Gamers of a certain age will have fond memories of the Neo Geo, even if they didn't get chance to own one all those years ago. Considering the small number of consoles sold, the system had an incredible influence and impact on the gaming scene in the early '90s. Launched at a time when the 16-bit SNES and Mega Drive were the machines to beat, the Neo Geo offered arcade-quality visuals which quite simply blew away the competition. Its best titles have since become sizeable franchises in their own right — The King of Fighters, Metal Slug, Samurai Shodown, Fatal Fury, to name but a few — and the system remains a firm favourite with hardcore collectors. Owning one is akin to a badge of honour.
Such is this level of adoration that US firm Tommo has produced the Neo Geo X in conjunction with SNK Playmore. A portable console based on the classic Neo Geo AES system, it comes in a limited edition "Gold" pack which features a unique docking station shaped like the original console and a replica arcade stick which connects via USB. The console has 20 games pre-loaded and there's an additional SD game card — Ninja Master's Haō Ninpō Chō — thrown in for good measure, too.
The Neo Geo X console itself is roughly the size of the Sony PSP and features a glossy front panel and a rubberised back. The 4.3-inch, 480x272 pixel LCD display has a widescreen aspect ratio, which is rather unusual seeing as no Neo Geo games supported anything but 4:3. When you switch the system on the games are crudely stretched to fill the screen, but a tap of the L1 button allows you to revert to the standard size. The unit has a card slot for loading up new games, 3.5mm headphone socket, HDMI-out and a Micro USB port for charging. There are also buttons on the bottom edge to adjust the volume and screen brightness.
The console's 8-way micro-switched stick is based on the one seen on the Neo Geo CD pad and the Neo Geo Pocket handheld. It emits a loud click whenever you push a direction, but is absolutely ideal for fighting games and fast-paced platform shooters. The four main action buttons are firm and responsive, too.
The docking station has a flip-up lid which allows you to insert the main console itself. Once closed, you can use the dock as you would a standard AES system — it connects to your TV via composite or HDMI and can be plugged into the mains to provide power and charge the Neo Geo X console itself. The quality of the arcade stick makes this a surprisingly faithful experience; although the stick doesn't feel quite as robust as the original, it's such a close match that only existing AES owners are likely to tell the difference.
The list of pre-installed titles is comprehensive, but largely covers the early years of SNK's console — an intentional move, as additional games will be released in compilations, one of which we'll talk about a little later in the review. The games included are 3 Count Bout, Alpha Mission II, Art of Fighting, Baseball Stars 2, Cyber-Lip, Fatal Fury, Fatal Fury Special, The King of Fighters '95, King of the Monsters, Last Resort, League Bowling, Magician Lord, Metal Slug, Mutation Nation, NAM-1975, Puzzled, Real Bout Fatal Fury Special and Samurai Shodown II, Super Sidekicks and World Heroes Perfect. Many of these are already available on download services such as the Wii Virtual Console, and to be brutally honest haven't aged all that well. While Metal Slug, Magician Lord and Samurai Shodown II will always be entertaining titles, the likes of Mutation Nation and King of the Monsters will surely be played once and then swiftly forgotten, unless you happen to hold fond memories of them.
The first batch of fresh games launched in June, with five sets of three games making up "Volume 1". These can be purchased separately or in a "Mega Pack" collection, with all 15 titles on a single SD card packaged in a clamshell case based on the boxes used in the latter years of the Neo Geo AES' lifespan. Mega Pack Volume 1 also includes a cable which allows you to update the console's firmware and charge it using a power supply. The box also has space for the console itself, making it a fetching — if rather cumbersome — carry case.
The games included in Mega Pack Volume 1 are far more enticing than those installed on the console itself. They are Metal Slug 2, Sengoku, Top Hunter, Samurai Shodown III, Savage Reign, Super Sidekicks 3, The King of Fighters '96, Blazing Star, Kizuna Encounter, Garou: Mark of the Wolves, Shock Troopers, World Heroes 2 Jet, The Last Blade, Blue's Journey and Art of Fighting 3. While some are better than others, the quality of the stand-out games makes for an impressive compendium, and the packaging shows that Tommo understands the appeal of the system. In fact, the same can be said of the packaging for the Neo Geo X console itself; the company has even used the original Neo Geo stickers which graced the original system back in the '90s to seal the boxes.
Although the Neo Geo X manages to capture the premium feel of the console on which it is based, there are elements which dilute the overall experience and remove a lot of the sheen. The LCD screen is the worst offender; it's dull and strangely lifeless, even on the highest brightness setting. The Neo Geo has some of the best-looking 2D games ever made, and it's a real shame that a better display couldn't have been used here to really show them off.
Battery life is another disappointment, with the console lasting around 8 hours on a good day. When you consider the age of the hardware in question, it really should offer more stamina. The lack of staying power could be related to the handheld's innards — instead of running a scaled-down version of the original AES hardware, it uses a Linux-based emulator running on a 1GHz Jz4770 system-on-chip. The demands of emulating the console at full-speed could be to blame for the weak battery life, and it would have been nice to see slightly better optimisation to make the system less of a juice-guzzler. Another mild annoyance is that the battery isn't accessible by the user, which means once it gives up the ghost, the console is effectively useless — a prime concern for collectors.
When you connect the Neo Geo X gold to the TV, there are other shortcomings. Both the composite and HDMI connections offer less-than-stellar image quality, especially when compared to the gorgeous RGB SCART that was outputted by the original hardware. Having said that, most casual players won't notice the difference, but therein lies the problem — casual buyers aren't going to be the ones who pick up the system — it will be seasoned SNK fans that will buy this product, and they are the ones who are going to be the most critical of any failings.
Finally, the mechanic for disturbing new games feels outdated. While collectors will love the idea of "going physical" with new Mega Pack compendiums, a smarter move would have been to link the system to an online store where the Neo Geo's entire library could be offered for download. Priced competitively, this could have generated a steady income for Tommo and SNK Playmore — sadly, unless a newer version is released, we're stuck with physical SD cards for the time being.
We're glad that the Neo Geo X exists; it's clearly been made with good intentions and from the moment you open to the lush packaging to the first time you click that fantastic micro-switched stick, it feels like a celebration of one of gaming's most iconic brands. The ability to connect the console to your TV — thereby replicating the feel of the original hardware — is a neat extra which will appeal to those who badly craved an AES twenty years ago but simply couldn't afford it (just about everyone, then).
However, the elements which hold the Neo Geo X back — the poor quality screen, unimpressive battery life and outdated game delivery method — sour the experience slightly. The Neo Geo X may well end up being more authentic than intended — it's destined to be adored by SNK devotees and is unlikely the find mainstream acceptance — just like the original system.