The Video Game Critic presents the

Neo Geo (1991 - 1995) and
Neo Geo CD (1994-1996)

Neo Geo system
Launch Date: August 22, 1990
Manufacturer: SNK
Format: Cartridge/CD
Controller Ports: 2
Save Capability: Neo Geo: Memory Card
Save Capability (CD): Internal Memory
Number of games: over 75
Video Out: RF, Composite
Video Out (CD): RF, Composite, S-video
Initial Price: $650

To classic game collectors, the Neo Geo is the Holy Grail of consoles, and for good reason. Originally marketed to ultra high-end gamers, the system originally retailed for a whopping $600, with individual titles typically priced at $200 each. In theory, the games were so expensive because they were exactly the same as their arcade (MVS) counterparts. In their era these games represented the pinnacle of 2D graphics and pre-CD sound. The system could render huge sprites and large numbers of on-screen objects with ease. It could generate clear voice synthesis and excellent electronic music through 15 audio channels.

Although the system has few "must have" titles (if any), arcade-minded gamers will appreciate the pick-up-and-play action and ample eye candy most titles deliver. The Neo Geo was perhaps most famous for their state-of-the-art, one-on-one fighters, which were hugely popular in the early 90's. The system was also known for its intense shooters and over-the-top sports titles.

In order to help distance themselves from the Genesis and SNES, SNK constantly touted the immense size of their games (in terms of cartridge memory). As such, each game displays its number of "megabits" (a misleading term if there ever was one) on its packing, rangingfrom 26 all the way up to 350 megabits. Knowing the sheer size of the games was enough to impress certain people, it's said programmers actually made an effort to program their games as inefficiently as possible to consume the maximum space!

The Neo Geo console is compact, sleek, and surprisingly lightweight. But its controllers are what won me over. Large and sturdy, they feature an old-fashioned ball-handle joystick and four large, highly-tappable buttons (not counting Start and Select). The system was the first to accept memory cards that save your progress, and these same cards could also be used in their arcade counterparts. Apparently SNK envisioned gamers playing their games both at home and the arcade, which frankly didn't make a whole lot of sense. These memory cards would have been better served saving high scores.

Neo Geo controller
Neo Geo controllers

Neo Geo cartridges are amazing things. They are absolutely HUGE, rivaling the size of some systems. They came packaged in sturdy, attractive, binders. Unlike other classic systems, Neo Geo titles are not "locked" by region, meaning your console can play any Neo Geo cartridge on the planet! Better yet, when you plug a Japanese Neo Geo game into your North American system and the text will be displayed in English! Beware - it works the other way as well - if you have a Japanese Neo Geo the text will be in Japanese. Modded systems allow you to change this setting on the fly.

Largely due to its prohibitive pricing the Neo Geo never really caught on. SNK attempted to salvage their place in the market by releasing a CD version of the system (with a slow single speed drive), porting many of their popular titles to the new format. While these games were far more affordable ($40-$50), it was too little too late. Lengthy load times hampered the action, and once the Playstation (and Saturn) emerged the Neo Geo slowly faded from the scene.

If you're interesting in becoming a Neo Geo collector, there are a few terms you should be aware of. Cartridges for the Neo Geo console are referred to as AES (Advanced Entertainment Systems) cartridges. Since these are region-free it's often cheaper to acquire the Japanese version of the game, which will look the same on your system.

MVS (Multi Video System) carts are the variety that plug into the arcade machines, and they slightly larger and thus incompatible with the home console. With an adapter however you can play MVS games on the home unit.

Many Neo Geo owners have their consoles modded to be outfitting with better video output and a setting menu (including region). Hardcore gamers will probably appreciate the option of switching to the Japanese mode, which sometimes presents the game in a less censored way (bouncing boobs and blood).

There's no mod chip for the CD system, but at least the Neo Geo CD supports S-video out of the box. One thing to note about CD games is that they came packaged with "spine cards". In my opinion these are useless but some purists consider them necessary for the game to be truly "complete".

Neo Geo cd system
Neo Geo CD System

Console design: A. Considering its gargantuan cartridges, the Neo Geo console itself is relatively modest in size. Streamlined and black, the system looks attractive but unremarkable. In addition to its huge cartridge slot, there's also a big reset button on the top. The front edge of the unit features a power switch, two controller ports, a headphone jack (with volume control), and a memory card slot. The video output is typically composite, although "modded" Neo Geo consoles support S-video as well.

The Neo Geo CD (C) on the other hand, is one bulky system. Its thickness and weight would almost suggest a car motor. It has a pop-up lid for the CD, and like the normal Neo Geo a large power button on the lower left. The front edge has two controller ports but no headphone jack or memory card slot. The system uses internal memory to save games. The main problem with this system is its slow disk access time, resulting in irritating load times for certain games (namely fighters).

Console durability: A. The Neo Geo console is lightweight, especially compared to the heavy cartridges. In fact, when pressing the cartridges into it I sometimes fear of breaking the thing. I've never had any issues with it however, and have never heard anyone complain about a broken system. Likewise the CD version seems stable and durable.

Metal Slug
Metal Slug (1994)

Graphics: A+. If you're a fan of 2D graphics, you will be blown away by the big, bold Neo Geo visuals. The vibrant colors, huge sprites, and multi-layered backgrounds are the ultimate eye candy. Explosions tend to be impressive and slow-down is rare. Scaling is used to good effect in many titles.

Audio: A. Most titles feature terrific music, clear voice samples, and crisp sound effects.

Controllers: A+. One of the main selling points of the Neo Geo is its awesome, arcade style joysticks. These sleek rectangular controllers are practically as big as the console and a pleasure to use. The joystick itself has just the right "give", and the large, rounded buttons are ideal for tapping. These quality controllers are probably the best I've ever used. Towards the end of the system's lifecycle, SNK released smaller, more conventional controllers, but I still prefer the original full-sized joysticks.

Neo Geo Cartridge
Neo Geo Game packaging

Media: A. Neo Geo cartridges are, in a word, magnificent. Six inches tall, seven and a half inches long, and more than an inch thick, these chip-heavy bricks will blow your mind. A small, shiny label folds over the front and top of the cartridge. Two long rows of pins (from two boards) run along the open bottom.

Packaging: A-. As you would expect for such expensive cartridges, the packaging is first class. Resembling small binders, these thick, black boxes have clear plastic sleeves to showcase the cover (like a Genesis game). Inside, a black plastic "insert" holds the cartridge (and manual) in place. Unfortunately, these "inserts" are made of the cheapest plastic known to man, and it's hard to find one that's not cracked or falling apart.

magician lord
Magician Lord (1990)

Pack-in Game: A. Depending on what level system you purchased, you had the option of a pack-in game that might include NAM 1975, Baseball Stars Professional, or Magician Lord. Eventually Magician Lord became the default pack-in, which is a very appealing platformer. The "Gold" system would eventually come with both Magician Lord and Fatal Fury, providing a metric ton of arcade-quality action.

Launch Titles: A. A fairly spectacular selection of sports, shooting and fighting games included Alpha Mission II, Baseball Star Professional, Cyber-Lip, Ghost Pilots, King of Monsters, League Bowling, Magician Lord, NAM-1975, and Ninja Combat.

Baseball Star Professional 2
Baseball Stars Professional 2 (1992)

Library: B. The Neo Geo game library largely reflects the tastes of early 90's gamers. One-on-one fighters are disproportionately represented, including long-running series like Fatal Fury, World Heroes, Samurai Shodown, and Art of Fighting. King of Fighters became SNK's "greatest hits" brawler, consolidating characters from its previous fighters. A new edition of King of Fighters was produced each year for the Neo Geo system all the way through the early 2000's.

All Neo Geo fighters are high quality, let's face it - they're also very similar. The Neo Geo was also known for its terrific shooters, including Metal Slug, Ghost Pilots, NAM 1975, and Pulstar. Today, these shooters are easily the most prized titles for the systems, often selling for hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars.

SNK also produced a wide variety of sports titles including Baseball Stars, Super Sidekicks, League Bowling, and Super Baseball 2020. These sports games tend to be fast-paced, action-packed, and completely over-the-top. The CD versions of Neo Geo games are far more affordable, although rare CD titles can still exceed $200.

Collectability: D. There are plenty of decent Neo Geo games, but none that really stand out. Collecting for the Neo Geo is an expensive proposition - prohibitively so for many gamers. You'll typically need to shell out several hundred bucks to snag a console (used), and they get it modded. The games run into the hundreds of dollars, easily. Many of the more desirable titles (like Metal Slug) are far beyond the financial reach of most gamers.

Fortunately, common titles are more reasonable and obtaining the Japanese versions is always an option. Since the games feature on-screen instructions, settling for the Japanese version of a game is usually not a bad idea. For those less inclined to throw your money around, the CD version offers the same solid gameplay, and whether the load times are a factor depends on your taste in games. Sports games normally load up only once (in the beginning), and shooters only load between stages, which is tolerable. Most fighting games however load between matches, which is aggravating to say the least.

Innovations: Memory cards, arcade-style joystick controllers, region-free games, biggest cartridges ever.

Pros and Cons:
+ Awesome 2D graphics
+ Large, high-quality controllers
+ Arcade-style gameplay
- Very expensive
- Limited variety of games.

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