Nintendo may not have been the first company to come up with the ingenious idea of leveraging the unbridled nostalgia of your average gamer to sell bucketloads of ROM-filled micro-consoles, but the arrival of the NES Classic a few years ago certainly gave this previously niche sector of the market a swift kick up the backside. Since then we've seen another Classic Edition as well as a considerable surge of interest in 'reheated' vintage hardware; Sega, which ironically has had a presence in this field for well over a decade thanks to its association with AtGames, is set to release a new 'Mini' console based on the Mega Drive / Genesis later this year, but it has been beaten to the punch by one of its erstwhile rivals, SNK.

Shin Nihon Kikaku, as we all know, is the company that launched the legendary Neo Geo arcade and home hardware back in the '90s. Notably dubbed 'The Rolls Royce of games consoles' by one outlet in the UK gaming media back in the day, this extravagantly expensive system was a contemporary of the SNES and Mega Drive, but offered arcade-quality graphics, sound and animation that put Sega and Nintendo's machines well and truly in the shade. The catch, of course, was that the AES console – which was the domestic version of the MVS coin-op hardware – was vastly more expensive than its rivals and each game cost around £150-£200 a pop; as a result, the Neo Geo became an unobtainable object of desire for many a young gamer growing up in the '90s, but never a system that they could realistically own – unless of course, they had very rich parents.

Fast forward to the present, and Neo Geo games can now be purchased for the price of a decent sandwich via the Switch eShop. Yet for some, that captivating allure remains; it is these people that SNK is clearly targeting with the Neo Geo Mini, its take on the whole 'Classic Edition' concept. Rather than slavishly clone Nintendo's approach, the company has decided to give its new hardware a unique hook which respectfully references its arcade heritage – in short, the unit itself is shaped like a mini arcade cabinet and even has its own LCD screen.

Neo Geo Mini: The Hardware

SNK certainly scores points when it comes to sheer aesthetic charm with the Neo Geo Mini; it's adorable. At just 390g it feels a little lightweight and cheap when you actually pick it up – it's an entirely plastic design and there's no internal battery to add heft (more on that later) – but overall, it's an object that's pleasing to handle and looks great from any angle. On the front you'll find the traditional 'stick and four-button' layout that is common to the Neo Geo line of systems; the stick sadly isn't microswitched, but it's nevertheless responsive and accurate. The speakers on the unit are quite weak (thankfully a 3.5mm headphone socket is included) and there are no physical volume controls – you have to press Start and Select together to access a sub-menu, from where you can exit the game, handle save states, adjust the screen brightness and tinker with the volume level.

The Neo Geo Mini's stick may be a little too stubby for some players, but we didn't have any major complaints once we'd become accustomed to it. There are times when it feels like there's a tad too much travel and the stick on our review unit felt like it had a small 'dead zone' when pushing right, but overall it's actually very comfortable to use for prolonged periods – which is slightly surprising, as we know we weren't alone in expressing our concern about usability when we saw the first leaked images of the unit. Of course, the real test is how the stick handles the complex inputs required in the many fighting games bundled with the system, and the answer is a positive one; we wouldn't say this is the preferred way to crack skulls in King of Fighters '98, but we didn't have too many problems pulling off special moves.

Around the back of the unit you'll find the power button – emblazoned with the Neo Geo logo, naturally – plus the USB Type-C port for power and the aforementioned 3.5mm audio socket. The inclusion of a screen may give the impression that this is a fully portable device, but that's sadly not the case – as we briefly touched upon in the previous paragraph, there's no power source inside the Neo Geo Mini and it has to be provided with external power in order to function. The good news is that you can use a portable battery pack to run the system; we used the SwitchCharge case and it worked just fine. Next to the USB socket is a mini-HDMI port for TV-out. This is sure to be a bone of contention with buyers as mini-HDMI is not a common connection (the only other device we've seen with one is the Nvidia Shield handheld). SNK doesn't include a mini-HDMI to standard HDMI cable in the box, so you'll have to source one for yourself if you want to hook it up to the TV. The only lead you get in the box is a USB to USB Type-C cable; there's no power supply included, but the one you use to charge your average smartphone will do.

The 3.5-inch screen itself is decent enough; it's pin-sharp, colours are bright, contrast is generally good and viewing angles are solid. It's also the perfect 4:3 aspect ratio for Neo Geo games; this might seem like an odd comment to make, but those of you who bought the ill-fated Neo Geo X handheld a few years back will remember that it inexplicably came with a poor-quality 16:9 display, which looked plain odd. It's also worth noting that the display matches the native resolution of the original console. When you plug the unit into a TV, the LCD screen simply displays the Neo Geo logo while the image on your telly is boosted to 1080p.

The unit's main menu clearly takes a lot of inspiration from the one seen on the NES and SNES Classic Editions; you browse the library of 40 titles horizontally, and each one has four save states. Even the 'Settings', 'Help' and 'Copyright' icons at the top of the UI look eerily similar to those seen on Nintendo's micro-consoles. The unit we reviewed is a Japanese one, but it's possible to dive into the settings and change all of the UI text to English – although it should be noted that this does not change the in-game text, which remains in Japanese for those titles which contain Japanese text, such as Top Player's Golf. If you want to play everything in English, you'll have to wait for the western release – on the upside, because all of the ROMs included here are the Japanese versions, there's blood in Metal Slug and Mai Shiranui's – ahem – assets are bouncy in all of the King of Fighters games.

When playing on the TV, a limited number of display options become available. You have the option to stretch the image to fill the entire screen both horizontally and vertically but thankfully can toggle both of these settings off so that you get the correct aspect ratio and avoid any overscan. 'Image Quality Optimization' is also a thing; with this disabled, the picture is quite fuzzy and lacks the clean pixel look of the NES and SNES Classic Editions – in fact, it looks very similar to a composite connection, which should send chills up the spine of any retrogaming purist. Annoyingly, turning image quality optimization on simply applies an emulator-like screen filter that softens out all of the pixels; it's marginally better than the standard image but still not as appealing as the 'pure' pixel-heavy look. Alas, there's no way of applying scanlines to the image, which will be a massive blow to those who consider the CRT-style filter a must for that authentic '90s experience.

When playing on the TV, using the Neo Geo Mini's controls becomes slightly more awkward, although by balancing the unit on your fingertips you can rest your thumbs on the stick and buttons, rather like you would with a Switch Pro Controller, so it's still serviceable. If you can't get on with this setup then you'll be pleased to learn that the Neo Geo Mini has two additional USB Type-C ports (one on each side) into which you can plug the Neo Geo Mini controller, which is, of course, sold separately. Based on the design of the iconic Neo Geo CD pad, these are a joy to use – although the stick isn't microswitched, as it was on the original. Despite this omission – which will no doubt befuddle purists who need to hear that somewhat obnoxious 'click' as they play – the pad is precise and responsive; given that the microswitched stick on many original Neo Geo CD controllers failed over time (we've suffered this ourselves), it's perhaps a design change for the better. On a side note, you can't remap any of the buttons in the settings menu.

Neo Geo Mini: The Games

We've taken a good look at the hardware, so now would be the perfect time to analyse the selection of bundled software. 40 titles are included on the Neo Geo Mini to tie in with the fact that SNK is now 40 years old, and if you have even a passing knowledge of the company's library, then you'll spot plenty of the usual suspects here.

The entire Neo Geo King of Fighters series is included, which should perhaps come as no great shock given that it's one of SNK's most popular franchises, but elsewhere titles have been cherry-picked a little more carefully. For example, there's no Fatal Fury or Fatal Fury 2, but Fatal Fury Special, Real Bout Fatal Fury, Real Bout Fatal Fury 2 and Garou: Mark of the Wolves make the cut. Likewise, we get Samurai Shodown 2, Samurai Shodown IV and Samurai Shodown V Special, but not the first and third entries. The first three Metal Slugs are included, but Metal Slug X and the others are absent. Other franchises only get a single helping; only one Art of Fighting game is included, and the same goes for World Heroes, Super Sidekicks, King of Monsters, Shock Troopers and Sengoku.

Here's the full list of software for the Japanese version of the Neo Geo Mini:

  • King of Fighters '94
  • King of Fighters '95
  • King of Fighters '96
  • King of Fighters '97
  • King of Fighters '98
  • King of Fighters '99
  • King of Fighters 2000
  • King of Fighters 2001
  • King of Fighters 2002
  • King of Fighters 2003
  • Samurai Shodown 2
  • Samurai Shodown IV
  • Samurai Shodown V Special
  • Fatal Fury Special
  • Real Bout Fatal Fury
  • Real Bout Fatal Fury 2
  • Garou: Mark of the Wolves
  • World Heroes Perfect
  • Kizuna Encounter
  • Art of Fighting
  • Last Blade
  • Last Blade 2
  • Ninja Master's
  • Aggressors of Dark Kombat
  • King of Monsters 2
  • Cyber-Lip
  • Shock Troopers: 2nd Squad
  • Top Hunter
  • Ninja Commando
  • Burning Fight
  • Metal Slug
  • Metal Slug 2
  • Metal Slug 3
  • Sengoku 3
  • Alpha Mission 2
  • Twinkle Star Sprites
  • Blazing Star
  • Top Player's Golf
  • Super Sidekicks
  • Joy Joy Kid

Picking 40 games from the Neo Geo's small-yet-appealing back catalogue was always going to be a thankless task; you can't please everyone. Still, there's the predictable deluge of fighting games on offer here, with a whopping 24 of the 40 titles being one-on-one brawlers, SNK's preferred genre during the '90s. Did we really need every single King of Fighters entry? That's debatable, and it's a shame that some of the later Super Sidekicks games weren't included, as well as more unique releases like 2020 Super Baseball, Soccer Brawl, Three Count Bout and Pulstar. The omission of what will perhaps be the most-requested game – Windjammers – is easier to fathom; originally a Data East title, the rights now belong to Paon, which recently licenced the game to DotEmu. As such, SNK has no control over the title, despite it being one of the console's most famous releases.

Even so, if you're a seasoned fan of SNK then we can't imagine you'll have too many complaints with the selection of games included here; after all, the company built its fanbase on its mastery of the one-on-one fighting genre, and at one point King of Fighters was the most popular arcade series in Japan – even beating Capcom's efforts. However, it's still a shame that so many hidden gems in the Neo Geo library – gems which are freely available on the Switch eShop at the time of writing, such as Neo Turf Masters, Spin Master, Aero Fighters 3 and NAM-1975 – didn't make the cut, as they would have added some welcome variety to a system which has an almost overwhelming focus on brawlers. Don't like fighting games? Then this really isn't the system for you; but having said that, we can't imagine there are many SNK diehards out there that don't like the genre.

It's worth noting that the international edition of the system will offer a slightly different lineup of games:

  • 3 Count Bout
  • Art of Fighting
  • Blazing Star
  • Blue’s Journey
  • Crossed Swords
  • Fatal Fury Special
  • Foot Ball Frenzy
  • Garou: Mark of the Wolves
  • Ghost Pilots
  • King of the Monsters
  • King of the Monsters 2
  • Kizuna Encounter: Super Tag Battle
  • Last Resort
  • Magician Lord
  • Metal Slug
  • Metal Slug 2
  • Metal Slug 3
  • Metal Slug 4
  • Metal Slug 5
  • Metal Slug X
  • Mutation Nation
  • Ninja Master’s: Haou Ninpou Chou
  • Puzzled
  • Real Bout: Fatal Fury
  • Robo Army
  • Samurai Shodown II
  • Samurai Shodown IV: Amakusa’s Revenge
  • Samurai Shodown V Special
  • Sengoku 3
  • Shock Troopers
  • Shock Troopers: 2nd Squad
  • Super Sidekicks
  • The King of Fighters ’95
  • The King of Fighters ’97
  • The King of Fighters ’98
  • The King of Fighters 2000
  • The King of Fighters 2002
  • The Last Blade 2
  • Top Player’s Golf
  • World Heroes Perfect

Given that the Neo Geo Mini is clearly based on 'system-on-a-chip' emulation – just like Nintendo's Classic Edition series – there's a good chance that in the fullness of time someone will hack the unit and work out a way of adding more titles, as has been the case with both the NES and SNES Mini. When that day inevitably comes it will offer the potential to tinker with the library of titles, but until then you'll have to make do with 40 games that do a good job of highlighting the strong points of the console's fighting game repertoire, but perhaps don't go far enough to show how much variety there was on the platform when it came to other genres.

The quality of the emulation seems fine to us; everything runs at the speed its supposed to and the only slowdown we spotted is slowdown that exists on the original hardware (Metal Slug, we're looking at you). Some of the audio sounded slightly different to our ears, but that might just be us. On the topic of audio, the UI's sound effects – which manifest themselves when you're scrolling through the menu and selecting items – are quite laggy and don't sound right at all, but this naturally doesn't impact the standard of the emulation in each game. It's just rather annoying.

Neo Geo Mini: The Verdict

The good news is that by and large, the Neo Geo Mini avoids most of the issues that crippled the Neo Geo X – but it's far from perfect. The display options are lackluster, with limited filters to play with and an image that curiously ignores pixel-perfect quality and instead opts for a choice between muddy, composite-style graphics and a smoothed-over, emulator-style appearance – neither of which are really satisfactory, but won't be all that noticeable when you're sat a few feet away from your TV.

The lack of a bundled HDMI lead is frustrating – especially as few households are likely to have a spare mini-HDMI lead lying around – and the fact that it's not very feasible to play the system on a telly using the unit's controls means that an extra controller is a must, which drives the cost of ownership up further. Should SNK have included a pad with the console? It would have been nice, even if it added to the retail price; so many of the bundled games rely on a second person being involved, so most players will want to invest in at least one pad.

It's also puzzling that SNK didn't include an internal battery so the unit could be played on the move; while it's not a traditional portable console, it's such a cute little unit that there's the temptation to take it out and about with you and set it down on any flat surface for a quick blast on Metal Slug. At least the USB Type-C port will accept portable power banks, so you can always satisfy your urge for mobile play with one of those, even if it's not the most elegant solution in the world. Finally, the roster of 40 games won't please everyone, but then that's an impossible task anyway; ultimately, it showcases some of the console's best games in King of Fighters '98, Garou: Mark of the Wolves, Last Blade 2, Blazing Star and Metal Slug, so it's hard to complain too vigorously when there are so many solid-gold classics on offer.

The Neo Geo Mini is only available in Japan at present, with a western release coming later this year. The retail price is still very much up in the air, but we've heard rumblings that it could cost as much as £100 in the UK; that makes it more expensive than both the NES and SNES Classic, but then again, it does include an LCD screen and contains more games (although you could argue that the lack of a mini-HDMI cable and controller in the base package balances that out somewhat). Still, that's the ethos of the Neo Geo brand; you pay more for access to this exclusive club. Some things really never change.

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Thanks to Funstock for providing the unit used in this review.