But it’s not without its missteps
I don’t know what’s going on with the Neo Geo Mini. Shortly after I got my hands on one, SNK announced that an upgraded Holiday version of the hardware would be going up for pre-order in the coming days. That’s not a good sign. I have to guess that the initial SKU failed to sell as well as SNK had expected, leaving them scrambling to rework the units they already produced into a more marketable package. Their apparent lack of confidence in their product leaves me pessimistic about this weird little machine’s future.
It’s a shame too, because this is by far my favorite plug-and-play mini console to date, at least in terms of its library. I bought the NES and SNES Classics day one, and I love them to “bits”, but there’s no denying that nearly all the games on each system are outdated. That’s the point of the nostalgia-powered novelty collections though, right? To take a trip in your mind back in time?
If so, then that’s probably why the Neo Geo Mini isn’t selling. These are not the games that many grew up loving. These are the games that most of us could only afford to play for ten minutes a week at the local arcade, before going home and sinking hours into The Legend of Zelda or Sonic the Hedgehog. That said. there are several games on the console that stand up to the best that 2018 has to offer in their respective genres. Garou: Mark of the Wolves looks and plays better than 99% of today’s fighting games. Metal Slug 3 is still the best looking 2D run-and-gun action game I’ve ever played. There are also plenty of quality games on here that I’d never heard of before. For instance, if you told me that Ninja Masters was as all new indie fighter, and not a Neo Geo title from the ’90’s, not only would I have believed you, but I would have been more than happy to pay $15 for it.
That’s why, despite my love of Jumping Flash and Super Puzzle Fighter, the Neo Geo Mini beats out the PS1 Classic for me this holiday season. It’s also why I am more optimistic than ever that Nintendo will skip the N64 when it rolls out its next Classic console, and will instead jump straight to the Game Boy family of systems. I’ve already taken my Neo Geo Mini on the go with me a few times, and I’m sure people would love to do the same with a similarly versatile handheld/home console pre-loaded with games from Nintendo pre-DS portable generation. The Neo Geo Mini has issues, but its definitely worth looking into once Black Friday rolls around.
The Neo Geo Mini is a better handheld than it is a home console. I have fairly large hands, but I’ve had no problems with the stick and buttons on the console itself. The screen is also bright and clear. The console doesn’t take batteries, and instead runs off of a USB port, similar to most cell phones. I’ve played it running off my car’s cigarette lighter USB adapter, a mobile cell phone battery, and hooked up to my laptop on the train, and as of yet I’ve had no problem with power supplies, or pulling off special moves in KoF 2002 while on the move.
The optional control pads (sold separately) aren’t nearly as nice. The control stick is loose and the buttons are loud and clicky. They aren’t impossible to get used to, but its strange that they are such a downgrade from the stick built into the console itself.
In some misguided attempt to replicate the arcade experience, all the games are programmed to have a set amount of tokens for both players, You can tone down the difficulty ,or increase the amount of default lives you have for most of the games, but your starting token count never changes.
These are not arcade original roms though. Most have been altered for the home market to let you save then restart from whatever stage you last made it to. You can also open up the emulator’s menu and activate save states. It’s a pretty weird system that is cumbersome and confusing at first, but that’s easy to forget once you acclimate.
The emulator also has some real bare-bones features, like the ability to turn on pixel smoothing and stretching. It’s extremely small-time stuff, and for the most part, will make each game look different or worse, but never better. With the correct aspect ratio and smoothing off, the games look about as good as they do on the Switch or PS4, at least to me. I haven’t had my eyes checked this year, so maybe I’m missing something, but pressed my face up right up to the screen to look for artifacting, and my 41-year-old eyes didn’t detect any. So that’s good news. The bad news is, the only extras here are a couple of stickers. No in-menu history section, no bonuses, nothing but a instruction booklet for the hardware itself.
There are 40 games on the Neo Geo Mini. The console costs about $110, so you’re getting each one for less than $3, about $5 less than what they might go for on digital storefronts, assuming they are available anywhere else at all. They fall under the genres of fighters, wrestling games, run and gun, shmups, beat ’em ups, sports games and unnerving Tetris knock offs. There’s actually only one of these here, but it’s worth mentioning for how bad it made me feel.
The range of quality here is pretty enormous. Some of these games are a sincere waste of time unless you go in strictly to marvel at how much gaming has changed over the past 20 years. Others are games that I sincerely believe are some of the best ever made. I’ll break them up into three categories (Oddballs, Mid-tier and Classics) and do my best to describe them for you.
Blue’s Journey, one of the oldest games in the bunch, is relic from a bygone era, not unlike a cigarette commercial starring The Flintstones. It has a decidedly launch era TurboGrafx-16 feel to it, with overly detailed backgrounds and very small characters. They don’t make them like this anymore for a reason. It’s generally messy, but in a sort of “manic toddler eating a $1 box of sugar cookies” sort of way.
Robo Army is so bad that it’s funny, but not that funny. The opening cinematic is completely bananas, promising unhinged Sci-Fi violence on whole other level, but when you finally get control of your character, things slow down quickly. It’s a beat ’em up where you play as a cyborg that can randomly turn into a car, as you blow up other cyborgs, giant dogs that turn out to be cyborgs, and angry cars. It’s clunky and sad, but those with a morbid curiosity for what people used to be willing to play for $.25 microtransactions might find it interesting in a scientific sort of way.
Mutation Nation starts off feeling similarly janky, but after a few minutes, you’ll see that a lot of the animation here is pretty solid. Charge moves lie at the core of the game’s combat system, which is novel for the genre, and the Akira-meets-Cronenberg character designs are surprising, sometimes genuinely disturbing.
Ghost Pilots is a top down WW2 shmup that was probably trying to leech off the popularity of 1942 and 1943. It’s totally fine, but nothing to write home about.
Crossed Swords is another beat ’em up, but this one plays from a Punch-Out!!/Pato Box perspective. It’s more polished looking that Robo Army, and the RPG elements add some depth, but the combat is a total mess. That’s bad news for a game that’s about, uh, combat.
Puzzled is the Tetris-knock off I brought up at the top. It really makes me appreciate all the little quality-of-life improvements that are found in recent Tetris games like Tetris Effect and Puyo Puyo Tetris. All you can do is move, rotate and drop you paces, so even the most basic of advancements like the T-spin is out of the picture. The game has a campaign mode and different stages, based around trying to free pixies who are trapped under some blocks? I don’t know guys, video games just sort of do their own thing sometimes.
Magician Lord is one of the first games I ever blew $20 on at an arcade in order to see it to the end. Playing it now is not that great. In many ways it feels like Castlevania with larger characters, but the controls are just as stiff, making it hard to keep your giant hitbox out of the way of enemy attacks. It’s got a cool transformation gimmick though (you can turn into a dragon, a ninja, or even Poseidon for some reason) and one heck of a creepy womb level.
Kizuna Encounter is a fighting game that probably started of in development as a two-player beat ’em up. Two of the games ten playable characters are beautifully animated, while the rest are serviceable but unimpressive in their appearances. What’s really interesting about the game is it’s tag team system. Unlike in recent tag fighters like Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite, you have to get close to your partner before you can tag them in. They don’t automatically jump in when the character you’re using is out of health either, adding an interesting layer of strategy to the otherwise standard Street Fighter II-style fighter.
Ninja Masters feels like it was supposed to be the first entry in a series that would work as the Ninja equivalent to Samurai Showdown. They clearly didn’t have a lot of RAM to work with for their ambitions, as the characters are relatively small, but it has some really smartly executed animations. If I were game designer and one of my students wanted to learn how to make realistic, non-pandering breast physics for their game, I’d probably point them to towards Ninja Masters. The whole thing culminating in battle with good old Nobunaga, which is a lot of fun for fans of magical Japanese history games like myself.
Sengoku 3 is another ninja game, a beat ’em up this time, one that’s gotten a lot of praise from retro enthusiasts over the years. I’m not 100% sure why. It’s got good art and a varied cast of characters, but nothing about it really stands out about it. Maybe I’m just unfairly comparing it to the Capcom Dungeon and Dragons games without realizing it.
Blazing Star (sequel to Pulstar) is a pretty good shmup that works on a upgrade system that extends the length and strength of your charge shot meter. Picking up power ups doesn’t always make your basic shot better, but it does give you the potential to fire off huge payloads of neon energy if you play your cards right. Other than that, a standard sci-fi anime shmup.
Last Resort is more up my alley, with a novel take on R-Type‘s bit system and even greater attention to detail to make the world you destroy feel lived in. The open levels takes place in a city under siege by giant robots, featuring little civilians driving – or even running – away from the carnage in a futile attempt to survive. It’s adorable and sad in a way that few modern shmups bother going for anymore.
Shock Troopers and its sequel are Ikari Warriors-likes with an added evasive maneuver (a roll or a jump) to get you away from bullets, though it has a fair amount of a cooldown so you can’t spam it. The animation is better in the second one, but some of the backgrounds and characters have a weird pre-rendered look that can be a bit of a turn off, whereas the first one has more consistent art direction overall. Still, both are fun enough if you’re in the mood for some hard boiled co-op arcade action.
King of Monsters, King of Monsters 2 and 3 Count Bout, are all wrestling games that are a nice alternative for people who want to beat up their friends without having to worry about too much depth getting the the way of the immediate violence. The King of Monsters games are based around Kaiju films, which adds an extra layer of charm if you’re a fan of the classic rubber suit Toho movies of old.
3 Count Bout plays it more straight faced, but it’s definitely very “videogamey”, as are Foot Ball Frenzy, Super Sidekicks and Top Players Golf, the other three sports games found in this collection. Technical limitations permitted them for going for anything that approaching “realism”, but the sprite-based graphics have a loving, hand crafted feel to them, and the respective designs of each game play like cartoonish approximations of the source material.
World Heroes 2 Perfect has a special place in my heart, as its has both the most superhuman fake Bruce Lee in the history of gaming and a psychic monk based on Rasputin, Russia’s famous love machine, but I have to admit that it’s not as deep, original, or well crafted as most of the other fighting games here. Still, it’s the best World Heroes game of them all, so if you were ever curious about what the Battleborn equivalent of ’90’s 2D fighters was like, then you’re in luck.
A lot has already been written about the Metal Slug, Samurai Shodown, and King of Fighters families of games, so I probably won’t go on and on about them here. Like I said at the top, I think Metal Slug 3 is one of the best looking games ever made. Metal Slug X/2 and the original game in the series come close behind it. Metal Slug 4 and 5 are notably less visually impressive than the games that came before them, with little in the way of new enemies other than bosses. So you can stop after 3 if you want, but if you don’t, go into the next two with lowered expectations.
There are only three Samurai Shodown games here, and they stand out as some of the most extreme iterations of the franchise. Sam Sho 2 is is essentially the first game but with more characters. Samurai Shodown IV: Amakusa’s Revenge retains the new and improved sprites and Slash/Burt systems from Samurai Shodown III while (you guessed it) adding more characters. Samurai Shodown V Special is essentially an apology for Samurai Shodown V, bringing together characters from every chapter of the series for one last hurrah.
The King of Fighters games are a little more difficult to break down, as they work as a giant crossover of various SNK franchises. Technically, Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury Special (an enhanced version of Fatal Fury 2) work as their prequels. They are both dated compared to the games that followed, but they have significance. Fatal Fury Special is the first game to officially start the shared SNK fighting game universe with it’s hidden battle against Ryo from Art of Fighting. Real Bout Fatal Fury is also on this collection. I almost put it on the oddities list, as its weird, three-plane fighting system is pretty strange. In the end though, I threw it here with the classics because it’s definitely a significant part of the evolution of fighting games.
From there were have King of Fighters ’95. ’97, ’98, 2000, and 2002. The offer a nice overview of how the franchise evolved during the height of popularity enjoyed by fighting games in the late 90’s into the early 2000’s. From a visual perspective though, they largely pale compared to The Last Blade 2 and Garou: Mark of the Wolves. For my money, they are the two most beautiful SNK fighting games of that era, or any era for that matter.
[These impressions are based on a retail build of the hardware provided by the publisher.]