Hardware Focus: SNK Neo Geo

Of all the machines covered by the Virtual Console service, the Neo Geo is easily the most coveted and unattainable.

Never before had a console screamed 'elite'; when it was first released it comfortably outstripped the performance of rival machines and made good on SNK's promise that you could have an arcade in your living room. Then again, there was a reason the company could make this proud boast - the Neo Geo WAS an arcade in your living room. The home console (known as the AES - which stands for 'Advanced Entertainment System') was identical to the MVS (Multi Video System), which was the arcade hardware that brought us such classics as Metal Slug, King of Fighters and Fatal Fury.

Such power obviously came at a price. It may have been released to the market at the same time as the more technically humble Megadrive/Genesis and SNES, but it simply wasn't in the same league when it came to accessibility. The machine itself would set you back a cool $649.99 and games could be $200 each - or more. This was well out of the reach of most kids and therefore the machine only attracted hardcore gamers with large disposable incomes; needless to say SNK didn't trouble Sega and Nintendo when it came to market share.

However, if you were rich enough to take the plunge a whole world of gaming goodness awaited you. The insanely powerful hardware could produce visuals the likes of which had never been seen before on a home system; massive characters showcasing stacks of animation, silky-smooth sprite scaling and rotation, booming CD-quality soundtracks... OK, so each game cost $200 but back in the early '90s, that didn't seem like such a bad deal when you consider that the average SNES release could set you back $50-$70 and didn't look half as impressive to your envious friends.

Sadly, the one thing the Neo Geo didn't possess was strong third party support. SNK released a tremendously large library of games for the machine, but most developers refused to take the plunge, possibly deterred by the small home market and lack of commercial opportunities. Some might argue that it didn't matter, as SNK's games were of such a high standard they made most home console products look pathetically underpowered in comparison. Nothing illustrates this more effectively than the company's famous long running feud with fellow arcade veteran Capcom.

When Capcom released Street Fighter II in the early '90s it started a revolution in the coin-op world - brawlers were back. Keen to muscle in on this newfound appreciation for one-on-one fighters, SNK decided to make the genre its own and began to create franchises such as Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting and Samurai Shodown. Rumour has it that the company successfully poached several key Capcom staffers to produce many of its new fighting games.

For a while it seemed that Capcom was unstoppable, but when SNK published King of Fighters '94, the unthinkable happened: Street Fighter II was no longer seen as the fighting game of choice. For the next decade Japanese arcade fanatics would wait with eager anticipation for the next KOF instalment, while Capcom's fighters were met with a far less enthusiastic reception. Even today the KOF series attracts a massive following in the East.

In an effort to make the machine a more viable retail proposition SNK introduced a CD-ROM based version in the middle of the 1990s, but thanks to high hardware prices, disappointing loading times and poor build quality, it sadly didn't receive the support that possibly might have been expected. Ironically, the cartridge system outlived its CD-ROM counterpart.

The most amazing aspect of the Neo Geo was its longevity: the MVS was discontinued in 2004, making it one of the longest supported consoles in the history of videogaming. By the end of its lifespan the technical limitations were telling, but it still remains the best system on which to experience true 2D brilliance. Games like Mark of the Wolves and Last Hope (the last official release for the system) show just how capable this amazing console was.

Although the AES and MVS systems were based on the exact same technology, they were not compatible. Therefore, AES carts tend to sell for more than MVS ones these days though. MVS releases were more widespread because arcade operators supported the system way into the '90s. A good example of this disparity is the value of the AES version of Metal Slug, which is well into the thousands. The MVS edition is much cheaper and more common.

One interesting facet of the NeoGeo system is the pioneering use of memory cards. The idea was that you could play a game in the arcade, save your progress on your card and then keep playing when you returned home to the AES system. It was an interesting idea but one would have to ask why you would play a game in the arcade that you already owned at home.

Now that the Virtual Console has been blessed with a Neo Geo channel, it's possible to enjoy this vintage console for a far more reasonable price. One can only hope that Nintendo will allow some kind of hard drive support for the Wii, as some of the later Neo Geo games are pretty hefty in terms of memory use.

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