Although SNK is best known these days for its fantastic Neo Geo console and arcade systems – of which approximately a bajillion games are already available individually on the Switch – it's easy to forget that the Osaka-based company enjoyed 12 years developing games before the Neo Geo arrived in 1990.

The SNK 40th Anniversary Collection pays tribute to those early days by offering up 13 games released between 1981 and 1990. What’s more, it promises to add another 11 games as free DLC a month after release. It quickly becomes clear upon starting, however, that SNK is underselling its compilation a little here: there's actually far more on offer.

In reality, there aren't 13 games available on day one: there are 21. That's because many of the titles available – including the Ikari Warriors trilogy, action platformer Athena and beat 'em up gem P.O.W. – come in both arcade and ‘console’ (i.e. NES) versions.

Since the NES ports of SNK's games were often tweaked heavily to adapt to (and often take advantage of) the home system's capabilities, they generally feel like different games entirely. Play through the arcade version of Guerrilla War, for example, and you'll be able to make the most of its twin-stick control system, letting you run in one direction and shoot in the other. The NES version ditches these controls, giving the game a different feel.

What games are on offer, then? Well, most of the big genres of the era are accounted for here. The aforementioned Ikari Warriors games and Guerrilla War ensure the run ‘n’ gun genre is well represented, as does tank game TNK III and its NES equivalent Iron Tank. Athena and Psycho Soldier cover the oddly anime-style platformer bases, while Alpha Mission, Prehistoric Isle and Vanguard make sure shoot ‘em up fans are catered for (although Vanguard, being the oldest game here, feels pretty primitive).

Meanwhile, P.O.W. is a fun little side-scrolling brawler (the NES version has the most powerful jump-kick in the history of gaming), Crystalis is an NES adventure RPG in the Zelda vein, and fighting game Street Smart – easily the weakest in the collection – makes it clear why everyone associates SNK with the likes of Fatal Fury and The King Of Fighters instead. This is the rare stinker in the pack, though: all the others, even the extremely basic Vanguard, have enough quality in them to keep you entertained for a while.

As previously mentioned, SNK will also be adding a further 11 games, free of charge, on 11 December. Oddly, two of them (Beast Busters and Search and Rescue) will be available as free DLC on the eShop, while the other nine – including quirky hungry car game Munch Mobile, brilliant run ‘n’ gunner Time Soldiers and the practically prehistoric 1980 shooter Sasuke vs Commander – will be added automatically as part of a ‘v1.02’ patch. When all’s said and done, you’re going to end up with a healthy selection of 24 titles (not counting those with both arcade and NES versions available), which amounts to around $1.66 per game.

The emulation isn’t bad, but it’s far from perfect. This compilation has been handled by Digital Eclipse – previously responsible for the likes of Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection, Mega Man Legacy Collection and The Disney Afternoon Collection – and its ever-flexible Eclipse Engine handles most of these ‘80s games with no real issues. Some of the arcade titles, though, suffer some occasional screen warping and stuttering, which can be a little distracting. Meanwhile, the usual options are available in terms of scanlines (none, TV or monitor), scaling (none, full screen or stretch) and border art, and the main menu lets you rotate the screen vertically: though this isn’t available on a per-game basis, meaning you need to change it back any time you want to play a non-vertical game.

This one-size-fits-all approach also has a negative impact on multiplayer options. Because some of these games are twin-stick shooters, you’re going to need both analogue sticks to play: as a result, there’s no option to play two-player games with a single Joy-Con. The problem is, there are plenty of games in here – most notably the NES ones – that it would be perfectly possible to play with a single Joy-Con, but because it’s not possible with some it isn’t an option for any: you’re going to need two pairs of Joy-Con, or one pair and a Pro Controller, regardless of what game you’re playing. [EDIT: The day-one patch is confirmed to resolve the single Joy-Con issue - hurrah!]

One very cool feature it does have, though, we’d like to see in more retro compilations is the ‘watch’ option, which is available for most of the games here. Select this and the game will start playing itself, via an expert playthrough previously recorded (no doubt by some SNK boffin somewhere). Not only does let you study strategies for each game and see how to beat them without even losing a life, here’s the clever thing: at any point you can hit the + button, choose ‘start playing’ and you’ll take over from that moment. This means that, yes, you can fast forward the game right up to the final boss then essentially say “thanks chief, I think I can handle it from here”. Consider it an ‘older brother’ mode, if you will.

Digital Eclipse usually does a great job of not only making these games available to play, but also supporting them with oodles of archive material: the fantastic museum mode in Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection is proof of this. SNK 40th Anniversary Collection could potentially be the most impressive example yet, thanks to its section entitled ‘SNK Complete Works: 1978-1990’. All 74 games released by the company during this period are given their own section here, each filled with character art, promotional materials, a hefty helping of screenshots and loads of useful annotations explaining each game and giving some genuinely interesting trivia.

For example, arcade shooter Mechanised Attack ends with a fat cat businessman saying: “Perfect! Well done. Nothing more to say. Just relax.” Head to the entry for that game and you’ll be shown this ending – along with no fewer than 35 other screens and pieces of art for the game – with a note explaining that the businessman in question was actually the chairman of SNK at the time. Oh, and that the character art, which was a clear rip-off of The Terminator, was “influenced by a popular action horror film in which a robot wears human skin”.

On top of this 74-chapter history lesson, the museum mode also includes a bunch of other SNK flyers and magazine ads, and a bunch of fantastically illustrated Japanese player’s guides for some of the games in the compilation. The whole thing essentially raises the bar and defines how retro game collections should be handled in an ideal world: if you have any interest in game history you could potentially spend hours here reading up on each game and scrolling around the hi-res art.

Conclusion

This is how retro compilations should be done. Although the emulation has a few little hiccups along the way, the overall package here is wonderfully presented. Rather than just slapping a rudimentary menu over a bunch of old ROMs, it’s clear there’s been a lot of effort made here to catalogue an often forgotten period in one of Japan’s most important game developers. As with all compilations, there are a few misses, but the quality is generally high, and the supporting museum mode is an absolute treasure trove for retro enthusiasts.