Neo Geo – the story of SNK’s gaming powerhouse8 minute read

Most people are aware of the legendary feud that was the ‘bit wars’ between SEGA and Nintendo. In the late 80’s and early 90’s both of the Japanese gaming powerhouses tried to win a fight for videogame supremacy. They both released games and consoles to garner firm footing in one-upmanship in the market of household gaming. This was at a time where arcades had peaked and other companies that were in the background of this battle. These companies may not have been as well known, but they had a good following of fans that are still prominent to this day.

Introducing the behometh

The PC Engine (or Turbo GrafX 16 in the west) is still heralded. The console has even had its own mini console release within the past couple years.
Despite both being considered sub-par, the Philips CD-i and the Atari Jaguar have cult followings because of their flaws.

The Atari Jaguar only sold circa. 100,000 units (image credit: Atari)

However there is one games company, and more specifically the console, that defined arcade gaming crossing over into the home. This one console lasted 14 years in the video game development industry before discontinuation. The name of this console is the behemoth that is SNK’s Neo Geo.

The creations of SNK

SNK was originally founded in 1973 as a stock company, but ultimately realised the potential in coin based arcade gaming. They decided to branch out into gaming development soon after this realisation. After creating various arcade machines and licensing out their intellectual properties, which were ported to the consoles of the time, SNK came to the decision to enter the console market with the Neo Geo.

There are two versions of the Neo Geo. Firstly the MVS (Multi Video System) and secondly the AES (Advanced Entertainment System). The only difference between the two machines is that the MVS is an arcade cabinet and the AES is the home console variant.

The Neo Geo AES (image credit: SNK)

Back when arcade gaming had ports on home consoles the games had to be scaled down in terms of its specifications in order to work on the consoles. This was due to the fact that arcade boards were so powerful in comparison to its household counterparts. What made the Neo Geo special is that the cartridges for both the arcade machine and the home console had exact specifications to each other. There was no scaling-down and no down-grading which resulted in pixel perfect sprites.

An arcade machine in the home?

The interesting thing about the MVS system is that it was, for all intensive purposes, a home console in the arcade. The MVS contained cartridge slots inside the machine for different games to be slot into. This goes against common knowledge, whereby most arcade cabinets use arcade boards. Most arcade cabinets had to be removed from their premises when they ran their course for updated games. However, all SNK had to do was create a new game, place it on a cartridge and send them out to arcades that had MVS machines. They would then swap out the older games for the newer game, thereby giving the cabinet a mammoth lifespan in comparison to others.

The MVS Family (image credit: NSK)

There were also different variants of the MVS cabinets. Some had either 6 slots, 4 slots, 2 slots or 1 slot for games to be placed into for players to choose from a range of titles. As an “arcade console”, the Neo Geo’s catalogue was very heavy with fighting games. They were arguably the most popular genre of game in arcades at the time and SNK fighting games have been heralded as being some of the best fighting games in history. And there have been a lot of them.

The catalogue speaks for itself

There were multiple series of games such as Art of Fighting, Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, World Heroes and The King of the Fighters. All these titles had different variations and, in the case of The King of Fighters, yearly releases.

The aesthetic and playing style of these games are very similar to Capcom’s legendary Street Fighter series. They were so similar in fact that there has been tension between the two companies in belief of SNK copying Capcom in regards to the character designs. However, SNK and Capcom came to a reconciliation, and even worked together; combining rosters for the multiple cross-system games Capcom vs SNK.

The Neo Geo Catalogue was vast and rish (image credit: unknown)

Despite the Neo Geo being famous for it’s fighting games there are other titles of varying genre’s in it’s library. These range from side-scrolling ‘beat ’em ups’ such as Burning Fight, space shooters like Last Resort and Alpha Mission II and side-scrolling shooters like Metal Slug. Metal Slug being possibly one of the Neo Geo’s most famous series.

They cost how much?

Many sports-based and racing titles broadened the library, giving the console variety needed to compete in the tough market. However, the reason why the Neo Geo wasn’t as successful as it’s SEGA and Nintendo counterparts is because of hefty price-tag.

The issue arose from the fact that the MVS and AES games were the same games with similar boards in their respective cartridges. In comparison to the less advanced games it’s peers were producing, the price was reflected as such. Where the Sega Genesis (MegaDrive) and Super Nintendo games retailed between $50-$80, Neo Geo games could be sold at retail in the hundreds. This was also in varying degrees based on the technical size of the game.

The Neo Geo was deviously marketed as 24-bit whilst actually being a 16-bit system (image credit: SNK)

The size of the boards made the cartridges massive in comparison to other console producers. When you see a Neo Geo game alongside a SNES cart, it towers over it. The game cases they came in are also obviously big too. However, one major positive the Neo Geo had is that the AES cases were gorgeous. They all had fantastic artwork which helped them stand out from the crowd.

The beginning of the end

Four years after the release of the Neo Geo, SNK released the Neo Geo CD. This was a cheaper, disc-based variant of the cartridge-based systems. The release was in an attempt to get back into contention with SNK’s peers with the premise of pricing the games similar rate. However, despite the easier accessibility to the catalogue of games, the Neo Geo CD had horrendous load-times. This was always a major issue with early generation disc-based games.

The Neo Geo CD (image credit: SNK)

Criticisms were also voiced with the lack of upgraded technology. This was due to the machine’s inability to render 3D graphics and, with with Sony’s PlayStation release ready to revolutionise the gaming industry, the Neo Geo CD didn’t succeed to it’s expectations.

SNK ultimately decided to branch out into the handheld market with the releases of the Neo Geo Pocket and Neo Geo Pocket Color. They released with their own library of games too.

The legacy will always remain

As at the time of writing, there has been no more hardware produced by SNK, bar a few mini consoles, the Neo Geo Gold and of course collector’s cabinets of emulated Neo Geo games.

SNK have gone through a few different ownerships and brand changes since it’s original dissolution in 2001. But despite not being as prominent today as they were, the Neo Geo is still considered to be one of the greatest consoles of all time, and it’s legacy is still intact.

With the domination of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo in today’s gaming market, we’re most likely to have SNK continue the path of Sega whereby they concentrate on software and nostalgic memorabilia instead of dealing in new hardware. But as a “one hit wonder” of sorts, for me the Neo Geo definitely stands on top of the charts.