Image: Nintendo Life

The SNES and Mega Drive / Genesis may have dominated the console landscape in the early '90s, but they were by no means the most powerful machines of their era. That distinction goes to SNK's Neo Geo AES, often described as the "Rolls-Royce" of game consoles. It's a good analogy to make, as the machine was insanely expensive while Nintendo and Sega's platforms were more affordable, but the gulf in price was valid; the Neo Geo offered arcade-quality visuals and audio, luxuries which SNES and Genesis owners could only dream of – just as the average early '90s Ford driver could only dream of lush leather interiors and a purring 6.75 litre, V8 engine.

Prior to the launch of the Neo Geo, SNK had a solid reputation for creating coin-op titles, with games such as Mad Crasher, Alpha Mission, Athena and Ikari Warriors – the latter of which was ported to the NES in 1987 to commercial acclaim, earning the company a new legion of global fans. However, while rival arcade manufacturers such as Capcom, Taito and Konami were content to focus on generating revenue via domestic conversions of their leading coin-op hits, SNK decided to forge its own path by creating a unique arcade hardware standard accompanied by a home console variant which would receive identical software.

Based on the SNK/Alpha Denshi M68000 arcade platform which powered 1987's Time Soldiers / Battlefield, the Neo Geo arrived in April 1990 in two forms: the arcade-based Multi Video System (MVS) and the domestic Advanced Entertainment System (AES). The hardware was the same across both formats, as were the games – the big difference was that the cartridges had pinouts that were unique to each standard, so MVS games could not be played on the AES, and vice versa. This was an intentional move by SNK to prevent unscrupulous arcade operators from using the cheaper AES cartridges in their cabinets. Even though MVS games were more expensive at the time, AES software was still prohibitively costly for the typical gamer, with the average title priced at around $200.

Powered by a Motorola 68000 CPU / Zilog Z80 coprocessor setup and boasting custom graphics hardware designed by SNK itself, the Neo Geo comprehensively outgunned its domestic rivals when it came to visual and audio excellence. Sprite scaling was commonplace in many games, while large and smoothly-animated sprites were the norm. Even when the marketplace began to shift towards 3D visuals – something the Neo Geo couldn't produce – it continued to lead the way in terms of pure 2D graphics, with cartridge sizes ballooning to accommodate the increasingly detailed animation and hand-drawn pixel visuals.

SNK's console also introduced some technical innovations which were adopted by its rivals. While the Sony PlayStation is often credited with the idea of removable memory cards for game save data, this was in fact a feature on the Neo Geo four years earlier. The idea was that you could play your favourite SNK game in the arcade, save your position on the card and insert it into your AES console when you got back home to continue where you left off. Given their arcade focus, Neo Geo games did not feature battery backup for data retention and therefore this memory card was the only means of preserving your progress, making it an essential item for serious fans.

The AES was initially exclusive to hotels and bars via a rental system, but demand for the product convinced SNK to release the console at retail. Even so, the machine's mainstream aspirations were somewhat limited due to its high cost; it therefore became seen as a luxury gaming platform rather than a serious challenger to the SNES and Genesis. In North America, the "Gold System" AES package was sold for $649.99 with two joysticks (themselves roughly the same size as a Genesis) and a game, while the cheaper "Silver System" bundle cost $399.99 with a single joystick and no game. By the standards of the time these prices bordered on the exorbitant, limiting the system's audience almost exclusively to adult buyers with large disposable incomes. Unless you had rich parents - if you were a young gamer at the time - the Neo Geo was out of bounds. Later in the decade, SNK attempted to make its system more mass-market by releasing several CD-ROM-based variants of the Neo Geo hardware which offered lower-priced games thanks to the massive storage potential of optical media, but these sold in small quantities and were plagued by reliability issues.

Despite the niche nature of the Neo Geo, the success of SNK's excellent arcade output – twinned with a long line of ports to consoles like the SNES, Genesis, PC Engine and even the humble Game Boy – generated interest in the console and gave it a massive mindshare in the gaming sector. Given that AES software was the same as the arcade variant, the cost of releasing a home version of any particular game was relatively low; SNK knew it had a small but dedicated fanbase which would happily lap up new releases, irrespective of their high retail cost. This modestly-sized yet dedicated demand lasted for over a decade – giving the AES a lifespan much longer than the SNES or Genesis – with the final official release being Samurai Shodown V Special, which arrived in 2004, although third-parties have continued to support the machine in the years since then.

While many of the Neo Geo's best games have been ported to other consoles either individually, in retro compilations or as part of efforts to keep the name alive with new hardware, the console's value has remained sky-high. Ironically, the AES system – which was supposed to be the more cost-effective option back in the '90s – is now generally more expensive to collect for due to the low production numbers of various key titles. Metal Slug is perhaps the most famous example; the MVS edition is common and relatively cheap, while the AES version is incredibly rare and worth over $3,000. Another example is the European version of Kizuna Encounter, which is reported to have sold for as much as $15,000 in the past – despite the fact that the MVS edition sells for less than $50 and the Japanese AES edition (identical aside from the packaging) is much cheaper.

The rising cost of AES ownership has led to a rise of MVS-based systems, ranging from messy DIY conversions to lavishly-produced custom consoles like the gorgeous Analogue CMVS, which takes the original MVS arcade hardware and places it in a fetching wooden case. While the MVS route is certainly the one which is easiest on the wallet, you miss out on the satisfying smugness which comes from owning the beautiful AES console, as well as the colourful game packaging and manuals. Thankfully, the advance of technology means there's now an acceptable middle ground these days. Adapters like the MVS Magic Key permit AES owners to run MVS carts on their systems, and even include support for (admittedly shady) multi-game carts which contain almost every Neo Geo game ever made. These options dramatically reduce the cost of being part of the super-exclusive Neo Geo Club, but they also remove the perverse thrill of blowing a month's salary on a mint AES game which – it should always be remembered – you could obtain and enjoy for significantly less money via a digital download service like the Virtual Console.

Indeed, being a Neo Geo collector is to fly in the face of common sense and commit yourself fully to the crippling cost of owning what surely has to rank as the most expensive games system of all time. However, the fact that its value on the second hand market has remained so high for so long is testament to one indisputable fact: the Neo Geo is home to some of the best 2D titles ever made. Long may its unique legacy endure.