SNK's Neo Geo brand. Is there anything more legendary in the hearts of 90's retrobates and collectors? Possibly not. The Neo Geo AES was SNK's wild idea to bring a high-end console to the home market with arcade perfect gaming never before seen outside of a cabinet. It was far from cheap and holds its price to this day. The Neo Geo. Bigger, badder, better - the console where you needed a pair of these to play one of these!
The Neo Geo Advanced Entertainment System hit the retail market in Jan 1990 in Japan, before a wider release elsewhere in 1991. Although expensive (like, genuinely pricey) the AES blew the minds of gamers everywhere by allowing the full arcade experience (minus the smells of sweat and cigarettes, or the background buzz of a bunch of cabinets in close proximity) with its full 24-bit excellence (technically it may have not been 24-bit but you know, more on that later). The home console was cross-compatible with the arcade cabinet versions (the MVS) with an adapter that is only further encouraged by the ability of a memory card that you could take from home straight to the arcade to show off over how its done. Aces!
SNK were probably best known for essentially clone games yet already had success with various franchises included Baseball Stars and Ikari Warriors by the time the AES hit the home. For those willing to wait it out, the fun really kicked in as the 90's rolled on, however. Iconic franchises like Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown and Metal Slug were all released to much success and acclaim. Franchises that continue to resonate to this very day and doing the utmost to prove SNK were the kings of 2D fighters and run n' gunners!
The MVS was a unique and quite revolutionary beast at the time due to it being a cartridge based unit, allowing arcades and shops that purchased an MVS to be able to change up the games with ease, making sure that cabinet had a whole hell of a lot of mileage. The AES was essentially just this. But in a much smaller, sleeker frame that you plugged into your TV. Huge carts that weighed a tonne and let you know that SNK does more than just what Nintendon't. The design was gorgeous with a look reflecting the price. Stylish and for the then-modern home. But it was what was inside that was truly magnificent...
Running a Motorola 68000 at 12Mhz as its main processor, the console also featured a Zilog Z80 at 4Mhz (this combo is where the 24bit comes from) which ran as the coprocessor capable of controlling audio output. 64Kb of Memory used directly from the 68000 was the main memory, with 84Kb of video memory and 2Kb of sound memory (best check elsewhere for exact specs breakdown, but hopefully this is giving you a jumping point!). A 16-bit colour palette of 65,536/RGB666 (over RGB565), with a mazimum of 4,096 colours on screen and a maximum of 380 sprites on screen really showed what the Neo Geo was capable of, smashing the home competition at the time in terms of visual prowess. It sounded great, too. Of course, the Yamaha YM2610 chip was always reliable in kicking out healthy tuneage with its 4 FM channels, 3 SSG, 1 noise, 7 ADPCM channels and a 2Kb work RAM for sound and 128Kb on-board ROM with an additional 512Kb available from cartridges. Yeah, it was pretty darn great.
The controller for the Neo Geo AES is simply put..? One of the greatest arcade-style sticks of all time. Taking what worked from the arcade itself, slapping it in a sturdy yet stylish shell and boom. There you have it. That wonderful click that you get will stay with you forever. The memory card was revolutionary, as already mentioned; but nothing like it had truly been done in such a manner before. Although memory cards would become commonplace come the 32-bit era (o hai, PlayStation) at this point? Holy moly. SNK were masters of their craft.
An aggressive marketing campaign would take potshots happily at the other home consoles. Painting 'limp' pictures of the competition, even though the console was elite and never meant as a means to overtake the likes of Nintendo and Sega at their own game. SNK just liked to brag and who could really blame them. I, for one, never got to play a Neo Geo AES in the 90's but was well aware of them. As was any gamer worth their salt. You'd be the envy of your street if you owned one and thats a positive stigma that remains in the retro gamer communities.
Anyone who has read any of these console intros here on RetroGameGeeks penned by myself have probably noticed a not-so-subtle bias and adoration of a little series known of King of Fighters. Well? D'uh. The Neo Geo family was the home of KOF, a series that is still going strong with KOFXIII being one of the finest titles of the series. KOF was the brainchild of SNK to put the top fighters of their series' (Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, Samurai Shodown, etc) into one mighty game. With annual releases with updated rosters, engines, etc. - year on year KOF was a certain must play. An often technical button-basher that has many a fan spanning the globe. Pick a team of fighters and do battle til the last man standing. Glorious!
Metal Slug was developed by the Nazca Corporation and published by SNK back in '96 and took the arcade by storm. An exciting and vibrant take on Contra-esque run and gun gaming, its cartoonish presentation with beautiful hand-drawn sprites and fast-paced play were wuick to make it a hit. The humour of the franchise is something to never overlook, either and is perhaps something it is most remembered for and infact replicated by others since. The franchise has made its mark and games are still being ported, updated and sporadically released accross many a platform today.
There were many stupidly good titles spanning many a genre available for the Neo Geo AES, including original pack-in games like NAM-1975 (a Vietnam-based shooter) and the rather awesome Magician Lord. In terms of fighting games, this is where SNK really hit the nail on the head. The best of the bunch (for me) would include the likes of Samurai Shodown 2, Garou: Mark of the Wolves, King of Fighters '98 and Art of Fighting 3 being my ultimates of their respective franchises, but the majority have their quirks with balancing and play-style favouring the player themselves. Give 'em all a shot, why not!?
Shooters, too. Yurp. Last Resort, Pulstar (see how a clone can be even better), Aero Fighters 2/3, Blazing Star, Twinkle Star Sprites (YES!!), Viewpoint...and so much more. In terms of puzzle games you got the ever-brilliant Puzzle Bobble series (which is at its peak on Neo Geo), if Magician Lord doesn't fit your bill for platforming you can give Blue Journey a stab! The side-scrollers just keep on coming on the AES, too. We're talking Top Hunter, Sengoku 3, Burning Fight, Mutation Nation, Robo Army, King of Monsters 2 - dear god. Just beatin' after beatin' on those gems. LOVE IT! You can even get your sports-fill with the likes of the aformentioned Baseball Stars series, but why not some League Bowling or Sidekicks action? Mmmhmm.
Yes, there is a wealth of tremendous titles on the Neo Geo Advanced Entertainment System but many a time wealth is the key word. The console would likely be your prized possession as a collector, especially factoring in the resale value that certain cartridges can fetch on auction sites and elsewhere. It may be a key to go with a consolised MVS, as the low print runs and rarity are lesser affected, but the AES is the real deal for a true collector looking to preserve video game history's mighty mythical creature.
Much like everyone's other favourite console, the rather epic Sega Dreamcast; the Neo Geo system base is something that has continued on way after its supposed 'death'. Though the original unit was discontinued in the late 90's, official releases continued on into the new millenium with homebrew and indie releases remaining rampant to this very day. A cornerstone of arcade perfection that refuses to be ignored.
Whatever member of the Neo Geo family is your machine of choice, we here at RetroGameGeeks support the constant flowing of SNK love. Coz remember, Neo Geo, with its name that sticks, is the Sonny Chiba of video gaming. Never to be overlooked, never to be understated. The very best there is. Viva Neo Geo!