first of many design flaws to come.

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Left to right: SNK Black controller for the Mini, Neo Geo CD controller, SNK White controller for the Mini.

The Neo Geo Mini is undeniably cute, but SNK made some odd choices with it. First of all, one such odd choice is not the screen. It may be LCD, but it looks just fine for these games. If you found these titles impressive to look at in the arcade, the same will be true here. Playing them though won’t be quite as fun. The joystick SNK went with is pretty basic. It’s floaty, like an analog stick on a modern console, which works okay for games like Metal Slug, but for fighters it’s problematic. It’s confounding because SNK has a history of making good analog sticks that are actually usable for fighters. The Neo Geo Pocket had a great one. It had plenty of resistance and had that satisfying click to it. The gamepads for the Neo Geo CD too had these clicky analog “discs” on them that were also usable in fighters. You would prefer to use a joystick, but you also didn’t feel severely limited if you had to use one of the gamepads. More confusing is SNK’s decision to change the layout of the buttons. On the old controllers where this diamond shape was utilized, the buttons went (starting at the top, clockwise):  D, B, A, C. On the Neo Geo Mini they go:  A, C, D, B. I’m not super familiar with old Neo Geo games, but even I’m thrown off with this new configuration. I have to assume it has something to do with how these games have been released in emulated form on modern consoles, but it’s weird that they opted to make things different here.

Making things even odder, is you can purchase additional controllers for the Mini. They’re styled after those Neo Geo CD gamepads, but they’re different in the worst ways. For one, they have the new button layout so if you thought you could get around that setup, well, you can’t. They’re also using new components, and sadly the analog disc is one of them. It’s no longer that satisfying clicky input. There’s even less resistance in it when compared with the Mini’s joystick, making it a downgrade if you want to play VS modes. They connect via USB Mini, so it’s possible that better joysticks are available, but it’s a shame that the official SNK controllers are so disappointing.

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When both controllers are plugged into each side of the Mini, the controls on the device go “dead” making this a maximum of 2 players only.

The Neo Geo Mini includes a TV out function via HDMI mini. Strangely, it did not come with a cable though so you had to buy a separate one. Thankfully, if you own any of the Nintendo mini consoles then you’re all set. I actually often just switch the cable between my mini consoles when I want to play since I don’t have enough inputs on my television. If you choose to go this route, know that it isn’t really optimal. SNK didn’t spend much time on this feature it would seem as the games all feature a noticeable downgrade in visual quality when played on a television. It’s not unplayable, but also not very kind to these otherwise lovely looking games. On the plus side, the controller cables are at least generous in length and the Neo Geo Mini is heavier than the Nintendo mini consoles so there’s less chance of yanking it accidentally off a TV stand. Though, if you happen to do so there’s also more risk of damage given the presence of the screen.

Because of the cost and shortcomings, I passed on the Neo Geo Mini last year. This summer though, a new bundle was released and it was enough to get me to jump onboard. The Neo Geo Mini bundle is available at Amazon and Wal-Mart and it includes:

  • The Neo Geo Mini International Edition
  • 2 SNK controllers (one black, one white)
  • 1 HDMI cable
  • $99

The bundle addresses the monetary shortcomings and puts the console closer in-line with the SNES Mini. Yes, it’s still more expensive than that device, but it also has nearly twice as many games and features the off-TV mode. In addition to all that I highlighted, the Mini also comes with stickers. The only graphics on the International version are the Neo Geo logos on each side of the cabinet so if you want to add some extra flash to it you have the stickers. I haven’t placed any on my unit, but I probably will stick one above the screen at least.

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You may bemoan the lack of variety, but there’s no denying this thing comes packed with a lot of games.

Of course, if you’re interested in this device then you probably want to know what you can play on it. The games on the International version are as follows:

  • Metal Slug 1 – 5
  • Metal Slug X
  • King of the Monsters 1 and 2
  • Sengoku 3
  • Magician Lord
  • Blue’s Journey
  • Shock Troopers
  • Shock Troopers 2nd Squad
  • Robo Army
  • Crossed Swords
  • Mutation Nation
  • 3 Count Bout
  • The King of Fighters 95, 97, 98, 2000, 2002
  • Art of Fighting
  • Fatal Fury Special
  • Real Bout Fatal Fury
  • Garou: Mark of the Wolves
  • Samurai Showdown II, IV, V Special
  • The Last Blade 2
  • World Heroes Perfect
  • Kizuna Encounter
  • Ninja Master’s
  • Top Player’s Golf
  • Super Sidekicks
  • Football Frenzy
  • Blazing Star
  • Last Resort
  • Ghost Pilots
  • Puzzled

That’s a lot of fighting games. Safe to say, if you don’t like fighters then this isn’t the machine for you (and you probably already knew that). I’ve tested all of the games in off-TV mode and all emulate very well with no input lag. If you liked these games before, you’ll like what you have here. The obvious shortcoming being the input method for the fighters. I’m not particularly good at SNK fighters, but I’m really not good on this machine. Maybe I can get used to it and get close to what I am when playing on a Neo Geo, but it’s going to take some practice. I should also note, that since this contains US versions of these games, Samurai Showdown features the censored green blood. If you want the red stuff you’ll have to get the Japanese version.

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There are some design shortcomings with this device, but there’s no denying the games look good on the small screen.

As for the lineup, it’s hard to argue it’s not a solid representation of what SNK’s legacy is. I would have preferred fewer fighting games, but there’s not a ton missing either. I’m surprised at the exclusion of Bust-A-Move, aka Puzzle Bobble, but that might be because SNK doesn’t own those characters. I would have liked to see Baseball Stars as well, and I’m surprised at its exclusion. Since these games are all essentially arcade games, they’re pretty damn hard since they were meant to guzzle quarters. You’ll be happy to know that there are Save State options present making these games a bit easier to manage. Simply pressing Start and Select together brings up the menu to do so which is also the way you exit a game without powering off the console. The user interface is bare bones, but gets the job done. If you happen to get the Japanese version you can even switch the language to English, though the in-game text will still be Japanese (not that any of these games contain required reading).

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Getting used to this little guy will be key to enjoying the fighting games. For games like Metal Slug though it works just fine.

Given all of this, it’s a bit hard to recommend the Neo Geo Mini as anything other than a novelty. If you like the idea of being able to play these games off-TV in a unique format then by all means give it a shot. The new bundle makes it a little easier to recommend, though the extra stuff also highlights what this system isn’t very good at doing. If you just want to experience SNK’s games on the cheap, or even on the go, you have lots of options now as most of these games can be purchased digitally for various platforms, including Nintendo Switch. Of course, the Switch will give you its own issues with inputs for fighting games, but it will also give you better on-TV emulation. These games are no longer prohibitively expensive to enjoy, which does harm the novelty of the Neo Geo Mini.

I find the aesthetic of the Neo Geo Mini to be so pleasing that I’m reluctant to say I find it disappointing. It’s too charming to be a dud. The only true disappointment for me is that the on-TV experience isn’t good enough to make me get rid of the few MVS games I own. Hopefully I keep at it with this thing and eventually get a little better at a few of the fighters. I’d also like to see SNK take at least one more stab at creating a dedicated gaming device that’s cost-effective and also sets a new standard for the best way to experience SNK’s games. The Neo Geo X and the Mini both were tantalizing, but come up a bit short. If you like SNK’s offerings and don’t mind the price tag, the Neo Geo Mini is fine. If you’re still on the fence, then maybe wait and see if the price comes down more or seek out a used one. I’ve seen stand-alone Minis for as low as $89 new. I don’t think it will crash to the levels of the PlayStation Classic (which I’ve seen for as low as $15!), but there may be some more room to fall.


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