A quarter-century ago, a Japanese company called Shin Nihon Kikaku (SNK) released a video-game console that flipped the industry on its head. This console, gaming’s equivalent of a muscle car, boasted specs beyond that of its contemporaries in order to achieve what those contemporaries tried and failed to: the perfect duplication of the arcade experience.
That console was the Neo Geo, and it was to remain active long after the console became obsolete, technologically eclipsed, financially unsustainable, and, more importantly, culturally irrelevant. It was, in essence, a revolution that quickly fell out of place in a rapidly changing time.
The father of Neo Geo was Eikichi Kawasaki, a programmer-turned-entrepreneur who founded his own video-game company in 1978. Kawasaki’s creation of SNK initially relied on replicating arcade hits, such as Taito’s Space Invaders and Konami’s Scramble.
This changed in 1986 when SNK developed and published a fast-paced, overhead shoot ’em up called Ikari, a commercial breakthrough that convinced SNK to make a big leap into video-game hardware.
That leap manifested into the Neo Geo. Released in 1990, the Neo-Geo came in two forms: An arcade variant called the Mega Video System (MVS) and a home variant called the Advanced Entertainment System (AES).
As an arcade system, the Neo Geo MVS was a godsend to the arcade owner. Each system could support up to six interchangeable cartridges at once, giving the customer multiple games to choose from. Prior to the MVS, buying a new arcade game often meant buying a new arcade system for thousands of dollars. By comparison, a Neo Geo game retailed for a fraction of that cost. The MVS saved a fortune in dollars and space.
The little AES, utilizing the same brutish hardware as the MVS, was a bolder proposition. The gaming public had little interest in arcade specs, which transcended those of the typical home console. The AES brought that transcendence into the home. Despite using the same hardware as the popular Sega Genesis, the AES yielded sixty-four times as many colors on-screen, over 50% faster processing and game cartridges with ten times as much data. Consider that the Sega Genesis left the market in the mid-’90s with software hitting 4 MB of storage. The AES retired in 2005 with software approaching 90 MB.
The AES was relatively clean to look at and lean to hold. The console was designed with a wide frame to properly handle large gaming cartridges, each measuring about the size of a video cassette. The AES originally came packaged with a large four-button (not counting Start and Select) joypad, one almost as large as the system itself. In an effort to trim fat off the $650 price tag, SNK sold a base model with a more economical gamepad.
Despite impressive graphics, the Neo Geo was just too expensive
Unfortunately, the AES did not have the MVS’s value proposition. In fact, the AES had value against it as the cost of the system and its games far exceeded the norm. A new AES cartridge retailed anywhere from $100 to $300. Put another way: a Neo-Geo cartridge cost as much as a Nintendo or Sega console packaged with two controllers and a game.
The AES’s high cost made it scarce, and its scarcity made it even costlier. Thus begat a self-defeating cycle that kept the Neo Geo in a perpetually restrictive state. SNK couldn’t net big sales, which meant it couldn’t attract outside developers, which meant it couldn’t overcome its premium with a rich variety of content. And, of course, there wasn’t enough revenue coming in to permit a big drop in price to entice more consumers…the unending chicken-or-egg scenario.
As time progressed, the problem worsened as software devs labored to cram more and more memory into every title, elevating the costs all around. While a typical Sega or Nintendo game comprised a tenth of the “Mega Power” of its Neo Geo counterpart, that Sega or Nintendo game retailed for a quarter of the price and netted far greater sales.
Additionally, the Neo Geo’s arcade roots made it dependent on quick-and-simple games, rather than the deep and immersive odysseys that were taking hold in the industry. Those odysseys demand patience and a lot of time to invest, but rewarded the player with a rich tapestry of characters and settings, and often absorbing plots — attributes that did not fit with SNK’s arcade ethos.
And then there was the matter of quantity. 1990 was the Neo Geo’s biggest year, with nearly two dozen games hitting store shelves. In contrast, the Sega Genesis saw around seventy games released that same year. Moreover, Sega (and Nintendo) maintained a large number of releases all the way to 1995. SNK, by contrast, saw its releases quickly slide in number, falling from twenty-three in 1990 to eleven in ’91 and down to a mere seven in ’93.
Luckily, SNK found something of a second wind in ’93. That was the year SNK released Samurai Shodown, a fast-paced fighting game set in eighteenth-century Japan. A dozen fighters from various locations around the globe make up the roster. Each is equipped with a unique, but damageable, weapon that inflicts added damage to an enemy and enables the player to perform special attacks. Developers employed camera zooms, authentic musical instrumentation, multi-layered backgrounds, and a deep and complex fighting system to make the game stand out from the pack of Street Fighter ripoffs pervasive at the time.
And it truly did standout. Samurai Shodown proved SNK could create high-quality, distinctive content. Buoyed by the game’s success, SNK revamped some of its other fighting game properties and even forged new ones. By 1994, SNK established a credible and fruitful reputation as a source for 2D arcade fighters, becoming something of a Dreamworks to Capcom’s Pixar. Through sheer quantity and respectable quality, SNK titles won Electronic Gaming Monthly’s “Best Fighting Game Award” for two years straight, including the overall 1993 “Game of the Year Award” for Samurai Shodown.
This success only served to narrow SNK’s focus, however. The company became dependent on a handful of properties, all but one a fighting game, to sustain itself in the market. SNK published ten editions of King of Fighters, seven of Fatal Fury, and six of Samurai Shodown during the Neo Geo’s run.
The dependence on a few properties, falling under one genre, proved detrimental when gamers embraced the polygonal world of 32-bit gaming. Dead or Alive, Tekken, and Virtua Fighter soon replaced Mortal Kombat, Samurai Shodown, and Street Fighter as the premiere brands of fighting games. The Neo Geo, developed around the pixel and not the polygon, was at a critical disadvantage by the mid-’90s.
Blame it on Sony. The Japanese conglomerate invested a fortune of capital and time to develop an affordable, yet expansive, video-game system. Everything from the immersive adventure game to the 2D fighting game was plentifully available for the PlayStation owner. The PlayStation’s commercial success is well-known, but commentators often overlook Sony’s technical involvement in arcade hardware, powering a new generation of 3D simulators and fighting games.
It was all part of an industry-wide push for authenticity, be it visual or technical. Sports games needed real sports teams and players, racing games needed licensed race cars, and action games needed complex and expansive worlds to explore. Those were things the Neo Geo was sorely lacking, keeping things generic and license-free to keep costs down. And the cheapness, by 1994, showed.
SNK increasingly ported over its most valued properties to the new field, further weakening its own Neo-Geo’s toehold in the market. It had no choice: the Neo Geo could not possibly support the company, which saw its fortunes steadily dwindle into collapse in 2001. SNK ceased manufacturing the AES in 1997, and releases fell to just one in 2000. Playmore, an offshoot of SNK, would carry the Neo Geo forward for another four years in effort to achieve an honorable end.
Yet, even with all its downsides, one cannot label the Neo Geo AES as a failure. Where developers made inevitable sacrifices in aesthetics (and even overall quality) to adapt arcade games to other home systems, SNK had no such worry with the AES. What you played at home was what you played at the arcade. Nothing less. While Metal Slug and Fatal Fury might be among the more memorable (and frequent) entries, the Neo Geo sported some genuine overlooked classics: Alpha Mission II, Blue’s Journey, Metal Slug, and Viewpoint. And the polygon’s dominance turned out to be premature, as the pixel saw a renaissance in the 2000s.
What’s more, the AES outlasted the likes of the Atari Jaguar, 3DO, NEC TurboGrafx-16, Sony PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and even Sega’s last-gasp Dreamcast. Hell, it even outlived Nintendo’s roach-like Game Boy. How many video-game consoles can claim that achievement?
There exist many online resources, communities, and stores for the Neo Geo aficionado — testament to the machine’s impact. Even though the community arcade was on its way out in the 1990s, the arcade provided a memorable atmosphere to fraternize, compete, and even brawl. It was “hanging out,” but with a lot more noise and a lot more quarters spent. Records were set and broken, egos raised and shattered, and memories forever established.
The Neo Geo seized upon the tail end of those passions, and got as close as any company could to bringing those passions into the convenience of home. Every game publisher knew the symbolism of that and strove to garner it. A quarter-century ago, only SNK could claim it.